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Female Superheroes Under the Costume

By JohnRaptor
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If superheroes really existed, I don't think the female ones would look anything like they're usually depicted in comics. I mean we're talking about women who've dedicated their lives to violent conflict with extremely dangerous people (and aliens, and robots and monsters).

In discussions on this topic, one counter point that is often made is that female superheroes don't need big muscles because their strength is supernatural. That may be the case, but then why does Superman have big muscles?

The scars, of course, wouldn't be there if she had Superman-like invulnerability, but whenever Batman is seen with his shirt off in the comics, he's shown as being completely covered in scars, but I've never seen Catwoman (for example) depicted that way, even though she has a similar history of injuries.

Line art is ink. Color and text is digital (vector).

PS I'm happy to debate the issues raised by this piece, but childish name-calling will get you blocked.

PPS It's been pointed out that my "Chest like a stripper" vs. "Chest like an athlete" comments are a false dichotomy, i.e. some athletes have large breasts and some strippers have small breasts, as well as being disrespectful to strippers. If I were to redo it, I'd replace those comments with something like "Magical anti-gravity breasts" vs. "Breasts that obey the laws of physics."
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anonymous's avatar
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ThePsych0naut's avatar
ThePsych0nautProfessional Digital Artist
"I mean we're talking about women who've dedicated their lives to violent conflict with extremely dangerous people (and aliens, and robots and monsters)."
Many of whom can regenerate, such X-23 and She-Hulk, the latter of which, like The Hulk, can survive the vacuum of space. 

"
That may be the case, but then why does Superman have big muscles?"
While I appreciate the question, it's frustrating because, to me, it's basic evolutionary biology and gender psychology. If you really want an answer, it's two paragraphs long but worth it. Or don't. It's all the same to me.

Why the big muscles? Because male power fantasies and female power fantasies are not the same. Women, who read super hero comics, want to see a face that can launch a thousand ships, because, more with women than men, sexual power is power period. A man, no matter how handsome, will never convince women to build and launch a thousand ships to save him, because male beauty is fundamentally different, because male beauty is predicated classically on a man's ability to serve women and children. In general terms, men use power to get sex, women use sex to get power, just as men use love to get sex, and women use sex to get love. Men use knowledge to get money (i.e. resources); money is power; power attracts women, because power means security for a woman and, classically,, her offspring. Women use sex appeal to garner male attention, using K-selection to weed out the men who can't be both sexual and intimate as well as resourceful; men use intimacy to ensure a monogamous relationship and, thus, sex. That's what those two truisms I mentioned, generally speaking, mean.

What does this have to do with anything? Superman is emblematic of the classically ideal Western man: tall, square-jawed, powerfully built, 
gallant, courageous, disciplined, resourceful and responsible (arguably to a fault). Male beauty classically signifies a man's capacity to protect, provide and comfort a woman-- hence the muscularity and hair implying high levels of testosterone and experience, married with neotonous features, like big eyes which can emote better ---whereas female beauty more often signifies a woman's youth, fertility, and athleticism her good genes), which also results in a mixture of adult and neotonous features, such as bigger eyes, rounder faces, smaller chins, a significantly less pronounced brow, bigger lips (your lips shrink with age) coupled with long athletic legs, large breasts and baby-bearing hips. That naturally powerful image of femininity is why female superheroes tend to look athletic than bulky, that and it's actually much harder for women to build and define muscle because their bodies store fat more than men. We have higher testosterone, which burns fat and builds muscle. Our bones are also denser and our skeletons are broader, so we can stack muscle better; and, when you can develop muscle better, as a crime fighter, why wouldn't you? 

JohnRaptor's avatar
JohnRaptor General Artist

Much of what you're saying goes to traditional western beauty standards and gender roles, which is a big part of what I'm talking about. It certainly makes sense from a marketing standpoint for characters to conform to beauty standards and fulfill the fantasies of their presumed readership, but my point is that sometimes that doesn't make sense if you're going for a more realistic approach. Plus I have issues with traditional gender roles and beauty standards in general.


I'm not saying that female superheroes should have muscles just as big as their male counterparts. I know male and female bodies are different. My point is that male heroes tend to look like peak-performing male athletes and/or male body builders, but female heroes rarely look like peak-performing female athletes and/or female body builders.

ThePsych0naut's avatar
ThePsych0nautProfessional Digital Artist
" if you're going for a more realistic approach"
 I'm going to just say "super heroes", and leave it at that. 
"Plus I have issues with traditional gender roles and beauty standards in general."
I can't speak for what you like, but I know what I, and the vast majority of comic book readers like: we like our fantasies to be fantastical. Steve Rogers does drugs and becomes a greek statue; Peter Parker gets bit by a spider; they're different sizes and builds but they're both athletic: and we like them that way, so, are you trying to convince us we're wrong or just enunciating your personal tastes? 

"
but female heroes rarely look like peak-performing female athletes and/or female body builders."
I respectfully question your bonafides on what constitutes a female athlete or body builder's physique; while also pointing out that a body builder is just a model. Their muscles aren't for practical application, and many of them actually have to do things, like water fast before competition, to have that extreme level of definition: so nobody actually "looks" like that. It requires absurd measures to achieve that look, and only for the sake of occasional display 
www.youtube.com/watch?v=Es2Ro1…. Lastly, again, it depends on the heroine-- Shanna, Red Sonja, Wonder Woman, Big Burda, She-Hulk, and Red She-Hulk are all pretty jacked, they're just lean ---again, female physiques just don't look the same as male ones, we don't stack the same --- and it also depends on the person drawing them. Frank Cho, for instance, draws women quite athletically www.pinterest.com/pin/36218799…www.pinterest.com/pin/14932254…  www.pinterest.com/pin/42270511…, whereas Joe Campbell is more exaggerated www.pinterest.com/pin/38062460… I would say MOST artists are pretty good about making female heroes look athletic, they just tend to go the "fitness" model route, because it's a power fantasy: women want to look classically feminine while also being able to punch through a wall. 
JohnRaptor's avatar
JohnRaptor General Artist

Certainly there are differences between artists, and some draw female heroes more athletic than others. My piece is meant to address trends, not be a blanket statement about every single instance. (This piece is also 8 years old and may not reflect current trends, which were already shifting somewhat when it was drawn)


I’m aware that body builders aren’t well built for athletic performance, that they’re just for show. That’s the case for both genders, and yet male super heroes are often (though not always) drawn (and actors who play them trained to look) more like body builders than athletes, which is why I included that example.


Regarding super heroes and realism, just because one element of a story is fantastical, doesn’t mean realism has no place. There’s a place for all levels of realism and fantasy, as well as room for different kinds of fantasy, everything from The Dark Knight to Thor Ragnarok and beyond. I’m not saying every story needs to be realistic in this way, just pointing out that they can be, and hopefully sparking some thought as to why we tend to choose to eschew realism in this specific way.

ThePsych0naut's avatar
ThePsych0nautProfessional Digital Artist
Those are all fair points. But, again, it depends on the sport. A mixed martial artist is going to look like Ronda Rousey, if she's female, and I would say several heroines fit that body types, referencing She-Hulk, Red She-Hulk, Big Burda, Red Sonja, Shanna, Chun-Li, Cammy, etc. 
JohnRaptor's avatar
JohnRaptor General Artist

Chun-Li has always had legs that looked like they could kick you into next week, that's for sure!


I does depend a lot on the sport. Some years ago, there was a great photo set of female athletes from different sports lined up together. The diversity of body types was incredible. One of the other conversations sparked by this cartoon sparked an idea that I never followed up on, of a superhero team who's body types matched their powers, a super strong character built like a power lifter, a super agile character built like a gymnast, etc.

ThePsych0naut's avatar
ThePsych0nautProfessional Digital Artist
There's already a super team like, the X-men. Night crawler isn't build like Collosus because their skill set is different; X-23 is more acrobatic and fast than Logan, etc. 
JohnRaptor's avatar
JohnRaptor General Artist

Yeah, but there tends to be a lot more variety of body type among male heroes.

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az-amon-ra's avatar
Why would realism be a factor in an inherently unrealistic form of entertainment?  To me questioning this is no different to questioning the absurdity of a person flying.  
ralmcg's avatar
Personally I like the "Reality" woman better than "Fantasy" woman.  "Reality" woman isn't trying to be sexy but I do like her short hair and muscular build.
turtleluz's avatar
awesome concept and critique!  Bravo!
JohnRaptor's avatar
JohnRaptor General Artist
Thanks!
rubberi's avatar
I am preferring the right one.
If she would be my friend, I would recommend her to wear protective gear and steal-toed-shoes.
If she would be my wife, I think, I would be concerned a bit to see her in danger. But no matter if she is a cop or fighter pilot or chief blaster, most important is, she is happy with what she is doing.
Most people statistically dies at home. Housework is dangerous too. :)

JohnRaptor's avatar
JohnRaptor General Artist
"Get out there and fight some crime. It's too dangerous in here!"
goozulgah's avatar
THANK YOU!

I can't watch most superheroines because their depiction is unrealistic enough to shatter my sense of immersion, Supergirl being a prime example.
Hro-Talak2's avatar
Hro-Talak2Hobbyist Artist
Using a hair dryer and flesh-toned make-up can cover up the scars, while a pedicure would remove imperfections on her feet.
destroyerlove's avatar
Damn bitch totally on point.
Wasichuwitko's avatar
I've seen photos of woman athletes. Some do look quite feminine (as the culture defines it) while being obviously toned. It's too bad that some artists just don't have the time to properly work on panels because they're paid per page.
toxiczombiespy's avatar
May I ask why the thousand yard stare I get the bedroom eyes thing but why must she have the dead eyes
JohnRaptor's avatar
JohnRaptor General Artist
I figure superheroes see a lot of violence and some pretty horrific stuff in their line of work, so there's bound to be some psychological trauma.
grisador's avatar
To the point that the female hero looks more manly than most :D
Honey-Bunn-Boi's avatar
Honey-Bunn-BoiStudent Digital Artist
This makes a valid point xD
mechagrim's avatar
Interesting picture with valid points. But I've seen wave after wave of female super heroes with the muscles of the one on the right combined with the hair and breasts of the one on the left. Most of them I think. In fact, I'd deliberately give her muscles to add to sex appeal and then decide she was a super hero as an excuse to justify it. You're absolutely right about the battle scars though. The short hair, maybe if she's ex army. Aren't superheroes just self appointed thrill seekers rather than disciplined professionals. 1 in 10 female superheroes would have the short hair maybe.
Shane-Crown's avatar
Shane-CrownHobbyist Writer
Are we really arguing the realism of superheroes? I get the feminist aspect of making them less sexualized, but 1.) it's not one sided, male superheroes are models too, 2.) superheroes are super, they're supposed to be the next level, of course they look like gods! I dunno, it's just a little irritating when I argue for women's rights and see dumb stuff like this.
anonymous's avatar
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