Striking a Balance in Our Action Heroines’ Wardrobes and Physiques

Samantha Lee continues her exploration into the way famous feminine figures are perceived in a masculinised world. Fictional super heroines can provide role models for young girls and as such, the way they are dressed is of the utmost importance. 

In the year 1941, All Star Comics (a precursor to DC Comics) debuted the soon-to-be iconic heroine Wonder Woman. Also known as the Amazonian Princess Diana, her outfit consisted of a breastplate, tiara, wrist cuffs, high boots, and what appeared to be a short skirted one-piece (although it was later described as culottes - women’s wide-legged athletic shorts).

Throughout the character’s successful run, her costume has continued to evolve with each time period. After the comic’s unfortunate detour to civilian status and everyday clothing at the end of the 1960s, her bottoms were transformed into high cut briefs in the early 1970s. Eminent feminist Gloria Steinem was one of Wonder Woman’s biggest fans and Steinem advocated for this adjustment of attire that returned the super hero to her classic uniform, believing that she could be forceful and empowered while still maintaining her Amazonian identity.

By the 1990s, however, the focus was no longer on creating a strong female role-model, but instead, Diana’s wardrobe was utilized to appeal to the male consumer. This is evident as her top became lower cut with additional visible cleavage, while her bikini cut higher, eventually going so far as to become simply a thong. Comic book artist Mike Deodato justified this change by pointing out that, “Every time the bikini was smaller, the sales got higher.” The overt sexualisation of female characters through wardrobe design is an issue for which the comic book industry has commonly been criticized. For example, Marvel even published their Mighty Marvel Swimsuit Specials yearly, wherein, similar to Sports Illustrated, they featured their female superheroes in skimpy beachwear.

Wonder Woman’s bikini look was preserved until 2010 when the choice was made to place her in leggings and a jacket. Departing from her classic, badass yet feminine look proved quite controversial. Speaking for a number of feminists, Gloria Steinem explained, “jeans give us the idea that only pants can be powerful.” Steinem clearly highlights the problematic message of putting heroic women in male clothing, thus associating their strength and capability with masculinity. One of the signature qualities of Wonder Woman had always been that a beautiful female could be smart and dynamic, without giving up her gender identity. Finding a place between over-sexualisation and a near absence of femininity is a challenge that many creators and artists continue to struggle with.

Another pop culture heroine whose outfit and body type metamorphosis also exemplifies this conflict is hit videogame franchise, film, comics, and animated series protagonist Lara Croft. This character was first introduced in the 1996 Tomb Raider video game as a busty, short shorts wearing, gun-toting, tough kickass. Yet her designer, Toby Gard, had originally conceived of her as a female Indiana Jones-esque treasure hunter. While she was characterized as strong, intelligent and resourceful, her clothing and figure were eroticized from the start, and later featured even more cleavage and a bare midriff. In the films starring Angelina Jolie, the actress was costumed to accentuate and sexualize Lara Croft’s physical attributes, even as she was engaged in intense action sequences.

Then in 2013, the Lara Croft character was redesigned with an attempt at a more realistic body type. Her breasts were reduced in size, her lips made smaller, and her clothing became less revealing, including full length cargo pants. As with Wonder Woman, this less sexual reimagining garnered some critical response. Certain female fans were disappointed in what they considered this now neutered incarnation, while others rejoiced at her more relatable image. Artistic ricocheting between extremes in this regard is never able to satisfy everyone, which is perhaps a commentary in and of itself on our ongoing cultural battle with female empowerment and feminine personification.

Ironically this pendulum swing is currently on exhibit. The most recent Wonder Woman cinematic version has been clothed in a throwback to the qualities of her original design, with somewhat revealing female armor, including a very short skirt, bare thighs, and high boots. At the same time, the present Lara Croft has remained with a more identifiably realistic aesthetic. Apparel and body design choices for iconic cultural heroines continue to present a challenge as they are often viewed as an extension of female sexualisation and objectification on the one hand, while on the other, some women see them as striking and powerful representations of female expression.