Damn it, comic books and the surrounding fan community, we can be so much better than this! This is a picture of Emma Frost, lover and confidant of Scott Summers/Cyclops, and a powerful, telepathic member of the X-Men. She has always been portrayed as a sexpot, a very attractive woman unafraid of showing off her very attractive physique. This has worked as an excuse to a point, but the above picture goes way, way past it.
I've written about female comic book characters twice before. In the first piece, I called out a fan made pin-up of Wonder Woman in a bikini for being exploitative and out of character. In the second, I defended Power Girl's "boob window" as a statement of her character's femininity. In both pieces, I made the case that yes, there is a place for sexuality, and the flaunting of that sexuality, in comics, just as there is a place for that in real life. There are women (and men) in this world who love to show off their bodies and do so on a daily basis, and there is no reason to think that those people cannot exist in the comic book world. However, while there is room for sexy sexiness in comic book costuming, it’s important to keep it in character. A gritty, street-wise heroine jumping from rooftop to rooftop in stiletto heels is just ridiculous, and no amount of apologetics can explain that choice away.
The “keep it in character” argument can be taken advantage of, as it is in the above picture. Emma Frost has always been one to flaunt what she’s got, in every iteration of her costume. And her power set, mainly telepathy, doesn’t always lend itself to an extremely active fighting style, so her costume is usually one that prioritizes aesthetics over physicality. (Her secondary mutation, an organic diamond body, does allow her to kick very physical ass, but she usually only utilizes that when the proverbial spit has hit the fan, her stilettos have most likely been broken or destroyed, and she’s had it just about up to here with whoever’s causing her troubles. I’d argue her costume makes little difference at that point.) But there’s a difference between a character “prioritizing aesthetics over physicality” and an artist taking advantage of that character trait to draw a powerful woman as an object.
Look again at the above picture. I’m not talking about the corset or the leggings. If I were to get upset about every woman in nerd culture with a corset and/or leggings, my head would explode. I’m talking about that skimpy little number front and center. Emma Frost, a woman with a mind so powerful she once extracted schizophrenia itself from the mind of the most powerful superhero on Marvel’s Earth, apparently thinks she can influence you more with her vagina than she can with her international-threat-level brain, or so this artist would have you believe. To be fair, this is a costume that has been a standard for Emma Frost since her inception, but it’s never been a thong, and even most thongs I’ve seen cover more than this one. She is one crossed-and-uncrossed leg away from showing the world her outer labia. A strong wind or even her ascension of a staircase would show us more of the White Queen than I think she would ever intend.
Emma Frost is the White Queen, the first female leader of the Hellfire Club, a secret mutant cabal with immense influence and control over global happenings (think Beyoncé in the Illuminati). She has since left that group and joined up with the X-Men to further the mutant cause, and provide emotional support to Scott Summers. She bows to no one. She doesn’t think everyone is beneath her; she knows it. She’s extremely mindful of fashion and her appearance, and strives to dress controversially. And yes, she loves to push boundaries and buttons, and shows off her body. She firmly lays the blame for anyone’s discomfort with her appearance on the viewer’s own social stigmas about sex.
Comic book artists don’t need excuses to dress women provocatively, and are even discouraged from putting them in more sensible clothing. Last year’s fan uproar over Wonder Woman putting pants on after 70 years showed us that the community has as much growing to do as the publishers, and the re-imagined Starfire in the New 52 continuity reboot proved that some creators will take any excuse to sex a character up (“I’m an alien and don’t understand humans’ prudish attitude towards sexuality, therefore here are my breasts. I am a Strong Female Character.”).
Emma Frost’s character has become one that has every ready excuse to be exploited, but then again, it seems that many female characters have some excuse to dress sexually and have it be your fault:
Wonder Woman: I come from a matriarchal society without men. To us, this costume isn’t sexy, it’s practical. Your discomfort is the product of your society’s sexual stigmas.
Starfire: I’m an alien. On my home world, sex isn’t so controversial. Your discomfort is the product of your society’s sexual stigmas.
Power Girl: This isn’t a boob window, this is a testament to the power of my femininity. What I intend to be a statement of power, you take as an exploitative show. It’s probably a product of your society’s sexual stigmas.
Emma Frost: My body is my own and I’ll display it however I damn want to, darling. Your discomfort is either a product of your society’s sexual stigmas, or a psychic suggestion I’ve telepathically planted in your head to distract you and weaken your resolve. Now put that lampshade on your head and stand on the table.
In and of themselves, all these excuses are good and fine reasons for a woman to claim ownership of her sexuality and flaunt it or cover it as she sees fit. But when taken together, they seem a bit forced, especially when you consider that every one of those characters was created by men and has been written almost exclusively by men ever since. A woman telling you that your discomfort with her appearance is your own problem is empowering. A man telling you that your discomfort with a fictional woman he has made to dress a certain way is your own problem is the opposite, even more so when it happens again and again and again.
There is room for sexuality in comics. There is room for women to show off their bodies with their costumes and use the male gaze to their advantage, if they choose to do so. This justification is hard to achieve, however, when men are the majority of the people both creating and doing the justifying. It’s eerily self-serving.