Comics’ audiences are growing at an exponential rate, and with growth comes the need for change. The perceived audience for comic books has changed radically over the years, and for a long time (and frequently still today) men were assumed to make up so much of the audience that they were the main demographic being catered to. But it’s becoming more and more clear that women make up a huge potential audience for these same comics, and as a result, there’s more incentive for comics to start introducing some changes to make their worlds more hospitable for female viewers. This can only be a good thing. Superheroes have such a broad appeal and touch on so many genres and subjects that it’s a built in piece of their identity that there’s a superhero out there for everybody’s taste, if you just look hard enough. Emphasizing and improving that accessibility is both true to comics’ history and a necessary part of constantly moving forward. And sometimes, some of the things that need to be changed are superheroine costumes that were clearly made for the male gaze.
That said, if there’s one thing that costumes are meant to express, I believe it to be personality. More important than realism, more important than utility or practicality, expression of a character’s personality is what separates the good costumes from the great. Comic books are inherently a visual medium, and as many origins and introspective issues as writers can devote to a character, a well designed costume can tell you everything you need to know about how a character will act much faster. And as much as I feel there are many superheroine costumes that need some updates, I also feel like Power Girl’s classic costume, cleavage window and all, is a near perfect expression of who she is as a person.
So let’s take a look at what Power Girl’s costume can tell us about her personality, how surprisingly modern her costume can actually be, and what DC can do to make it work better.
She Can Wear What She Wants; Who Are You to Tell Her Otherwise?
Karen Starr, Power Girl, has always been portrayed as a powerful, confident woman. She has a famously voluptuous body, and she has the kind of personality that wouldn’t mind flaunting it. It’s not for attention’s sake, it’s not even for the sake of anyone looking at her; she dresses how she wants for herself, because it’s comfortable to her and she feels good wearing it.
Body shaming and decency policing can be a very real issue in our world. Just choosing a simple outfit can be a risk for judgment and unwanted attention for women, and it shouldn’t be that way. This issue is becoming more and more pertinent right now, due to the growing platforms of social interaction that give us all more methods of expressing ourselves, and opportunities for others to judge us. Women in public positions in particular are under great scrutiny, and that scrutiny is frequently unfair. Kim Kardashian, in a blog post regarding negative reactions to one of her racy pictures, wrote, “I don’t do drugs, I hardly drink, I’ve never committed a crime—and yet I’m a bad role model for being proud of my body? … I am empowered by my body. I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my skin. I am empowered by showing the world my flaws and not being afraid of what anyone is going to say about me. And I hope that through this platform I have been given, I can encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world.”
Given that this is a major issue facing women worldwide today, now would be an excellent time for DC to keep Power Girl’s costume, and really emphasize this interpretation. Power Girl has always had an air of feminism to her, and the current discussion of body autonomy when it comes to dress and presentation to the world is one that fits easily into her narrative. It doesn’t even have to be made into a big deal or a Very Special Issue, it can come across simply and succinctly as a part of her costume design and general personality. Because women should be allowed to dress however they want, be it prudish or flamboyant; fictional women should be no different.
She’s Bull Headed, And That’s Okay
Power Girl may be considered a Superman Family member, but she is no Boy or Girl Scout. While Superman is good natured, mild mannered, and perpetually a perfect role model, Power Girl is brash, bull headed, and direct, and this applies to how she presents her feminist leanings. While I definitely feel like certain superhero characters should behave in ways better than the average person, especially those headlining positive social trends, I feel it’s also necessary to have characters who behave less than perfectly or ideally. Wonder Woman is excellent as an aspirational figure for all, especially in the mild, kind, and understanding way she represents feminism in superheroes; Power Girl’s role as a feminist character who doesn’t always operate in the most tactful way is not only a great characterization, but I’d also argue a necessary one.
When women put themselves out on a platform, they are frequently considered representatives of feminism whether they’re presenting themselves that way or not, and as a result feminism is judged based on their good or bad behavior. This unfair level of expectation is yet another side effect of the politicization of a social movement that is supposed to merely be about treating everyone equally, and the solution to it is to accept the broad spectrum of human behavior, and recognize it as the vastly divergent personalities of individuals, rather than as a reason to judge the belief systems those individuals hold. Again, this applies to fictional characters. Power Girl is aggressive, sometimes needlessly so. This shouldn’t be portrayed as a flaw, as something she needs to fix, or as an indictment of feminism, it should merely be a personality trait.
Power Girl’s costume is also aggressive. It is inherently provocative, and I don’t exclusively mean that in a sensual fashion. It is a bold costume choice, and in many it provokes comment (whether judgmental or lecherous). It is the costume of a woman who believes she should be able to dress however she wants without commentary from others and chooses to dress in a way that many would (incorrectly) see as inviting said commentary. This is blunt and aggressive, and she is absolutely within her right to dress that way. In short, it’s perfect for her.
She’s Also Pretty Funny
This is particularly something that was pushed to the forefront of her personality during the Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Grey run, but Karen Starr is a snarky wiseass. This is a bit more than the occasional glib one liners a lot of serious characters tend to throw out; she had a sense of humor and she wasn’t afraid to use it. Look at her role within the Superman Family: there’s Superman himself, whose main attributes are the standard to which Superman Family characters are compared or contrasted. There’s not a huge reason to merely make a female Superman within this group, so Supergirl is female but also younger and more alien than Superman. Superboy is defined by his youth as well, but also is grumpy. And then there’s Power Girl. Continuity-wise, she’s pretty much older Supergirl, which alone would be a boring and lazy characterization, but you replace the standard professionalism and mild nature with snark and aggression and suddenly you’ve got a great addition to the family.
This goes hand in hand with her costume. It’s a little bit difficult to play a busty superheroine with a hole in her costume as super serious as, say, a tortured vigilante with a traumatized past, but the bottom line is that that’s really not a bad thing. Just as Power Girl’s personality distinguishes her from the rest of the characters within the Superman Family (and from many superheroes in general), her costume stands out in comparison to those of a lot of other superheroines, including those perceived as sexy or cheesecake-y. While there are many increasingly creative (or convoluted, however you want to see it) ways that artists have attempted to sexualize superheroine costumes, the inherent sexualization of Power Girl’s costume is simple and direct to the point of absurdity. It’s a hole in the costume where her cleavage is. There’s no other reason for it to be there (and DC would do well to stop insisting there was). And while I definitely feel like this is congruous with her personality, it also works on a metatextual level as a parody of many other sexualized costumes, just as a parody reclaimed by a female character who would proudly, confidently want to wear it.
Some “Do”s and “Don’t”s
Justifications for this sort of thing are pretty easy to come by if you really want to look for it, and that’s all well and good; but DC could definitely improve in the way they present this particular costume. They’ve had their ups and downs when it came to Power Girl and her costume, so here’s some suggestions on how to do a better, more consistent job with Power Girl.
Don’t make her less busty. Body diversity is something of a problem in superhero comics, especially with female characters. Power Girl represents one of a small handful of superheroines with consistently rendered unique body proportions, and even if those unique proportions have an origin in playing to the male gaze, it does represent a much needed variety and that should stay.
Do make her stand out. It’s frequently mentioned that her proportions are quite famous in universe, and that should come across in the way other female characters are drawn. If Power Girl is supposed to be famous for her bust size, it stands to reason that many other female characters would have more reasonable, common proportions.
Don’t make up terrible excuses. This has been a recurring point in this article, but I feel the need to really drive it home; Power Girl should be wearing this costume because she as a character feels like she would want to wear it. There isn’t some reason based on practicality or mythos for her to wear this, it should all come down to personality and self expression. Telling us she has a hole in her costume because she never came up with an emblem to call her own is not only insulting to the audience’s intelligence, but it also takes away part of her agency and confidence.
Do hire women to handle it. Amanda Conner not only designed the best current version of Power Girl’s costume, but her presence in the creative process actually made a costume that could be considered quite questionable seem more reasonable as part of this character. Beyond that, female artists have a knowledge of how the female body behaves and looks, and their input can change pure cheesecake into realistic yet still aesthetically pleasing illustrations.
Don’t just play to the male gaze. Female characters can act and move like real people while also being sexy, so they should be able to be illustrated in ways that express character and don’t constantly look like they’re posing.
Do keep some sex appeal. When audiences ask for female characters to not be objectified, they’re not asking to make them sexless beings; they’re asking for them to be treated like people in the same way that male characters are treated like people. People have variety, and some of those people may be prim and some of those people may be provocative. Many people can be both, depending on the situation. There’s room for the innocent Mary Marvels of the world to dress in non-sexualized outfits (she’s, like 14, you guys!) and there’s room for the cleavage baring Power Girls.
Don’t put her in the Superman emblem. Don’t do it with the regular Superman emblem, don’t do it with a P instead of an S, just... just don’t do it, okay?
Do update it when necessary. As much as I think the cleavage window itself works with Power Girl’s personality, that doesn’t mean I think the costume couldn’t be improved. The swimsuit cut worked when that was the go to design for superheroine costumes, but it might be time to give Power Girl pants. I also think her costume might work pretty well with bare arms, as that could be a design element to convey strength.
All in all, respect is the key to making this work. Power Girl can be more or less what she’s always been and dress like how she’s always dressed, and it will work if she’s treated with the respect we give Batman or Superman, and her core personality is made clear. Because Karen Starr is not just a great character, she’s the kind of character we need right now; a powerful, confident woman, who has agency over her own look, and asserts her dominance over, well, over a lot of things. Because she should be powerful; she is Power Girl.