What We Talk About When We Talk About Supergirl’s Shorts

Last summer artist Jamal Igle caused a stir by making an addendum to Supergirl’s costume, adding compression, or bicycling, shorts underneath the traditional skirt. The debate over this choice has ranged from discussions of canon (“Have we ever actually seen Supergirl’s panties?”) to fashion (shorts and skirts are a faux pas) to the larger implications of the choice (namely, that the classic costume simply does not make sense for a teen-aged girl who flies).

The irony of this change, and how it draws attention to the problems with Supergirl’s traditional outfit, highlights what we are ultimately talking about when we talk about the shorts, which is how different people understand what role exactly, female superheroes, and more broadly, female characters, play in mainstream comics.

On the one hand is a perspective that sees female superheroes, and women in comics more generally as being, first and foremost, sexy eye candy, with all questions of practicality tossed aside on the grounds that it’s comics we’re discussing after all. I mean, the girl can fly, right? Surely whether her clothing is ‘realistic’ is pretty pointless to question. However, as online discussions of Supergirl’s recent costume update shows (see, for example, Kirk Warren, “Supergirl’s Super Shorts”, The Weekly Crisis, 1 July 2009), the other sides to this question are not actually that they’re ‘not sexy’ so much as concerned with the issue of how sexy they are, and for whom.

Superheroes are fantasy objects. They embody wishes, dreams, and desires, both good and ill, or at least good and problematic, for creators and readers. However, that all superheroes are fantasy characters does not mean that they are all the same in the desires they represent. Historically, for the presumptively male and heterosexual reading audience, male characters have been made for aspiration and wish fulfillment, while female characters are made more as objects of desire and decoration.

Debates about whether Supergirl’s panties have actually made an appearance in the pages of DC Comics notwithstanding (DC Comics Message Boards, DC Universe, Supergirl, “Thread: NPR Weigh’s in on Supergirl’s Shorts”, 6 July 2009), the mere idea of a teen girl who flies around in a skirt reads as a particularly adolescent male fantasy. Igle’s reveal of a pair of compression shorts under the skirt bursts this bubble by suggesting that, essentially, even if you were to get a peek as she flew overhead, there wouldn’t be much to see. From the perspective that perceives women characters in comics as primarily ‘hot’ window dressing, this message brings the end of fun.This even challenge Supergirl’s very reason for appearing between the pages in the first place.

Scanning discussions of the costume change, one theme emerges, particularly on blogs and journals dedicated to feminist readings of comics: there is no reason to set practical considerations for Supergirl’s costume against her sexuality. Once you accept that she is actually a superhero, and not just a visual trifle, costuming choices should make sense for what she does and can do, that is, fight with her body, fly, etc. (An excellent example of this kind of analysis is this entry on Supergirl Maid of Might, “Why Supergirl’s shorts aren’t ‘patriarchal’ (I do not think that word means what you think it means)”, 15 July 2009).

Image from Birds of Prey: The Battle Within,
Gail Simone et al, DC Comics, 2005.

During Gail Simone’s run on Birds of Prey, Black Canary was gradually moved into two types of costumes. The classic black leotard and fishnets were still in use, but primarily for effect. When she needed to enter serious battle, she would be attired in more functional, but still body hugging, workout or martial arts wear.

These changes are more than a nod to practicality; they also suggest that the hero is more important than her costume. After all, also during Simone’s time as writer, Canary’s fishnets were usually sensibly shredded by the end of a confrontation.

In a different context, Jennifer Guzman writes about the attraction of beautiful/sexy superheroes for many women:

Now, what if, what if, as a woman, you could walk around, be sexually attractive and not have to feel threatened? What if all the rage you feel about women being victimized and brutalized could be channeled into pure, righteous ass-kicking? And, because you’re a woman, you could possibly do that ass-kicking without being seen as a testosterone Steven-Seagal-esque meathead. Ass-kicking fantasies for men are more about proving and retaining power, I think. For women, they’re about finding and asserting power when they’re not expected to have any. (“I have the powwwwerrrr!”, Unloveable, 3 February 2009)

One important point here is about characters being written as powerful based own their sexuality. While one can make a tortured argument about how Supergirl in a low-riding skirt, tiny, mid-riff baring shirt, and panties might reflect her own choices, and not someone else’s design, it seems unlikely that a reasonably self-aware teen-aged girl with her powers and sense of responsibility would choose to dress herself for the purpose of titillating (hopefully) young boys. Igle’s bicycle shorts, however imperfect, at least seem as if they might be worn by a girl who wants to wear a skirt while zipping around the skies of Metropolis or Gotham.

And to the extent that the costume change provoked a reaction from readers, it may be because it suggests that the traditional ensemble is ultimately outmoded in a world where there’s a real constituency for female superheroes who look like they actually think about what it is they do before thinking about how they might dress in order to appeal to heterosexual male onlookers.

Image from Batman: Streets of Gotham #1,
Second Feature, DC Comics August 2009,
Marc Andreyko and Georges Jeanty.

Even more than the changes applied to Black Canary, one of the best examples of a female hero who is effectively sexy while also being sensible is Marc Andreyko’s Kate Spencer/Manhunter. Her suit allows artists to show off her body but without exposing hardly any skin or presenting logical challenges of physics for her turns in vigilante mode. It’s also worth noting that Kate Spencer is an established professional and mother, who, as the title was brought to a close, was also allowed to age. Notably, she actually dresses like the professional she is when out of the Manhunter suit (something that, alas, is not easily said about too many other female characters in mainstream comics).

One thing that allows Andreyko and his collaborators to treat Spencer/Manhunter in such a straightforward fashion is that the power suit she wears is unisex in nature. It is adaptable to male or female forms in human-like species. This puts certain constraints on how it looks, and on what it does, or does not, reveal.

There is, or should be, room for a variety of female superheroes, of varying looks and body types, but one would hope that they all could be drawn with some sense of how these characters might dress and carry themselves as actual women (or girls) and not merely as objects of heterosexual male desire. Whether it’s Supergirl in compression shorts, Black Canary shedding, or shredding, the fishnets, or Manhunter in a full length bodysuit – and these are not the only examples – there clearly are writers and artists who get this. More power to them.