Superhero costumes are criticized for a number of reasons. Impracticality is one of them: One wonders why Catwoman – supposedly a master catburglar – would think that sticking a four-foot purely decorative tail on her costume was a good idea. But by far the most common reason for criticizing superhero costumes is their sexualization.
I want to distinguish between two separate issues. The first is the costume design of superheroes. The second is the depiction of anatomy (e.g. the broken-spine syndrome). Both have been (rightly) criticized, but here I want to focus on the former (anatomy is, perhaps, a post for another time).
This topic seems, to me, more complex than it might first appear. On the one hand, there is no doubt that female superhero costumes typically show much more flesh than corresponding males superhero costumes. On the other hand, however, both male and female superhero costumes are little more, pictorially, than body paint (in effect, superhero pencillers and inkers draw naked characters with strange “S” or bat-shaped tattoos on their flesh, and it is only the colorist that actually makes these characters look clothed). In short, it does seem that depictions of males (and their costumes) in superhero comics are often just as sexualized as depictions of females (and their costumes).
Nevertheless, there does seem to be something different going on in the depiction of female costumes versus male costumes. And it doesn’t seem to be limited to the different roles that sexualized depictions of males and females can play generally, based on the different relations – power and otherwise – that exist between males and females. Rather, it seems that there is something inherently very different about the way that male and female costumes typically function in superhero comics.
On possible thought – one I have heard numerous times – is that the depiction of both male costumes and female costumes (and the sexualized depictions of males and females more generally within comics) are aimed at males. This is not to say that the super-tight, perfect-anatomy-hugging costumes of male superheroes are aimed at gay men, however. Rather, the thought is that female superhero costumes are intended to appeal to straight male readers in virtue of the fact that these are (supposedly) depictions of some idealized sexual partner (in simple terms, superheroines are drawn to look like the sort of woman the straight male reader would want to date/marry/whatever) while male superhero costumes are intended to appeal to straight male readers in virtue of the fact that these are (supposedly) depictions of an idealized self (in simple terms, superheroes are drawn to look like the sort of man the straight male reader would want to be, physically). This thought obviously has much wider applicability than to just costumes, but it does suggest a simple theory: Superhero costumes are intended to show off physique while looking cool, while superheroine costumes are intended to show off physique while looking sexy.
This is an interesting thought, but I am not sure how compelling it is. So how should we feel about superhero costumes?