Saturday, April 28, 2012

Does Feminine Attire Reflect Gender Stereotypes?

After our brief class discussion about how Buffy’s fashion can affect her character, it made me think about the significance dress can have on a character’s portrayal—in particular, the role that feminine clothing plays on the depiction of a female character's power.

In class, it was mentioned that Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer wears stylish women’s clothing, yet still remains incredibly adept in battle. Her stylish dress does not detract from her ability to defend herself or live up to the role of a superheroine.  

However, in many circumstances, this is not the case.  A movie that particularly comes to mind in this case is Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Elizabeth Swann is one of the main characters of the movie. Beginning the movie as a rich young heiress living a more than comfortable life, she soon finds her inner passion which leads her down a road of adventure and piracy. She lets go of her comfortable, carefree life of being the “governor’s daughter” to seek adventure on the open sea. She does not shy away from the violence in the battles she experiences, but instead, embraces it—loving the thrill fighting gives her.

Her dress and style throughout the movie visualize this transformation from an heiress to a fighter and show her reluctance to dive back into her old life. In fact, being forced to wear a frilly dress is used as a threat—a way of objectifying her and symbolizing the societal stereotypes of women as the weaker gender.

She was forced to wear feminine clothing by Captain Barbossa and told that if she refuses, “[She’ll] be dining with the crew. And [she’ll] be naked.” In the first 30 seconds of this video clip, two members of the crew are shown delivering this message to Elizabeth from Barbossa. You can clearly see the disappointment on their faces when she doesn’t choose the latter . . . 

Having to choose between wearing a feminine dress or no dress at all provides an example of how women can be objectified by what they wear. By choosing her attire, Barbossa asserts his dominance over her. By making her wear a feminine dress, he restricts her to the stereotypical female gender role. As he perceives it, if Elizabeth is wearing a frilly dress, then she can be seen as week and submissive, thus making himself feel powerful.

However, throughout her transformation, Elizabeth is given a uniform from the Royal Navy. Wearing this male uniform, Elizabeth is able to participate fully without restrictions in the way of pirate life—fighting pirates and being respected as a leader. This dress not only garners more respect from the male sailors that surround her, but also from herself. Dressing in this way allows her to feel free to fight and exhibit superheroine like qualities while still gaining respect from her peers.

What is the cause for the difference between Buffy and Elizabeth? Why is it that while Buffy can remain dressed in stylish attire, Elizabeth must rid herself of her feminist attire in order to escape her stereotypical gender role?


  1. I think this is an interesting example of a man trying to achieve power over a woman by literally forcing her to wear a dress that is overly feminine in style. We have seen on many occasions male comic book illustrators dressing their female heroines in sexual attire but in this case one of the male characters in the movie is attempting to exert his authority by making the female character where a sultry dress. I find it disappointing that her fellow pirates are more respectful of Elizabeth when she is dressed in male uniform. Buffy is able to maintain her womanly style and be taken seriously as a slayer while Elizabeth has to taken on a masculine appearance to obtain respect. This could be due to the fact that Buffy lives in the 20th century while Elizabeth lives in much earlier time period prior to any feminist movement.

  2. There were many examples where we see women objectified by the way they dress by men, especially in comic books. As we talked in earlier classes, the artists are usually men, as a result, many of their depictions of women in comics are often exaggerated. For instance, women are positioned in certain poses that are in reality impossible. This is analogous to Barbossa forcing Elizabeth to wear a feminine dress in the movie. In both, we see women fulfilling the standards and expectations of what men think women should be. Buffy's attire is feminine but does not limit her slaying vampires. However, we also have to take into account that Buffy is a fictional character who was created by Joss Whedon and her wardrobe is assigned to her by producers.

  3. It is true, that Barbosa was very brash in ultimately forcing Elizabeth into a more feminine attire to dine with him. This is not the only instance throughout the movie which displays the male dominance over women of the time. I remember a scene where they are talking about how it is bad luck to have women on the ship and therefore one girl dresses up as a male in hopes to get on the ship without being caught. I do have to agree with Alexandra, that this could be do the fact that the Pirates movies are based in 18th century, in a time when there were no signs of feminists movements yet and women were still seen as subordinate human beings.

  4. It seems that much of the time women need to masculinize themselves in order to gain respect from society, and Buffy is one of the few examples of a respected, "strong" female character who is also very feminine. She was prbably created with this purpose in mind, with direct influence from the idea of "Girl Power" from the Riot Grrrl movement. According to an article on Slayage, "Riot Grrrl was an anger-based feminine subculture, exposing and celebrating the anger young women were usually encouraged to hide, directed mainly at societal institutions, expectations, and pressures. Riot Grrrl also focused on a clear conveyance of the teenage female experience, and how it differed from the one depicted by the media." By trying to focus on the reality of the female experience, feminists of this era wanted to portray women just as they are, without needing to masculinize them in order to make them appear stronger.


  5. In real life as well, it is easy to see this in action. Think about some of the biggest names in the fashion and accessories- most of them are men. When we think about the people who are designing women's fashion, and who is in charge of advertising these messages to the public, many of the people who control the way women dress are men. While this is not always the case, it helps prove the point that you were making about Pirates of the Caribbean. The standard of beauty that is set in America, and through that, the type of clothing that is "acceptable" for women is dictated by men, and their interpretation of what is attractive.

  6. I think the distinction between Buffy and Elizabeth is the type of women's clothing. Modern female outfits can objectify women but they are still function outfits for functional memebers of society. A woman's dress in the 1700s was inherently restricting. Women were seen as dolls and dolls are only made unique by what they wear. Think to the scene where Elizabeth almost dies because of her corest. The dress and the protrayal of weak women went hand in hand. Elizabeth would be phyisically incapable of fighting bad guys in a hoop skirt and a corset when she can't breathe. Buffy on the other hand can be stylish and badass because a lot of the clothing that she wears accomplishes both at one - pink leather pants are both kickass, stylish, and feminine: dresses... not so much.

  7. In answer to the question posed at the end of your post, I think that the main difference between Buffy and Elizabeth is that Buffy chooses her attire. She is not told by society or by the men in her life what she can and can't wear. Instead, she picks out her own clothes and cares about how she looks (like many other typical teenage girls). Elizabeth, on the other hand, was forced to wear frilly dresses by society as she grew up, and she found such attire unsuitable to the new independent life she wanted to live. Buffy started out wearing the clothes she wanted to. This highlights the main reason of why Buffy can dress in feminine clothing while fighting and Elizabeth instead wears masculine clothing to feel empowered.

  8. I think a lot of it also comes from the degree of involvement both women chose. I haven't watch Pirates in a while, so correct me if I'm wrong, but it can be argued that to some point Elizabeth had chosen not to live the life of comfort by rejecting the Commodore's proposal and pursuing her love with a pirate. Buffy, on the other hand, does not choose her destiny. She is unwillingly fated to be the slayer and strongly desires to be just a normal girl. Perhaps her desire to be just a normal girl affects the types of clothing she chooses to wear.

  9. I don't know if this is way off base...but I feel that some of the comments we said in class and what is put on here is kind of contradictory. For instance, this post and its comments are basically indicating that Elizabeth's dress (clothing) is objectifying her by the facts that the dress is so restricting and that she is being forced to wear it by a male. However, in class, we mentioned how Buffy wears stylish clothing but this may be a way of attracting males to watch the show. Buffy doesn't wear anything too revealing, but the idea of her conforming to society's idea of beauty through the style of clothing can be interpreted as conforming to society's gender inequalities. So which is it? A woman can't wear an overly dressy outfit or she won't be respected. On the other hand, she can't be in style, or she'll be conforming too much to the patriarchal society's views on beauty for women. Can't a women just wear whatever she wants, whether it is skimpy, stylish, overly feminine, nun-ish, or masculine, and be bad-ass and be done with it?

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