[Content Warning- mentions of rape and sexual assault as plot lines]
So… I often wonder if I ever got the chance to sit down with a comic book artist whose work I enjoy, whether I’d have the guts to express why this costume and that sexy pose makes me and a lot of other women uncomfortable- unwelcome even.
I have all the questions whilst trying to square my discomfort with my own love of sexy lady cheesecake art. Why I’m not all that fussed with a chain-mail bikini on Red Sonja, but the original Ms Marvel’s first costumes kinda make my eyes roll into the back of my head. Especially as we get closer to Marvel’s first female led movie- finally– and the tsunami of angry men who really think it’s important to plot and character to have all female characters in bikinis all the time regardless of her or her situation. And would it kill her to smile once in a while?
Clothes are never ‘just clothes’
I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts into something coherent on this, because it is complicated- which is honestly the worst thing. Women (mostly women) have complications regarding their clothes. They can make or break how another person sees them and on some level, that is ridiculous. In an ideal world, women should be more free to wear the clothes that make sense to them and they would not have to trade in their basic humanity.
Obviously, there’s certain situations that require certain outfits- like, unless you’re told otherwise, please wear black to a funeral. There’s also power dynamics relating to clothes- for example, if you’re white, you probably shouldn’t wear a certain item of clothing because it is sacred/meaningful to people who are demonstrably in a position of oppression. Clothes, jewelry, shoes, hair- it’s never just fashion. For a lot of us, regardless of gender, it’s our outer casing. It has ties to identities that are constantly under attack. It’s the first thing people notice about us and, in some pretty terrifying cases, can decide our fate in court. Or get us fired. Or get us bothered by police. Or even killed.
That’s not even getting into the cross sections with race, disability, gender identity etc.
Clothes are never ever ever EVER ‘just’ clothes. If you think otherwise, boy howdie, I would love to buy some real estate in whatever privilege bubble you’re living in.
Hail to the King (Context)
So, with this being the world in which we exist- the way you dress a character in a comic (or in anything else) matters. Media is never created in a vacuum, especially when that media is the focus of a lot of attention. Especially when it forms the foundation of the most popular movies and TV properties currently running. Those costumes are making their way to general public- we have to talk about this.
And if you’re of the girl persuasion and a comic book fan (or a gamer, or a movie goer or like have any kind of nerd inclinations) you’ll be familiar with the ‘bikini armour’ debate. Does it automatically devalue the female character who’s wearing it? Or is it ‘empowering’ because she’s not afraid to ‘use her sexuality’ and she’s ‘comfortable in her own skin’?
Well. Far be it for me to assume I’m some kind of authority on fashion- but I am a thirty something nerd lady who’s gone in and out the other side of many bikini armour/sexualisation/objectification of female characters debates. I have thoughts. They’re almost coherent, but they boil down to something super simple-
Sometimes, wearing bikini armour or, in Vampirella’s case a strategic red rubber band, is fine. It makes sense. It’s totally cool you guys. Other times? Not so much.
Fictional Characters Have No Choice
Remember, the thing that separates a real person deciding to post a bikini pic on Instagram and Starfire ‘deciding’ to wear… this:
(Jesus H… I’ll talk about Starfire in a moment).
…is that fictional characters have no choice in what they can wear. That is up to the writer and artist. If you want us to accept that outfit, you’ll have to prove that it’s something that character would chose to wear if she were a real person in this situation.
For example, if I had god-levels of invulnerability and I was brought up on an island of women who were warriors and scholars, I’d definitely wonder around near semi-nude. The Greeks did. Hell, they used to compete in the Olympics completely naked. Did you know in Ancient Crete women just wondered around topless? Like, it was normal? If I was also, say, a warrior princess and one of the most powerful people on Earth, I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable about a little thigh being on display. I would feel uncomfortable if like, people made a thing about it and then didn’t take me seriously for the clothes I’d worn since I was first made of clay on a mythical island full of women.
Isn’t it a Wonder?
Wonder Woman keeps coming up in this debate and yeah, you’re right- flying with a corset that could potentially just fall down any moment is a little silly! Why does she have to wear star spangled hot pants when her fellows in the Justice League can wear full body lycra?
Y’know what? All good questions.
However, my honest answer at this point is… who cares? That outfit is iconic. Comics logic keeps it in place. She’s been a symbol of breaking the chains of oppression and prudery since she was created by a dude who was in a polyamorous relationship with two accomplished women who were also super duper bi. Wonder Woman’s image is that of unbridled joy and freedom. She’s a warrior of love and women just being able to exist in all their forms- including a sexual one.
Is it gross the way that some male writers have treated her and the way some artists have drawn her? Abso-fucking-lutely mate, but that is their problem. We need to talk to them and make them see why treating a symbol of female emancipation like a sex doll is gross beyond belief. And there is the key- I’d believe that Diana, Princess of the Amazons, would wear form fitting armour and boots that expose her thighs (heels are a little eye rolling) because that’s based on Greek armour worn by men.
She wears it because she’s not going to be taken out be an arrow to the thigh or a sword to the chest- she’s fucking Wonder Woman. She’s a woman, a character, who was created with this in mind and people who don’t take this into account are doing her and the intent behind her a disservice. I know, Death of the Author etc, but when it comes to a character who, again, was created with a specifically feminist intent in mind, I think we should take that intent seriously. Or smash the patriarchy. Like… either one. I’m cool with that.
God this is exhausting, why don’t men have to worry about what they wear? Anyway.
Starfire is an even tougher subject given that she’s a teenager, or at least, someone who’s always been coded as young. We all know it’s really eye-brow raising that she needs the sunlight to maintain her powers so that’s why she wears… that outfit, when Superman has the exact same thing regarding his powers and for some reason, he can wear full body lycra? Really?
I honestly have more respect for dudes who just admit they want to draw a female character in a bikini because they want to see boobies. At least there’s no pretension- eh Hideo Kojima? (Love you man, looking forward to Death Stranding, but… oh boy. Quiet.)
Like, yeah, Starfire’s outfit is ridiculous and I have no qualms in her getting a more practical outfit. I know she’s quite sexual, in a Kaylee from Firefly kind of way- and honestly that’s cool, but again- she’s quite young. She’s on the Teen Titans. If you want to explore teen sexuality, adult male creator, at least like… think about how she’s presented. And how it makes you look. It’s done pretty well in shows like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, but even then- it does have more than a few occasions of “yikes isn’t she like sixteen?”
This Starfire is overfilled with a kind of general joy for existing, despite her background. Putting her in skimpy outfits is problematic for this reason, but at least she seems to be enjoying herself.
The reason why everyone and their dog made fun of how she was protrayed in Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 is because holy shit she had no agency, she didn’t seem to enjoy sex- she just did it out of boredom?
That’s not the actions of someone interested in sex or who enjoys it in any way. She approaches sex in the same way I approach a phone call with the credit card people. And her being so uncaring and dull? When she has a long established history as someone joyful? Or at motivated? Just? No. That’s not how you write Starfire. To go back to Kaylee, for example- she enjoyed sex, despite being outwardly quite young looking and tomboyish. She loves sex and has fun! Didn’t appreciate her being threatened by rape in the last episode Joss, but otherwise, it was a good characterisation and a good way of presenting sexuality as something… positive? Kaylee didn’t wear like, three strategic metal bands, because she’s an engineer and that’d be ridiculous. She dressed like a normal woman in a dangerous job would. Inara, on the other hand, is a sex worker and dresses the part. The rules establishing her trade are set up and address issues of consent, safety and class barriers. Again, there are some problematic aspects to her portrayal, but it’s certainly one of the more positive depictions of sex work I’ve seen. So. Yeah. Back to comics.
Starfire is an alien and a superhero, it’s still… ridiculous, but it’s more forgivable when she at least looks like she actually wants to be there. At least there’s some reasoning to her being sexy, even if it comes with some baggage and should be handled positively. That outfit kinda makes sense. I suppose. On the other hand.
But what about Captain Marvel? She was first drawn with… this ensemble, aren’t we destroying some kind of intent by making her cover up?
Nope. Nope. Not even a little. Carol Denvers was not created to explore female sexuality, she was drawn as a hero, so putting her in this outfit is a little off back then- but now?
Okay. So- this brings me to a twitter exchange that then helped me culminate this… what I’ll generously call an article. I won’t link to said twitter exchange. I don’t want to give a stupid dude saying something stupid more publicity. Frankly, he’s probably lamenting that the ESS JAY DOUBLEUUUSSS are making fun of him for saying something profoundly stupid. Cause that’s what’s happening.
He made a graphic with Brie Larson doing a photoshoot in a bikini with a Ms Marvel cover from the 70s and lamented that Brie Larson was okay with ‘getting her kit off’ then, why isn’t she okay with doing it for Captain Marvel?
To which I replied ‘WHY AM I NOT ALLOWED TO SEE HER TITS ALL THE TIME SHE DID IT ONCE THEREFORE I’M ENTITLED TO SEE HER TITS WHILST SHE’S PLAYING A WOMAN WHO WAS KIDNAPPED AND REMADE INTO AN ALIEN WARRIOR BECAUSE THAT’S SUPER APPROPRIATE TO THAT STORY IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 2018/19.’
Or something to that effect. I’m very subtle on twitter.
Basically- the new Captain Marvel movie doesn’t not really include elements of the first Captain Marvel era, when he was an alien called ‘Mar-vel’ and Carol Danvers was then given the powers of Mar-vel and given the title of ‘Ms Marvel’*. I might add- this is probably a good thing. They’ve even gone so far as to ret-con Carol Danver’s origin story in the comics to make her half-Kree rather than the result of alien experimentation (again, I’m super cool with this).
So, given that the movie appears to be a story where Carol Danvers was kidnapped by the Kree and remade, with her memories of being a fighter pilot on Earth erased, this context is just maybe not the best place for… that outfit.
I dunno. Just a thought. Speaking of thoughts- here’s one:
‘But why is Wonder Woman’s armour empowering and this one isn’t?’
First off- empowerment is subjective and, again, depends on context. Not to mention the person who is being ’empowered’ and the people viewing it to some extent. I find it ‘empowering’ to dress in some sweet-ass Doc Martens shoes in pastel mint green. Others are empowered by booty shorts and a crop top. Or a hijab. Or a Lolita dress. Fictional characters are, as I mentioned, a different kettle of fish because they are not empowered to choose- the author is in charge. It’s their responsibility to make an outfit that fits the character.
Was… was that pose necessary?
For MCU Carol Danvers, in this new movie, it would not make any sense for her to wear that outfit like this dingus was suggesting. The world has moved on and so has Carol Danvers. She hasn’t worn anything like that for a decade and change and thank Christ.
It never made sense to me and if you know the character better, if you’ve followed her years and you think that outfit made sense then I’m cool with that. But now? When she’s a fighter pilot and a Kree warrior? Nope. We’ve moved on. She’s not Ms Marvel any more anyway.
You Tried It™ – 70s Marvel Edition
The current Ms Marvel is a teenage Muslim who made her own outfit to reflect herself and her identity. Her creator is a Muslim woman and she steps into the shoes of her character- a teenage girl, from a marginalised community and follows that to its logical clothing conclusion. It’s even addressed in Kamala Khan’s origin issue!
Plus, unlike Wonder Woman, Carol Danvers probably wasn’t created with a specific message in mind beyond ‘we need to sell more comics with ladies in, better make ’em sexy…ish’. Though there was some kind of feminist intent- it was still the seventies, it was written by men. They had their priorities.
And quite possibly the only reason Carol Danvers is the character she is today is at least 80% down to Chris Claremont. Obviously he had his missteps, but for the time he leapt over that low bar of ‘men writing women without a boner-related agenda’. He took one look at that Avengers #200 issue and took it to fuckin’ task. Good for him frankly. Bob Chipman did a great two part series on it (though it’s from 2012 so is VERY out of date)- check it out here.
Marvel wasn’t known for creating feminist characters specifically- but they did make one by accident. Kinda. Sorta.
So, she was originally created so that Marvel would own the rights to a female spin-off of Hulk before the studios that made the very popular Hulk TV show- ala The Bionic Woman. The same is also said of Spider Woman. In her earliest appearances, She-Hulk was a comedic character- she broke the fourth wall long before Deadpool and would make fun of her presence and supposed role that was expected of her. Yeah, still wore a lot of clothes, specficially work out gear that showed off skin- but work out gear does that for most people, regardless of gender, so (much like Wonder Woman) it makes sense and does not bother me. Much like this cover art-
Yeah, she’s naked except for a what at first looks like a newspaper- but that’s the Seal of the Comics Code Authority, which makes it quite clearly a joke. It’s poking fun at the idea of needing sexy ladies to sell comics… by doing that, but still, the satire makes sense- even if it falls flat sometimes.
Wives and girlfriends… Gimme a break. So- yes, a lot of this feels a little on the nose as jokes go and actually very sexist even by contemporary standards, but it’s still just that- a joke. The sexy framing is meant to be making a specific point. Makes sense here.
When might this kind of sexy framing doesn’t make sense or seems gross and gratuitous?
During a Civil War.
Mark Millar, what is your damage?
This panel is from an issue where young heroes are rescued before they’re locked up in inter-dimensional Gitmo!
What I’m saying is- in this context, we do not need a pointless close up of She Hulk’s arse. At all. This is just… infuriating. Do you really need a mild boner when reading about the senseless deaths of superheroes? Really? Really?
And this is my point. She-Hulk is sexy and was created with that in mind- but in a way that pokes fun at what we perceive as sexy. Yes, it seems awfully convenient, but in the context of a comic about a lady who likes to bust out and become a gorgeous giant green goddess at will– it makes sense. But when she’s in a very serious, dark storyline about war, death and loss of civil liberties? It really doesn’t make sense. During the run by Mariko Tamaki, which I loved bee tee dubs, it would look more than a little gross to have her pose like she’s a cover model whilst dealing with PTSD. Trying to regain control over survivor’s guilt that manifests as a grey She Hulk. But during the Dan Slott run or in Patsy Walker or in Charlie Soule’s run- dealing with it in a Ally McBeal but with superheroes and space gods makes sense because her sex life and sexuality does come up in a rom-com kind of way. Again–
Big in the 90s
But, you might exclaim, what about characters like Lady Death, Red Sonja, Barbarella and Vampirella? They’re literally always drawn in bikini armour! Literally! Red Sonja actually wears an honest to goodness chainmail bikini!
And yeah- y’know, the other thing we need to consider, besides context, is what I like to call accessibility to sexiness. I’m pretty forgiving of the characters listed above because they were created before the wide prevalence, and accessibility of porn or erotic comics. How else were you going to see boobs? Plus, these comics were created as mature works, specifically for getting your rocks off. Was it always done in the best taste? Nope. Sometimes it was downright gross as all hell. More than sometimes- but again, given the times these comics were created and the lack of awareness of any women reading these comics- I’m not surprised. Of course women read comics! But these dudes insisted otherwise. Elfquest had a lot of eroticism and sexuality- but it was drawn by a woman who like, knew what she was doing.
This looks like the characters revelling in being sexy and feeling good. This is a choice that makes sense to the characters and the culture of the Wolfriders and The Sun Folk. Man, we do not talk about Elfquest enough. But these dudes writing Lady Death and Barb Wire and the other sexy bad girls of the 90s didn’t care about characterisation or the motivations these women might have beyond ‘How can I get her to bend like her spine is made of chewing gum?’ and it shows. I still guiltily enjoy them though. Not going to lie- they are part of my teenage hood, but they are very much of their time and we have long moved on. Hell, considering other works around at the time- maybe they weren’t all that excusable then either.
Lady in Red
So, with regards to Red Sonja specifically, she is essentially wearing an outfit not dissimilar to Conan’s. He has his massive pecs on display for all the arrows and swords to get at, but at no point has anyone pointed this out as a detriment. For men, nakedness is power- or rather, we don’t necessarily feel they are in any kind of sexual danger. That’s not always the case for women. No matter what we do, because as a society at large, women are still seen as primarily there for sex, nakedness is seen as a vulnerability. Like… well, if you’re half naked, what do you expect to happen kind of way.
And that sucks.
Red Sonja’s origin story included rape and sexual assault- and we all know why. She’s a female hero in a fantasy setting. Gotta prove how ‘mature’ you are right?
That will ultimately colour why we feel uncomfortable about her bikini armour and rightfully so- again, she has no choice over her outfit beyond what the artist and writer wants her to wear. How can that possibly gel with her backstory? That’s what bothered people- not the outfit itself. Which is why when she is ‘reincarnated’/rebooted with a story by Gail Simone, with a story that doesn’t include rape, I don’t feel all that worried about the bikini armour because I trust Gail Simone in the same way I trust G. Willow Wilson or Kelly Sue DeCormack. I trust women to write women, regardless of what they’re wearing- and credit where credit is due, there have been lots of women writing Red Sonja since who get that.
Red Sonja and others were part of a thing in the 90s that also included Barb Wire– sexy bad girls. In context, with the stories these characters got? It was often gross- but that went beyond the outfits or even the posing. It was a mindset of creator dudes who just wanted to draw titties, but didn’t think about putting said titties in the context of stories that included… death and destruction and murder and more than occasionally, sexual assault. Not cool. It shows how little these dudes cared about the women they created and how little they respected them- which yeah, impacts on the women who existed around them and the women who might exist in the real world around the character. Is it possible to make this better?
Under my Vampirella-ella-ella
Well, yeah- Vampirella. Her’s is an exploitation comic, always has been- a dark and sexy heroine just like Lady Death, but she has always had an origin story that gives her a proper backstory. Her run by Grant Morrison at least leans into a kind of delicious and dark sensuality because that’s kind of what he does. You’ll note in the above cover that there’s a recent run by Nancy A Collins- who also wrote Red Sonja. The stories are always at least a little sexy, by virtue of her in that outfit, but there’s still great horror and vampire shenanigans.
The comics and covers are still sexy, because she’s a sexy character. She’s created to be sexy, but to me I’ve never felt all that gross about it because at least she’s enjoying herself. Like, I’d want to be her simply because I get to lounge around in a bikini and look delighted and relaxed. Or look terrifyingly sexy. I’m never scared for her because she’s a virtually indestructible immortal vampire. Most of her covers she looks like she could and would eat you for breakfast. Is this empowering? I… don’t know. Maybe not for me, the reader, but for her? She seems to be having fun darling- she has agency from her writers and artists, even if that agency consists of posing in a bikini, at least I get the impression she’s happy about it. Which is more than can be said for… like, so many others.
Look- you may disagree with me, I get it- this is all subjective and if you find Vampirella’s outfit to be exploitative in a gross way, I understand. Again- empowerment is subjective. What I’m saying is, it makes more sense for Vampirella- a sexy character in a sexy comic- it makes a lot of sense for her to wear that outfit, but for someone like Carol Danvers, it doesn’t.
One size doesn’t fit all
Moreover- if your only option is an outfit that barely covers five inches of skin, it can make you feel… exposed. Vulnerable- but for a long time, regardless of context or character backstory or even the age range of the media in person- that sexy outfit was the only option.
That’s the bit that also truly sucks. A lack of choice. A one size fits all.
Not only that, even when female characters are given a great character and promising arc and agency, if they’re then forced into a sexy outfit. Then it makes those of us who feel empowered by that character’s story feel… like we’ve been undermined too.
Yeah, I’m talking about the Princess Leia slave bikini outfit.
The Worst Bikini Ever
Leia has more agency and drive, more anger and conviction and bravery than most female characters did at the time. Moreover, she got to wear practical outfits or at least dresses that made sense to her position as a member of royalty. These felt like outfits she chose for herself and ones that she wore out of pride and passion for her cause. There’s a reason her hair style was based on women fighting in the Mexican revolution.
But what did nerd fandom remember the most of Princess Leia for most of the intervening years? That fucking bikini. The one Carrie Fisher hated wearing. The one that she revealed in using to kill the creature that enslaved her for his amusement. I think about Carrie Fisher a lot. I miss her so much. I think her stories of addiction and bravery in the face of mental illness helped us see the bikini for what it was- a symbol of enslavement. Sexualising it comes with that context- like, I get that it gave you your first boner, but… It was also a moment where she is made sexually vulnerable and humiliated. It also kind of affected a real life woman’s already fragile mental health. She deserved better and I’m grateful she got some proper recognition before she died. God I wish she got it sooner.
Real Women Are Impacted Too
These things impact real women. Like- flesh and blood women out in the world. From the actresses who play them to the cosplayers who have to watch out for creeps at cons and to stunt women who have to wear these outfits whilst literally risking their lives. This can kill people. It makes it look like we care more about being sexy than women’s survival. Shockingly.
When it comes to cosplayers- and hear me out- how about we continue to teach men that cosplay is not consent, that a sexy outfit is not an excuse for you to be a creeper and we give women options other than ‘barely contains my nipples’?
But things seem to be much better now- for the most part. Publishers can’t deny a wide female audience that reads comics, or at least when they try they look completely ridiculous. Remember that variant cover with Spider Woman? The one where the artist made her bum look like Knuckles the Echidna? It wasn’t just the outfit or the pose- ridiculous though they were- it was that this was meant to be part of a push to include more women. We don’t want just sexy characters any more, we have plenty, we want female heroes who don’t just have ‘sexy’ as a setting and Spider Woman was never created with that in mind. She isn’t Vampirella, she’s Spider Woman. She deserves an outfit and a pose that reflects her history as a hero, not primarily a sex symbol.
Carol Danvers has been given a story that gives her agency in the comics beyond an accident and a movie which treats her potentially traumatic story with respect and thought. If she were a dude with the same origin story, she’d wear similar clothes and have similar poses. Not only that, she’s reclaiming the person she was without any reference to a story including sexual violence or exploitation framed as charming holy shit Avengers #200 what were you thinking??
Okay, for real, stop telling Brie Larson to smile you creep.
The most recent trailer for Captain Marvel, at the time of writing, is one where the person Carol used to be is coming back through. That person is funny, sweet, dorky, but also charismatic and powerful. She would do fun Top Gun salutes to her friend whilst she took off in a Harrier jump jet. If she did this whilst wearing a bikini or an outfit with an exposed midriff it’d be really really weird and gross. You would be able to tell that it wouldn’t be her conscious choice, already a factor in a story about a woman regaining her past self after having it taken from her. It was recently revealed this story is more in the vein of Winter Soldier than Guardians of the Galaxy. How would a lycra ensemble with a midriff window make sense for that story? I mean really? Funny no one brought this up in regards to Bucky Barnes isn’t it? No one told him to smile whilst his memory was being erased for the millionth time.
‘So… Like. Can I ever put a woman in a bikini?’
Short answer- YES. The long answer is complicated. I mean, does it suck that there’s a huge complication surrounding women’s nakedness and how much agency/power they have? Especially when that creator is of a somewhat privileged position compared to her- i.e. a white dude? Someone who might just be doing this to get his rocks off whilst also telling a story involving the character who might be depowered herself? OF COURSE IT DOES. I don’t have an answer for that- except… actually. I do. Take it with a grain of salt obviously, this is but one person’s opinion.
To those dude comic book creators who are wondering how to make a sexy character with agency, here’s some advice:
Read other dudes who knew how to get it right.
Read Sex Criminals, Saga and OGLAF- that last one is free. Actually, someone did a very helpful list of Great Comics about Sex , so go read it and the comics it recommends. Also, go read Sunstone– a comic specifically about sex- which explores agency, consent, how to make everything safe and dangerous- whilst also being fuckin’ gloriously sexy. Also, Iron Circus does some great erotic comics.
You’ll note that all of the above examples are for mature readers. So, if you want my advice; if you want to do sexy costumes on characters- go the whole hog. You don’t need to put gratuitous near nudity in your otherwise thoughtful/epic superhero comic anymore- just go for broke and make a porn comic. The internet makes it so easy to distribute them and make money from them. It won’t affect your career anymore because you can It frees up mainstream comics to tell stories that don’t rely on exploitative cheesecake. Speaking of which-
Marvel’s Swimsuit editions similarly are far more fun than you would possibly expect. And it’s not just women in bikinis- we get the dudes in speedos. Everyone is near naked and having the time of their lives. Cheesecake, yes, but that’s the whole point.
Make your sexy times fun. I cannot stress this enough.
Go look at art by women and gay men. We have more space and opportunities for female artists and queer men artists who actually understand how clothes work. I’d trust Kris Anka and Jen Bartel to draw sexy stuff over literally anyone from the nineties. Heck- last year fan artists made their own version of the Marvel Swimsuit edition using a twitter hashtag and they looked amazing. Babsdraws draws a lot of sexy pin up art- in which they all look like they actually want to be there. That’s all I’m asking for- like, for people to look like they’re enjoying sex and sexiness. Like you, the artist/creator have given them enough safety and freedom to be sexy.
Also, collectively, we seem to know the difference between beautiful and sexy- i.e. the difference between Wonder Woman pin-up art and an almost reverential cover by Jenny Frisson (who also did that lovely Vampirella comic fyi). One is sexy, sure, but the other is wonderful. Makes you well up a little. We need that sometimes and look- still wearing that iconic costume.
There’s also more stories that include women in a non-sexualised context- where they’re just allowed to be. That’s important; more choice, more options. Leia isn’t just that bikini anymore, she isn’t just an unwilling sex icon- she’s a General, a revolutionary and still a princess.
Like… I’m a queer woman. I like look at sexy ladies too, but there’s a time and place. That’s key here- think about why you are including that pose and/or costume. Is it really needed? Is the character in immediate danger? Are they enjoying themselves?
Okay, I want to throw in one more example of how to do sexy but with agency- watch Janelle Monae’s video for Pynk. It’s only a little subtle with its imagery. She literally has a path of arses at one point- but she’s looking at the woman she loves with such devotion. The whole song is about how amazing it is to love a woman and how gorgeous they are. It’s a song about queer lady love.
She casts Tessa Thompson as a clitoris.
Brie in your Bonnet
So… at this point, I would like to reiterate that I am just one woman with a particular set of experiences and I am speaking from the personal. I don’t claim to have the answers, only a gut feeling on why certain portrayals of women in comics make me deeply uncomfortable. I’ve been trying to translate said gut feeling into words. It’s been on my mind for a while- but that twitter exchange, the one I referenced earlier kind of helped me collate my thoughts, rambly though they may be. After I had reeled from this tweet- I went on Brie Larson’s Instragram.
When I think back to that photoshoot that berk referenced where she’s ‘getting her kit off’ it looks… really uncomfortable. Again- I don’t dain to know her thoughts, maybe she enjoyed that shoot, maybe it was a lot of fun, but… it looks so air-brushed and sterile. It doesn’t even really look like Brie Larson. On Instagram, she posts a lot of pictures of herself just posing and, insofar as you can tell anything from a person’s social media profile, she looks comfortable. Happy. Soft. They’re sexy pictures to be sure- but it’s in a way that feels controlled. Like she’s calling the shots. She’s wearing clothes that she can move around in, there’s a sense of ease and… yeah, I’m getting some queer vibes too.
I think back to that tweet- that dude’s base assumption was that since she posed for that photoshoot, she should always be ‘okay with getting her kit off’. Always. Because she did it once. That’s like saying a pro-athlete should only ever drink Pepsi because he advertised it like, once. He didn’t seem to get that it was just for show. That’s not her. It’s got nothing to do with Captain Marvel or with Brie Larson herself. It’s just something she did because it’s kind of expected of her. When she’s running her social media- again, making a HUGE assumption and we should always take someone’s social with a bag of salt- she’s not the same woman that’s in that photoshoot.
Brie Larson’s version of sexy, one that feels true to herself, is one where she’s hanging out, wearing suits and jeans. Where she’s working out, showing off her back muscles and how much she can bench. It’s her hanging out with her friends or talking about Time’s Up and sexual assault survivors. There’s art history or important women in history. There’s feminism. There’s a few of her in swimwear- but they look way more comfortable and shot much better. They look like art, not a commercial.
This feels way more like herself. It also feels a lot more like Carol Danvers than any sterile photoshoot or throwback ridiculous and thoughtless costume ever could. Carol Danvers, the one I know from Kelly Sue DeCormack and the one that seems to be in the upcoming movie, would believe sexual assault survivors. She’d show off how she can bench press a couple hundred pounds. She’d pretend to be Patrick from Spongebob square pants (actually she’s from the 90s… so Roco from Roco’s Modern Life?).
This feels like agency. Like something a real woman in a good place would do.
There it is.
It is entirely possible to make a character sexy and still give them agency. You can show off skin and that character can still feel like a complete person. You just have to think about context and giving that character agency. Ask yourself, honestly, if that makes sense for your story. For your person.
You might not get it right for everyone, but most of us will be able to tell when you at least try.
Though I will say- you are banned from writing or drawing women wearing heels higher than two inches unless you, personally walk a full mile in the same shoes you are proposing for your female character. Good rule of thumb- if Batman can’t scale a wall in them, they suck and you need to change them.
*She’s not the first woman in Marvel comics to be given the title of ‘Captain Marvel’, that was Monica Rambaeu and her first costume was not a one piece with a midriff window. Just saying.
Also, as a coda, here’s a twitter discussion on the topic!
I’m a thirty something British nerd-mum and wannabe author, fueled by tea, poor decision making and a need to be distracted. Cursed to watch favourite characters die and ships sink.