Kiryuin Satsuki and the Curse of Power Girl

I view the DC superhero Power Girl as being almost doomed by her appearance. If you ask anyone with even a passing familiarity with Power Girl about what defines her character, you’re very likely to get the response “boob window.” This is despite numerous attempts to revamp her character, emphasize her personality, and make her more than just eye candy first, superhero second.

This is not to say that Power Girl is an inherently bad or sexist character, whether she’s supposed to be an adult Supergirl (her original origin) or something else entirely. I don’t even think the boob window necessarily has to go. But what fascinates me about Power Girl’s situation is that, for whatever reason, it seems especially difficult for her to escape being seen almost as a character attached to a pair of breasts.

In contrast, when it comes to characters who have overcome a highly sexualized appearance, one need look no further than Kiryuin Satsuki from the anime Kill la Kill. In spite of the fact that her battle uniform looks like a sling bikini on steroids, her personality overwhelms even the sheer and unbridled sexuality of her clothing. Despite her breasts and buttocks often being in full display in numerous scenes what first comes to mind are her other attributes: scowl (with enormously imposing eyebrows), her ambition, and the fact that she literally radiates an aura of light that symbolizes her power.

I find myself wondering, what is the difference between Satsuki and Power Girl, or indeed Power Girl and other female superheroes who have been successfully redefined as more than just their eroticism (note that I did not say more than just their looks—appearance is just an essential part of superheroes, male and female)?

There are two major context points that separate Satsuki and Power Girl. First, unlike Power Girl, Satsuki is introduced in Kill la Kill in her full-body school uniform rather than in her skimpier attire. Second, whereas Satsuki’s existence is defined solely by one television series, Power Girl has been a part of comics for decades. While the circumstances of 2010s Japan and 1970s United States are substantially different, I suspect that Power Girl would be remembered very differently if she arrived on the scene the way Satsuki does in Kill la Kill: as someone grandiose and powerful. Perhaps it would even be possible for her to keep the boob window and still be thought of primarily for her superheroics and feats of strength.

Or perhaps my view of Satsuki is too charitable. Maybe the imprint she’s left on anime and its fandom, especially those who know Kill la Kill only from images, is just her near-naked body in a battle bikini.

Power Girl appears to be a victim of historical inertia. No matter what is done with her character to turn her away from a primary emphasis on her breasts, focus always returns to her iconic cleavage cut. Whether it’s possible to overturn this might require not just an amazing creative team where artist and writer are working towards this goal, but a comics fandom willing to accept this change.

 

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“She’s So Developed!”

There’s something about a lot of anime and manga that I think lends them much of the praise and criticism they receive from people, fans or otherwise. I wouldn’t call it a unique or exclusive property of anime, but it’s something that I believe recurs more often when compared to other mediums. What I am talking about is the ability for a character to both be sexualized and objectified by its audience while still being able to move the audience with a well-developed personality.

Sheryl Nome. Arika Yumemiya. Kawashima Ami. Practically the entire female cast of Gundam 00. Every girl in Godannar. All these and more are designed on some level to explicitly titillate, but I would not call any of their characters excessively shallow or designed purely with fanservice in mind. Nor would I say that pure fanservice characters do not exist at all, but I feel like more often than not in anime and manga, blatant, in-your-face sexual attractiveness does not come at the expense of strong characterization or at the very least attempts at strong characterization. Much of the eroge and visual novel industry is built on this premise.

I do not see this happening as often in other mediums. Of course sex appeal still exists in them, but very rarely do they try to turn both dials up to max, rarely do they say, “Hey we want to basically tell the audience outright to fantasize indecently about this character while still showing the strength of their personality.” Hayden Panettiere (Claire Bennet) on Heroes is clearly meant to invoke a reaction from male viewers with her attractiveness, official assignment as “cheerleader,” her clothes, and pretty much everything about her, but there’s some attempt at keeping the character Claire’s “fanservice” somewhat implicit. The DC Comics character Power Girl, known for her super strength and her enormous chest, seems to go through constant subtle shifts in characterization as writers and artists seem unsure how to balance the development of her character with a design clearly meant to get guys’ mojos going. Fans of DC Comics run into a similar problem. In other cases, a character who is obviously sexually attractive while possessing good characterization will have their sexuality incorporated into their personality and character.

Meanwhile, many anime fans embrace this double threat. Others do not of course, and I think this causes some of the conflict as to whether or not a character is “good” or not. Does being explicitly sexual in design and presentation work with characterization, or against it? Or do they perhaps run parallel to each other? Wherever you fall, if you meet someone who thinks otherwise, there’s a chance that, because your approach to characters is so different, arguments will arise. This is probably where arguments about moe find most of their ammo, no matter which side fans are on.

As a final note, keep in mind I used female examples because that’s what gets me. Feel free to replace all examples with male equivalents if that’s your thing.