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Photo: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix
Photo: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

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When Will Superheroes Dress Like Us?

What Jessica Jones and Supergirl wear says a lot about how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go

Chances are you didn’t know who Jessica Jones was four months ago, but you do now. The wise-cracking protagonist of the eponymous hit Netflix show, based on the Marvel Comics character, is fall’s newest icon.

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As played by Krysten Ritter, Jones is a superpowered private investigator with extraordinary strength, the ability to fly (or as she puts it, "controlled falling"), and what comics nerds call "durability" — while not invulnerable, she doesn't hurt easily. She also has a mean side-eye. Her signature look is jeans, T-shirt, and a motorcycle jacket, recognizable to the countless women who have stepped out their front door wearing just that: an iconoclast's uniform so common that it's also a way of hiding in plain sight.

Jessica Jones's iconoclastic uniform is also a way of hiding in plain sight.

The way Jones dresses makes sense for her day job, but for a superhero, it still feels new, perhaps because of the way Ritter pulls it off. She makes it look uncharacteristically cool. The old-fashioned superhero costumes we're familiar with have their roots in drawn comics, in which they could have the loosest possible relationship to physics or functionality. Batgirl's cape always seemed fated to get caught on a Gotham window. Wonder Woman looked like she was dressed to go-go dance on the Fourth of July. These outfits have long been ridiculously formfitting, complicated, and impractical for fighting bad guys —€” and only recently are they starting to change.

Jessica Jones mocks this stereotype in a flashback. Her best friend and foster sister, Trish, having decided Jones should dress the part of a superhero, tries to give her a makeover. She pulls out a white, strapless jumper with royal-blue trim framing the décolletage that looks stolen from Olivia Newton-John's wardrobe for Xanadu, then puts on a matching, glittery-blue carnival mask, even proposing a name to go with the look: Jewel. "Jewel is a cheap stripper name," Jones says, rejecting it outright, and to prove the impracticality of the mask, she walks over to Trish and with one playful slap to her head twists it around —€” and the mask is suddenly a blindfold. The lesson is clear: Jessica Jones is not going to die for your idea about what a superhero looks like, Trish.

Jones embraces being forgettable because it makes her work easier if people don't see her coming.

The costume Trish holds up is an Easter Egg for fans of Alias, the Marvel comic book series from which the Netflix show is loosely adapted, in which Jones is a private eye with a past as a C-list Avenger who wore that same outfit, named ... that’s right, Jewel. She initially models her attempts at being a superhero on her classmate Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider Man, but traumatized by her eight-month abduction by the villainous Kilgrave, and nursing her wounds from being so forgettable (no one really noticed she was gone), she quits the hero business, fed up with the ridiculous costumes and everything they represent.

The comic book Jones embraces being forgettable because it makes her work easier if people don't see her coming. She dresses in tank tops and black jeans; anything else she wears is more or less a disguise. Jones's street-style TV look, then, adds that motorcycle jacket, more Goodwill than Acne —€” a kind of compromise. The work of Jenn Rogien (Orange Is the New Black, Girls) and Stephanie Maslansky (Daredevil), it lends a pragmatic, visual identity to her antics —€” getting drunk, throwing creeps around like pillows, tricking sources into coming clean — that solidifies her bonafides as an anti-hero even as it makes her look hip but not hipster. The comic book Jessica Jones would sneer a little at the TV show Jessica Jones, but would probably still hang out with her.

Meanwhile, CBS's Supergirl features the hero Jessica Jones decided not to be. As played by Melissa Benoist, Supergirl wears an updated, less sexist version of the traditional minidress, with tights, knee-high boots, and a cape, and the "S" also worn by her more famous cousin, Superman. The red, blue, and gold uniform makes her a target —€” all of Superman's enemies notice her —€” but it's also an exercise in branding, as the show acknowledges in the first episode.

Supergirl's "dressing the hero" moment happens after she rescues a plane falling from the sky and is criticized for what she's wearing: black jeans and a blue shirt, which she had worn under a white motorcycle jacket for a bad Tinder date —€” not unlike something Jessica Jones might have worn. So we know right away that we're not too far away from our own world, in which a woman can do amazing things and still be asked, "That's what you're wearing?"

Supergirl 1

Photo: Darren Michaels/CBS/Getty Images

In fact, much of the narrative of Supergirl's first season revolves around what she's wearing and why. The pressures she faces are exaggerated version of the pressures all young women face to fit in and be "normal." Originally sent from Krypton to look after the infant Superman, her spaceship is lost for years. By the time she arrives on Earth, she finds that her little cousin is fully grown and not in need of her help. She decides to stay on Earth and live a normal human life, despite having the same powers as Superman: superhuman strength and speed, X-ray vision, and invulnerability. She also uses the same glasses-as-mask gambit, but for her, it becomes a code for those makeover movies in the 1990s, in which a nerd has only to remove a pair of specs to turn into a beauty.

All Supergirl does initially is hide who she is: She tries her best to be an average girl, forget about her powers, and above all, stay safe. But her foster sister Alex was in that plane she saved, endangered by a host of aliens who arrived on Earth at the same time she did. She's never been under more threat, but she's never been more necessary.

'Supergirl' depicts a world like our own, in which a woman can do amazing things and still be asked, 'That's what you're wearing?'

It's not just extra-terrestrial bad guys who are out to get her, though. There's her high-powered boss, media executive Cat Grant (played to cynical perfection by Calista Flockhart), whose version of "lean in" is to nearly fire her for talking back, before adding "I just can't hear you over the loud color of your cheap pants." The head of the secret U.S. government agency fighting the aliens even tells her, when she offers her assistance, "Go back to getting someone's coffee." When villains from Krypton show up, it's actually a relief that they're throwing punches or shooting radioactive ray beams at her, because they're more easily identifiable as enemies.

Supergirl's costume is, at first glance, something of a throwback, an identifiable signifier of a morally simplistic world of good against evil. But in context, it's more than that. Supergirl isn't really trying to fit anyone's idea of what a superhero should look like; she just wants to be seen as one. It's why you cheer a little when she shows up in the "S." And as her look evolves over the first few episodes, it becomes a way for her to both stand out and claim herself for herself.

It has been nearly 30 years since American viewers have been able to enjoy this much female superhero action on television. In 1976, you had your choice of three: Isis, starring Joanna Cameron; Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter; and The Bionic Woman, starring Lindsay Wagner. Looking at their costumes, we can see not too much has changed. While Isis's tunic and magic-gemstone-bedecked tiara might pass muster in Brooklyn at Afropunk Fest, her skirt is roughly the same (short) length as Supergirl's. Wonder Woman's iconic American flag strapless swimsuit, tiara, and famous bullet-deflecting wrist cuffs have formed such a successful brand identity, it has a second life as a popular Halloween costume every year. And both Isis and Wonder Woman also predictably wore glasses while in their secret identities. The Bionic Woman, meanwhile, was more like Jones: refreshingly low-key, as though the girl next door woke up with superpowers after an accident and decided to keep dressing the way she always had, in sweatsuits, jumpsuits, and jeans, while fighting crime.

Wonder Woman
The Bionic Woman

Photos: Getty Images

Jessica Jones and Supergirl are more like than unlike that earlier era of heroic women: They're white, beautiful, and thin, with long, breezy hair. They are, for all their costume differences, very much like each other, too. Both are orphans with foster sisters who are also pretty and who also kick ass. Both have handsome, black men as love interests. (Luke Cage and Jimmy Olsen, respectively.) And both are still dream girls, meant to be attractive even in the face of extraordinary danger. The reason their hair swings loose while they're in action is that a headband, ponytail, or braid is a concession to mortality. Their superpowers also allow them to lift cars with their slender bodies; it's a convenient way to avoid portraying a muscular woman. (By that same logic, Superman could be rail-thin, but he's instead given the broad chest and shoulders of a fullback.) Marvel's She-Hulk, whose body does visually express her strength, is an anomaly, but she doesn't appear to be lined up for either film or TV.

The message for this crop of superpowered women is a hint more socially progressive than before, but still too dated for comfort: Be white, pretty, and thin, and either a little ridiculous or effectively invisible. At least the new generation gets to fight those limitations as plot points in their respective stories.

Maika Halfwolf's appearance is neither laughably implausible nor predicated on blending in; it's what she wants it to be.

What might the silver-screen superheroines of the near future look like? The next few years will yield more opportunities to find out. Margot Robbie will challenge Jessica Jones as queen of the tough girls with her portrayal of Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad next year. Gal Gadot stole the show in the trailer for the much anticipated Batman v. Superman, presenting us with a young and powerful Wonder Woman, complete with a Xena-esque sword and shield —€” though she's still in a short skirt and over-the-knee, armored wedge boots. There's a Captain Marvel film on the books for 2018: Another invulnerable flying bombshell, she fires energy beams from her hands, and lately, wears her hair short, like James Dean. Also rumored to be in the pipeline is a Ms. Marvel project, based on the hit comic featuring Kamala Khan, a shape-shifting, Muslim-American teenager from New Jersey who idolizes Captain Marvel. Maybe they'll even have a crossover.

One hot comic book series ripe to be optioned for film or television next (and that doesn't belong to either DC or Marvel) is Monstress, written by bestselling author and comics writer Marjorie Liu (Astonishing X-Men, Black Widow) and drawn by Sana Takeda (X-23). Set in a steampunk, Art Deco version of Shanghai with talking cats and monsters, Monstress tells the story of Maika Halfwolf, a young, magical subhuman who has become the gateway for a godlike monster and is out to avenge her mother. At the outset, she's a prisoner, displayed for sale, naked and on a leash; a strange tattoo of an eye scars her torso. Her left arm appears to be amputated up to the forearm, but we soon see that it occasionally materializes —€” a magic hand. When it's missing, it's as though she's hidden. When the hand appears, it's an indication that she is at her most deadly.

Halfwolf breaks patterns with her appearance, too. She's Eurasian (half white European, half Asian), and while she is slim, thin, and pretty, with long hair, she also appears grotesque at times, as the monster within fights for control. In the comic, she's dressed in various disguises —€” being naked is just one of them. The clothes she wears are the style of the clothes everyone in the comic wears: richly embroidered clothes Liu and Takeda say were inspired by Mongolian ceremonial wear and Art Nouveau. Halfwolf's appearance in this world, to be developed in future comic books, is neither laughably implausible nor predicated on blending in; it's what she wants it to be. We may not quite be ready for our mainstream superheroes to be entirely human, but when we are, Monstress shows us a way forward.

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