Why Wonder Woman's breastplate isn't disappointing

Wonder Woman. Credit: wonderwomanfilm.com

The Wonder Woman armour piece of June 19 is already among the most-read pieces on this blog that were published in the last year, and quite a few people have stepped forward to give me their take on Twitter and over email. Thanks for all the responses – it’s been an unexpectedly wonderful learning experience. 🙂 This said, one of those who replied, my friend Ishita Roy, also told me why – the logic in my piece notwithstanding – she isn’t actually disappointed by Wonder Woman’s garb in the film. I’ve reproduced her complete response below (from her Facebook comment). –VM

Your analysis of Wonder Woman armour is technically and logically sound. It should be disappointing to see her in such impractical (dangerous, as you pointed out) and male-gaze oriented “armour”. However, allow me to suggest a few reasons for the lack of disappointment here.

1. The origins: William Marston, who co-created the character with his wife, based her design on bondage (BDSM) gear. This is actually in line with the origin of Superman, whose original artist also was inspired by BDSM.

The idea here was not to cater to the male gaze, but to strike the same chord as the image of a dominatrix.
Indeed, Marston’s credentials and intentions were rather impeccable – he was a psychologist and a feminist, and in a polyamorous relationship with two other queer feminists, both of whom had heavy inputs in the making of Wonder Woman.

2. The “armour” is not actually accompanied by the male gaze.

There is not a single shot in the movie which tracks the bodies of any of the amazons. Not a single shot. The attire of the amazons is treated with superb nonchalance in the movie. Of particular note are two scenes: Diana is catcalled when she first appears in London, hidden under a cloak, and later in her green outfit – both of which would be perceived as modest by most folks. But when she appears in her armour, and starts kicking ass, she not even ogled at.

That’s a huge message to send audiences: that women’s clothing is not meant for consumption by an audience. I think giving them actual armour would have subtracted from that message – that women deserve respect regardless of whatever they wear. That even as warriors, modesty is not a requirement.
The whole amazon attire is thoroughly divorced from the concept of objectification by the cinematography, script and the very suggestive fact that amazons of all ages wear it.

3. That attire may not have been meant as armour.

The fighting style choreographed for the amazons is actively incompatible with plate-mail. It depends on ranged attacks, acrobatics and is more coordinated than single combat. Freedom of movement, along with coverage of vitals seems to be the aim here.

Now note that Diana’s attire is more revealing than the standard issue Amazonian garb. Also note that it has been depicted as a museum piece in-story, and is meant to be more ceremonial than actual armour.
Indeed the prevailing fan theory is that it is completely ceremonial, meant to be an appropriate superhero costume for the (wielder of) god-killers rather than a bulletproof vest.

Finally: re Thor and Bruce. Both guys spend a substantial amount of time with a naked torso and, in Thor’s case, wearing non-armoured clothing. Make of that what you will.

Why Wonder Woman’s breastplate isn’t disappointing

Wonder Woman. Credit: wonderwomanfilm.com

The Wonder Woman armour piece of June 19 is already among the most-read pieces on this blog that were published in the last year, and quite a few people have stepped forward to give me their take on Twitter and over email. Thanks for all the responses – it’s been an unexpectedly wonderful learning experience. 🙂 This said, one of those who replied, my friend Ishita Roy, also told me why – the logic in my piece notwithstanding – she isn’t actually disappointed by Wonder Woman’s garb in the film. I’ve reproduced her complete response below (from her Facebook comment). –VM

Your analysis of Wonder Woman armour is technically and logically sound. It should be disappointing to see her in such impractical (dangerous, as you pointed out) and male-gaze oriented “armour”. However, allow me to suggest a few reasons for the lack of disappointment here.

1. The origins: William Marston, who co-created the character with his wife, based her design on bondage (BDSM) gear. This is actually in line with the origin of Superman, whose original artist also was inspired by BDSM.

The idea here was not to cater to the male gaze, but to strike the same chord as the image of a dominatrix.
Indeed, Marston’s credentials and intentions were rather impeccable – he was a psychologist and a feminist, and in a polyamorous relationship with two other queer feminists, both of whom had heavy inputs in the making of Wonder Woman.

2. The “armour” is not actually accompanied by the male gaze.

There is not a single shot in the movie which tracks the bodies of any of the amazons. Not a single shot. The attire of the amazons is treated with superb nonchalance in the movie. Of particular note are two scenes: Diana is catcalled when she first appears in London, hidden under a cloak, and later in her green outfit – both of which would be perceived as modest by most folks. But when she appears in her armour, and starts kicking ass, she not even ogled at.

That’s a huge message to send audiences: that women’s clothing is not meant for consumption by an audience. I think giving them actual armour would have subtracted from that message – that women deserve respect regardless of whatever they wear. That even as warriors, modesty is not a requirement.
The whole amazon attire is thoroughly divorced from the concept of objectification by the cinematography, script and the very suggestive fact that amazons of all ages wear it.

3. That attire may not have been meant as armour.

The fighting style choreographed for the amazons is actively incompatible with plate-mail. It depends on ranged attacks, acrobatics and is more coordinated than single combat. Freedom of movement, along with coverage of vitals seems to be the aim here.

Now note that Diana’s attire is more revealing than the standard issue Amazonian garb. Also note that it has been depicted as a museum piece in-story, and is meant to be more ceremonial than actual armour.
Indeed the prevailing fan theory is that it is completely ceremonial, meant to be an appropriate superhero costume for the (wielder of) god-killers rather than a bulletproof vest.

Finally: re Thor and Bruce. Both guys spend a substantial amount of time with a naked torso and, in Thor’s case, wearing non-armoured clothing. Make of that what you will.

Unscientific breastplates

Before I begin, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not obsessed with comic books, and that what follows is based on information gleaned from googling and trawling through internet forums at 1 am. If I’ve got a detail wrong, please point it out nicely and I’m happy to make the necessary corrections.


https://twitter.com/haarleyquin/status/876383140058726401

Wonder Woman the movie was hailed so widely for being what it was but surprisingly few fixated on the protagonist’s clothing – a noticeable departure from reality, where social media commentators often pick on women’s sartorial sensibilities in various circumstances over anything else that might be contextually relevant. I do realise that what Diana Prince chooses to wear is her choice and none of my business. Then again, what about the fact that she happens to be a character created for popular consumption by a man who modelled her after his idea of women: that they feel happy when they are submissive?

There’s more. The reason I’m going to fixate on her clothing now has to do with mechanical engineering (which I studied for my undergraduate degree). Of all the things Prince wears, her breastplate is particularly interesting.

As the visions of sci-fi and fantasy films have evolved in the last few decades, there has also been a noticeable evolution in the liberties taken with set and costume design. Specifically, they have become less displays of their creators’ being awed by the possibilities of the future as well as to contain their fantasies and artistic overtures – and more humdrum, utilitarian and functional. For example, in a limited sense, filmmakers on average have reduced their attention on the “wow” factor of gadgetry, keeping audiences from getting ‘distracted’ by some outlandish vision of the future. Some of my favourite recent examples of this include Iron Man, Nolan’s Batman and Mad Max: Fury Road. The movies’ script is always such that the “wow” object isn’t introduced in our midst suddenly. Its creation process is exposed to the viewer at every step such that the ultimate effect is for the viewer to be viscerally familiar with the object by the time of its deployment in action – especially with the choices behind its more unique features.

But one area in which filmmakers have broadly seemed reluctant to get functionalist about is the breastplate of female warriors. Or at least they have become functional to the extent that their function is to make female warriors looks sexier instead of afford proper protection. For example, consider the battledress of three characters: one each from Game of Thrones, Man of Steel and Wonder Woman.

Faora from the Superman universe (left) and Brienne of Tarth, from Game of Thrones. Source: YouTube
Faora from the Superman universe (left) and Brienne of Tarth, from Game of Thrones. Source: YouTube

While Faora Hu-Ul and Wonder Woman have breastplates that cup the breasts, Brienne of Tarth wears one that doesn’t. This is important because all of them are warriors and their armours must be able to protect them in a variety of conflict situations. One of them is melee combat, and when the breastplate receives a blow, its duty is to lessen the impact on the torso by absorbing it as well as directing it away from sensitive areas. However, when the breastplate cups over the breasts, striking it on top risks the force becoming directed inwards (especially if the seam is bad), towards the ribs and the sternum. This is what Emily Asher-Perrin wrote about for Tor in May 2013:

Assuming that you are avoiding the blow of a sword, your armor should be designed so that the blade glances off your body, away from your chest. If your armor is breast-shaped, you are in fact increasing the likelihood that a blade blow will slide inward, toward the center of your chest, the very place you are trying to keep safe. But that’s not all! Let’s say you even fall onto your boob-conscious armor. The divet separating each breast will dig into your chest, doing you injury. It might even break your breastbone. With a strong enough blow to the chest, it could fracture your sternum entirely, destroying your heart and lungs, instantly killing you. It is literally a death trap—you are wearing armor that acts as a perpetual spear directed at some of your most vulnerable body parts. It’s just not smart.

This is particularly true of Wonder Woman, whose latest costume appears to feature a metallic lining at the helm with a prow in the middle (the ‘golden eagle’) bending into the centre of her chest as well as sharp tips angling over her breasts. How is this sensible? Imagine what would happen if she fell face-down.

A close-up view of Wonder Woman's breastplate. Source: YouTube
A close-up view of Wonder Woman’s breastplate. Source: YouTube

I suppose you’re wondering how it matters considering it’s Wonder Goddamn Woman, a superhero who can take punches harder than any armour would be able to withstand on her bare skin and not flinch. But the same can be said of Thor, and even Dr Bruce Banner, and it’s not like either of them is walking around wearing an iron maiden or a chastity belt just because he can. In effect, while Batman got full-body armour capable of surviving a Rottweiler attack, Wonder Woman had to make do with gear that wasn’t entirely about ‘her choices’. It actually created new ways to harm her (were it not for her Amazonian outside) because it was trying to preserve other things: her sexiness and her symbols. In a March 2016 interview to Hollywood Reporter, Michael Wilkinson, the costume designer who created Wonder Woman’s armour, said:

We created a costume that looks like metal armor, but of course, in these films the fight scenes are very intense and challenging so I had to come up with a solution that would allow her to move and breathe, but also to have this very iconic, sort of hourglass shape in a modern and interesting way. … Of course there’s all sorts of things she has such as the eagle and WW motif throughout the costume, so I tried to use that WW motif through the belt and the gauntlets and across the breastplate. There’s WW throughout the costume. I think someone tried to count them and they got to 40. (Emphasis added.)

What do either of these things have to do with combat efficiency? Again, for those wondering how any of this matters, let me remind you that my point is only that the sensibilities going into designing male armour and female armour seem to be different.

In reality (i.e. when we’re not dealing with superhuman abilities), the answer to this is not to exclude bust cups from female body armour, which is feasible to do only in the case of women with small breasts – but to create new designs that don’t bring additional vulnerabilities over the baseline (i.e. male armour), to focus on individual fit and to test it well. According to an article published in Tech Beat, a magazine of the US National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Centre, in December 2014,

Soft body armors designated as female differ from male and gender-neutral vests in that they can incorporate curved or shaped protective panels to accommodate the female bust. Flat male or gender-neutral models may be suitable for female officers with smaller busts. Depending on design and materials, they may not be suitable for those with larger busts, as the busts push the front armor panel forward, enlarging the underarm gap and therefore lessening the area of coverage between the front and rear panels.

Further, according to the US Office of Justice Programs,

Generally speaking, the difference between male and female models is that for the female body armor, most manufacturers cut and stitch the material to create bust cups. … When a female model is tested, the laboratory is instructed to locate the seam that is created by folding and/or stitching the material to make the bust cup, and to place one of the shots on that seam. This is done to ensure the weakest point of the vest (typically a seam) provides the minimum level of ballistic protection required by the standard. … There are many different types and styles of female vests, and ways of fitting vests to accommodate all of the various sizes and shapes needed for female officers. Some manufacturers have developed methods which ‘mold’ the bust cups into the material, negating the need for cutting and stitching to create a bust cup. Other manufacturers simply alter the outside dimensions of the panel (i.e., enlarging the arm hole openings) to accommodate certain types of builds and body types (commonly referred to as a ‘unisex’ vest).

Overall, it seems to be that there can be no single way to verify the strength and integrity of women’s armour as much as subjecting each unit to a single set of tests. Then again, I wonder if there’s any point bringing all these details to bear on Wonder Woman’s armour: how, for starters, are we going to get the Young’s modulus of Amazonian amazongmetal? I’m not sure the movies (including Batman v. Superman) have a scene where Princess Diana falls face down or takes a punch from Superman. In the off chance that such a scene does come to be, I’m going to be interested in her armour’s backface deformation. From a Police One article published in December 2014,

… in ballistic-resistant armor testing, backface deformation (BFD) is the measurement on the indent in a clay backing material when a bullet that does not penetrate a vest makes an impression on the clay. BFD testing of very small panels of armors, as well as whether the amount of allowed deformation should be different for the breast area, could be areas for study. … “The idea is to use a supplemental test technique to ensure that when rounds impact areas of the female anatomy that they have the same level of protection as existing male armors, but when striking the bust area, we want to make sure that we provide a more biofidelic test method that specifically addresses the unique female anatomy,” Otterson says.

Update: Twitter user @shishiqiushi has pointed out that the proper historical comparison for breastplates would be the Roman cuirass. However, I’m not sure where this fits into my narrative because there is no evidence – whether in art or archaeology – that women wore the cuirass into battle, at least not usually. And when they did, they wore versions designed for men. Perhaps I would be able to say that the thinking going into designing men’s armour had some historical basis. For further reading, try this Gizmodo explainer.

Justice in Gotham City

History

The history of Gotham city is not unlike many American cities’ during British colonial rule. It was founded in 1635 by a Norwegian mercenary and was later taken over by the British, changing hands various times over the years. According to Alan Moore, the famous cartoonist and creator of such titles as Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Gotham city was the place of many mysterious occult rites during the American Revolutionary War (Swamp Thing #53).

A separate history was provided for by Bill Willingham (Shadowpact #5): an evil warlock has slept for 40,000 years under the place where Gotham city is built, with his servant Strega claiming the “dark and often cursed character” of the city was inherited from the warlock’s nature. Going by either story, the city assumes a post-Apocalyptic mood that is also Gothic at the same time, and accords it an ambivalence that invites literary exploitation.

This mood has since been open for modification by writers, more so after the chain of events set off by the villain Ra’as Al Ghul. He introduced a virus called the Clench, impacting the city greatly. Just as it was recuperating from its impact, it was hit by an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale, prompting the federal government of the United States to cut off Gotham from the mainland because it had no hopes of rehabilitating it. However, respite arrived in the form of assistance from the brilliant billionaire Alexander “Lex” Luthor, Superman’s archenemy.

In this regard, there are many comparisons to be made to Mumbai, which is itself a set of seven islands, is constantly assaulted by terrorists, and often finds support not from the government but from unexpected quarters (but, it must be said, not as unexpected as Luthor). By extension, the residents of Gotham city are also likely to be more resilient and resourceful than the residents of other cities, and possibly quite cynical, too.

Everything about Gotham city is rooted in its mysticism-ridden history, and the fights fought between the region’s native tribes and evil powers. The first signs of modern civilization arise in the 19th century when, after the tribes’ abandonment due to infestation by what they claimed were evil powers, Gotham Town was born as a reputable port.

Around the same period, in 1799, Darius Wayne profited from his labours on the port and started the construction of Wayne Manor, one of the precursors of the city’s cocktail of Gothic, Art Nouveau and Art Deco architectures. The manor itself is what one would call “stately”. It is located toward the northeast of the city, removed from the clamour of urbanism and allowing Batman, or Bruce Wayne – Darius Wayne’s descendent – to plan his adventures in peace.

Exclusivity v. Justice

The isolation of the manor parallels the isolation of Wayne’s personality from that of Batman’s: the former is portrayed as a dilettante indulging in the wealth of his forefathers whereas the latter is portrayed as a vigilante that the city seems to subconsciously need. At the same time, however, it is hard to say what the difference might have been had Wayne Manor been situated inside the city. In this regard, there is a notion of social exclusivity in terms of spaces occupied within the city.

A good case in point for this would be the older part of Gotham, which is situated to the north of the city and generally considered a part of the city itself. Old Gotham is where Crime Alley (which includes the Bowery, the worst neighbourhood in all of Gotham), Arkham Asylum (albeit as an island – visible to the east of a forked New Trigate Bridge), and Amusement Mile (the stalking grounds of the Joker) are located. Therefore, the new city, developing on the principles of reformation and citizen-vigilantism, grew southward and away from its traditional centres of trade, finance, and commerce.

Disregarding the depiction of Gotham’s architecture in the Burton and Nolan movies and the TV series: another of Wayne’s ancestors, Judge Solomon Wayne, was, according to Moore, the inspiration for the city’s unique architecture. Solomon’s intention to reform the city and rebrand it, so to speak, resulting in his commissioning of the young architect Cyrus Pinkney to design and construct the city’s financial centre. Moore’s choice of this explanation coincides perfectly with the period of Gothic Revivalism (around the early 1990s).

Click to enlarge

Growth v. Justice

Justice within a city is not administered in a court of law nor does it arise out of the adherence to rules and ethics. It is a product of many of the city’s provisions, their accessibility, and how well they work together to give rise to a sense of social security and provide a livelihood. For instance, Gotham’s common man could be working a nine-to-five day-job at some company in One Gotham Centre, just down the road from Wayne Tower, living in the suburbs around the Knights Dome Sporting Complex, within swimming distance of Cape Carmine off Old Gotham, and supporting a family of three.

However, this is not social justice. The need for social justice arises when aspirations, income and social liberty don’t coincide: if the nearest amusement park is haunted by a psychopathic serial killer, if a trip to the airport requires a drive through Arkham Asylum, if affordable housing comes at the price of personal security, and, most importantly, if there is the persistent knowledge of the need for a masked vigilante to rely on for a measurable sense of appeal against all the odds – in simple terms. It is as if the city was carefully misplanned: the Gotham city everyman is someone forced to live in a dangerous neighbourhood because of lack of other options for sheltering.

In other words, social justice is a perfect city and, therefore, by definition, can be neither omnipresent nor omnipotent, especially since Gotham city falls under the umbra of laissez faire economics. As a corollary, to understand social justice within a city, we must understand where the city’s priorities lie. How has the city been developing in the last few years? Is economic equality rising or falling? Who within the city has a sense of ease of access when it comes to valuable resources and who doesn’t?

The Metropolis

The problem with studying Gotham city is that it is a city conceived as a negative space to serve as the battleground where the forces of good and evil meet. It has deliberately been envisioned as a child of the industrial revolution entombed within walls of steel and stone, overwhelming those living within it with by the enforcement of a systematic way of life that allows for the exercise of few liberties. This is what effectively paints the picture of Gotham city being a failed one. In fact, this very way of thinking is paralleled in the image of the Metropolis in Blade Runner (1982), whose Modern-expressionism production design was borrowed inefficiently by Barbara Ling for Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995) to imply a wildly whimsical side to the city. Anyway, this is how we understand the need for Batman, and how that need has been and is created.

It begins with the blighting of the police force: the superhero can become a societal fixture only if there is something fundamentally wrong with the one other body that is responsible for keeping crime in check. The Gotham City Police Department (GCPD) was corrupt for a long time, especially under the leadership of Commissioner Gillian Loeb, who had his hands in the pockets of the Falcone, Galante and Maroni crime families amongst others. The social scene inspired by such a network could be compared to the conspiratorial mood in the movie L. A. Confidential (1997).

By the time Commissioner James Gordon took over after Loeb’s successor Jack Grogan, the GCPD was overridden with lawlessness. Because of such a poor tradition, public authorities who should have been present to assuage the suffering of the historically discriminated were instead present to exacerbate, and profit from, the discrimination. Seeing that the GCPD couldn’t be cleaned from the inside, Gordon enlisted the skills of Batman, a veritable outsider, a deus ex machina.

Once the cleansing was complete, the city could formally begin on its path of reformation. Here is where the question of economic equality arises: when weeding out criminals, did the police department assume a rehabilitative approach or a retributive one? If the movies and TV series based on the comic may be trusted, then retribution was the order of the day, perhaps born out of an urgent need to do away with everything that has plagued the city and start anew.

At the same time, retribution also implies that enforcers of the law – and Batman – were willing to show no patience toward how the city itself was creating many criminals. This lack of patience is also reflected in many of the urban development projects undertaken by the city’s planning commission, especially such ill-conceived ones as the Underground Highway, as if the officials decided that desperate measures were necessary. (The ultimately-abandoned Underground Highway later went on to become the hideout of Killer Croc, apart from becoming the home for many of the city’s homeless – an indication that the forces of corruption at work were creating poverty.)

Conclusion

It can be deduced from all these threads that Gotham city is not simply a product of its history, which continues to influence the way outsiders think of it, but also its inability to cope with what it is fast becoming: a kennel for superheroes to flourish in. There are many decisions at work in the city that collude to create injustice in many forms, and the most significant ones are geographic exclusivity, a retributive mindset in the ranks of the executive, restriction on the exercising of social liberties based on past mistakes, and the presence of Batman himself.