Spider-Man Sews: How the hyper-masculine superhero emerges from the feminine and domestic act of costuming

Superheroes represent a hyper-masculinised stereotype. They are characterised by masculine traits of physical strength and muscular physiques, along with aggressive tendencies (manifested in their physical, combative engagement with villains). An equally important aspect of the superhero genre is the costume. Superheroes dress up, often in costumes of their own design. In this aspect of the superhero identity, there is engagement with traditionally feminine behaviours.

Comic books depict superheroes designing, acquiring or manufacturing their costumes, in the pivotal transition from civilian to superhero. Although they may have acquired their superpowers previously, it is not at the time of power-acquisition that they become a superhero. The transformation is not complete until they don a new costume, and adopt the super-identity.

Although some superheroes do adopt a ready-made costume, many design and make their costumes themselves. It is in this conception of their superhero identity, via costume, that they achieve their destiny.

Although vital in defining the superhero’s masculinity, this process is characterised by feminine acts. Costuming – the design and creation of costumes – has been viewed as a gendered activity. Sewing in particular has been presented as a feminine pursuit, or domestic chore (Gordon, 2009). So, in order to achieve the hyper-masculinity of the superhero identity, the hero must get in touch with his feminine side.

The unlikely importance of the superhero’s creation of costume is parodied in this video, Spider-Man’s Less Impressive Superpower.

The Spider-Man comics present sewing one’s own costume as a domestic activity; one that is beneath a “big-name” superhero. The panel below depicts Peter accidentally piercing his finger with a sewing needle, protesting that, despite his fame he has “still got to do [his] own sewing”.

I don't know the origin of this panel - I assume it is from an issue of amazing Spider-Man. Please let me know if you are able to identify it!

I don’t know the origin of this panel – I assume it is from an issue of amazing Spider-Man. Please let me know if you are able to identify it!

In Amazing Spider-Man #4 (below), Peter declares “I’m no cotton-pickin’ seamstress!… I wish I could ask aunt May [for help]”. The feminine connotations of costume sewing continue to persist outside of Spider-Man’s fictional world. Interviewed about his role in the movie The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, 2014), actor Andrew Garfield described Peter Parker’s sewing of the costume as “a kind of feminine thing to do”. Pressed for details by his co-star, he continued, “femininity is about… delicacy, precision… and craftsmanship”. He emphasizes that the result of this feminine act was a “very masculine costume”.

Amazing Spider-Man #4 (September 1963)

Amazing Spider-Man #4 (September 1963)

Earlier incarnations of Spider-Man, as depicted in Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s The Amazing Spider-Man, make reference to the contradiction between the feminine act of sewing, and the masculinity of the superhero. Parker sews his own costume, but protests that the task comes unnaturally to him. In issue #20 (January 1965), he is shown stitching his tattered costume back together, and hyperbolises that “my biggest problem is getting this sewn without stabbing my finger to death”. Later, in issue #27 (August 1965) he describes sewing as “the one thing I hate most in the whole wide world”. It is worth noting that, in contrast, his aunt is depicted sewing in the background, and seems to take to engage in this task much more willingly (see, for example, issue #2).

It is worth noting that this activity takes place within the home. Within the domestic space of his bedroom, Peter Parker engages in the domestic, feminine activity of sewing. Then, when he enters the outside world, he dons the costume, and performs masculinity.

Gordon, Sarah A. (2009) “Make it Yourself”: Home Sewing, Gender, and Culture, 1890-1930, New York: Colombia University Press

One thought on “Spider-Man Sews: How the hyper-masculine superhero emerges from the feminine and domestic act of costuming

  1. Pingback: Preach! – article round-up | The Logan Institute for the Study of Superhero Masculinities

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