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Committed: The Male Superhero As Rock Star / Drag Queen

My attraction to the superhero genre has always been the result of a confluence of many, many elements, but lately it is the men in costume that are interesting me most. Perhaps for some people this is some sort of variation of the old men-in-uniform fetish that so many people have, and I know that a lot of people think of superhero costumes as a sort of military uniform. I do not, to my mind, they have more in common with drag queens or rock stars, who wear flamboyant apparel in order to distract from the job at hand. Unlike the military or police who wear somber uniform in order to blend into their surroundings, their clothing is designed to distract and dazzle onlookers. It is a unusual position for a man to take, and is one of the more interesting characteristics of the male superhero in the context of the male role in our society.

When I lived in San Francisco, male friends would sometimes complain about getting checked out when we were out in the Castro. “I feel like a piece of meat, it’s weird being looked up and down!” they moaned. My girlfriends laughed at them and replied, “Now you know what the rest of the world is like for the rest of us!” Generally speaking, women are looked at, checked out, in a more predatory way than men. The male gaze is just an accepted fact and in order to get on with our lives peacefully, we either learn to ignore it or learn to work with it… Perhaps this is why I’ve always liked men who’re comfortable standing out in a crowd (whether by nature or by design), because, like women, they know what it is like to be looked at by strangers for no reason and they aren’t afraid to play with people’s expectations.

Some men are born more visible than others, perhaps because of their height, their weight, their hair color, or their features. These are the men who nature has made visible in the context of our culture, they always stood out in a crowd and they learned to deal with the world accordingly before it was even conscious, as do many women. Other men choose to make themselves visually distinct, perhaps by wearing different clothing or changing their hair, or body. Hair dye or styling, tattoos, piercing, unusual fashions, massive weight gain or loss, can all make a man stand out every day. When men change the “packaging” that is the way they’re presented to the world, they are making a statement with their appearance, and I always find it interesting to talk to men who’re in this process of transformation as they experience changes in the way the world responds to them.

I’ve always been impressed by my little brother, a pretty mellow, relatively conservative sort of guy, who surprised me by growing up into the kind of man who is happy wearing fluorescent pink sneakers. This should have alerted me to the fact that he’d be interested in dressing up in costume, but I was still surprised when after his first Comic-Con, he became fascinated by people doing Spider-Man and Superman “wrong.” The next year he showed up with a flawless old-school Spider-Man costume, and the following Halloween he was dressing up as a very good Superman. And he wasn’t just dressing in the costumes, he did a pretty good impression with his stance and posture, so much so that our friends accused him of wearing a false chest, which is what happens when you slouch the rest of the time, (thereby proving that it might just be possible for the Clark Kent / Superman disguise to work if he were real… but I’m getting off topic here.)

It is increasingly clear to me that part of my early interest in male superheroes stems from this interest in more visible men. On some level I like the fact that superheroes are so overtly trying to change people’s perception of them. They generally wear skintight clothing, brightly colored, body-conscious suits which aggressively assert that they’re totally aware of the external gaze. Simultaneously they hide their identity, sometimes to the extent of covering their faces. This creates an interesting tension between opposites, where the identity is protected while the body is vulnerable. There is strength in this visible disguise, which echoes the woman in a tight dress and a lot of make-up. Women and male superheroes both display physical assets, while guarding their identity with masks.

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There is a kind of role-playing inherent in wearing a superhero costume which (when done right) can be an altering experience for “regular” men in costume at conventions. These men in costume are enjoying their role, playing with people’s expectations of them, by living out the costume and acting like a superhero, they aren’t simply putting on some clothing, but becoming superheroic, and learning what it is to be oddly visible in that way. These “average” men are learning what it is to be strong and posturing, yet simultaneously vulnerable in their visibility. By dressing up, they have an opportunity to experiment with the (usually limited) trappings of male identity.

The fantasy world in which real superheroes exist is one where super-powered men’s fashion sense reveals them to be brave, playful, relaxed, confident, and open to experimentation. These are fantastic qualities for super-powered people to have and it gives me great hope for a future. Similarly, when regular-powered men are brave enough to dress up as superheroes (or in any other form of expressive clothing), they display their own bravery, a healthy sense of humor, and an awareness of a fluid sense of identity. I toyed with calling this column “In Praise of Visible Men”, because I really do feel that the male cosplayer is doing something interesting in terms of changing personal perception about gender roles and fashion possibilities. In the end I went with something more descriptive, but I still want to make sure that I’m acknowledging how much I appreciate men who are willing to dress up, and to play with fashion and people’s expectations of them as men.


Interesting piece. But I’m not sure men dressing up at conventions are standing out or shattering expectations. When you go to a con, you expect to see a number of Spider-Men, and that’s usually what you get.

Long before nerdom was mainstream and women made up ~40% of comic and sci-fi convention attendance, hordes of males were showing up in Vulcan ears and Starfleet uniforms. They didn’t do it to stand out; they did it to fit in. It was a show of solidarity with their equally passionate brethren. And they certainly weren’t changing perceptions of gender roles. Dressing up as Thor or Boba Fett was an almost exclusively male activity. If a woman showed up in costume, THAT was shattering expectations.

Another thought…

Pro-wrestlers, circus strongmen, and arguably professional athletes utilized garish form-fitting attire long before the gender-bending hijinks of David Bowie or RuPaul.

Now you can do your own pyschosexual analyses of those professions (you wouldn’t be the first), but that doesn’t change the fact that putting on a spectacular show was mostly a guy thing for a long time. The female showman was the one going against convention.

@Dennis: I wouldn’t really put too much stock in the “pro wrestlers, circus strongmen and arguably professional athletes” being some sort of fashion avant-gardists. The *original* pro wrestlers (the folks from the 1950s) stood out more for their very job. “Pro” wrestling didn’t really come into its own until the early days of TV and was seen as little more than entertainment but the BASIC outfits for the guys were, essentially, swim trunks (they were more figure fitting than traditional boxing trunks but consider the disadvantages of wearing the looser-fitting boxing trunks when your opponent’s busy trying to grab hold of your shorts). Yes, there were a handful of wrestlers who developed an *image* so they’d stand out more (but, hell, that still plays a part in the modern venue–it’s usually the “bad guy” who wears the more outlandish outfit while the “good guy” tends to wear the more “conservative” trunks).

As for circus strongmen, what exactly were they wearing that was so unusual? A singlet (similar to what “amateur” wrestlers wear) designed to show off their muscles. Oh, sure, some of the guys had patterned outfits (usually an animal print–tiger or leopard or some other “flashy” animal that implies strength) but some also wore handlebar mustaches.

And as for professional athletes, not really. Those are UNIFORMS. And they only apply to a few sports–what you might call the “Big 5″ (football, baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer). And they’re designed so the spectators can distinguish between the two competing teams. None of the uniforms are especially “garish” and they tend to fall within a very small spectrum (you DON’T routinely see things like purple and green on a pro athlete–those two colors may appear, but they tend to paired up with white or maybe yellow). And not all the sports have “form-fitting attire.” Hockey, for instance, is about as far from “form-fitting” as you can get–any “form-fitting” there is SOLELY for protective purposes. Football also avoids the “form-fitting”–and what “form” is “fitted” is heightened with protective padding. Baseball and soccer can loosely qualify as “form-fitting” but consider the nature of the sports–loose-fitting garb would be a major hindrance. And as someone who grew up during the age of basketball’s “short shorts,” the current crop of basketball attire doesn’t even begin to qualify as “form-fitting.” (You could easily make two or even three “classic” basketball uniforms from a single “modern” uniform, and still have a few scraps of cloth for headbands.)

I’ll also note that gender-bending was well-known long before ANY of your “pro wrestlers, circus strongmen and professional athletes” came along. Ever hear of the theater? Men were playing the parts of women on stage for centuries before the first football uniform was created. And even in the military, during WWII, soldiers and sailors would do drag shows for impromptu entertainment. As for the “female showman,” ever hear of Annie Oakley? But the big problem is that women wearing men’s clothing was far more acceptable (a few women joined various militaries throughout history dressing as men and having their secret revealed only after death and some women were pirates) in the public eye–even if it was looked on as a bit odd–but the reverse was *NEVER* socially acceptable. A man who dressed as a woman and walked down the streets of any city risked death. It was simply the inherent sexism of the times where women weren’t valued as people, only as property. A woman who dressed as a man was ostensibly trying to “better her place” in the world; a man who dressed as a woman was seen as someone to be pitied (at best) because he was “too weak” to deal with the world (and if he was lucky, he’d only be committed to an asylum until he could be “cured”–sound familiar?).

Great article, I cracked up at your comment about slouching increasing the probability of Superman’s disguise working.

Always enjoy reading your work!

Cross-playing (dressing up as a character of the other sex) has gotten so pervasive at anime cons for certain anime (still a minority of all cosplayers, but more often than not by people unsuited for the physique of the target), that about 8-10 years ago at Sugoicon in Cincinnati, a person playing Zechs from Gundam Wing got an award from the judges not only for having an excellent costume, but for being the first person in years that they’d seen that had the audacity to be a MALE cosplaying a MALE Gundam Wing character! The cosplaying for that anime had come to that after being oversaturated with yaoi-loving fangirls (with the rare male usually playing a female character).

At the first Anime Central, fans were shocked to see all the major Sailor scouts (Sailor Moon, Chibi, and those for the planets) represented over 3 or 4 cosplay contest entries, with NONE of them being male. At the time (1998), cons had gotten to where more men were cosplaying Sailor scouts than females.

Granted, some crossplay is done for shock value (Man-Faye, anyone?), others to show off the ability to pull it off (I’ve know several guys who you can’t tell are guys until they speak). A lot of the better Full Metal Alchemist cosplayers doing Edward are female (the character’s smaller stature helps females pull it off).

Then you have people like Sailor Bubba, who worked Security at cons, being ~400 lbs, 6’+ with full facial hair, as Sailor Moon, Cherry (Saber Marionette J) or other characters. Part of it was shock value, but there was also the effects it had on perps (do you REALLY want to be seen getting hauled off by someone dressed like sailor Bubba?). In a weird turn of events, a girl cosplayed HIM as Sailor Bubba at another con…..

Manga & Anime have had more than a few oddball costumes that go beyond spandex. The superhero anime Moldiver’s hulking energy bodysuit (that fell into the hands of a female highschooler, that, until reprogrammed, made her appear in hero form like a guy with a physique somewhere between Colossus and Hulk) is one example. Then there are the Sailor Stars. And, who can forget B-Ko’s father in one of the Project A-ko movies, putting on his daughter’s combat suit (eye bleach, please!). Factor in all the bishonen characters (some that way as a nature of style, others like that to cause double-takes as recurring plot devices, like Kenshin), and the analysis of “why do characters dress the way they do” gets a far better workout that in Western comics.

This results in a far more varied range for costuming at cons, yet cliques within otakudom seem to almost self-limit more than people doing western SF or comics cosplay – and in ways that initially shocked even more open-minded western fans.

Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the article. Very well written, thought out, and presented in a humerus and accessible way. Great job.

interesting article, ive never thought about it that way.

so, do you dislike black leather costumes? after the first x-men movie came out, they seemed ubiquitous for a while. are you disappointed when a hero gets a costume update that puts them more in line with traditional male fashion? (doctor strange going from primary colours to black and red, hawkeye going from purple to mostly black)

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