To Pants or Not to Pants – The Superhero Uniform and its Discontents

When DC unveiled their grand relaunch in 2011, dubbed the New 52, they released (surprise!) 52 new #1 issues. Included in this endeavor were costume redesigns by divisive artist Jim Lee. While many conversations came up regarding those design changes (why is Superman’s costume armored again?), there was one in particular that stuck out, at least to my mind.

Yes, I speak of Supergirl, her swimsuit costume, and its crotchtacular merkin. It caused such raucous laughter amongst some comic fans that it was almost as though Jim Lee was trolling us for the proverbial lulz.

What makes Supergirl’s costume relevant now is that, recently, it was revealed that her Smallville comic counterpart is getting a costume of her very own — Kara Zor-El done gots pants’d, y’all.

Now before the shouts of “But this is Smallville, so it doesn’t count!” begin, let me remind you that spin-offs often act as proving ground for updates to the main universe. So if people dig a be-trousered Kara, you may see a change in her costume across the board.

Which brings us to the question that inspired this piece — so f#$@ing what?! Do clothes make the hero? And the answer, honestly, is a resounding, ‘eh.’

Which is not to say a costume is irrelevant. There is the oft heard question, “Why would you fight crime in a bathing suit?” That question, by the way, is totally fair. On one hand, if you are an nearly indestructible Kryptonian, you could fight in your birthday suit and not have to worry about getting skinned alive if thrown into a building or bounced through the street. And hey, the less under your secret identity day clothes the more comfortable, right?

On the other hand, even Superman wears tights, so why can’t the women? The swimwear approach to costuming after all is routinely mocked, be the hero female or male. Just look at Aquaman and Robin. One suspects that they are mocked for the swimwear of justice because that kind of costuming is perceived as something only a super heroine should wear. Because female heroes are drawn with bare limbs and scantier uniforms not because they don’t need the physical protection but because it’s sexy.

Ah, male gaze. My old frenemy.

So that’s the solution, right? Just slap some dockers on them ladies and everything’s equal in female and male depictions, right?

Well, not really, no. Putting a female hero in pants does not mean she is somehow protected from an artist positioning her primarily for the male gaze. For example, Marvel Comics recently began a new ongoing called Fearless Defenders which stars Valkyrie and Misty Knight. Both of these characters wear pants and, yet, I lost count by about page five of how many times Misty’s ass took center stage in any given panel. Basically, where there’s a male gaze will, there’s a male gaze way — pants or no pants, tights or bared legs.

Coming at this from another angle, sometimes the pants have to be justified with a drastic re-imagining of the character herself–and very often with unsatisfactory results.

When J. Michael Straczynski became the lead writer for Wonder Woman, he chose to give Wonder Woman pants, and some straps on her bustiere. But he also chose to take her memory away and with it, everything that made Wonder Woman who she was. Gone was the strong maternal figure who wasn’t afraid to kill to keep safe the flawed world she’s sworn to protect. In her place is this angsty princess fighting to restore a timeline she doesn’t even know about. That’s hardly a pro-feminist replacement.

Meanwhile, writers like Greg Rucka and Gail Simone had far greater success keeping the character true to her powerful Amazonian née Themysciran roots all while remaining in her familiar star-spangled underoos.

Bringing this back to Supergirl, we see this again with Kara’s alternate universe incarnation, Power Girl. Peej’s costume is infamous for its boob window, and yet many women comic readers love her. Why? It’s because her most famous run, written by Justin Gray/Jimmy Palmiotti and drawn by the incredibly talented Amanda Connor. Yes, there is an element of the pin-up to Connor’s style but there is also a tremendous level of facial expression the like of which you rarely see in comics. Power Girl was presented as a fully realized, dynamic, and empathetic human being, and people responded.

But, what if we closed up that boob window and traded in the high cut panty-line for some full-on pants? What if we effectively have the same kind of character with these surface changes? Is there some benefit?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Carol Danvers, better know as… Captain Marvel.

Carol’s backstory is extensive but the short version is that from the 60’s through the 90’s, she suffered many an indignity including but not limited to her powers and memory being taken from her, general loss of her own agency, and falling into alcoholic disrepair. She was for nigh on three decades a textbook example of what not to do with a female superhero.

But something changed with 2005’s House of M series. During this alt. universe tale, Carol got a taste of something she’d never had before — popularity. In this story she is the most beloved and respected hero in the world and, rather than going by ‘Ms.’ she is instead, Captain Marvel.

While the timeline was restored at the end of that series and she went back to being Ms. Marvel again, Carol retained her faith in herself and was finally poised to be a fully realized character.

All during this time she wears what is effectively a black swimsuit with a gold lightning bolt on it. That coupled with boots, gloves, a mask, and a sash, and you’ve got a pretty standard female superhero costume. Not bad, but certainly gendered. Still, she was more human than she had ever been and fans both male and female alike were taking a vested interest.

In 2012, several large steps were made. A female writer was charged with penning a book with Carol as the lead. Danvers would once again be referred to as Captain Marvel and, you guessed, it, she’d be trading in the bathing suit for some pants.

So — does this costume make a difference? I would argue that it does. What I find most notable about it is that, aside from the sassy sash, this is a costume that could be worn by a man or a woman. It is utterly gender neutral. And if we’re being honest, that does mean something. If I were a superhero, I could see myself kicking ass in that thing. It makes sense and yet still has flare.

But, even with that said, what is most notable about the latest ongoing Captain Marvel series is Kelly Sue DeConnick’s take on Carol. Here we have a character with a life outside of being a super hero, someone who faces conflicts of the mind and spirit as much as that of the body. She also has a cast of other female characters around her that she interacts with in a way that is believable not just in funny books, but in the real world as well. That is the true triumph of DeConnick’s Captain Marvel. The costume is merely the icing on the cake.

So if there is a lesson, it is this — if you want to create a female superhero and get it right, you have to follow these rules three (and in this order)

1. Write a character people can relate to regardless of gender.
2. Don’t put that character in poses that belong in the Hawkeye Initiative.
3. Pants are cool, too.