The Over-Sexualised Costume Designs of Action Heroines

Action Heroines

There is a certain stigma associated with action-oriented female characters and their often over-sexualised sense of style. What many may argue is simply a cheap ploy to further draw in a larger range of the heterosexual male audience, the almost mandatory role of a Hot Babe Who Kicks Ass and her revealing attire in an action/adventure film is not only representative of the film’s take on powerful women, but perhaps also of a more concerning matter; the level of comfort our society feels towards these particular types of women. If we are all equal now, then why do we have to be near-naked or clad in a PVC catsuit in order to kick some ass?

In past decades, action heroines have generally been limited to love interests/side-kicks/Succubus-types who solely exist on par with the action hero. Women had never truly been a powerful force in the male-dominated genre, with the few exceptions most notably including Sigourney Weaver in the Alien series and Linda Hamilton in the first two Terminator films.

However, as the early 2000s brought on the dawn of video game adaptations, with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and Resident Evil (2002), the film industry had apparently become more comfortable with allowing the ladies to take the lead, especially seeing as these films proved to be quite lucrative. The only problem was, and still is, the question as to whether or not these films would have been as successful had they not displayed Angelina Jolie and Milla Jovovich making the most of their physical assets in short-shorts and tight tops. The same can be said of pretty much any female comic-book character who has been brought to life on the big screen, whether she is a heroine or a villain. Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic Catwoman-suit in Batman Returns (1992) is perhaps the most dramatic example of lecherous costume design since Jane Fonda donned her futuristic gear in cult classic Barbarella (1968). That is, until Halle Berry’s Catwoman (2004). Although Catwoman as a character is undoubtedly meant to portray a sexual nature, the level of recognition her inordinately salacious ensembles have garnered over the decades suggests that unless the action-girl is dressed like a dominatrix, people simply will not care to remember her.


Though this type of over-sexualisation is generally shrugged off as a harmless method of playing into the macho-male fantasy of a two-in-one (getting to watch an intense action sequence whilst ogling a hot girl in tight clothes), it further begs the question as to whether or not these films would be considered as entertaining by the masses if the hot girl was not dressed to impress. An initial response may be “Of course, but it’s just a little more fun when they look hot”, but if that is genuinely the case, then why have we hardly seen any women who are not sexualised?

This lacklustre variety may suggest a possibly overly dramatic argument that our society in general (not just the men) may not be entirely comfortable with watching a female character in action who is not in a ridiculous get-up. The sexy clothes are part of what make up the fantasy surrounding this type of character, creating an almost unreal portrayal of the female gender. Why can we not have a real-looking, real clothes-wearing woman of action? Is the thought of her so unbelievable or unappealing?

In terms of the action genre, what the film industry still seems to believe is that physical representations of female power and sexuality go hand-in-hand, implying that the more erotic the woman looks, the more dangerous she can be (usually to a man, whether he is on the good side or the bad side). This leads back to the dominatrix sense of style, evoking a completely outdated mindset that advocates the everyday woman as unable to reach the same level of capability as the man because she does not utilise her ultimate superpower; her sexuality.

Of course, there are a few noteworthy exceptions to the misguided stereotype. It appears that action/adventure/sci-fi films such as Alien (1979) and The Terminator (1984) that are meant to be taken somewhat seriously often take their leading ladies seriously as well. In recent years, films such as Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Vol 2 (2004) and The Hunger Games series have featured an array of female characters who are dressed to kill, not dressed to excite. It seems that Hollywood is generally on the right track.

Kill Bill

Yet, why is it that some action films fall prey to the obligatory “sexy scene”? Even when the action-girl is, for instance, an international spy in relatively un-sexy clothing throughout most of the film, filmmakers feel the need to throw in a scene in which she is dressed like a stripper, prostitute, or just simply in her underwear, seemingly to remind audiences that her sexuality is present (think Jolie in Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), or even Weaver in Alien. Was that necessary?). Even worse, it appears that at times entire films are created around this “sexy scene”, Sucker Punch (2011) being the most recent example of a gratuitous display of over-sexualisation. If we literally stop seeing women dressed up as sexual playthings whilst they fight for their cause, then maybe society will stop thinking of them as such and take us more seriously.

Perhaps then we may come to the conclusion that Hollywood has much to learn. In an era where the comic-book adaptation form of action films is more popular than ever before, may we request that the female characters’ ass-kicking costumes are given the same consideration as the male’s? Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man… Audiences are given a complete run-through of every aspect of their bulletproof/aerodynamic/computer-powered suits, whilst the women simply appear in their cleavage-baring, figure-hugging outfits, and we are supposed to accept that there is a logical reasoning behind it. Fingers crossed for Wonder Woman.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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English & Film graduate. Passions include: writing, horror films, and writing about horror films. Feminism tends to creep up quite often as well.
Edited by Jordan.

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  1. I’m curious, what would a superhero costume that actually objectifies men for female readers look like?

    • There’s a great trend going on called the Hawkeye Initiative. It has a few examples. They’re pretty fun.

    • Sonia Charlotta Reini

      The thing is, men are much less likely to be objectified in films than women are. In terms of superhero films, the only example I can think of is Thor, with his mandatory topless scenes. Even outside the realms of superhero films, men are often only objectified by lack of clothing (which is the same with women). My point is that, especially in these types of films, women are hyper-sexualised through their costumes, for no good reason, and men are not.

      • I’m not sure this is true. Women are obviously objectified, but I think men are just as much. The too-tight shirts, the spandex for any comic heroes, and the number of men who go shirtless for at least part of the film is ridiculous. Men are often hypersexualized by costuming. I just don’t think we talk about it as much, partly because the action genre is meant to appeal to young men as a target audience, so they don’t think about it or care in the same way young women tend to.

        • Sonia Charlotta Reini

          I don’t know if men are actually objectified just as much. Women wear too-tight shirts for no apparent reason in almost every single film (not just these types), whereas when men wear the spandex-suits, it is for a reason, a reason which is explained to the audience. Women aren’t given that treatment. But I do agree that men going shirtless is getting ridiculous, but again, they’re objectified by lack of clothing, not the clothing that is put on them.

  2. Diana Chin

    Great article! My sentiments exactly regarding the costumes.

  3. Kim Larson

    Everything about heroes/superheroes is ridiculous fantasy. Yes, they aim at a young male target audience, who want to be superpowered men with laser beam eyes and chiseled muscles who sleep with Q-cup women with impossibly thin waists. That’s male fantasy; for girls it’s “Teen Paranormal Romance” or whatever Barnes and Noble labels the Twilight ripoffs.

    • Dannies

      I enjoy reading Comic Books and they need not have an iota of “teen paranormal romance” in them. A great story, good art and awesome fights are good enough for me.

  4. I think the most interesting point in this article is your mentioning Sucker Punch. Though I still haven’t fully wrapped my head around it as a film, I have come to the understanding that the sexualization of those characters were meant to show that women can come in to their femininity while still being strong emotionally and physically. It was, I believe, ultimately not too clear in the message, but that’s supposedly what it meant.

    As for the entire message of your article, I think it’s a debate that’s been going on too long.

    Women should have the right to wear what they want, but I agree, this trend that these “strong” women have to wear sexy clothes or have sexy scenes just to get a male viewership.

    Forget male viewership! The world is half women! Make sure that you’re making strong, interesting characters and you don’t have to care about who you’re drawing in. Just look at Miyazaki films.

    But I won’t rant any longer. I agree with the points you raised.

  5. Sherry Ramsey

    I remain firmly of the mind that criticizing heroes for catering to 13 year old boys is like watching Blue’s Clues and decrying the lack of a really good mystery. Same goes for video games, comics and the like- by the time you’re noticing how awkward and silly it is, it means you’ve outgrown it. Revel in this knowledge.

    • Comic geek here. I understand where you’re going with this, but more and more I get myself also thinking: they don’t want a young 12 year old audience, they want to insist on the same kids that used to read those comics back then and now are 40 something. The problem is nerd-rage, and the fact that nerds of all ages are the ones who spend the most on this sort of thing (nerd-rager has his own money, little kids need their parents’, and parents don’t waste tons in comics because of variant covers…). Sadly, most of the nerd community, be it towards comics or games or whatever, are a real pain in the ass, they are self-entitled lawyers, technicians, administrators, they act like know-it-all and have this weird (unhealthy even?) tendency to not accept anything that’s out of “classic form”. Have you read The New 52? No, it’s not good, but it’s not damn awful, it’s actually AS GOOD as the older comics, and those weren’t that good, but that was enough for the ragers to almost set cars on fire… Ahhhh fuck it I say, bring it on, it’s all about fun and entertainment, I mean: a dude dressed like a fucking Bat fight thugs? That’s the most stupid idea ever!!! If one’s not out to dismiss all the ridiculousness and simply have some honest fun-time, then you should go read something serious, like quantic physics, otherwise, don’t piss, one shouldn’t take them serious, it’s weird taking it serious…

  6. Valeri Joy

    I don’t mind that women in these games/movies are sexualized; what I mind is that it’s simply not practical. Women are beautiful, and that’s not something to be ashamed of so we shouldn’t hide their boobs or butts. If you think about it, male characters are never fat and ugly either as they are often muscular to an unobtainable extent–they’re just not wearing armor that covers only their nipples. It is extremely frustrating to see sexuality take the focus away from the female’s ability to kick ass. That’s what I love about Kill Bill or the Hunger Games films–their costumes are sexy and powerful. There’s nothing wrong with a little sex appeal as long as it isn’t the only appeal of the character. Think of Poison Ivy–she is one of the sexiest characters ever written and often is drawn in extremely revealing clothing. She’s still my favorite villain because she is a serious threat to Batman and her sexuality only enhances her ability to fight.

    • HunterWolfe

      I agree, Val. A little bit of “sexy” in costumes only celebrates the male and female form – it’s just unfortunate that women often get objectified. In the recent reboot of “Tomb Raider,” the short shorts were replaced with attire that is much more practical in Lara’s situation. She still kicks ass. It’s evident that times are beginning to change in all mediums.

    • It’s a very fine line to walk. I happen to agree with you, Val.

  7. The easy solution to this is to start dressing male heroes by the same standard we do female.

  8. I understand and agree with the point argued in this article and that women are objectified via ensemble in films, but if making a difference is the general goal there will need to be changes various factors. Some examples of promoting change would be concerned with the females who portray these sexualized roles. They have the power to say no to roles, or to suggest some changes in attempts to moralize the demoralized costumes (although, yes, they are getting paid and probably do not care about a role they play as long as they are successful–perhaps this is all that matters to them). Another factor for change would concern changing the views of how men perceive women in power; eliminating the dominatrix-perception-complex will be a good first step to view women as non-objectified, non-sexualized beings.

    Although I do agree with the fact that women in those costumes are more fun to watch, it can be overdone. Over-sexualized costumes can be ridiculous even to the male viewer.

    All-in-all,changes are needed in order for women to be viewed without a sexualized lens. They can be strong, intelligent protagonists without looking scantily-clad and naked all of the time.

  9. Stormy Skies

    This has so much to do with the ideology that women and their identities are created by the gaze of the audience.

  10. I love this analysis! I couldn’t help but think of the documentary “Miss Representation” the entire time, because there’s a great scene where media critic Jennifer Pozner* talks about this type of character, calling the character the “female f***-toy,” which really resonated with me.

    *I believe it was Pozner; I may be wrong.

  11. Felipe Pena

    Wasnt one of Hercules old costumes a pair of shorts and a harness across his bare upper body? Just kidding, great article.

  12. I whole hearted agree with this engaging article. There’s a myth in Hollywood that female lead movies don’t sell, which could explain the simple minded logic of making the female lead sexy. It’s no excuse at all for underdeveloped female characters. Thankfully, films like Pacific Rim buck this dark trend. maybe with the success of the Hunger Games films it will allow for more diverse roles for women.

  13. I think that the problem is not really Hollywood, but rather the way women are objectified overall. Hollywood caters to the masses, and the masses like scantily clad women, unfortunately. Although I agree with your assessment that this is something that goes on in big Hollywood films, if you look at the comics they’re based on (specifically the comic-book movies, that is) you’ll see that women are often ridiculously unclothed in the paper-and-ink version of the same tales.

  14. I completely agree with the pointlessness of the costumes, I think you’re right in saying that the female characters costumes have no functionality other than to show off their bodies. It is true that in cat woman (2004) the characters costume was much alike that of a dominatrix and she was in a way made to be more of an object rather than a human being. It is extremely ironic how sexualised she was when the films plot was about fighting an evil corporation that was creating beauty products intended to make less attractive women more appealing to men, the film was awful!

    I think this article relates closely to Laura Mulvey’s Male Gaze theory, The idea that all audiences are intended to be male. The theory states that men feel threatened by a strong female figure, therefore this figure becomes objectified by becoming a sexual object. Though there are shortcomings to this theory, other gender theories suggest that both genders are sex obsessed as audiences to certain media such as music, movies, TV and books as all include sexual references and it can not always be identified as if to be for men or women.

    Sexuality plays a large role as well, according to Judith Butlers queer theory, “gender, particularly as it is represented in performance – on TV, Film etc, is fluid, flexible depending on the context in which it is seen.” A male character may be represented in a way in which it is obvious to that fact he is male but his sexuality might not be so obvious. Cat Woman’s costume may be very sexualised and so might Thors topless scenes or Spider man in his topless scenes or in his tight clothing, the characters sexuality isn’t necessarily always being portrayed because it matters solely on the audiences sexuality. I disagree with the idea that all super hero movies are designed for a heterosexual male audience, though it is true majority are, as they derive from comic books which in our society has a male dominated fan base.

    I believe that male super heroes are slowly starting to go in the same direction and to be represented in a similar way as that of their female counterparts. In my opinion if both genders are sexualised in a way in which is satisfies all sexualities, that’s equality. Human beings, both genders are sex obsessed so either those super heroes rock out with their stuff out or just put on a sweater!

  15. I read an interesting article once (tried to find it, couldn’t, but if someone else can and would link it here, that would be great) where a woman who makes these costumes for conventions and such actually talked about how realistic it would be to fight crime or do action-y things in them would be. And it’s just not. From the high heels to the materials to the amount of skin that is often exposed, it just wouldn’t work. And we can all think of dozens of reasons why capes are a bad idea, on top of it.

    I suppose this is why there aren’t too many actual costumed heroes running around!

  16. Yes, women in these movies are oversexualized. That’s not a gender equity issue, that’s a morality issue, and it cuts both ways.

  17. In films like the ones you are referring to, the female character’s femininity is so closely linked to her sexuality. All of the female characters are reduced to femme fatales in which their sexuality seduces and endangers men. It is frustrating that their bodies overshadow any of their abilities.

  18. I completely agree with your article. Women are shown to really only be looking for a place o settle down and even worse just get married etc. as a matter of fact in The Fantastic four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Jessica Alba’s fiance states ‘my girlfriend is the hottest girl in the world@ with Alba’s reply being ‘I’m so hot for you right now.’

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