This is a sentence I never thought I’d write: I want to talk about Power Girl’s cleavage.
A story in this month’s JSA 80 Page Giant features what seems to be a rather odd metafictional moment. Here, DC Comics’ charmingly brash superhero, Power Girl, thinks that her revealing costume is being mocked by her rookie teammate, Cyclone. When Cyclone explains that, no, no, she loves the costume, Power Girl shoots a barbed look out towards the reader. She says: “Most women don’t react quite that way.”
Some readers explained that they felt they were being lectured by the comic; reprimanded for daring to think that there’s sexism present in the way Power Girl is drawn (with her seemingly ever-increasing bust size) and the costume she’s drawn into (with its notorious cleavage-window).
The writer of the issue, Jen Van Meter – in an incredibly classy move – responded to one of her critics. She explained that Power Girl’s glance out of the page wasn’t present in the original script, before going on to say:
“Do I like the vast and very gendered disparity in costuming in conventional superhero comics? No. Do I love superhero comics despite the many flaws of the genre? Absolutely. Having chosen to write superhero comics for hire on occasion, must I work with what’s available to me? Sure.”
Spend any time online and you’ll witness the argument usually used to shut down talk of this ‘very gendered disparity’. It goes like this: hey, all superhero costumes are skintight and ridiculous! Shut up!
And while that misses the point entirely, it’s true that superhero costumes are inherently ridiculous. More and more, supermen and superwomen seem a little embarrassed by their outfits. (This is made even worse when they’re translated into non-animated films. Real actors, real physics, and real fabrics just make the problem that much worse.) Comic books have struggled to find logical ways to explain these bizarre spandex fashions.
(My favourite justification comes from writer Grant Morrison. He suggested the X-Men originally dressed like superheroes because the public already trusted superheroes, and therefore they’d be more willing to accept mutants with strange powers within that preexisting heroic framework. That kind of conceptual möbius strip isn’t for amateurs!)
Power Girl’s costume, however, is seen as so uniquely provocative that her writers constantly have to address the issue. Sometimes it’s taking the reader by the hand for a guided interpretive tour, like Cyclone’s subsequent pro-costume speech, above:
“’Cause from a theatrical point of view, it’s perfect for who you are and what you do. It’s all about contradictions. The hole draws the eye precisely where everyone knows they’re not supposed to look – putting anyone you’re dealing with off-balance. The name says girl, but the costume says woman… and not just woman, I mean. It says, “I’m tough enough to handle everything I am. Are you?’”
Sometimes it’s a quick gag, as in JSA Classified #1: “Green Lantern used to ask me why I never wore a mask. It’s because most of the time… they ain’t looking at my face.”
The oddest explanation for Power Girl’s outfit comes out in a heartfelt, tears-in-her-eyes conversation with Superman in JSA Classified #2:
“People always ask me why I have this hole right here. They think I’m showing off… or just being lewd. But the first time I made this costume, I wanted to have a symbol like you. I just… couldn’t think of anything. I thought, eventually, I’d figure it out. And close the hole. But I haven’t.”
Remember that tragic justification for why Batman constantly disappears on a mid-sentence Commissioner Gordon? This scene attempts the same retroactive poetry, but fumbles badly.
Years ago, I interviewed DC Comics’ writer Gail Simone for a feature in Yen Magazine. (How long ago? Joss Whedon was still directing the Wonder Woman movie, that’s how long ago.) She said that she might be considered a “contrarian” in the debate over gendered fashions of superhero outfits. She said:
“I think it’s fine if most of the male and female characters look fabulous, even if the outfits are impractical. I owned a beauty salon before I became a writer and I know there’s a power in glamour. That said, sometimes the outfits betray the nature of the character, and that’s unforgiveable.”
You could easily argue that trying to make Power Girl’s cleavage an empty symbol of angst is a betrayal of her character; it certainly seems more cynical than depicting her as owning her costume-choice with a shrug or wink or smile.
But here’s the final chicken-or-egg riddle: how much of her tough-talking, fun-loving personality has been slowly developed to justify her costume – and not the other way round?