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?


About roytcook

Roy T Cook is CLA Scholar of the College and John M Dolan Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of popular art. He is the co-editor of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012, w/ Aaron Meskin), The Routledge Companion to Comics (Routledge 2016, w/ Aaron Meskin & Frank Bramlett), and LEGO and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick By Brick (Wiley-Blackwell 2017, w/ Sondra Bacharach).

2 responses »

  1. Your points here about what is and is not ‘covered (up)’ by a costume are great. On the internet, it isn’t difficult to find pictures of people ‘dressed’ as superheroes but who are in reality *only* wearing body paint. For me, part of the weirdness of superhero costumes is what gets accentuated anatomically and what gets de-emphasized (or erased) anatomically. The cliched question ‘does size matter?’ apparently would get a variety of complex answers.

    So if the point is for male superheroes to show off their physique while looking cool (but not sexy), then the ‘idealized self’ erases the sexual. This is why the third picture you included in your post is so bizarre: a male physique that has been weaponized rather than sexualized. Are there similar examples of female superheroes whose bodies are weaponized rather than (or in addition to) being sexualized?

    I’m not sure how to feel about superhero costumes, for female characters or male characters. These characters are supposed to be forces for good, of course, but most of them also happen to be drawn in ways that appeal to readers’ sense of sexuality. But is the reader supposed to look at the sexy bits? If the reader does look at the sexy bits, does that make the reader guilty of prurience? What about the artists? Which sexy bits do the artists draw, which ones do they gloss over?

  2. roytcook says:

    I too find the common ‘de-sexualization’ of male superheroes strange. But sometimes it is even more complicated that just the lack of male genitalia (or anything indicating the presence – covered up or not – of such equipment). For example, for all the flack that Rob Liefield gets for his grossly exaggerated female anatomy, he also gets criticized for the huge crotches he draws on his male characters (and for the way that his layouts, etc. seem to be emphasizing and centralizing this portion of the male anatomy).

    This of course brings us to Codpiece (the subject of the third panel). Codpiece is, I think, meant to be a comment on exactly this sort of sexualization in comics. He occurs in Doom Patrol (a good place for such commentary), and becomes a supervillain after mistaking a girl’s derogatory comment about his height as a comment about how he measures up elsewhere.

    I certainly don’t know of any cases where a woman’s vagina has been weaponized in superhero comics (although Bomb Queen does freeze a dude and then snap his penis off – so there is definitely castration material). Fortunately, the concept of vagina dentata hasn’t made it to mainstream comics. But breasts are often weaponized. One immediately thinks of the fembots from Austin Powers (not a comic, but still), and Tank Girl’s missile bra is certainly metaphorical in this direction, even if the missiles aren’t functioning weapons. Bomb Queen has also played with the concept of breasts as missiles.

    Anyway, great comment. Obviously lots to think about here.

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