Genre Fiction and Costume Design: The Sexualization of Women in SciFi

Amber Atalaya Evans Pinel

          I recently saw a documentary titled Miss Representation. The purpose of this documentary was to give viewers a reality check on the representation of women in media, and what it’s doing to our society. Media plays a huge role in how our society views women, including how women view themselves. In most genres, there is extremely low representation of women as main characters in films, TV shows, etc. This is one of the reasons I love science fiction and fantasy as genres. Modern genre fiction TV shows and movies are getting better at balancing the female/male ratio in main and supporting characters. But after watching Miss Representation, I started to realize the ratio of characters wasn’t the only thing I should be concerned about in my media. In nearly every piece of media we encounter women who are sexualized, and the costumes for characters in science fiction and fantasy are not exempt from this trend. 

Interestingly enough, the sexualization of women in media is so common that I often overlook it, especially in my favorite TV shows and movies. I have always been a fan of Xena: Warrior Princess. However, I think it’s pretty obvious (most of) her costumes are meant to portray her in a rather sexualized manner. If her armor was any kind of realistic, she would not have that much skin showing; it’s simply impractical, and rather dangerous. I suppose the only argument for the costume is that Xena is such an unbeatable warrior, it doesn’t matter how much skin is open for attack. But I somehow doubt that’s the reasoning behind the costume designer and director’s choice for a skimpy leather skirt and large metal breastplate.

I nearly always get excited about a movie or TV show with a female lead—Underworld and Catwoman, to name a couple of my childhood favorites. But it wasn’t until I started taking a theater costume design class and looking more closely at my favorite media that I realized the huge flaw in nearly all of my favorite female main-characters. Almost every one of them is not only conventionally beautiful, but the costumes are designed to show their bodies off. As Miss Representation put it, a lot of “tough” female leads are simply fighting Barbie dolls. Halle Berry in Catwoman is  unfortunately a perfect example of this. 

From a costume design standpoint, every aspect of this costume is meant to draw the eye to key places. The front accentuates Halle’s torso, including her breasts and stomach, and the back purposefully draws attention to the muscles in the shoulders, back, and the curve of the buttocks. Is this ripped leather thing with all its bells and whistles any kind of advantage in a fight? Of course not. Unless she’s trying to seduce her victims (which, arguably, she does do several times in the course of the movie) the outfit only leaves her more vulnerable. I’d believe a spandex onesie over this contraption—I can’t even imagine how she moves her legs in those tight leather pants.

I think it’s obvious that genre fiction is not exempt from the same traps most of the media is. But it’s also worth mentioning that in a lot of science fiction television shows, it appears that sex appeal is not one of  the goals of female characters. Warehouse 13’s Myka Bering is played by the beautiful actress Joanne Kelly. However, I can’t remember a single moment in the show where she was put into a costume that was overly revealing. That’s also applicable to Kara Thrace in Battlestar Galactica (2003 reboot) and Samantha Carter in Stargate SG1. Granted, Battlestar Galactica and Stargate SG1 are military science fiction shows. However, Aeryn Sun in Farscape is of a military background and her costumes often (but not always) show off Claudia Black’s body.

It’s easy to overlook these costume choices in favor of appreciation for the strong character inside them. But what genre fiction is seriously lacking is representation for women who don’t look like Halle Berry or Claudia Black. Males who are not conventionally (or Hollywood) attractive still get to play the heroes in many movies and TV shows. It’s quite a bit rarer to see a woman with an average body type play a hero. More often female heroes are thin and sexualized on top of their abilities as a heroic character.

As a consumer of genre fiction I’d like to see more strong female characters in believable costumes. I’m tired of the “fighting Barbie dolls,” I want a hero who looks and dresses like an average person of their age and profession.

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