Female superheroes don’t need to be sexualised

Female superheroes no longer have to strip off to show us what they've got up their sleeve, says Sarah Doran

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If you’re familiar with the Marvel comic book universe you’ll know the Scarlet Witch barely wears a stitch when going about her superhero business, but the Chaos Magic wielding mutant is ditching her red leotard as Elizabeth Olsen brings her to the big screen.

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In an interview recorded for The Graham Norton Show, Olsen reveals that there was never a question of her donning any variation of the character’s original attire (drawn by Jack Kirby and modified by many comic book artists throughout the years) for Joss Whedon’s Age of Ultron.

“The first time I met Joss he led with that” she says. “He said, ‘Look at the comics and you will never look like that.’ That felt great as I would never want to wear a leotard, headband and cape. Not even in my own private life!”

Olsen’s experience is an indication of the shift in attitudes toward female superheroes in general. While many women would feel perfectly comfortable – even empowered – wearing Scarlet Witch’s original costume, others (like Olsen) would, quite understandably, rather show a little less skin.

The sexualisation of female superheroes still causes quite the hullabaloo among aficionados and outsiders alike. Just this week Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner found themselves in hot water for referring to Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow as a “slut” and a “whore” during an interview.

And it was the fans, those who hold the comic book characters dear to their hearts, who revolted at their casual derogatory sexualisation of the kick ass female Avenger, prompting the pair to apologise for their comments. Black Widow may sometimes opt to use her feminine allure as a weapon, but that doesn’t give the boys licence to undermine their on-screen teammate by suggesting that she ‘got around’.

However, the push for empowerment hasn’t begun with Whedon, Olsen and Johannson. For example, back in 2013 Ms Marvel was re-imagined as a young Muslim woman from New Jersey, while more recently Peter Parker’s doomed love interest Gwen Stacey came back to life as the web slinging Spider-Gwen.

And in a display of girl superpower, they both joined Princess Leia’s first comic book offering on the Top Ten lists of bestselling comic books and graphic novels in March.

Is it any wonder then that DC Comics has joined forces with Warner Brothers and Mattel (the home of Barbie) to introduce a brand new brood of young female superheroines, the DC Super Hero Girls? They’ll start life as action figures for 6- to 12-year-old girls and stand a fairly decent chance of getting their own TV series.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against a bit of superhero spandex – as I say, for some it’s rather empowering – but if there’s one thing this week’s study in Scarlet has shown us it’s that female superheroes don’t need to strip to show off their superpowers.

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