Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Geek Chorus #4: In Which I Defend Power Girl's Cleavage (While Trying Not to Sound like a Pervert)

DC Comics has gotten a lot of flack recently for their treatment of female characters, most of it very much deserved. The behavior of fan favorite characters like Starfire, Catwoman, & Harley Quinn since in relaunch last year have been more than just contrary to their previously established personalities, it's been outright degrading. These story decisions have resulted in considerable backlash from the online community, so it's understandable that the leadership of DC Comics would want to do something nominally pro-feminist to counter this and repair damage to their reputation. However, in the image above is their idea of making amends, they've clearly missed the point.
The first reason this idea is a stupid one should be obvious: it complete ignores the core problem. The anger over the portrayal of DC's female characters post-relaunch had nothing to do with what they were wearing. Comic heroine's have been fighting crime scantly clad for for roughly as long as there have been comic heroine's. Hell, Starfire herself (arguably the center of this entire controversy) had been parading around in the nude since her first appearance, a bikini certainly wasn't gonna cause a fuss.

No, the problem was always in the characterization. We didn't mind what Starfire was wearing, we minded that she was sleeping with anything with a pulse and had no emotion about it whatsoever. Eyebrows were certainly raised by Harley Quinn's new, skimpier costume, but we were willing to give it a chance. It was her new bad girl attitude and poorly-handled sexual appetite that pissed us off.

However, there is second reason for not changing Power Girl's costume beyond the fact that it won't fix the problem. But to explain it, were going to need to reexamine Power Girl for a moment.

For those unfamiliar, the character pictured above and to the left is Power Girl. A rather generic name, to be sure, but nonetheless a character comic fans like myself have grown very fond of over the years. First introduced in the 70's as an older Supergirl from another dimension (it's a long story), she has since become a beloved character in her own right, separate from the Superman mythos, and in some circles is considered a feminist role model for female readers. Oh, and she also dresses like this:

Now some of you may be asking why a character I just referred to as a "feminist role model" is parading around around in an outfit clearly designed to accentuate her noticeably large chest (large even by comic standards by the way, which is saying something). Well, there's an urban myth about an artist seeing how large he could draw her breasts and not have his boss notice, but there's little evidence to support it. Honestly the original design probably came from exactly where you think they came from: comics back then being written with the assumption that all their readers were male teenagers. Actually they're still being written like that, which is kinda why we're talking about this in the first place.

However, Power Girl is a bit on an anomaly in that overtime her sexually provocative appearance has grown beyond a cheap ploy to attract male readers and become a positive aspect of her character. Created in the middle of the second wave of the feminist movement, Power Girl was from the very beginning aggressively independent, determined to be her own woman and not simply "the other Supergirl".

But while certainly somewhat abrasive at times, Power Girl was no straw feminist. "Pro-women" did not equal "anti-men" for her. She would often call her male counterparts chauvinist pigs, but in her defense they often deserved it. They were at times condescending to her because of her gender (Wildcat especially), and she was determined not to let them marginalize her. And as abrasive as she could be at times, she never resented her fellow superheroes for it. She considered them good friends and treated them with respect. And as was made obvious by her costume, she was very proud of the her own femininity, not feeling the need to reject it in order to feel equal to men. She would not snap at men for eying her cleavage or flirting with her, she felt empowered by her alluring sway over men. In fact, when she did finally decide to address the "boob window" issue, she had this to say:

As time went on, the famous costume feature became used more often as a running joke than a symbol of sexual empowerment. But one way or another, Power Girl's bust evolved from simply being a titillating distraction to a central aspect of her character and more importantly, her brand. Like it or not, Power Girl's boobs are as much her trademark as Superman's S-shield is his. Just like Elvira or Dolly Parton, they're the thing everyone remembers about her even if they've never read any of her comics, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Now before anyone gets upset, let me clarify. What I mean is that her chest is her most memorable aesthetic feature. Yes, there's a wonderful character with a personality to fall in love with once you actually start reading her stories. But every iconic character needs some instantly recognizable visual cue. Sherlock Holmes' deerstalker, Mickey Mouse's ears, James Bond's tuxedo, all of these are ingrained into the collective psyche of our culture. That's what Power Girl's boobs do for her. They make people notice and remember her. And that does not degrade her, nor does it make her a sex object. It makes her a woman.

In light of all that, I hope you can see why I vehemently disagree with the changing of her costume. By doing so, you are throwing away an iconic design with mass market appeal, and substituting something utterly generic and forgettable. DC, I get that you've gotta PR problem at the moment. I get that you need some way to, for lack of a better word, "apologize" to your female readers, and that's great, I'm glade you want to make amends. But this? This is not the way. No one was complaining about the Power Girl costume before, so why would changing it now fix anything? Power Girl already has a strong, loyal following of female readers, none of whom seem to have a problem with the way she dresses, not even Gail Simone, the leading feminist voice today in the industry. As long as you continue to write Power Girl as a strong, independent person and not have her pose like a Maxim model in every panel, no one is going to complain about a silly cleavage window. By that same token, if she starts acting like an object of male fetish, the most conservative costume in the world is not going to fix it.

1 comment:

Palisade said...

To be fair, there /are/ people who complain about Power Girl's cleavage--but I think you've done a damned good summation of why covering her up isn't going to fix DC's PR problems. Sometimes I wonder if the whole thing is a really poorly thought out stunt that is certainly giving them a lot of attention, without that whole 'new readers' part.