ARTICLE / LONG READ
A costume is extremely important to a superhero character. By putting it on, they become someone else. Diana Prince puts on her tiara and becomes Wonder Woman. Clark Kent puts on his red cape and becomes Superman. Bruce Wayne puts on his mask and becomes Batman. Their costumes define them and their strengths. However, whilst men get costumes that show off their muscles – a bodily trait that reflects their life fighting crime - women get costumes that define their breasts, which do not enhance fighting at all.
Hollywood has a long history of giving the most empowered women the most impractical costumes imaginable for the sake of making them sexy. This is especially evident in the action-adventure genre where female heroines wear a corset and hot pants rather than more action-appropriate clothing. In a 2014 article for The Artifice, Sonia Charlotta Reini questions: “If we are all equal now, then why do we have to be near-naked or clad in a PVC catsuit in order to kick some ass?” In order to show more skin, Hollywood consequently disempowers otherwise well-rounded characters. Costumes for female action characters and superheroes are created with very little thought into how practical they are or the impact this will have on female viewers. In a society where feminism is becoming more prominent and equality is demanded, surely we should be moving on from using women as eye candy and begin focusing on their stories rather than how much of their skin we can see. This links to Laura Mulvey’s theory of the “male gaze”, in which she states that women “exist as the erotic basis for pleasure in looking at another person". This creates the idea the women are more of an object in film rather than characters with ideas, feelings and personalities.
LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER (Simon West 2001) features one of the most sexualised female action heroines of the 2000s. Lara (Angelina Jolie) wears tight-fitting hot pants and a figurehugging tank top, which are both completely inappropriate for her robot-destroying, badguy-fighting and justice-prevailing lifestyle. This seems to be the case for many action genre films that feature a female protagonist; they apparently need to be sexualised so that the film will attract a male audience. Psychology scholars Julie Prescott and Jan Bogg write in their 2013 book GENDER DIVIDE AND THE COMPUTER GAME INDUSTRY that “Lara is a strong character, however, the character is again hyper-sexualised due to her large breasts, tightfitting top and very short shorts”. The authors discuss how Lara Croft is so much more than her body and outfit; she is powerful, intelligent and a role model for girls to look up to and aspire to be.
HOLLYWOOD HAS A LONG HISTORY OF GIVING THE MOST EMPOWERED WOMEN THE MOST IMPRACTICAL COSTUMES.
Lara’s personality, skill and capability should be what is focused on in this movie yet the focus of many reviews of the film was on Jolie’s female form. In a 2001 review of the film for the Washington Post, critic Stephen Hunter mentions her breasts in only the second sentence: "LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER stars Angelina Jolie's lips and breasts and, in a much smaller role, the actual Angelina Jolie herself". Hunter goes on to describe Lara as “some marketing department's sharp take on how to bring the girls into vid culture (they can identify with Lara's brains) without alienating the boys (they can dream of Lara's boobs)” and spends a whole paragraph writing about her lips.
Prescott and Bogg go on to suggest that this sexualisation is not only harmful to a girl’s selfesteem but could also be the beginning of a "substantial potential and detrimental impact on woman". They go on to refer to a 2008 study conducted by Karen Dill, Brian Brown and Michael Collins that found “men exposed to gender stereotypical content of women were more tolerant of real-life instances of sexual harassment”. The constant perversion of the female body is desensitising young men to the point that they are beginning to see the objectification and violation of woman as acceptable. This needs to be rectified by Hollywood before it causes any more damage.
Another frequently sexualised female action character is Wonder Woman, whose costume (or lack of) is one that many will recognise from his or her childhood. Patty Jenkins, director of the recent revival of WONDER WOMAN (2017), has stated that she wanted to stay away from the comic book “male-created character” who is put into an outfit to “titillate readers”. However, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is still adorned with a highly impractical outfit for a superhero. The first appearance of Gadot as Wonder Woman and her new outfit was in BATMAN VS SUPERMAN (Zack Snyder 2016). However, according to a 2017 article in The Sun with the headline “Wonderbra Woman: New female big screen superhero Gal Gadot on why WONDER WOMAN fans need to get over here ‘small boobs’”, Gadot wanted her costume changed as she could not breathe due to it being too tight. A superhero costume is meant to protect the wearer from harm but how can a suit that covers less than half the body do that?
Meanwhile, her onscreen partners in BATMAN VS SUPERMAN and JUSTICE LEAGUE (Zack Snyder 2017) are fully clothed. It seems that Hollywood is more concerned with “turning combat into the ultimate fashion statement” to borrow from Variety critic Justin Chang, suggesting that rather than focusing on realistic costumes that protect the characters, filmmakers are more concerned about projecting the idea of fashion and style onto the protagonists.
THE CONSTANT PERVERSION OF THE FEMALE BODY IS DESENSITISING YOUNG MEN.
Unfortunately, costume is not the only way the female body is being sexualised in Hollywood film. The way in which the body is shot and framed is also key. In LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER one of the first scenes is of Lara in the shower after fighting a robot designed to try and kill her. Jolie’s naked body is shown twice on camera; once in silhouette as she showers and again as she walks away from the scene and drops her towel seductively “allowing the audience to voyeuristically gaze upon her naked torso” says Richard J Gray II in his essay “Vivacious Vixens and Scintillating Super Hotties: Deconstructing the Superheroine”. The way her body is focused on in such a sexual manner takes away from the power she has demonstrated in her first fight scene. Lara is portrayed to us as a strong protagonist who fights, does Parkour and expertly handles a gun in the first five minutes yet all of this is undermined as she becomes an object of the male gaze.
It seems that Hollywood cannot allow a woman to be powerful without being sexy. Reini argues that the action genre seems to believe that being a female and sexuality go “hand in hand”, suggesting that the “more erotic the woman looks, the more dangerous she can be”. However, is this changing? A lot has happened in the 16- year gap between LARA CROFT and WONDER WOMAN and perhaps the latter signals an end to the over-sexualisation of women in Hollywood. Whilst Wonder Woman’s costume is still sexualised, there is not a single shot of her body for the purpose of audience titillation in the film. Is this due to the fact that WONDER WOMAN was directed by a female director as opposed to LARA CROFT’s male director?
THE FEMALE BODY IS SEXUALISED BY HOLLYWOOD AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR A COMPLEX NARRATIVE.
Film and media scholar Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad suggests in an essay on “Women Filmmakers and Sociopolitical Critique” that male directors use the overtly sexualised image of women in film to “lure the predominantly young male audience to cinemas”. According to an article from the Hollywood Reporter, “women made up just 7 percent of all directors on the top 250 films” in 2016. With a rise in female directors, we could be seeing less objectification of women in film. The female body is sexualised by Hollywood as a substitute for a complex narrative and three dimensional characters, yet is this the beginning of the end for the sexual objectification of women?
Comparing how the female body is portrayed in LARA CROFT from 2001 with WONDER WOMAN in 2017, there is dramatic change that signifies that whilst women are still used for viewing pleasure more depth is being added to their character. In recent years the action genre has started to produce more empowered women who are less sexualised, such as Marvel’s AGENT CARTER (ABC 2015-2016), which focused on secret agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who is a strong woman without being turned into an object of sexual desire. This gives hope that what feminist film scholars Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog called the “prefabricated” image portrayal of women in their 1990 book FABRICATIONS: COSTUME AND THE FEMALE BODY, might finally come to an end.