My Sexy, Powerful Childhood Heroines

Now that I’m hideously old and decrepit I’m allowed to indulge in nostalgia because, well, because I say so. But since I also write a feminist blog about sex and porn I thought I might as well bring a bit of analysis into my reminiscing. Because why the hell not?

So the other day I found myself musing about the women I looked up to in the TV shows, movies and music of the late 70s and early 80s – my childhood heroines and role models. And I came to a realization that almost all of them were either clad in skimpy bikini-style costumes or slinky leather.  Every single one of them embodied a certain style of in-your-face sexiness that was an essential part of their character.

While it’s pretty obvious that their costumes were purposefully designed to maximize sex appeal, what’s also interesting is that every one of these female characters have power and autonomy. These aren’t just sexy fembots, there to adorn the lives of men. These women were kickass, feminist heroines. And it made quite an impression on me.

So, here are the heroines I looked up to when I was a kid.

Wonder Woman

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“In your satin tights, fighting for your rights…” The Wonder Woman TV series starring Linda Carter was one of my favourite shows as a kid. I SO wanted to be her, invincible, clever and incredibly hot in those crazy blue undies and glued-on strapless corset. The gold bracelets were especially cool. This was a world where a woman always saved the men, using her superpowers and snazzy equipment to thwart the bad guys and generally impress the pants off of Major Steve Trevor. Diana Prince is from a tribe of Amazons, where women hold all the power, so you know she doesn’t subscribe to the usual shit. The show sought to capture some of the vibe of women’s lib, even if it didn’t get it right all the time.

What’s cool about Wonder Woman’s costume is that she chose it herself and she is sexy on her own terms. It’s skimpy but it’s kind of chaste in a lot of ways.

I really wanted to own that costume as a kid and asked if I could get it for Christmas in 1980. My parents did their best; I received a hideous printed outfit made of vinyl plastic that wasn’t even CLOSE to the red corset and blue undies. You couldn’t wear it for more than 10 minutes without sweating yourself into dehydration. I think it went straight to the bottom of the toybox after Christmas Day. So near and yet so far.

I got the pic from here.

 

Leela

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Like almost every other Australian kid of the 70s and 80s, I was brought up on a diet of Doctor Who and The Goodies at 6pm weeknights on the ABC. Tom Baker, Doctor number 4, will always be the best Doctor for me. And Leela, his companion from 1977 to 1978, was always my favourite assistant. What won me over was that she was the first female companion to not be a complete sook. She never sprained her ankle or screamed relentlessly or got herself into a stupid situation from which she needed rescuing. Leela was the first fearless and strong female companion, one who would stand her ground and who was up for a knife fight if necessary. She was also very intelligent, though lacking in education due to her “savage” background.

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And on top of that, she was fucking sexy. I mean, look at that brilliant leather costume. What fabulous boobs. Apparently BBC executives decided to keep her as a companion because she appealed to the “Dads” watching the show. Never mind that, she appealed to me too.

Pic from here

Princess Leia

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I’ve long said that Star Wars made me a feminist. Being denied the right to see the original film in 1977 because I was a girl inspired me to a life of feminism. I always wanted to be Princess Leia, even though I never actually saw the first two films until they came out on video. I knew the stories and had role-played Leia in childhood games but I didn’t get to see Leia on screen until Return of the Jedi in 1983. And damn, if she didn’t make an impression. Leia has both power and sex appeal. She shoots, she argues, she doesn’t take shit, she runs rebellions and she looks incredible in that slave outfit.

I had a poster of the above image on my wall for years and I’ve always, always loved that costume (I remember when I first found the Leia’s Metal Bikini site about 10 years ago. I was thrilled. So, it seems, was every other nerd girl in the entire world). For me, this is how Leia looks, not the white gown and the silly hair buns or any of the other practical clothing she wears. It may be that an image of Leia when she is enslaved is not the best one to choose, let alone love. But the fact is that she is not really defined by her clothing, even here. And given the chance, she strangles Jabba and makes good her own escape, which is the perfect example of everything fabulous about Leia. I recommend this post for a further exploration of the greatness of Slave Leia (“And here is what Leia does, when you force her into a scanty outfit and choke-chain: she takes that chain, and she kills you with it”).

One of these days I will get myself a metal bikini and finally live the dream.

Pic is from here (lots of other nice Slave Leia pics as well)

Kate Bush

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The first cassette tape I owned was 1980 The Summer. That glorious Top 40 compilation album contained Kate Bush’s amazing song Babooshka and not long after I saw the rather stunning video for it. It starts out with Kate acting kind of crazy, wearing a veil and fondling a double bass but then it goes galactic with the chorus, swapping to the backlit image of Kate in full warrior queen ensemble, complete with sword and a dagger in a hilt on her leg. Wind machine is on full tilt. Huge hair, wild eyes, arms to the sky… AI YAI, BABOOSHKA, BABOOSHKA, BABOOSHKA YAI YAI!

I was quite disappointed to learn later that “Babooshka” was the Russian word for “grandmother”. As far as I was concerned, it meant “Incredibly amazing red-haired crazy woman with a sword and the most powerful crotch in the world.” I loved that song so much I learned to do the dance and upset my parents by performing it for them one afternoon, complete with the groiny grindy aspects. Later in life I discovered that my cousins and other female friends had also been terribly endeared to it and knew the moves as well.

Photo is from this page.

Catwoman

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The incredibly camp 1960s TV series of Batman starring Adam West was my introduction to the superhero, a fact that will horrify many comic-book-loving nerds. For me, the dry humour, BAM-POW-BIFF! style of the series was a thrilling way to spend half an hour after school. The only problem was that all of the good guys were male. In fact, almost every character in the series was a man… except for Catwoman. And she was a baddie.

It created quite a conflict in my mind especially because me and my brother were in the habit of “calling” characters, declaring them to represent us in some imaginary battle of who was the best. This game almost never worked out for me because all the coolest, strongest characters were male and I wasn’t allowed to “call” them because I was a girl. Thus, the only character I could “call” in Batman was Catwoman, which meant I had to side with the baddies.

Still, she was cunning, sensual and absolutely rocked that slinky outfit and mask. She was in charge of a veritable bevy of subservient henchmen. And she had it all over Batman in those scenes where they ramped up the sexual tension. I really hoped they’d get together and have BatCatBabies one day.

Eartha Kitt was great in the role but I loved Julie Newmar the most.

Top pic from here. Bottom bic from here

Suzi Quatro

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In the 70s and 80s my Dad played in a local covers band which meant I was immersed in rock music from an early age. Saturday night gigs also meant I was often left in the charge of some very cool teenage babysitters who schooled me in the mysterious arts of screaming at pop stars and disco dancing. They also introduced me to the glory that was – and is – Suzi Quatro. Suzi was the first female hard rocker, the bass-playing, leather-wearing lead singer of an otherwise all-male band. She screamed, she stomped and she took no prisoners; her music was loud and intense and she was definitely in charge. I was fascinated by this album cover where her voice is shattering the microphone; I thought she really could sing that loud.

And she was HOT. I would have killed to get hold of that zippered leather one-piece she’s wearing in the above photo. Actually, I still would.

Suzi wasn’t anybody’s darlin’. She was tough and cool and if you wanted her, it had to be on HER terms.

Pic from this page

Joan Jett

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Joan Jett was originally part of all-girl punk band The Runaways before finding fame as a solo singer in the 80s. She was heavily inspired by Suzi Quatro and I was heavily inspired by her. As far as my 9 year old self was concerned, her song Do You Want To Touch Me? (Where? Yeah! There! Yeah!) was the rudest song in the whole world. I had an entire rude dance routine worked out when singing this song into a hairbrush in front of a mirror. It involved a lot of grinding and obvious pointing (where? THERE!) The song is pure heavy, fist beating rock and the lyrics unashamedly invite sexual contact. A lot goes over your head when you’re a kid but that song hit me right between the eyes. There’s nothing subtle about it. It’s female sexuality in the raw and listening to it still makes me feel very naughty.

Joan had a mullet and wore a lot of tight, leather pants and muscle singlets. She was tough and strong and punklicious and she sang about RUDE things and I loved her.

Pic from this page

So there it is. I still have a thing for warrior bikinis and tight leather outfits. If I were to do some harsh feminist analysis, I might conclude that I’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy to admire only one kind of sexiness – as defined by these thin, white, beautiful women, dressed in ways that men seem to find pleasing.

And yet I can’t accept that conclusion because it doesn’t show the whole picture. Yes, I am admiring traditional forms of “sexiness” in these women. Yet I’m also admiring strength, independence, creativity, agency, ingenuity and raw power. I’m also admiring forms of female sexuality that aren’t constrained by the simple notion of being pleasing to the eye. I’m seeing women in control of their bodies and their destinies, able to make it on their own in a man’s world. They have power – and that includes power over men gained through the use of their sexy bodies; I didn’t miss that lesson. When you are sexy, you have power.

After making my initial list, I took stock and wondered if these sexy heroines were the only ones I looked up to in my childhood. And then I remembered a couple of other examples:

Jamie Sommers: The Bionic Woman

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Pic from here.

Charlie’s Angels

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Pic from here.

Jamie and the Angels are strong women. They fight, shoot guns, combat the bad guys. They also don’t need to dress in a sexy way (though they can when necessary for the purposes of the plot). What’s interesting, though, is that neither Jamie or the Angels operate off their own bat; they’re controlled by men who send them on missions and then they report back. They’re weapons, of a sort. Malleable female action heroes that do what they’re told.

It doesn’t really suit the conservative feminist script when the “nicely dressed” ladies have no autonomy but the super sexy ones do.

A lot has been made of the issue of “sexualization” over the last few years. Specifically, there’s a lot of pearl-clutching over the thought that “our girls” are learning bad lessons from the media. People worry that they’re being taught to be too slutty or told that they should always cater to the male gaze and male desires. While I can understand the concern, too often “sexualization” panics come from a default position that assume girls are naturally “innocent” and that their virginity and modesty should be maintained at all costs.

I think my own childhood experiences offer a counter anecdote to these concerns. I was not an “innocent”, even if I was naive about the ins and outs of sex. Kid or no, I was still very much aware of sexuality and I found myself drawn to certain positive examples of it.

And that’s the thing – these ARE positive role models. All of my childhood heroines combine sexuality with power and independence. Perhaps I subliminally associated the two and perhaps this is why I’m a feminist pornographer 30 years later. It’s a long bow to draw but it feels right to me.

I don’t know if I would have admired these women as much if they’d just been presented from a purely sexual angle. I’m trying to think of an example from that time and I can’t, perhaps because that kind of role model was out of bounds to kids. The only one I can think of was Barbie, the doll that I hated because her feet only fitted into high heels and consequently she couldn’t stand up on her own.

So maybe everyone who is panicking over the “sexualization” of girls needs to take a step back and rethink what they’re worried about. It’s not the sex or the skimpy clothing that’s the problem. It’s the lack of smart, strong, well-rounded female role models that’s the real issue. And “well rounded” includes sexuality.

I’m trying to think of today’s equivalent of Leia, Wonder Woman and Joan Jett but I’m drawing a blank. Admittedly, I’m not as involved in pop culture now and I have no kids so that doesn’t help. Also, the monolithic media culture of my childhood no longer exists today so perhaps it’s not a fair comparison.

Still, are there any sexy heroines for young girls today? Or has the fear of “sexualization” made sure that all the strong, independent role models of today are also chaste and sexless, lest girls get “the wrong idea”? Suggestions?

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3 Replies to “My Sexy, Powerful Childhood Heroines”

  1. “I’m trying to think of today’s equivalent of Leia, Wonder Woman and Joan Jett but I’m drawing a blank.”

    She’s not the lead role (but neither was Leia), but Zoe in Firefly is a great character. She’s smart, capable, one of the best fighters in the show when necessary, and she definitely ‘wears the trousers’ in her marriage (to the occasionally obvious delight of her husband). Related to that last, she explicitly drags him off to bed on more than one occasion… she is not chaste. 🙂

    From the same writer, you’ve also got Buffy (the Vampire Slayer), who obviously was a lead role. That show falls into a few more tropes around romantic entanglements, but she’s still strong (duh) and mostly independent, and kicks a lot of vampire/demon/etc ass. She’s also not entirely chaste, including some fairly overt BDSM pre-sex scenes in one storyline. Mind you, that show ended 10 years ago now, so maybe it doesn’t count as being for ‘young girls today’.

    1. You’re right Denny, and Joss Whedon has done so much to promote positive female roles in film and on TV.
      I could maybe add Ripley and Sarah Connor into my list, though I didn’t see them until I was much older and their sexiness isn’t as overt as the women in my main list.

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