Ah, Wonder Woman. I can’t help feeling somewhat conflicted about this intriguing kick-ass superhero. For starters, the fact that she’s not derivative of a male character (think Supergirl or Batgirl) makes her a rarity in the comic book world. She comes from an Amazonian tribe of super women where sexism doesn’t exist; flies an invisible plane; wields a magical golden lasso; is strong and independent; and holds her own in the fight for justice as well as any man. She even ran for president in a 1943 edition of the comic, just twenty-three years after American women gained the right to vote.
But then there’s her costume. Can—or should—an icon for female empowerment wear a skimpy, impractical outfit that stretches the limits of our suspension of disbelief (that tiny strapless bodice could barely withstand an hour of schmoozing without slipping, let alone fighting or decisive movement of any kind) and places the visual emphasis on her perfect body rather than who she is and what she does?
This question was brought to light this week by a somewhat unlikely source: the New York Times. It was refreshing to see a mainstream news outlet like the Times comment on this issue Wednesday in an article titled “Is It Time for Wonder Woman to Hang Up Her Bathing Suit?”
The piece was done on the heels of a milestone for the female superhero. It happens to be Wonder Woman’s 75th birthday, and the UN recently announced that the character will be an honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls and for gender equality in line with Goal 5 of their Sustainable Development Goals.
With such prestige and staying power working to her advantage, Wonder Women should be able to afford an updated wardrobe. The Times piece reminds me I am not alone in wondering whether her image reflects the right message.
Times writer Vanessa Friedman points out that even Miss Teen USA has now replaced the swimsuit portion of their competition with gym wear to celebrate strength over sex appeal. As she writes, “that clothing unavoidably indicates to everyone that part of the source of [Wonder Woman’s] power is her babeliciousness, as defined in a particularly retrograde way.”
Why does this matter right now? Besides the UN ambassadorship, there’s a new Wonder Woman movie in the works for next year, which is a major deal for an industry that (until now) has avoided giving a lead role to a female superhero, despite the huge blockbuster success of multiple male-focused comic book adaptations. As Blake Northcott wrote for Verily back in 2014, this is huge because “When a little girl attends a superhero film and sees a woman—usually the only one who’s been given any significant screen time—pushed aside so the men can take over and save the day, it sends the wrong message. It tells her that she’s not important, or valued, or even allowed to engage in the same whimsical power fantasy that the boys are.”
One has to admit that a superhero’s costume, whatever their gender, is a powerful part of their identity. As the New York Times noted, Wonder Woman “may not be using her sexuality as a weapon (she has bracelets and a gold lasso for that), but it’s nonetheless making a statement.” Even the Outreach Division Director for the UN Department of Public Information, Maher Nasser, referenced her less-than-ideal getup, saying “We are not unaware of the outfit issue.”
It’s worth pointing out that all superheroes, male or female, tend to wear skin-tight outfits, so in a way Wonder Woman is hardly an exception in this universe. The idea of a super hero is that they have a "perfect" body capable of superhuman feats, and almost every super hero outfit accentuates that perfect body and strong muscles. So certainly there’s a kind of body-worship going on here for the men, too. These are all hyper-attractive, idealized characters, after all.
The difficulty is, though, we undeniably live in a world where women are treated as sexual objects more frequently than men, and we continue to be surrounded by messaging that tells us women's looks are far more important than their actions.
That's why seeing this discussion happening in an outlet as influential as the New York Times is so refreshing. It reminds us that this is a matter of importance to everyone, not just those whose set out to consume media that supports women's full worth over their looks.
Would it hurt to give Wonder Woman a more practical, combat-ready outfit, more along the lines of something Captain America would wear rather than a Hooters waitress? Tight-fitting armor isn’t the issue—if you want to show off her muscles and edify her fitness abilities, that’s one thing. But I, for one, prefer not to be thinking about how painful it is to get a wedgie or how annoying it is to worry about your top staying up while I’m watching her save the universe.
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures