My dad took me into our town's comic book shop when I was 8 years old as a special treat. It was my birthday and he was going to let me choose three new books. I had never personally purchased a comic book from the store before. My entire collection- extensive as it was- was gifted to me by my brother's godmother and was severely lacking in the updated adventures of the Gotham girls.
Batman was my favorite superhero at the time because of his respect for his female adversaries and allies, all of which had distinct and fascinating characterization as well as interesting backstories.
My mission on that day was to find a story where Supergirl paid a visit to Gotham City. Barbara Gordon's Batgirl was awesome, of course, but I always felt like Poison Ivy was taking it easy on her. It seemed like Ivy beat herself or Harley tripped her up by accident more often than Batgirl actually won fair and square. I was ready to see a different match-up.
My dad told the clerk that I was looking for female superheroes and he directed us to a section in the back of the store. The comics starring women filled a single shelf. But I wasn't thinking about that at the time. The only thing I could think when I saw that sad little shelf, as an 8 year old who just wanted a fair fight for her favorite villain, was a single word: "boobs".
Let me start off by acknowledging that this "PC culture" we're living in can at times be frustrating. It seems like somebody always has a problem with something, and their critiques are often so comically minute or specific that I find myself wondering why they even bothered putting in the effort required to complain. That being said, the hypersexualization of female characters is a real issue. With the presently extreme public interest in comic book films, it is time to update these drawings for a wider and more inclusive audience.
A male superhero's body isn't drawn with large muscles simply for aesthetic purposes. There are tasks required of that hero that call for a large, physical build. Female superheroes are also drawn with muscular bodies, but they are given disproportionately large breasts tacked strangely onto their small frames that serve absolutely no purpose. In fact, preposterously large breasts would likely hinder the hero in a battle. Now I hate to bring realism into this, but I am a competitive bikini athlete, which basically means I diet to an uncomfortably low weight once a year and parade around on stage in a bikini hoping that my physique will check more boxes for the judges than the girl next to me. I know from experience that the leaner you get, the smaller your breasts get, and because I've never seen a superhero with more than an ounce of fat on their body, they would barely have breasts at all without surgical augmentation- something I really don't feel like a superhero would prioritize.
A hero's suit is their armor. It's their final line of defense. A suit is created specifically for the wearer to help them fully utilize their powers. For example, Superman and Supergirl are bullet proof, so their suits are made out of bullet proof material, that way it's not riddled with bullet holes at the end of the day. Being that Flash can run faster than the speed of light, there is naturally a significant friction created, so his suit is fire proof that way he doesn't have to carry an extinguisher around for when he slows down. So then, if Starfire (Teen Titans) is as strong as eight men and can absorb ultraviolet radiation allowing her to travel at supersonic speeds, why does does her suit look like this?
Now there are some characters whose provocative appearances do serve a purpose and are both acknowledged and completely valid. Like Poison Ivy, for example. She uses her powers of seduction like a weapon, often luring adversaries to her or controlling them with a poison kiss. She uses her beauty to disarm them and then pounces at the first sign of weakness. In other words, her "suit" helps her to fully utilize her powers.
The Double Standard
Many female superheroes are "knock-offs" of already established and successful male ones. They have the same powers, or at least very similar variations of the theme, and are often either related or in some sort of romantic relationship with their male counterparts. Why then are their suits so vastly different? We all know Supergirl is a girl, it's in her name, why is showing her midriff a reaffirmation of her femininity and why is wearing a skirt more functional than pants or leggings?
This may all seem trivial, but it's subtle and not-so-subtle inferences that shape an opinion, and its the joining of similar opinions that create a society.
Heroes & Villains
Although Poison Ivy's 'look' has been well explained, it's important to notice that she is a villain, and in that, she embraces and exploits her own sexuality. Ivy isn't the only one. The majority of female comic book villains dress scantily and use their physical appeal punishingly. Although heroes and villains are drawn with the same appealing attributes, the heroes are portrayed as 'innocents' who hardly notice or refer to their distinct attractiveness while the villains seem to use theirs for purposes of manipulation only.
It's the case of DC's Harley Quinn that I find particularly disturbing. Harley is, of course, the insane, endearing and iconic female side-kick to Batman's most famous adversary, The Joker.
Her devolution from hyperintelligent, ambitious psychiatrist to the Joker's personal punching bag was detailed in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Mad Love" as well as the comic by the same name. In it we're introduced to Arkham's newest resident psychiatrist, the beautiful Dr. Harleen Quinzel. Fresh out of medical school, she's ready to delve into the minds of Arkham's most twisted psychopaths. Her professional curiosity for The Joker turns to irrational infatuation as he manipulates her into empathizing with his tales of childhood abuse.
With her loss of sanity also comes a regression of maturity. Although Harleen and Harley are anatomically the same person, if someone were to look at the two versions side-by-side, the assumption would likely be that "Harley" is quite a few years younger than Harleen.
The Joker strips Harley of almost all self-worth through continual mental, emotional and physical abuse, essentially reducing her to a child desperate for affection. Her fervent dedication to her abuser, even when presented with healthier options, is heartbreaking to watch, but also an all too accurate depiction of certain abusive relationships. Showing that dynamic on a mainstream television show aimed at children was groundbreaking, and Harley quickly became a fan favorite.
Thanks to genuine fan interest and the support of her "friend" Poison Ivy, Harley was eventually able to loosen the grip The Joker had on her and appeared in a series of solo comics starring she and the other women of Gotham City, as well as her own comic series in which she's depicted as an anti-hero rather than a villain.
Her growth as a character is truly one of the most impressive victories in the history of comics and it was a battle fought largely against herself.
Harley Quinn: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
How was the newly anointed "hero" rewarded for her hard work in breaking free of her extremely toxic relationship?
...Bigger breasts and a skimpier outfit. Because I can't for the life of me figure out how a larger cup size would make her a more agile gymnast or how wearing an undersized corset would improve cognitive ability, I'm just going to chalk it up to "sex sells." The problem is, in a genre creatively dominated by men, the new Harley reaffirms the idea that women must compromise to be liked. DC has restored Harley's power, but still repeatedly disenfranchises her by promoting her sexuality over her abilities.
"The infantilization of her character, which highlights the paradox between her abilities and her own personal self-worth, is a useful tool when convincing the audience of her psychosis but a dangerous one when Harley- victim that she is- is further sexualized." -Crystina B., LCSW
If it's the loss of innocence that registers as sexually desirable for DC's target audience, then there are plenty of examples of that in Harley's character history without the use of gratuitous imagery, just as there are in every other character's story, man or woman. The promotion of Harley as a sexual entity while keeping her mentally stunted removes the threat of having to see her as an intelligent or emotional being- or at least gives the reader an excuse not to.
The depiction of women in comic books infers to the reader that women- even those with superpowers- are sexual objects. Harley's physical re-imagining sends a clear message that although the character is no longer the Joker's, she (and what she represents) is still to be exploited.
To add insult to injury, the augmentation was likely unnecessary from a marketing standpoint. Harley's head-to-toe jester costume is as iconic as her Brooklyn accent and DC's eagerness to do away with her traditional look in favor of something more provocative highlights a very real problem within the comic book industry- there is an institutionalized distrust in the market's interest in female characters based on merits alone. That projection might have been valid in the past when the market was solely comprised of boys from ages 12-15, but with the popularity of the comic book cinematic universes comes an interest in the original material from people of all ages, male or female. There is no better opportunity to do right by these female characters than right now when the whole world is watching.
Margot Robbie will be portraying the first live-action cinematic incarnation of Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, coming to theaters August 5th. I will withhold judgment until I see her in action, but seeing as how she's been a champion for the character and plans to produce as well as star in a Harley solo film, I have high hopes. However, they've been somewhat dampened after noting the direction the Suicide Squad comics have taken with the character. As for Robbie herself...and I do wish her luck. She has some rather eccentric shoes to fill.