Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman, there is no dress.
The core of the issue for me is the integrity of the superhero and that’s something that I take very seriously and the costume figures prominently in that. It would have to. And that’s why with Star Sapphire, I feel that she’s doing herself a disservice by looking like a trashy drag act.
I used to live just south of Allan Gardens, at the time, a sketchier part of Toronto. Most of the municipal parks were ideal for gay men cruising other men and, thus, generally safe, but, while I lived at that address, Allan Gardens had dealers in it, sometimes police tape and once police tape around a stabbing victim.
If I went out at night, I would never cross through the park, instead I’d angle along the streets bounding it over to the store for juice or chips. And nights when the prostitutes weren’t out, I would turn around and go back home. If it were too dangerous for the pros along Jarvis, it was too dangerous for me. I joked that those women standing over 6 feet tall in thigh high boots and wearing shiny spandex, lurex or vinyl, were superheroes in disguise. And like I said: whenever there was trouble, they disappeared faster than Clark Kent.
While I have written about superheroine costumes in Terra Obscura and Catwoman, I find it disheartening and I really, really want to write about all the interesting things I find in comics. I almost didn’t write this piece because David Brothers and Kelly Thompson have written about superhero costumes so recently, so well. But I’ve been thinking while watching episodes of Alan Kistler and Jennifer Ewing’s podcast, Crazy Sexy Geeks, in which Project Runway‘s Tim Gunn responds to superhero costumes. In the October 14, 2011 episode about gender and costumes, Gunn says: “[The costume]’s also how you know that they’re the superhero.”
And that simple statement comprises my fundamental problem with so many costumes for female heroes and villains, the statement they make about what Coco Chanel called, “The woman in the dress,” or here, “the woman in the costume.”
On the show, they discuss a number of heroes, villains and characters in-between categories. Two of them have been on my mind for a while now: Star Sapphire, whose new look represents everything I dislike about superheroine costume design; and Power Girl, whose “old” look represented the ur-sexualized costume for many fans. Star Sapphire has been both villain and hero, wielding the power of Love with jewel tiara (and later a ring) while the Green Lantern Corps harness the power of Will with their rings. Power Girl is a Superman’s Kryptonian cousin from an alternate Earth except sometimes she isn’t ’cause comics. Let’s just say Power Girl’s a relative of Superman.
Star Sapphire’s costume doesn’t say hero, villain, antihero or even hero-curious. It says dress tape and don’t move too much. It says gentlemen’s magazine weird unflattering bikini pin-up. And Gunn says it says, “superhero porn.” (Apr. 14, 2010) and “trashy drag act.” (Oct. 14, 2011). It reminds me of something a pro would keep under her coat till she was paid–especially the strappy pubic jewel icon.
I might read a campy adults-only comic about Star Sapphire with a clitoral jewel lit by the power of love, something like Barberella or something with space drag queens or something written and drawn by Colleen Coover, but that would be honest, mature porn or erotica. In its current context, Star Sapphire’s costume does not say superhero or a supervillain and it undermines the integrity of both. (And if Star Sapphire’s power is love, what does this costume say about love?)
The above image of Star Sapphire with her boot on Hal Jordan’s neck reads less like she is powerful and Hal Jordan is at her mercy, than that Hal Jordan hired a domme for the evening, or maybe a drag queen playing domme. In fact the pose reminds me of Eric Stanton’s femdom illustrations, but softened by the pink, like neither Star Sapphire nor Green Lantern know how to take it any further than a pose.
For her part, Power Girl has a new costume in the DC reboot, but I’m interested in her old one here. That costume —in particular, the oval cut out revealing cleavage (often called her “tit window”)–became the prime example of problematically sexualized costumes and “fan service” on comment threads, forums and boards, as well as the subject of argument, sadly with very little irony, about “tit window drag.”
I don’t have a problem with the cut-out showing off Power Girl’s cleavage, though I do sometimes have a problem with how her breasts are drawn. I especially don’t have a problem with her cut-out when there were and are other characters somehow more naked than naked in pink energy. (Or purple latex: Catwoman would be fiercer naked than she is shiny and nippleless, let alone shiny, purple and nippleless). Cut-outs and keyholes are part of everyday fashion; they might be sexy but they are not necessarily vulgar. A cut-out, by itself, does not require impossible breasts.
Gunn comments: “It just seems that she owns this. I believe her. I believe this is who she is.” (Apr. 14, 2010). And I believe her, too. I believe that Power Girl is a superhero. Her costume picks up Superman’s colors and riffs on Captain Marvel’s cape, while having its own unique look—blue boots where Superman’s are red, blue gauntlets where Superman’s hands are bare.Her costume reflects her relationship to Superman, but also her different temperament.
There is sex appeal, sure, but there is more. There is a woman there, a character in that costume and her gloves say, “I will punch you into space.”
And I believe it.
Carol Borden would really love to read a comic where Star Sapphire is a space drag queen.
Full Disclosure: Carol recieved review copies of vol. 1 and 2 of Colleen Coover’s Small Favors, but she would’ve linked to it anyway.
(This piece was originally published on The Cultural Gutter)