HOT PANTS AND SPANDEX SUITS
Author: Esther De Dauw
Publisher: Rutgers University Press
Publication Year: 2021
Topic: Gender and Race
WHAT IS IT?
With topics ranging from Superman’s Underwear of Power to Kamala Khan's burkini, Hot Pants and Spandex Suits is a lively and thoughtful look at how American superhero comics have envisioned women as “plastic dolls” and men as “violent action heroes.”
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Esther De Dauw begins this book with an excellent review of comics history and follows with four lively and compact chapters that consider issues surrounding masculinity, femininity, gay heroes, and heroes of color.
Hot Pants and Spandex Suits fills a niche that is painfully underserved in comics studies, in that it is a work that both academics and the public at large can enjoy. This is a great introduction to important ideas about gender and race in comics. It will be entertaining and accessible to non-academic readers, but De Dauw does not sacrifice scholarship for readability. Hot Pants and Spandex Suits also succeeds in presenting complex and important arguments in a manner that is appropriate for academic settings.
De Dauw's analysis of masculinity in comics is excellent, and is highlighted by her look at Iron Man as an “artificial body." She envisions Iron Man as a symbol of the American ideal of the “self-made man” and shows how technology has traditionally been represented in comics (and society) as a male sphere. She also shows how American superheroes such as Captain America increasingly gained bulk through the '70s, '80s, and '90s, and posits that as job and societal roles became more gender-neutral, massive muscles and bodybuilder physiques became comics' preferred indicators of masculinity.
The book discussed the "strike a pose and point" powers given many female characters and showed how sexism and conservative gender roles have strongly influenced the power set, costumes and stories of leading female characters. Among other interesting details, De Dauw showed how powerful and independent women were frowned upon by the Comics Code, and so Supergirl's abilities and were intentionally downplayed and made less threatening through her portrayal as a virtuous and subordinate teen sidekick.
Hot Pants and Spandex Suits also takes an extensive look at the 200os-era Batwoman and does an excellent job showing how Kate Kane was portrayed. Rather than challenging traditional patriarchal ideas, DC first presented Kane and Maggie Sawyer as a disarming “homonormative” couple, and later depicted Kane’s post-breakup relationships as toxic and even “vampiric.” De Dauw shows how both of these reinforce mainstream stereotypes, and neither allows for a progressive depiction of gay relationships.
There is a lot more here. Superman. Wonder Woman. Hulkling and Wiccan. Falcon and Luke Cage. Storm and Kamala Khan. Each examined with an eye on a specific and intriguing angle regarding gender, race, or both. For a book that is under 150 pages before notes, Hot Pants and Spandex Suits covers a lot of ground!
I like the tone of this book. The whimsical cover, the large full-color images, and De Dauw’s clear, wry writing style all mesh perfectly to create a work that is intelligent but also has a pop sensibility.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
At twenty-nine pages, the intro here was a bit much, in part due to the fifteen pages dedicated to a "History of Scholarship" section. This is interesting information, but might have been best served in an appendix, as it slows down the start of the book and runs the risk of losing non-academic readers.
WHY SHOULD YOU READ IT?
Hot Pants and Spandex Suits is a great starting point for comics fans who are wanting to better understand issues surrounding gender and identity in mainstream superhero comics. The chapters are to the point, the writing is clear and accessible, the content is well-researched and informative, and it's a fun read.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
For more from this author: Toxic Masculinity: Mapping the Monstrous in Our Heroes edited by Esther De Dauw and Daniel J. Connell
For an earlier, Eisner-winning look at gender in comics: Superwomen: Gender, Power and Representation by Carolyn Cocca
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Esther De Dauw received her doctorate in the Humanities from the University of Leicester. De Dauw specializes on issues of gender and race in comics. She has presented at a number of conferences and can be found on Twitter @DeDauwEsther.
HOW DO I BUY IT?
If you can, find a local bookstore, and buy there!
This book is ©2021 Esther De Dauw. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED