Monthly Archives: February 2015

Heuristic: Evaluating Selene’s costume


Iconic language:

What is it made of?
Solid black leather and PVC

What do you see in the artifact?
The suit is tight and covers from toe to neck. The only skin exposed is on the hands and the face. The corset is used over the catsuit, and is laced with long black laces that are visible and reminiscent of bondage. The solid black and corset on the outside is reminiscent of the Goth and Punk scenes, where the kink boots also made their more public appearance outside of the BDSM community. The boots are tall and heeled, but not spiked. The buckles are again reminiscent of bondage and kink, but also of warrior boots or motorcycle/biker culture.

Cultural language

What is its context?
Her choice of clothing hearkens to other female action heroes that have come before her. She is in conversation with these expectations.  See Emma Peel from The Avengers. Catwoman. Trinity from the Matrix (trench coat).

Corsets have a recent history of being used on the exterior of clothing or visible rather than covered to demonstrate armor (video games, Amazon women, Wonder Woman, Xena) and to demonstrate ownership of one’s body and sexuality (Madonna, Beyonce) putting it and the female erogenous zones on display but in a performed role that is for gazing but not touching.

Who is its audience?
Female fantasy played out of bodily strength and subjectivity, embodying the hero. Male heterosexuals who enjoy watching female body perform and derive pleasure from the sexualization and domination fetish.

Theoretical language

What does it mean?
This character is believable in the power given to her as a Death Dealer. She displays sexual potency while being fully covered. She displays physical power – athletic, strong, flexible, agile, all of which are visible on skin-tight suit.

The character is female. The corset and catsuit emphasize female body curves and keep Selene and other female action heroes from becoming too masculinized. Should the character appear too masculinized, she is not only threatening (which is a turn-off) but it also upends the heterosexual normativity on display. Were she to present as androgynous or too masculine, then heterosexual men would have their heteronormative gaze threatened with potential homoeroticism or confused identification.

How do we interpret it?
Argument is that women can be accepted as powerful heroes IF they retain heterosexual allure — men still want to watch and sleep with them. Men “allow” the power in the bedroom — being dominated or overpowered sexually is a turn-on. And it represents a power they are willing to give since it is both temporary, pleasurable and offers them something to gain. The traditional power structure is retained and unthreatened. Giving power to the female in the catsuit doesn’t threaten their dominating power of the business suit. Men remain in a position of controlling the female body as their fantasy is played out on screen.

Annotated Bibliography #2

Fields, J. (1999). “Fighting the Corsetless Evil”: Shaping Corsets and Culture, 1900-1930. Journal of Social History, 33(2), 355–384.
Fields focuses on the rhetoric that the corset industry used to redefine corsets and position them as essential items for all American women to own at the beginning of the 20th century. She connects the corseted body to medical and scientific rhetoric, changing conceptions of female beauty, the rise of feminism, morality arguments stating the importance of containing female bodies and sexuality as necessary for social stability, and to capitalism and economic gain from the sale of corsets to women as they attempt to conform to these norms and negotiate these rhetorics.
Importantly, Fields notes that “the corset became the locus for a number of competing significations” (p. 356) as scholars such as Steele, Roberts, Kunzle, and Banner all demonstrate that the corset has long-lasting and iconic power as a conveyor of social meaning, but disagree about what that meaning is, even in the Victorian period. Arguably, the corset’s meaning has become even more contentious and varied in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Fields looks at the “altered shape” of the corsets as a parallel trajectory to women struggling to “alter the shape of femininity and gender relations” (p. 357). There is a discursive relationship between the way that corset manufacturers used rhetoric about female bodies and social norms and the way that “women viewed, imagined, and experienced their own bodies” (p. 357). In addition, the changes that women demanded regarding their social status and mobility affected the types of corsets made and the language used to describe them. This discourse shaped and reshaped gender structures and identities as it also demonstrated changing body shapes under various corsets or — gasp — without a corset at all. The latter was something that corset manufacturers were heavily invested in preventing.
Fields notes that fashion is a codified system of of constraints that both signifies and represents a set of regulatory practices. Fashion is something people work within and against to “fashion” identities in such categories as “gender, personality, sexual preference, class, social status” and one works to express one’s individuality within this set of constraints that determine these categories and what is considered acceptable within them.  She notes a significant change in the discourse about corsets due to industrialization: the arguments about moral turpitude and questionable respectability (which could be contained by a corseted body) were replaced by arguments about science and modernity. Uncorseted women went from being “loose” to being “imperfect, imperfect, unfashionable, and unscientific” as manufacturers preyed on fears of aging and connected the fears of unrestrained women to a fear of diminishing profits (p. 357). These discourses were bolstered by new science such as that of Havelock Ellis, which claimed that female humans required corseting because of evolutionary reasons that female bodies had more difficulty making the transition from horizontal to vertical. Corset manufacturers used such scientific studies to demonstrate both the safety and necessity of corseting.
Women had more access to sports and physical exercise in the 1920s and demanded less restrictive garments. This prompted manufacturers to develop and market “sports corsets made of lighter and more flexible materials” ( p. 358). Dancing, especially the tango, also affected corset use. As women began taking off stiff corsets at parties, manufacturers responded by making “dance corsets” (p. 359-360). This had the added bonus of requiring women to purchase not just one or two corsets, but many, for various occasions and needs. Fields notes that corsetlessness had been “long identified with radical feminist and utopian movements” and the idea that woman could decide to “support herself” by going without the support of a corset. Throwing aside the corset was seen by many as a sign of radicalism and manufacturers enlisted the help of scientific studies to demonstrate that corsetlessness was a threatening menace for such reasons as: “dissipation of muscular strength, injury to internal organs, corruption of standards of beauty, damage to moral fiber, contimination of race pride and purity, and destruction of American sovereignty” (p. 363). These themes emerged from discourse analysis of trade journal articles about corsets in US publications in the 1920s. She categorizes the tactics of corset panic articles as “denial, attack, and incorporation” and demonstrates that the proscriptive discourses were used to “infuse corset use with ideologies of domination” and “panic about losing control over their female market” being eased by reasserting control over the female body (p. 364). During this time between 1920 and 1950, corsets were renamed girdles, and the junior department was born to train up young women to wearing foundational garments despite their generally slim figures not needing them. One of the most insidious and ingenious discourses was the naturalization of the corset, making the corseted body more natural than an uncorseted one. Wearing a natural corset produced a natural female form; to be natural was to wear one of the new corsets that conformed the body to what was deemed natural by society.
Manufacturers also used racial rhetoric that appealed to fears of looking like a “squaw” or having a “wayback” ancestor that had passed on the “mattress-tied-in-the-middle’ proportions” (p. 366-367). They also attempted to show that uncorseted women would never marry well, since they would be perceived as too domineering  and of the “Amazon variation” (p. 367). Women who dared to go uncorseted would also then be subjugated by a new master: the exercise regimen necessary to maintain the female form once muscles began to inevitably sag. Thus to go corsetless was to be constrained by other norms, and to be seen as unfeminine  … “the woman with a tight-muscled tense abdominal wall, flat hips, mannish chest, is usually to be pitied … the number of biological mistakes among females are [sic] increasing” (Schoemaker, qtd. in Fields, p. 367).
This piece will be interesting to use as I look at the changing meaning of the corset, and how the corset is used as a way to enforce and control female bodies while at the same time women embrace and re-perform the corseted female body in subversive ways. It seems to me this dynamic is played out on the corseted female action hero’s body. She represents at once the dominant ideology of performed femininity, and a subversive ideology of female power. What is also interesting to me is that corseted female action heroes would fall into the category of women who do not “need” corsets because they are the smaller bodied, physically fit women who have the strength and agility to perform action-based scenes and acrobatics. Indeed I am wondering if the corset is used to promote and accentuate femininity so that they do not appear too “mannish.” I am also wondering if the constraint of the corset represents a dominant ideology continuing to control the female action hero. I’m considering comparing the corseted torso to a bullet-proof vest. Or Selene’s costume to Batman’s.

Integrating Visual Argumentation

Visual arguments are indeed arguments, but they don’t work in the same ways that verbal/textual arguments work (in fact, I would argue that not all verbal arguments work the same way, either). Arguments do put forth premises, and they do have a grammar of how they are constructed, with major, minor premises, a hierarchy of evidence and support, a misuse of these elements to create fallacies, etc. More than words, I think, visual arguments have the viscerality that Gibson discusses, the kind of gut reactions that are then justified with logic afterwards.

I looked at Laurie’s, Jenny’s, Dan Cox’s, Megan’s, and Chvonne’s arguments. Megan and Donovan commented on mine. While my intention in the argument I thought I was conveying in the composed photo was closer to what Megan wrote, Donovan’s interpretation is not incorrect. I would say that it is more like Megan’s is my major premise and Donovan’s is my minor premise. My argument was one of girl power, and also one of familial love. The princess tropes are more “typical” femininity, while my daughter and I are dressed as female superheroes and “mutants.” We stood together in solidarity, back to back, united, deliberately in the same pose as Elsa and Anna to create the juxtaposition. Of course we are “real” and they are cardboard cutouts, but we are also not fully ourselves as we are cosplaying Storm and Black Widow.

I believe visual argumentation exists, and that the logic of design and placement and argumentation can be decoded and conveyed. Just like with text, however, there will be some who don’t “get it” and there will always be the variance of reader response. That variance exists whether with words or images, as arguments are layered and nuanced and audience members are diverse. Just because an argument is decoded that the designer did not intend does not negate the concept of presenting an argument. But just as an author must consider all the meanings of a word or phrase, as well as of the sentence, paragraph, and the whole, a designer must consider all the meanings and implications of design choices. As Stuart Hall notes, there will always be difference in the encoding/decoding as a result of individual and ideological particularities as a result of lived experience.

Visual Argument

We composed this picture deliberately on Halloween 2014.


Rhetoric of Female Badassery — Annotated Bibliography #1

In this entry I evaluate three fairly short articles: one conference proceeding, one first-person ethnography, and one newspaper article.
Proctor, G. (2008). Structure, constraint and sexual provocation. In E. Rouse (Ed.), Extreme Fashion: Pushing the Boundaries of Design, Technology and Business: Conference Proceedings 2007 (pp. 70–84). Centre for Learning and Teaching in Art and Design (CLTAD).
Proctor traces the development of “foundation wear,” specifically corsets, as ways to remold the body to a preferred silhouette. She gives some historical background about the rise of corsetry as linked to the industrial revolution, moving from hand sewn items to the introduction of the Singer sewing machine and steam power allowing for mass production. Differentiation by the Symington’s corset company, the largest producer of corsets founded in 1830 and mass producing them beginning in 1880, allowed for women of every class to afford a corset. The company also marketed its corsets worldwide and acknowledges that the corset design was changed to conform to the culture’s ideals of beauty and the common physical size/shape of the native women (71). She also traces the “shifting errogenous zone and resulting silhouette” as one that morphed from ample stomachs to narrow waists, a focus on the breasts and the bottoms, calling for the development of bustles and other padding with horsehair and the “stays” of whalebone and then steel (73). She makes a quick reference to Elizabethan fetishization of the codpiece as a “sexual power source” and then discusses the concept of the “Phallic Woman,” or a woman sporting a fake phallus, which has Freudian and psychoanalytical theory implications. One interesting development she highlights is the “busk” or a “rigid strip of carved bone or ivory worn between the breasts” under the funnel-shaped bodice in the Elizabethan era, something she notes was “a useful place to carry a dagger” (p. 75). She discusses how the shape of the corset changed over time with the S-Bend corsets popular at the turn of the century with Gibson Girls and the tubular corset called “The Spat” that came to the knees and worked well with the “hobble skirt”; the combination of the two items several restricted a woman’s ability to walk naturally, only “tottering” with small steps (79).
Proctor reiterates Corsetiere Pearl’s three types of corset wearers as remaining relevant even to modern corset design as done by fashion designers Gaultier, LaCroix, Mugler for celebrities such as Posh Spice, Kylie Minogue, Lady GaGa, Beyonce and Madonna. These three types are: ‘corset nonconformists’ who want to change the shape of the body for an ‘aesthetic ideal’; second, ‘corset identificationists’ who associate corsets with femininity; third ‘corset masochists’ who find erotic discomfort in the tight lacing. Significantly, Proctor points out that there is not only pleasure in gazing upon a woman in a corset, but that the corset wearer derives pleasure in seeing herself transformed: “seduced by teh contouring potential of the corset” and obtaining “that immediate rush of pleasure at seeing their waists reduced, their breasts lifted and their hips emphasized, all without breaking a sweat on a treadmill” (p. 83). In this way, the corset is a kind of empowering shortcut to the pleasure of portraying an idealized form of the female body, of mastering the culturally normalized silhouette of the time using a piece of technology. It is a body enhancer or modification that is not permanent like surgery, but an available accoutrement that can be used by choice.
Chabon, M. (2008). Secret Skin. New Yorker, 84(4), 64.
 Chabon’s main premise is that the superhero costume, like the superhero him or her self, is fictitious. The costume is not like a fashion designer’s sketch, a prototype found in the comic book and awaiting being brought to life by the wearing, by the physical embodiment on an actual human form. Chabon believes that the costumes for superheroes are impossible and are a sign without a real world referent. They do not exist in reality and indeed cannot exist in reality; it is “a replica with no original, a model built on a scale of x: 1” (p. 4). He states that when a person attempts to create and embody a superhero costume, one is instead reminded of all the ways that one is not a superhero: the “superhero costume betrays its nonexistence” (p. 4).  This is because the superhero costume is not constructed of “fabric, foam rubber, or adamantium but of halftone dots, Pantone color values, inked containment lines and all the cartoonist’s sleight of hand” (p. 4). It is a drawing and to attempt to take it out of the context and into a new media, the realm of embodiment is  like “one of those deep-sea creatures which evolved to thrive in the crushing darkness of the seabed” and “when you haul them up to the dazzling surface they burst” (p. 4).
Edwards, D. (2012). Widow Weaves a Wicked Web: Profile Squeezing into a Tight Catsuit, Scarlett Johansson Joins the Superheroes in Avengers Assemble. The Mirror (London, England). Retrieved from
In this short newspaper article, the author interviews actor Scarlett Johansson, who plays the female superhero Natasha Romanoff, or Black Widow, in the Iron Man and Avengers movies. As is often the case with female action heroes (see Anne Hathaway or Michelle Pfieffer as Catwoman, Kate Beckinsale as Selene, etc.) the focus in the headline and as part of the interview is the skin-tight leather or PVC suit: how to fit into it, what it was like to wear it, or how good the actress looks in it. In this interview, Johansson makes some interesting observations about sex appeal and the embodiment of portraying a female action hero. She acknowledges that she did not want to part of being one of the “superheroine characters [who] are relying on their sexuality and being posy and sexy as opposed to being badass” (p. 5). She also states that when she met with Marvel, she understood the intention to be to “get away from that overly sexy superheroine thing” (p. 5). She also speaks about the physicality of the role, both in terms of its empowerment and its limitations: the physical part was “one of the most challenging things” and she discovered she needed “an ice pack too for all of [her] injuries” (p. 5) However after months training to get in shape both for the action nature of the role and “to ensure she could squeeze into her character’s trademark catsuit” Johansson admits that she discovered the fun and power of what she was capable of physically, something she had not known previously as she “wasn’t an athlete growing up” (p. 5). After fielding yet another question about her “striking good looks” and figure, Johansson dismisses it with “I think that’s just a by-product of being curvy. I never think about it, except when I get constant questions in interviews about sexuality. I really have nothing to say about any of that stuff because it’s so boring” (p. 5)
Yet, Black Widow’s superhero uniform is a skin-tight leather suit and high-heeled boots, one that demonstrates her curves and has ties to the fetish community. Although Johansson claims that her and Marvel’s intentions are not to portray the overly sexy superheroine, clearly the costume is designed to be sexy. So the idea of what is “overly sexy” or how the sexuality is used is called into question. Black Widow never exploits her sexuality as a superpower or a ploy, something that Charlie’s Angels or Foxy Brown did. It is also clear that the appeal of the actor in the catsuit is part of what markets the movie, but that is something that the actor herself finds tiresome.
I intend to bring in some of these mainstream media examples of fetishizing the female action hero costume in my analysis of the corset and catsuit as a commodity.