Why Don’t Lady Superheroes Have Muscles?

Via my friend Sean, Bleeding Cool has a bunch of pics up from the new Wonder Woman tv show shoot. Most of the pictures are of Adrienne Palicki, but there are a few of her stunt double, Shauna Duggins as well.

Here’s Palicki:

Here’s Duggins:

A couple of things. One, I’m glad the promo shots of Palicki in high heeled boots and plasticky pants are not the actual costume. I’m also glad she’s wearing pants — in this day and age, blue hot pants with stars would just look silly (sillier? We are talking about a superheroine here).

Second, the contrast between Palicki’s and Duggins’ physiques jumps out at me. Duggins is muscled — not “toned” — which is totally to be expected for a job that requires leaping, fighting, and just generally being physically strong. Palicki, who is clearly fit, doesn’t actually have much muscle to speak of. And it reminds me of how, 10 years ago, Sarah Michelle Gellar, playing Buffy, a woman who was supposed to be able to fight men twice her size, had very little muscle tone. Sure, she was obviously fit, but check out the arms on one of her stunt doubles, Sophia Crawford. But this is nothing new: ’70s Wonder Woman Lynda Carter wasn’t particularly buff, either.

I guess you could argue that, as superheroes, neither Buffy Summers nor Diana Prince need big muscles to do their jobs. They’re inherently strong. But their male counterparts are heavily muscled. Tom Welling is pretty cut on Smallville (am I the only person shocked that that show is still on?), as was Tobey Maguire when he played the somewhat lithe Spider-Man.

My suspicion is that live-action women superheroes aren’t buff because in order to be traditionally sexy and feminine, they just can’t be. A Wonder Woman with powerful muscles would be intimidating to fanboys, not attractive. Plus, as a working actress, Palicki can’t afford to be “too buff” when she wants to be cast other roles — a problem I doubt many actors have.

Anyway, I’m tempted to call this a moot point, since it’s entirely likely that Wonder Woman will be terrible and won’t make it out of the first season. Still, it’s worth noting, since we’ll probably continue to see this disparity in superhero build.



Filed under Fashion, Sexism, TV, Women

28 responses to “Why Don’t Lady Superheroes Have Muscles?

  1. The completely buff actor playing the superhero has only been in the last 15 years or so. No one would put Christopher Reeeve (Superman) or Michael Keaton (Batman) on the cover of Men’s Health.

    I don’t know if her lack of muscles is to appeal to fanboys. Anyone who’s a fan of Wonder Woman would expect her to be a little cut.

    Besides, they lost the fanboys at “David E. Kelly Production”.

  2. K

    So, I admit to a recent guilty pleasure binge of a lot of Xena: Warrior Princess. Renee O’Connor as Gabrielle was more muscled than Lucy Lawless as Xena (for example, the beloved “Gab Abs”). In the case of Gabrielle, it was made note of in the first episode that her own younger sister could beat her up. As the seasons progressed, O’Connor’s physique became more emphasized with…costuming with less fabric, shall we say. Although, to be a little awkward in suggesting this, given that XWP has a strong lesbian fan base, is there perhaps a difference in the type of female superhero body type portrayed in media based on audience?

    • Ahhh good question. I didn’t actually remember Gabrielle being more buff, but then again, she was physically smaller than Xena, so maybe that’s why. I should catch up with some eps on Netflix.

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  4. Lymis

    It’s worth pointing out, too, that conceptually (yes, I know), most of the superheroes have some explanation other than hitting the gym for their strength and power.

    Wonder Woman gets her powers from the Greek gods. So, while they’re likely to have made her as pretty as they chose, there’s no particular reason for her to be muscular.

    Similarly, Buffy got her powers by being The Chosen One, not because of a Bally’s membership.

    The real question isn’t so much why the female superheroes aren’t muscular, but why most of the male ones ARE. Supergirl, for example, gets her powers from the yellow sun of Earth, so she can be slim and delicate and still kick butt. But there’s actually very little reason for Superman to have any muscles at all. What is he going to do to build them if he can move planets around because of the sun?

    Some characters, like Batman, should be muscular, because he doesn’t have some super boost.

    So the real question isn’t why they don’t have better muscles, but why they all have flawless skin and ample cleavage. Again, Wonder Woman was created by the gods, so she gets a pass, but what’s with the rest? Fanboys.

    • Yeah, this is definitely a valid way of looking at it. As Sean pointed out above, the uber-buff superheroes are a relatively new phenomenon. And the original TV Supes was pretty doughy.

  5. Diana

    May I submit that Frank Miller, in drawing the original Electra back in the early 80’s, stated that he actually modeled her on a female bodybuilder. So while I agree with you, the really great artists are not held back by these conceptions.

  6. Years ago (maybe a decade, maybe more), there was a big push in the female bodybuilding industry to favor women who were as ripped and buff as men. The root of the movement was steroid abuse — as it always was with men — but in relatively short order the ratings of broadcast female bodybuilding events on networks like ESPN began to falter. People turned in to see the freak show once or twice, but interest in women who sounded like Sly Stallone and had Adam’s apples to match proved to be short-lived.

    Flash forward and the disaffection with steroids migrated to male bodybuilding, then to sports like baseball. There are now plenty of ‘natural’ (or as natural as the testing allows) bodybuilding competitions for men, and female bodybuilding distinctly favors proportion and symmetry over bulk, veins, chin hair and gravelly diction. My guess (and it is a guess) is that this foray into chemistry only convinced the movie industry that femininity sells better than muscles. (I”m not sufficiently current with the comic/graphic novel scene to make a similar claim about that medium.)

    • I am an avid follower of bodybuilding. Could you please show me a woman with an adams apple? Or one that sounds like Sly Stallone. Stereotypes , ignorance and insecurity are far more prevalent than actual knowledge of the sport itself.

  7. Confused?

    Um? What? The super heroes that are physically strong are buff. Superman, Wonder woman, the Hulk, She Hulk. All others are drawn with their powers in mind, and as for that I would argue that female super heroes and villains are ALWAYS buff when compared to male villains. Professor X and Magneto not buff, The Joker, The Penguin not buff. Name for me please the overweight female anything in comics. Even if not ripped like Hercules, the women I would argue are 95% pretty darn buff. At least, there is not a one of them that I would mess with. The fewer absolutely ripped like Hulk characters is a representation of the different powers they tend to have. Don’t need to be super ripped to read minds, or control the weather (yet they are for some reason). You want body builder type women, that’s usually going against their specific powers and almost always unnecessary and not universally represented by their male counterparts either. Name for me the women in any comic or heroine story that is not AT LEAST as buff as Peter Parker?

    Seriously. Do it. Which female ANYTHING is not in better shape than Peter Parker? Case closed. Non-story. Go back to writing things that make sense.

    • htownmark

      The post was really about live-action versions of superheroes. not how they are drawn in comics. Given that context, the post makes plenty of sense, and is well-argued.

  8. Random

    Without citing anyone, one interesting aspect of studies on human attractiveness is that men tend to be much more fixated on sexual dimorphism than women. Men both think very-female females are more attractive and also assume women think very-male males are more attractive to women. The latter is untrue. Women similarly err in their guess as to what men find attractive in women (in a more complex way: something like “active” is the attractive characteristic they like in men and assume men like in women). So, “intimidated” is probably not the issue. Comics written for men should show men and women in ways that women will not find too attractive. “Overendowed” with secondary sexual characteristics is the feature for both genders in male comics. In female comics, I would think it should be that both genders are “active” (meaning fast moving, on the physical side). I don’t know anything on the topic, though. Women also generally show much more variability in preference so probably less of a “typical” form.

  9. My suspicion is that live-action women superheroes aren’t buff because in order to be traditionally sexy and feminine, they just can’t be. A Wonder Woman with powerful muscles would be intimidating to fanboys, not attractive.

    That’s actually false, on paper lot of super-heroines have lot of muscles. Real problem is to find an actress shaped like them: usual female bodybuilders aren’t that great actresses.

    Yes, Yvette Bova,

    did some “movies”, but I wouldn’t say she fits for teenager movies….


  10. Oodoodanoo

    Attitudes toward female athleticism are changing. Many men have no problem lusting after women volleyball players and tennis players, who are plenty athletic. The lag in movies is due to the fact that David E. Kelley and the Hollywood brass are either too old or afraid that the audience is too old to get it.

    Now, the fact that Maria Sharapova and others are more popular than the Williams sisters has more to do with racism than sexism, but that’s a different story.

  11. Foggen

    She-Hulk says hi.

  12. Reggie1971

    It would look “sillier” for Wonder Woman to run around baring her legs? Well sign me up for “sillier” then. She is supposed to be blatantly sexy. She’s not portraying a CEO or Senator now is she?

  13. A Woman with Muscle

    As far as whether or not superheroes need muscle, Superman doesn’t have it easy. He often exerts himself quite a bit to do what he does. When you tax your muscles, they tear and heal: that is how they grow. So… they would grow. Other superheroes also are shown to be working hard to do what they do. Superhuman strength aside, what they are doing on a superhuman scale apparently taxes their muscles—making them grow.

  14. A Woman with Muscle

    Also, my own personal experience (I’ve been lifting weights for 20 years; I was lifting back when I was practically the only woman in the gym) tells me fanboys and men alike like women with muscle. And there are women out there who can look the part and act. We’re not talking about a female Schwarzenegger here. We’re talking about a woman with muscle. If a woman does not use performance-enhancing drugs and has a low percentage of body fat, she is going to be lithely muscular, not bulky.

    It’s time Hollywood stepped into the 21st century.

    • Thank you. I agree. Unfortunately if a woman displays the most minute definition the average Joe thinks she’s “jacked” or “huge”. And you are so right, the most popular girl in the gym is the one that has muscle and actually lifts weights.

  15. A Woman with Muscle

    Look at the stunt double, for frell’s sake. She’s not musclebound; she simply has muscle. There are women out there like that, and women out there who can be made to look like that. Men and women both get “buff” for movies. It’s time this translated to TV, too.

  16. A Woman with Muscle

    And losing the muscle? Please. All you have to do is stop working to maintain it. Keeping a muscular physique is a lot harder than losing it.

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  18. Femdish

    That’s a whole lotta criticism of a bunch of women’s bodies…

  19. None of Your Business

    A couple of points:
    1) Most male superhero actors are not that buff, at least compared to the characters they’re portraying; or even regular athletes – being ripped is not the same as being muscular. Real ‘superhero’ physiques would be somewhere around 220-320lbs, much-much-much bigger than Brad Pitt or even Christian Bale (except the first movie, where he was indeed around 220-230 – still at the LOWER END of superhero physiques).

    2) Most men I’ve talked to have an aversion to very muscular women (though I don’t). Superheroes are modern day gods and, as gods, are supposed to be ideal types of people. So super-chicks are, like goddesses, going to be thin with a big ass and a big rack. If you don’t like it complain to Darwin.

    3) Physical build actually makes next to no sense for Wonder Woman. It might have some story sense – she’s an Amazonian – but from a physics perspective she is so strong it matters little whether she is buff, skinny or fat; it will just slightly change the velocity of her as a human projectile.

    So, either way you look at it – physics, mythology or comic book standards – female muscularity is a non-issue.

    Now as a matter of matching the character Wonder Woman or Power Girl should be muscular and tall, because their characters are. So find me a 6′ hot body builder chick with huge tits who can act. Oh, what’s that? They don’t exist? There’s your explanation.

  20. I have been thinking this too! I’m kind of disappointed & tierd of seeing these beautiful yet dainty physics of these female superheroes in movies it would actually be refreshing to see a female super hero in a movie actually have some muscles and I think a women with some muscles can be sexy too!

  21. Yeah, it’s so unfair! If the heroine is going to be doing such epic stunts they should be muscular. A muscular heroine would be really awesome, epic, and also attractive. Women shouldn’t be afraid of having muscles and being strong. Nobody’s going to look like a bodybuilder unless that is their intention.

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