Though I'm often not in agreement with many of the more extreme feminists in the comics-blogosphere, I may be on the same page with some of them in endorsing the existence of a good general study of the expression of female heroes and villains in popular culture.
Prior to the 2010 book I'm going to review here, the best-circulated study may be the 2006 work THE MODERN AMAZONS: WARRIOR WOMEN ON SCREEN by Dominique Mainon and James Ursini. However, to call it a "study" is probably over-ambitious. The work takes the basic approach of the "coffee-table" book, being extremely weak in terms of discussing the first half of the 20th century, not even making a token mention of the two NYOKA serials. There's scant discussion of the historical background of "warrior woman" films or of feminist theories about the topic.
Better in terms of detail, but concerned only with comic book superheroines, is Trina Robbins' 1996 THE GREAT WOMEN SUPERHEROES. Robbins' work is excellent on the Golden Age heroines, analyzing a number of obscure characters, but she's weak on other eras, particularly that of the Silver Age (1955-1970 in my opinion), barely acknowledging the advances of DC Comics in that period.
Now, as of 2010-- though I only discovered the work this year-- we have Jennifer K. Stuller's highly readable academic study, INK-STAINED AMAZONS AND CINEMATIC WARRIORS-- the "ink-stained" figures being those of comic books and strips, while the second group needs no explanation. Academic Roz Kaveney provides an introduction explaining that it is a "study of Buffy, Xena, Ripley, and the other most-studied female superheroes with a historical and cultural context"-- which does signify one limitation in that it is only about the "most-studied" figures. But that's not a serious drawback. In essence I do recommend it to those with an interest in the topic, but it does have some more substantive comments, which I choose to annotate here.
* On page 3 Stuller remarks that "myths can be fantasy and they can be real," which almost sounded like a re-statement of Kant's attempt to find a "middle way" between Rationalism and Empiricism. I suspect I'm the only one who had that reaction, though.
*On page 5 Stuller states that "superwomen narratives" are identifiable, in part, by the way the "narrative borrows from, or resonates with, classical themes and/or elements of world mythology." This sounds like a lead-in to a general Campbellian theory. However, Stuller doesn't explore mythic themes in detail, and the statement seems to serve the purpose of distinguishing "superwomen" protagonists from more mundane figures.
*Page 13 strikes the first discordant note, as Stuller repeats a rather oversimplified criticism (also seen in Robbins) to the way in which the word "girl" is supposedly an automatic downgrade as it occurs in the names of heroines like "Hawkgirl" or in descriptions like "Lois Lane, Girl Reporter."
*Stuller's first chapter focuses upon the two best known comic-book heroines: Wonder Woman and Lois Lane. While Stuller's description of William Marston's WONDER WOMAN is quite good, she does put down the subsequent adventures written for the Amazon by Robert Kanigher following Marston's death. While it's true that Kanigher's stories are not as good as Marston's, Stuller oversimplifies them as simple "infantile adventures," and skews the facts to imply that Wonder Woman herself became less powerful. Kanigher didn't share Marston's female-liberation theme, but in my view he usually continued to portrary Wonder Woman as dynamic and capable.
*Stuller's survey of Silver Age comics is condescending, implying that every heroine in the 1960s was simply a "token female" like Invisible Girl or Marvel Girl-- neither of whom is examined in detail. Stuller devotes more time to the late 1960s 'depowered' version of Wonder Woman, which Stuller automatically condemns as a falling-away from Marston's character. Here too, though I agree that Marston's original is superior, Stuller dismisses the "Modesty-Blaise-d" version of the character too simplistically. She also touches on Marvel's "Cat" character, apparently because she was the first superheroine whose origins were explicitly rooted in Second Wave feminism.
*Stuller's most egregious blunder takes place when she attempts to recount the plot of the Russ Meyer film FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! Strangely, she only describes one scene of PUSSYCAT, and gets it entirely wrong in order to give it a feminist spin. It's true that PUSSYCAT revolves around the karate-chopping figure of Varla (Tura Satana), and it's true that the plot gets going because Varla and her fellow go-go dancers encounter two suburban members of a car-club, Tommy and Linda, running timing-trials in the desert. But Stuller describes Tommy as "cocky," when in truth he's so straight-edge he barely understands Varla's challenge, and he initially refuses that challenge until Linda, not Varla, encourages him to race Varla. Varla does not, as Stuller states, win the race-- she cheats by cutting across the marking-pylons and causes Tommy's car to spin out. And Tommy does not attack Varla because she wins, but because Varla steals Linda's stopwatch. The only nasty thing he does is that after being beaten down by Varla's karate, he pretends to give in and then sucker-punches Varla-- but he doesn't profit thereby, for she then kills him-- all of which sends Varla and her crew on the run for the remainder of the story.
In later chapters Stuller doesn't make so many mistakes or simplifications when dealing with the warrior-women of film and television, so it would seem that this was her main interest (Kaveney notes that parts of the book began as essays for SLAYAGE). There are some good, though never outstanding, analyses of feminist politics in XENA, BUFFY et al, so INK-STAINED does work as a primer for such commentary
Stan Goldberg (1932-2014)
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