Power Girl: Empower Me!

Power Girl means a lot to me, as a character and an icon. Not so much as a sex symbol, though, which I think she’s often reduced to. She’s so much more than a receptacle for fanboy lust. Mainstream comics do such casual disservice to female characters on a regular basis*, it hardly seems worth pointing out, but ten percent of the time, somebody will hire an artist/writer team that actually seems to know what they’re doing, and that makes all the difference.

Especially when you’re tackling a character like Power Girl. It’s too easy to fall into characterizing her as a walking, unironic boob gag, but she always has the potential to be a real hero and, dare I say it, empower women. (And I am a woman, and so…) I told you I had a personal investment in this, lemme back it up.

Most of my personal experience with Power Girl is drawn from her 2009 independent series, which is unquestioningly the best, but I’ve gleaned a lot of her character from earlier runs. Peej actually seems to be a character started with (mostly) good intentions. She was a feminist, but y’know, it was the 70’s, and the predominantly male comics industry didn’t have a fantastic grip on what that actually meant**. (I’m pretty sure they’re still mostly in the dark on that one.) Feminist was synonymous with ballbuster, which is synonymous with obnoxious stereotype.

Where do you even begin with that dialogue? 70’s feminist Peej is a prime example of people not really understanding what they’re writing. Peej’s “feminist” dialogue always pits her against men, like a crutch, rather than relying on her own strengths to prop her up as an independent woman.
It was undoubtedly a time when women were angry with the lot given to them in life, and they were perfectly right to be, but in Peej’s case, she often seemed to take it a little too far, a little too seriously, nitpicking at the smallest details and ignoring the overarching ones. She often came off as a caricature of a feminist rather than the real deal. Not to say she never had a good point…

Just that her reactions often came off as extreme or unreasonable. (Jeez Peej, I know you’re peeved, but you could’ve just mentioned what was wrong with the logo.) And wouldn’t you know it—that’s exactly why women are so hesitant to adopt the term feminist, even today! Nobody wants to be known as a militant feminist stereotype, eager to jump down your throat at the slightest offense. (“Oh, I support equal rights, but I’m not a feminist…” Yes you fucking ARE.) I admire the uninhibited passion they give Peej in her war against the patriarchy, but I’m fairly sensitive to the “man-hater” stereotype those that attempt to demonize feminism consistently use against us.

It was well-intentioned characterization though, even if it hasn’t aged well, and a good foundation for what was to come. She’s changed a lot since then. A lot of her “Girl Power Rage” has cooled into a stubborn (if slightly jaded) personality with a take-no-shit attitude, not afraid to throw her weight around and express herself, and she’s written on her own merit rather than in relation to male characters. And she’s written as a character more than a soap box.

Which is where I came into Power Girl’s story, the 2009 run with Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, and Amanda Conner. Wow, just, what an utterly fantastic comic, can I just say. In a modern era where most of the conversation around Power Girl revolves around her great tracts of land, this book easily allowed readers to almost completely overlook Peej’s sexuality if we so choose. There were so many other interesting traits in her that were just that much more interesting! We had Peej as Karen Starr, intelligent, ambitious business woman. We have Karen as Power Girl, mentoring a young hero (Atlee) and adopting a city for her own. In this book, she doesn’t need anybody to tell her what to do, she just does it. She comes into the series feeling lost and homeless, and she picks herself up and carves her own path, builds her own home. Her own family. You wanna talk about role models? I wanna talk about role models. Let’s talk about role models.

Power Girl isn’t necessarily a role model specifically for girls, her strong sense of justice and toughness is accessible to any gender. But as a girl, she has a special place for me. Ignoring Peej for a minute to focus on her Karen persona: Karen owns and runs a fledgling company, and because Peej is just SO badass, it’s actually an engineering research and development company, historically a field in which women are overlooked or have difficulty being taken seriously. And while she’s doing this, she’s all woman and doesn’t try to pretend she’s not. Hey girls, did you know that you can be in awesome male-dominated careers without being masculine? Did you know that femininity isn’t a weakness? YOU DO NOW.

And Peej as a super hero, she doesn’t wait around to be given the things she needs. She lands in a city and decides it’s the one she’s going to protect and call home. She doesn’t fuss, she just steps in and takes action. She exudes authority with just her presence. People see her around, they know who’s in charge.

So Peej, even as Karen, is a hero. But she’s also kinda goofy and fun, she likes cheesy slasher films and teasing Atlee. She gets a bit frazzled when she’s overworked, she’s reckless a lot. She’s passionate, which can sometimes cloud her judgement. The little details in her personality make her relatable in ways I think characters like Batman and Superman aren’t. Power Girl the hero and Power Girl the person aren’t two separate personas, but a blend to make one whole person. She’s really not all that different in one persona to the next, which says to me, “you don’t have to be just Karen—you can be Power Girl, you can be the whole package.”

Then there’s the elephant in the room, the one everyone wants to touch for whatever reason, but nobody wants to really talk about. I think we can all agree that Peej is sexy. She’s written as a sexy character, she’s drawn as a sexy character. “Sexy” is a big part of who she is. And here’s where making a Power Girl comic gets difficult: the creators really need to understand the line between “sexy” and “sexualization.” Power Girl isn’t the type of girl to pander to an audience, and writing or drawing her doing so is a disservice to the character. She isn’t a submissive kitten, she’s aggressive and self-assured! Sexy is empowering! In a world of the whore/Madonna complex, it’s just as important to tell girls that they can be sexy and strong, as much as it’s important to tell women that they don’t have to be sexy to be strong. When you sexualize a strong character though, you’re telling women that they must be sexy to be desirable, that your sexiness trumps your power in terms of value. GUESS WHAT? THAT’S NOT OKAY. In a comic about a powerful woman, sexuality should be the garnish of a character, not the main course. It’s limiting, harmful, and honestly redundant to define a woman by her sexuality. So knock it off.

So I like that Peej is sexy. Her sexual confidence actually boosts my confidence in a lot of ways. She doesn’t apologize for being sexy, but she doesn’t define herself that way. And she doesn’t define her sexiness with just her body—her POWER is part of what makes her sexy. So I, as a woman, look at her and think, “yeah, I want to be like that too. My own sexiness doesn’t have to rely only on the way I look. Confidence is sexy.”

Which is why Amanda Conners’ fierce Power Girl is a million times more sexy,

than this male-gazey Power Girl. I hate this cover so much. It strips Peej of her sexual agency—she’s looking up at the viewer, and her belly-up pose gives the impression of submission. Her body language is passive, and her body itself is the focus of the picture itself, as though she’s offering herself up to the viewer.

I own Adam Hughes’ artbook, I love his work, this is still AWFUL

Just like the different ways people draw her contribute to either her empowerment or her sexualization, writing can produce the same effects! I talked about how much I loved Justin Grey and Jimmy Palmiotti’s characterization of Power Girl, but I think they could stand to make less “silly boys my eyes are up here” gags. Instead, I would love to see them make “busty girl problems” gags. Like, how the hell does Peej find bras that fit her!? It’s hard enough to find a nice D-cup bra, man, finding anything in her size must be HELL. Does the JLA have a special “super heroine” bra reserve!? And finding flattering clothing that fits her chest, how does she do it??? I concede that men probably have no idea that women deal with these problems, but they can always go ask a woman.

“Hey, we want to do a boob gag, and ‘my eyes are up here’ has been done to death. What’s a boob gag that would be funny to you, my busty friend?” FRESH

It’s a small detail, but I think it would’ve raised the writing bar for those books several levels. I’m not really complaining though, it’s not great, but it’s not offensive. No… No, let’s talk about JSA if you want to get into what’s offensive.

This is the lowest point in Power Girl history. This point is so low, the limbo stick has phased through the floor and into the depths of hell.

In that panel, Peej explains to Superman that she’s looking for an identity to fill that hole in her costume. General advice? Don’t use holes as symbols or metaphors when women are involved unless you are actually referencing vaginas for whatever reason. Holes are historically associated with vaginas in the literary world, and that’s not changing any time soon. It’s a sticky hairy CHALLENGING (jeez) metaphor to work with without seeming misogynistic—it’s just not worth it.

Which is only PART of why that exchange was so utterly tasteless. I really hate this JSA arc as a whole, but the above conversation is really just THE. WORST. Power Girl is driven up the wall by a man, made to seem like an incapable, hysterical (WANNA SEE THE MISOGYNISTIC ETYMOLOGY OF THAT WORD) woman. Then she goes to Superman for advice, crying all over him and admitting that she has no real identity for herself. She doesn’t talk to him as one individual to another, but rather he is propped up as a paternalistic figure. I cannot stress enough that Peej is a grown woman. Supes is her cousin and an equal, not a father or other authority figure. The writer reduces her to a child, unable to handle her own life and reduced to tears while seeking counsel from her “better.”

There are good ideas about the hole in Peej’s costume in the above conversation, but the train of storytelling is derailed and flung into space. I like the idea of the hole’s origins: Peej intended to find her symbol and sew it in eventually. In my fantasy alternative canon, she was so busy saving people and being a hero that she forgot about finding a symbol, ultimately discovering that she already defines herself by her actions and doesn’t need one. In this roundtable***, Delphic notes that “it was meant to be symbolic. The hole was meant to represent a Kryptonian character breaking away from the shadow of the ‘S.’” And he’s got it in one!

So the commentary about the hole in that issue was sexist, but the hole itself wasn’t. Power Girl’s skimpy costume was a matter of presentation and writing, something difficult to handle gracefully, but worth doing. Unfortunately, DC glossed over the greater problem with Power Girl and attributed everyone’s complaints to her boob hole. And we got this:

Kevin Maguire and George Perez (both refuse to take credit for the redesign)

That costume is a completely unmitigated disaster of graphic design. DC made the apparent decision that the only problematic element of her character was her sexy costume, and substituted it with the more unflatteringly unattractive bodystocking they could possibly find. They ignored practically every rule of fashion design, and it shows. The costume is an eyesore.

And it doesn’t even solve the problem. She’s less likely to be hideously sexualized in this costume (although they rip up her clothes so much in World’s Finest, I would hazard to say that’s not even true), but it emanates this idea that they’re chastising Peej for being “too sexy.”  There was nothing wrong with how she was dressed before, as long as the artists weren’t being exploitive. Don’t give her an ugly costume—just get your editors up to date on what’s appropriate! It’s like they’re applying an ice pack to a stab wound.

They’re also enforcing the idea that a woman showing skin is inappropriate and sexual. News flash, a leotard and some cleavage ventilation does not mean a woman is trying to titillate her audience. Closing Power Girl’s boob hole reinforces the breasts must be interpreted as sexual, instead of simply being another part of a woman’s body. The costume change seems almost Puritanical; perhaps the overcompensation of Peej’s costume was due to the sexualization scandals that plagued the release of the New 52.

Either way, I hope we get the old Peej back at some point. I’m not about to hold my breath though, so for now I guess I’ll sigh over my Power Girl TPs and revel in how cool and empowering she can be as a feminist symbol.

I wanna grow up and be Power Girl.

See, this is a good Adam Hughes cover.

*(I just typed the sentence “comics generally sorta suck at feminism” and actually burst out laughing at the understatement of it.)

**It would’ve been nice to simply give women a voice of their own rather than attempt to recreate it from an outside point of view. Alas.

***I disagree with many things said in this roundtable, but I think that one line justifies the whole thing.

3 thoughts on “Power Girl: Empower Me!

  1. Let me begin by saying how impressed I am with this article. An honest group of thoughts on an interesting topic. What an idea.

    There are far too many characters in DC that can most easily be described as: basically Superman, but not quite as powerful. Many of these I would eliminate if given half a chance (Supergirl, boy, Captain Marvel, etc.).

    However, Power Girl represents an exception. She fills a role that Wonder Woman or Superman never could. As a character (from the very beginning) she seemed more down to earth than many others. Her early solo adventures are notable to me mainly because she was just a hero. The fact that she was a girl was unremarkable. This is, in and of itself, impressive since we have been (and all too often still are) surrounded by comic book characters for whom one aspect of themselves seems to be their entire being (skin colour, sex, creed, etc.)

    In a way, Power Girl was DC’s best approximation of Spider-man. Spidey was a great idea for a superhero and may have worked no matter what kind of person he was. That being said, he was best served by being portrayed as an everyman. So many people (especially the young adult audience of the time) could relate to his life and experiences. While her past had a freaky alien/mysterious quality, her actions and attitude marked Power Girl as an everywoman.

    In a more direct response to some of the points raised in the article:

    Its a little difficult for me to comment on her feminist ideology and group interaction as her most enjoyable adventures have been solo (check out JL Europe if you don’t agree-yikes.) However I respond more favourably to many of these characterizations mainly because I’m a man. (as one example-a lot of male heroes see Wildcat as a blowhard, his sexism probably came pretty naturally. Power Girls response was likely often justified.)

    Quote- “And here’s where making a Power Girl comic gets difficult: the creators really need to understand the line between “sexy” and “sexualization.”” unquote.

    This ladies and gentlemen is the best sentence in the article and needs to be memorized by all writers for all time.

    Power Girl is not only not the “type of girl to pander to an audience”-she’s would be the LAST girl to act that way. In my opinion, you’d see Storm or Wonder Woman doing so before Power Girl. Her strength is well defined from back in the day. Not physical, the other kind. Her self-assurance is, as stated, sexy and admirable.

    Focusing too much on the sexuality of such a character does her a disservice. It reminds me of a gal who works at a bank near me. At five foot ten, busty and blonde – she presents quite a sight. That being said, the first time we spoke I was struck by how polite and friendly she was. Here was someone who had gone through (I suppose most) of her last ten years since puberty being an object to many people around her. Yet, here was a perfectly decent regular person for whom the idea of vamping or using her looks to get what she wants would never come up. She (and Power Girl) happen to be very attractive. That does not define them.

    The writer nailed the ridiculous commentary on the hole in PG’s costume. That chat with Superman was beneath her.

    In the final analysis, we can only hope for the best for a great character.

    1. Well said (coming from a fellow man here).

      Power Girl is a great character, sexy in the best possible way (smart, self-assured and strong), and it’s a real shame getting a good story for her seems to be so difficult at present.

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