From Mav: Fun fact, this show has its origins in two places. One is geeky conversations that I have had with Wayne in the comic book shop he works in and we eventually said “we should make a show out of this.” We’ve told that story before. The other is in conversations that I had with Katya when we were working on our Masters degrees and sharing an office with 38 other people, but we’d be the only people hanging out in there and so we’d have geeky conversations like this and say “we should make a show out of this.” Same show.
This week’s topic is based on one of the earliest ideas that Katya and I had back in those days in a way that will be relevant later. And oddly enough it’s become topical again this week with the release of the first production images from the Netflix revival of the She-Ra cartoon series.
For those who don’t know, She-Ra is He-Man’s sister. The original cartoon, and this revival, were attempts to bring action toy licensed cartoons (traditionally the purview of boys) to a young girl audience. Netflix hired Noelle Stevenson, the 26-year-old cartoonist behind the critically acclaimed, Eisner winning, all-ages, female-led comic Lumberjanes to serve as showrunner. Stevenson updated the look and feel of the show to a modern aesthetic and redesigned all of the characters. Because… you know… that’s what you do when you’re rebooting a show. The internet was naturally outraged… because it’s the internet… and it’s full of nerds. And that’s what the internet does!
At least, that’s what some dudes on the internet do. Some of the internet, many of them women (and you know, this is supposed to be a cartoon for girls) loves the new design. But others — specifically emotionally stunted man-children — HATE IT (which, at least in some places, like TheMarySue, actually makes the lovers love it even more). Part of it is that the man-children say the new version is destroying their childhood (because they don’t realize they are in their fucking 40s, and their childhood is over, and there are real live children NOW who this is aimed at instead and really new media doesn’t destroy childhoods, it doesn’t really affect it at all — you can still watch the old episodes, which they haven’t done in 30 years, because they don’t actually care, they just like complaining). But honestly, it’s not really about that. The primary argument has been that she looks too “manly.” Which honestly, I’m pretty sure is mostly code for “hey! Where are her tits?” Because, that’s what it really comes down to, I think. She’s not terribly bulky or muscular, but she has on biker shorts under her skirt and she’s missing the signature boob wings on a strapless bodice that welcomed the man-children into puberty. And more importantly, her cleavage is covered and her bra cup size is smaller than it used to be. Basically, she’s harder to jack off to.
I actually didn’t love the new costume when the first image was released (see Figure 1). Mostly because I thought that the skirt was too short in conjunction with the biker shorts they gave her underneath. I’m ok with biker shorts under a skirt… it seems very much in the fashion wheel-house of both of my 7yo nieces who are in the target age group for this. However, the way the wind in the first stock photo appears to be blowing the skirt up to her belt, it felt too much like they were TRYING to do an upskirt shot, and it felt… weird. I said, I’d rather just see her in bike shorts, tights or pants and dumping the skirt altogether, or maybe having a longer tunic, but I’d reserve judgement until later images were released. Now that later production stills have been released (see Figure 3), I can see that it’s actually not a skirt at all, but a split tunic like I wanted and which, frankly, in a way (at least to me), is kinda sexier than She-Ra 1.0’s original skirt, but, because of the shorts, is pleasingly age-appropriate… and quite feminine. Which basically means that for those man-children complaining… yeah, it’s the boobs…
And that’s what it comes down to. It’s called the male gaze. That’s a term that gets thrown around from time to time on the internet, but it’s a lot more complex than the way people tend to use it (The internet simplifies something… go figure). For starters, the male gaze isn’t explicitly “bad” per se. It’s also not good. It simply “is.” The term comes from one of my favorite cultural criticism essays “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by Laura Mulvey. Even though I just criticized people for simplifying it, I’m about to do the same thing. Essentially Mulvey details the ways in which cinema (and transitively other fictions though this is more the work of others who have extended the theory than Mulvey herself), visually objectifies the female body for the sexual viewing pleasure of the heteronormative male viewer while the male body resists objectification and instead invites association. Translation, visual media wants you to want to be the cool dude and want to fuck the hot girl… regardless of your gender or sexuality. As viewers we are forced into the perspective of the innately male camera. Voyeuristic watching becomes coded as a masculine activity while exhibitionistic performance is coded as feminine. Basically it explains how and why we tend to sexualize the female body when we watch it in movies, sometimes intentionally and other times involuntarily even at times where sexualization is irrelevant to the narrative. Or… moreover it explains why despite He-Man being decidedly more naked than She-ra in the old cartoons (see Figure 4) — and honestly more hypermasculine than she is hyperfeminine — she somehow comes across as more sexualized.
And that brings us back to my initial conversations with Katya seven years ago in our office (told you I’d get there). One night when hanging out in our office Katya and I were discussing writing a joint paper about the different between desexualization and defeminization of superheroine outfits. We still haven’t gotten around to writing this paper (though I guess we’re kind of doing it RIGHT NOW) but we were working out some of the concepts. A couple years later, a colleague sent us a then-recent viral internet posting. Artist Michael Lee Lunsford redesigned several popular superheroine costumes with the express goal of making them less hypersexual. Some I liked. And looking at them In particular I think the Supergirl and Elektra costumes are cool and would work great in their books as is. The Black Canary and Power Girl costumes I also enjoy the looks of, though they don’t really make sense in context with the personas the actual characters are typically written in. However, it feels like the writing could be tweaked in a way to make the costumes work and still maintain the integral essence of the characters. Psylocke is also fine, though I don’t personally love it from an aesthetic perspective (nothing to do with the sexiness or not, I just don’t actually like it).
Vampirella and Zatanna are where the designs began to really bother me. Not only because the characters are written as inherently hypersexual, but because Lunsford’s designs, even when not compared to the canon ones, but especially when they are, feel as though they are more concerned with covering skin than anything else relating to the character. It feels like the visual art equivalent of slut-shaming. Vampirella, of course, is classically depicted as all but nude, but here she has an outfit that barely appears to be a costume, so much as an attractive but sensible hipster outfit. Very modest. Everything Vampirella is not. Vampirella as a concept is about a hypersexualized vision of femininity. If you’re going to do something else with her, why bother? Just choose a new character. There have been attempts by publishers to put her in more… “work safe” outfits in the past. These are always short lived. Because the population of people who love the Vampirella comic book but just really wish that she wasn’t so sexual is… NOBODY. There is nobody else reading the book.
Lunsford’s Zatanna has even more of a hipster aesthetic. To be honest, I kind of like it. Frankly, she looks quite sharp. Fashionable and modest and reserved. But It’s not fantastic enough, and not sexual enough for what the character is at her essence. Zatanna, typically depicted as a hypersexualized magician’s assistant (despite her being the magician). It is inherently who she is. Like Vampirella, there have been attempts to redesign her in the past. And again, like Vampirella, they are short-lived. Hypersexualization is a part of Zatanna’s character. To appear as such she must be exaggerated beyond the incidental hypersexualization of the other female characters. Where others are wearing uniforms that look like underwear, Zatanna clearly IS just wearing her underwear! To be modest and sensible is to in effect be a different character. And that’s how this feels. Lunsford’s design looks like she is wearing her her father’s clothes. Not just because it is a coded male outfit, but because it drawn too large for her. She effectively appears to be in male drag. The effect is to render her not as female but more as androgynous. Yet, because of how the male gaze ACTUALLY works, I am as constantly aware that the sexuality of Zatanna and Vampirella is being specifically covered up and subverted as I am of how much it is being emphasized in their typical appearances.
This is particularly evident for me with Lunsford’s Wonder Woman, which I simply hate. Unlike Vampirella or Zatanna, I don’t feel as though Wonder Woman needs to be hypersexual. In fact, I quite enjoy the more recent variations that Gal Gadot wears in the movies and that appear in the DC Superhero Girls comics and cartoons (see Figure 8), the former being what appears to be a somewhat functional, though honestly still impractical, but visually feminine without being overly sexualized armor and the latter being a relatively traditional and yet modest spandex superhero suit.
However, Lunsford’s design seems so concerned with countering her traditional costume that it feels clunky and almost laughable. She doesn’t look strong, or at least not as strong as I think she is supposed to appear. Like Zatanna, Wonder Woman looks like she is hiding her femaleness, and in effect becoming ungendered — curious decision for a character specifically labeled with “Woman” in her moniker.. Also, I just don’t think it is very well done. It feels like it was cobbled together out of spare pieces of other outfits. But the defeminization was the main problem for me. Superheroines don’t necessarily have to hyperfeminine. Or they shouldn’t have to be. But, removing gendered characteristics is not the same as desexualizing them, and in effect does not combat the male gaze which remains in effect from her stance to her hair to even my brain’s subconscious attempts to reconcile her femaleness with the clear attempt to diminish it.
That is not to say that a superheroine must be hyperfeminine or even traditionally feminine at all. Nor is it to say that a superhero couldn’t be androgynous or non-binary. In fact, the relative lack of non-binary representation in mainstream comics (shy of Loki who is probably more correctly bi-gender or gender fluid rather than non-binary) is tragic and should be addressed. However, the conflation of the two issues risks the erasure of both. Rather than present an option to not be hyperfeminine, the effect is to present the notion that feminine is bad and that super-ness requires masculinity, or at least the severe downplaying of femininity.
Stevensons’s She-Ra design resists this. She has endeavored to and in my view succeeded in presenting a look that maintains feminine for young girls who may desire it while also denecessitating the requirement of being hypersexual in order to display that feminininty it. Nor does she default to being “manly” or genderless. She does not completely renounce the male gaze, as is evident from the windblown hair and skirt in the first place, however the design lends itself quite well a vision that young girls can find empowering as well as attractive. Beyond even a female gaze, it plays towards a specifically “girl gaze.”
At the same time, despite the complaints of the man-children, the design, I believe lends itself fairly well to adaptation across any line of sexualized or non-sexualized representation, as did the original outfit. After all, even original series creator, J. Michael Straczynski, notes that She-Ra was never rendered or written as hypersexual on the original cartoon, that memory is born of twenty years of reminiscing on pubescent fantasies conflated with later portrayals in fan art and spin-off comics that catered to the more sexualized desires of the growing audience. And a quick look at the fan art produced for the cartoon since Stevenson released these very few images a week ago shows that both are equally capable of being portrayed as completely innocent or nigh-pornographic.
And that versatility is a good thing.
But for now I’d like to turn things over to Katya who knows even more about fashion theory than I could ever dream.
From Katya: I’ll by-pass the comics review, which is much more in the wheelhouse of Mav and Wayne, and detour into some fashion info as the resident seamstress and lay-fashion historian. I agree with a lot of Mav’s points that attempts to make female characters less, well, gross for those of us not in the heteronormative man-child internet troll camp often end up erasing a character’s gender to suggest the femininity is only “super” if it’s sexy. As the Lady in the room who wants her mini-skirt and her ass-kicking boots too, I take umbrage at the trend. But here’s where I think the She-Ra redesign is interesting because to my eye it manages to make her less stereotypically girly without taking away her femininity.
The change in her silhouette does code more masculine, certainly, but look at pretty much every female Olympic gymnast in recent history and you’ll see a build very reminiscent of She-Ra’s new look: built shoulders, flatter bust and a narrower hip. She’s pretty realistically looks like a hyper-athletic young woman, not to mentioned shaped like many of the young girls that the show is aimed at who haven’t developed their curves yet.
The costume plays that up, the angled shoulders lengthen the line of the torso making the shoulders appear broader and shifting the visual weight upwards, not only toward her shoulders but also to her face in contrast to the earlier costume whose visual weight centers around the bust and torso. This also further de-emphasizes her hips. If you take the V-shaped line of He-Man’s torso and put it next to the new She-Ra the overall shape is pretty close, or at least much close to his than She-Ra 1.0.
So far I’ve made the case that the new She-Ra looks like a man, I get it, but hear me out. Maybe its the kick of her tunic and the flash of shorts like a Charleston dancer, or the lines of her costume detailing that reminds me of art deco but to me she looks like a modern fantasy super-flapper.
Flappers of the 1920s were famous for not following rules, particularly gender rules. They smoked, they wore “unladylike” amounts of makeup, and made novel choices about what to do with their lives like, radically, getting an education or a job instead of getting married and raising children ASAP.
They also looked more like boys than most previous eras of fashion. Though shape wear was still in vogue, gone were the corsets of old that would mold the body into an hourglass shape– like that of She-Ra 1.0. Instead, rectangular shapes were in– flatten the chest, de-emphasize the hips, etc. etc. Sound familiar? The boyish– and note “boyish” rather than masculine, recalling the androgyny of prepubescence itself– figure of the ’20s was part of the rebellion of flappers. Women were expected to look like Women so for those who didn’t want to follow the norms it seems obvious that they would choose something else.
I wanted to bring flappers into this conversation not only because of the aesthetic resonances with She-Ra and that the style is a similar response to hyper-femininity like the redesigns Mav mentioned. Flappers had what I would call a more truly androgynous style. It isn’t male drag or feminized versions of men’s clothing, like Zatanna’s redesign above for example (see Figure 7), flappers made their own genre with its own style and attitude rather than simply adapting masculine styles. Their look was both feminine and androgynous and– perhaps most relevant for this discussion– sexy.
Flappers may have been boyish but they were also often sex symbols because of their rebellious streak of which their fashion was just a part. Their androgyny doesn’t erase their sexual appeal, which both goes to Mav’s point that She-Ra 2.0 is still sexualized in some sense while complicating the idea that masculinization/androgyny is inherently asexual or unattractive. Sure, it maybe isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and definitely is seems not that of the internet troll man-children, but its an alternative kind of sexual appeal which is an intentional gender play– one that doesn’t erase femininity but I think paradoxically enhances it by the contrast.
I’m interested to hear the opinions of the others on this but I hesitate to call She-Ra 2.0 ‘sexy’ in the conventional sense of our period but she’s not devoid of sexualization either. Read as a badass flapper with a sword, she’s a kind of ‘sexy’ that centers freedom, empowerment, and experimentation with gender norms themselves. It’s the kind of “masculinization” of female characters I can get along with because to my eye it doesn’t erase her femininity but experiments with a different kind of female attractiveness that contemporary images of women don’t always represent. It’s also a version of attractiveness that plays up the character’s athleticism and therefore her power as a superhero while still getting all the girly enjoyment of long hair and twirly skirts (I heartily disagree with Mav, I am super in favor of the skirt-tunic situation here and would be grumpy if it were just shorts. I’m also pretty sure his nieces would have my back here.) It doesn’t make either exclusive of the other, instead it’s a style in which both co-exist without a lot of competition. In short, it’s a version of feminine attractiveness that centers what women like and what a many young girls would want to be: a badass that doesn’t have to pretend to be a boy so she can beat them up.
From Mav: Oh my nieces would back you up on the skirt over biker shorts! And I’m now totally on board too. Like I said, it wasn’t so much that she was wearing both, it’s that in the first image it was the creepy wind blow to her belt line in a way that totally called attention to her crotch and felt weird. It didn’t feel like an Olympic ice skater skirt flourish, it felt like a manga/anime magical girl upskirt shot. Which I’m actually ok with in certain contexts, but here it felt forced. Again, recalling the male gaze issue. There was a tension between where I felt like it was trying to resist the gaze and then totally going full-on fan service “Look kids, baby maker DOWN HERE!!!” But that was just that one image. Further images have made me feel better about it since it looks more natural.
Anyway, this gets even more complicated. Clearly Katya and I could go on all day, but that’s what the show is for. The idea of the male gaze (and female gaze and queer gaze and whatever other gazes) are all wrapped up in tons of issues of sexualization, normalization, socialization, infantilization, fetishization, patriarchy and hegemony. There’s even psychological arguments that could be made for importance of actually ALLOWING some level of sexualization in the developmental media for pre-pubescents, and arguments that not doing so is functionally impossible because no matter what you do to subvert sexualization, the pubescent mind will naturally fetishize whatever you give it. There’s soooo much we could get into… I mean, it’s a huge part of my dissertation… and I’ve talked to both Katya and Wayne enough to know that they each have tons of thoughts too. Comics and Sexuality and Gender and Fashion… I’m giddy with excitement over this episode.
But first, we want to know what you think. What are your thoughts on the She-Ra costume and how the male gaze works in general? How do you see the desexualization vs. defeminization issue? What should we go more into and what other things should explore. Let us know whatever you think is pertinent so that we can discuss it on the next episode.