More Than Fangirls: Reading 'The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen' in Trump's America
There are a lot of strong female characters here. There are just as many, however, who are fit only to remind us of how far we have to go.
Three years ago this Halloween, my then ten-year-old daughter went trick-or-treating dressed as Thor, the Marvel Comics superhero and god of thunder. That fall, Marvel took Thor's hammer and title away from the brawny hero who had wielded it for decades and gave them to a then unknown woman, later revealed to be Jane Foster, Thor's long-time love interest. This was important for my daughter and it was important for me. That Halloween, my daughter was costumed not as a female version of a male hero, not as a female pretending to be male, but as Thor herself. She wasn't dressed as Donald Blake/Thor but as Jane Foster/Thor. That was empowering, an optimistic sign of where we were headed, of the better world that my daughter was bound to inherit. My beloved superhero comic books, source of excitement and wonder and inspiration since I was a boy, might just offer the same for my daughter.
The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History
A lot has happened in the last three years. My daughter has grown up, for one. Like many, she was heartbroken and terrified by the last presidential election and strengthened and transformed by being a part of the Women's March on Washington. She has learned more about the bad behavior of bad men from our current President than I wanted her to know at such a young age. Now, at 13, she is more likely to be caught reading bell hooks than comic books. Instead of t-shirts featuring comic book characters, she wears a jacket with her own hand-stitched message: "Stop teaching girls that boys are mean to them because they like them."
I'm proud of whom she has become.
This is where we are now, I suppose, in a time and a place when middle school girls need more than the passing of Thor's hammer to a female, need more than the heroics of Marvel's powerful superwomen: Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, and Moon Girl, especially. They need more than Gal Gadot's powerful portrayal of Wonder Woman on the silver screen. They need to be more than fangirls. They need to be heroes in their own right, strong against the world.
It's not just my daughter who has changed, but the nation, the world.
Or maybe these things haven't changed. Maybe the world is still the same and the truth has just been made clear.
In that case, thank you, Mr. President, for showing us all where we really stand, for showing us that Thor and Wonder Woman were never enough, and for showing us all how much work that we have yet to do.
A look at past and present comic book depictions of women reveals the problematic characterization of women in comics in a way that challenges the notion that the few positive strides taken in recent years are reason enough to celebrate. Hope Nicholson's The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters From Comic Book History, in its encyclopedic, if far from complete, list of female comic book characters through the decades, provides such a look. Nicholson offers up the few famous and many not-so-famous female characters featured in comic books over the last century. For each hero, she provides a brief synopsis of the character and her publication history. She also provides some invaluable suggestions for how to locate some of the sometimes hard-to-find comics. Throughout, there are lots of colorful pages of reproduced art, some of which I have never seen before. It's beautifully bound and illustrated and a good source of basic information about the history of women characters in comic books.
Some of the least well-known characters introduced in the book include: the Magician from Mars, a "half-Martian visitor whose whims become reality", published in 1939; Sally the Sleuth, "a saucy sex symbol turned hard-boiled detective", published in 1934; Miss Fury, "the first female-created superheroine in comics", created by Tarpe Mills in 1941; Man-Huntin' Minnie of Delta Pu, "a desperate for love college girl doing everything she can to catch a man", from 1952; Pussycat, star of the "cool and carefree capers of a curvy, cuddly chick", published in Marvel's Male Annual #3 in 1965; and many, many more. There are a lot of strong female characters here. There are just as many, if not more, who are better off forgotten or, at least, fit only to remind us, if not of how far we have come, then, at least, how far we have to go.
Of course, not all female comic book characters have been quite so damningly ridiculous as Man-Huntin' Minnie, and Nicholson highlights some of the best as "Icons of the Decade". Little Lulu appeared in 1935 as a strong-willed and intelligent girl who dreamed of being President. Wonder Woman first appeared in 1941 and was just as frustratingly complex a cultural figure as she is today. Supergirl was introduced as Superman's younger cousin in 1959, but she has stayed mostly in the shadow of the Man of Steel ever since. (The CW's television version of the character might just be the best exception to this.) Batgirl, introduced in 1967, has, with a few exceptions, suffered the same fate. Marvel's Ms. Marvel from 1977 rounds out the iconic list of female superheroes whose identity was wrapped up in that of their male precursors and counterparts.
From there, Nicholson focuses on mostly deserving, if less well-known, characters, including Silk Spectre from Alan Moore's Watchmen (1986), Image Comic's Witchblade (1995), and Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life (2004). For the present decade, she gets it just right. The current Marvel Comics' Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, is one character, along with that company's Squirrel Girl, that my daughter absolutely loves.
While Nicholson is thorough in her research and inclusive in her presentation of the women of comic books, the book suffers because of the writer's agnostic approach to the characters' presentation of women to comic's mostly youthful and male audience. While she recognizes that some of the characters offer better portrayals of women than others, her criticisms seldom, if ever, rise beyond the level of sarcasm. Her description of Man-Huntin' Minnie shows Nicholson's propensity to find something good in even the worst of these characters. Minnie is a sorority girl who is too ugly to get a man, something on which she believes her life depends. Nicholson, however, observes that "You don't see many comics featuring female characters with proportions other than 36-23-38 (comics prefer their characters a bit hippy). So it's nice to see Minnie drawn in the same vein as Big Ethel from Archie Comics. Though her groan-worthy exploits might cause us to cringe at times, we can all relate to chasing someone who just isn't interested."
Nicholson's approach here, and throughout, is to gloss over some atrocious characterizations of women with a knowing joke or a quick aside. The truth is, however, that Man-Huntin' Minnie is an (admittedly short-lived) character whose basic premise is that she is too ugly to get a man and that without a man her life can't be complete. Nicholson's attempt to find something positive about the character, namely that her physical appearance represents some diversity in the way women are depicted in comics, completely fails to address that both Minnie and Big Ethel were representatives of a negative female stereotype -- the unattractive man-crazy girl that everyone is laughing at behind their backs.
Nicholson clearly understands some of the issues here, often drawing attention, for example, to the improbable busts and impossible costumes that have come to be standard fare in a lot of superhero comics. But, in doing so, she's too quick to move on to other topics. Her reading of the character Vampirella is a good example of this. She writes, "One of the most important legacies of Vampirella, other than being a forerunner of the T&A aesthetic in comics... is that her creation gave a huge boost to the popularity of the burgeoning cosplay hobby." Nicholson's observation offers little in the way of analysis or criticism of the "T&A Aesthetic", which is often typical of the worst depictions of women in modern comics, not to mention addressing the impact of such an aesthetic on the body images of real-world women and girls.
Of course, I understand that the intent of Nicholson's book is not to explore these female characters in the light of feminist analysis. The intent, rather, is simply to provide a light and easy introduction to some of the best known and least known characters. This is something the book succeeds at admirably. It's mostly a good thing to pull these characters out of mothballs and to bring them back to the light of day.
It's obvious that Nicholson is a fan of comic books and that she's especially excited to introduce these lesser known characters to her audience and by doing so to show that female characters have been a part of comics from the very beginning. As a comic book fan, I understand this tendency to embrace the colorful fun at the expense of stopping to take a deeper look.
The title of this book is catchy, that's for sure, if not exactly accurate. Some of the characters from comic book history are spectacular and awesome. But a lot of them clearly aren't. Nicholson never seems to fully come to terms with this fact.
I'll confess, a couple of years ago I would have been all over this book. I would have delighted at the magnificent art, including the drawings of the impossibly curvy women with their painted-on costumes meant to titillate the boys and men who followed their exploits. I would have passed it on to my daughter to read, hoping she'd find some inspiration there among the few strong characters that came and went and, sometimes, stuck around. I would have snickered at the foolish, demeaning way women were portrayed way back then and celebrated all of the positive changes that have taken place through the years while ignorantly overlooking the many ways that things have decidedly not.
Today, however, after this exhausting past 12 months, I find less to admire in such uncritical surveys. Nicholson should be commended for her research, for cataloging all of the female characters that the comic book industry has produced. I'm glad this list is available, happy to be able to quickly familiarize myself with the basics of all these heroes, all these girl detectives, all these comic sidekicks. But today I need more.
I'm older now. My daughter is older now. She's grown up. I like to think that, with her help, I have too.