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.

6 Responses to Heuristic: Evaluating Selene’s costume

  1. I like the heuristic you’ve set up, and I agree with your ultimate conclusion that the costume fits into the traditional, unfortunate power structure that is patriarchy. My only question/suggestion involves your setup of the cultural language with the question of “Who is its audience?” The Underworld films have reached a relatively wide audience, so (cis and trans) lesbians, women who identify as queer, etc. likely saw and enjoyed the imagery, although patriarchy doesn’t necessarily come into the equation with their gaze. At the same time, I’ve no doubt that the people behind making the films were appealing to the (straight, cis) male gaze. Perhaps specifying the question to address the intended audience would benefit this heuristic. Another interesting take on the heuristic would be to look at the unintentional audience, similar to bell hooks’ oppositional gaze.

  2. I think you made a really great argument. At first glance, you see that her skin is fully covered, which is a step up from the trope of scantily clad heroine. It’s interesting that her hypersexual image is in the small details such as the corset or bondage-esque gear.

    I also agree with Donovan that expanding on the audience would benefit this analysis. Perhaps having her skin fully covered is an attempt to be inclusive to a female audience.

  3. I really enjoyed your inclusion of Trinity from the Matrix in your heuristic. Applying your analysis to her is really striking with compared with the only other female member of the original rebel crew.


    She has that androgynous look to her and wields very little of the power Trinity does. She isn’t framed as a sex object or dominatrix type, but as a non-entity. Almost like not presenting as sexual and powerful makes you less visually valuable in superhero land. Hmm…

  4. I find this to be a very fascinating object of study. I’m wondering if you have done any research to see when the shift from corsets as interior to corsets as exterior began to occur and what subculture(s) that shift first began happening. I’m curious about your analysis of the high-neck of the bodysuit. Many times corsets are used to accentuate cleavage, but I think that you are very right to say that the suit emphasizes her physique. Obviously, her suit has to be functional, and a lot of exposed skin is not necessarily helpful. Do you think that the high neckline is meant to convey other messages to the audience?

  5. I agree with many of your conclusions — Clover’s ‘Final Girl’ (as it did before) immediately came to mind for me to position most of how Selene is treated within the films, too.

    However, I also agree with Donovan’s comments. While much can be made of the subjectivity created through the male gaze, there is often a normalizing of heteronormativity within the analysis done with it. Which is not to write you are doing that here, of course, merely that, like Donovan, I would like to echo the importance of not leaning too much on the labels of men or women and raise, as I’m sure you will in your work, the possibility of scopophilia from non-heteronormative gazes. Looking at the reception of the Underworld movies among queer audiences could be a rich vein, for example, tracking not only the male gaze, but the lesbian gaze on how Selene is “seen” and received by audiences.

  6. Excellent heuristic to get you on your way with your OOS. It definitely seems to focus on the object of study from a feminist perspective. Nice!

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