By Molly Scanlon
Brown, Jeffrey A. Beyond Bombshells: The New Action Heroine in Popular Culture. University Press of Mississippi, 2015.
In his most recent publication, Beyond Bombshells: The New Action Heroine in Popular Culture, Jeffrey Brown explores the concept of the new action heroine through a multitude of identity markers claimed by—or projected upon—female action characters, including gender, sex (in terms of physiological difference), sexuality, and age. Brown’s work, overall, can be described as occupying the intersection of the scholarship of comics studies and culture studies, which is an analytical framework that examines the values of a group of people by observing its rituals, symbols, structures, heroes, and villains through everyday practices. Cultural values can be observed as emanating from a top-down approach, where values are imposed upon people because certain practices are privileged by those in power. Alternatively, values can emerge from the bottom-up, by how people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors can be seen to reflect their values. Tension emerges when the values of the people and the values of the influential are at odds.
A recent example of this tension, that is particularly salient to Brown’s work, emerged in an interview with Marvel’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, David Gabriel. In an interview with ICv2, a website for pop culture geeks and retailers, Gabriel is quoted as saying that tastes in Americans’ comics readership had changed in 2016, citing hearsay:
“What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not. I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales. We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against. That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked” (Griepp).
The web’s response to Gabriel’s comment was swift and clear: diversity is not a narrative trope or marketing tactic. A writer for Comic Book Resource, Charles Paul Hoffman, examined Marvel’s sales in late 2016 and early 2017 and revealed that declining sales are, in actuality, due to unimaginative reboots, a market oversaturated with #1s, and an overreliance on direct marketing.
Gabriel later clarified that he was echoing (informed) retailer complaints and that Marvel is excited for new, diverse titles. The conversation about diversity in comics, however, was reinvigorated, emphasizing the need for more than sales to vocalize support of a diverse industry, not only in the pages of comics, but also behind the scenes. Works of rhetorical criticism, like Brown’s, are more salient than ever as American comics readership shifts to reflect the population itself. Brown’s exploration of superheroines in contemporary popular media includes thorough interrogations of how cultural values and genre conventions of comic books and Hollywood films are formed, subsequently reflect, and are continually revised by the American culture in which they are created.
Brown balances broader generalizations based on his research with in-depth cases that serve as the evidence to demonstrate the strength of his claims. For the purposes of this review, I will focus primarily on his examination of action heroines in comic books or comics-related feature films. Brown returns to The Avengers comic books that became a blockbuster full-length feature film in 2012, and its lone female superheroine, Black Widow, repeatedly in several chapters because of its relevance, popularity, and timeliness, no doubt.
The first chapter, “Torture, Rape, Action Heroines, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” examines presentations of torture for male and female characters, noting that female torture victims are almost always layered with eroticism through sexual overtones, display, and violence. Brown argues in this chapter that despite a cultural shift that has American audiences asking for strong action heroines, resilient generic conventions and a recent mainstream interest in BDSM culture “shifts the perception of torture scenes featuring action heroines” (33). Despite the persistence of generic conventions, particularly regarding female characters in comic books—who are often displayed bound, gagged, and scantily-clad as helpless victims—the contemporary shift Brown argues for is the validation of strength that allows Black Widow and others to ultimately overpower their captors, not only saving themselves, but also seeking revenge. Despite the persistence of eroticism in the torture of female action heroes, audiences have communicated a taste for women who can be their own rescuers and avengers. Brown’s argument in this first chapter is a reminder of how social change is incremental. Contemporary media sends a fairly clear message through these films and comics; superheroines are capable, but they are also nothing if not attractive.
Titled, “Teams, Partners, Romance, and Action Heroines,” Chapter 2 explores aspects of American culture and ideology that influence how action teams and partnerships are depicted in various popular culture media. Brown describes two traditional tropes: the token female or “Smurfette” in the group, or the (often lesser) partner/heteronormative romantic interest to a (often greater) male active hero. When there is one “lone female,” depictions skirt stereotypical performances of femininity. Inclusion of female characters in teams and partnerships is accompanied by narrative cues that indicate to audiences that the members possess “varying degrees of equality.” Additionally, extratextual cues can also be present in promotional materials and merchandising that fail to acknowledge female characters, either through overly sexualized display or lack of product presence (e.g. Black Widow’s sexualized—and overly Photoshopped—display in movie posters yet scarcity in The Avengers merchandising products). Recent public outcry in response to the lack of Rey merchandise following the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is yet another example of the conflict between social and market forces. When inspiring female leads are underrepresented in subsequent merchandising, fans begin to view the writing as insincere at best, and appeals to tokenism at worst. Even characters like Rey or Black Widow, who are widely embraced, can suffer from the inherent biases of corporate leadership when transmediated off screen and into the toy aisle.
Chapter 3, “Ethnicity and New Action Heroines,” begins with the history of Blaxploitation in American media, including films and comics. Female roles in Blaxploitation presented strong characters that were nonetheless reduced to their primary role as sexual object. While such media could not have been considered mainstream—then or now—the significance of this historical precedent lies in the realization that contemporary action media is dominated by white action heroes and heroines. Recent trends, however, identify the number of roles for actresses of mixed race that allows action heroines of color to use “racial indeterminacy as a means to capitalize on the shifting racial identities of viewers and to literally spice up the heroine’s image without sacrificing white womanhood as a cultural ideal” (81). Using several actresses’ careers as examples—Zoe Saldana, Maggie Q, and Jessica Alba—Brown argues that, while stereotypes can often be reinforced, it’s critical to note that “the mixed race action heroine bridges the gap between earlier filmic depictions of strong Black, Asian, and Latina women, and the idealized modern white action heroine” (113). Brown is optimistic that ethnic boundaries will, to some extent, begin to dissolve, which will result in more action heroines of color on our screens and in the pages of our comics. This optimism includes, at its very core, a hopeful future for the writing itself, for sincere characterization in compelling narrative arcs—characters like the Black Panther and Vixen.
Chapter 4, “Panthers and Vixens,” focuses specifically on two comic book characters: The Black Panther of Marvel Comics and Vixen of DC Comics, and begins with an exploration of depictions of masculinity and femininity in black comic book characters. While male characters like Luke Cage have come a long way from their Blaxploitation origins, female characters have seen considerably less progress. Black characters in particular, Brown argues, are plagued by Othering and remnants of the colonial imagination in American culture. Black female sexuality, Brown points out, is seen as animalistic and dangerous in direct difference to the chasteness and submissive nature of white female asexuality. Thus, black characters are judged primarily by their exoticism and eroticism. Brown’s initial exploration of the cover art for Black Panther and Vixen, for example, reveals stereotypical posing for sexual display and draws parallels between the characters’ cat-like personas by placing each next to a big cat—a panther and a lion, respectively. The cover art for these comics, unlike the pages within, reduce the characters to stereotypes; a testament to the stubborn nature of genre conventions in comics culture to display women in an overly sexual nature. As Brown puts it, superhero comics “is not a medium that lends itself to mature and nuanced storytelling” (134).
And yet, characters like the (female) Black Panther and Vixen have given audiences a new way to appreciate black action heroines, beyond their “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey qtd. in Brown 121). The stories, Brown argues, are quite the opposite of their suggestive covers, and “remarkably chaste” (133). The two characters portray compelling, progressive action heroines who embark on adventures that take place in Africa, incorporating cultural elements that depict the setting not as wild and foreign, but as familiar and normal. The use of voodoo, in both storylines, is well-received by audiences used to the supernatural abilities of the characters that typically grace their covers. For once, Brown argues, generic conventions allow the inclusion of such mysticism without reducing the characters to its motif. Brown concludes that titles like The Black Panther and Vixen give audiences much more than merely reductive representations of black superheroines; these titles ultimately provide compelling, heroic stories of sacrifice, bravery, and self-discovery.
In Chapter 4, Brown neglects to include details about fan responses. We have all seen attempts to inject the mainstream with multiplicities of depictions of marginalized groups, but the efforts alone are not enough to claim shifts in gender stereotypes—either in the genre or in the broader culture. In Chapter 6, however, Brown notes that it is the “gender stereotypes within mainstream comics that has kept the audience for superheroes an almost exclusively male enclave,” resulting in “little success” for titles featuring superheroines—like The Black Panther or Vixen. As much as fans and scholars alike would be uplifted by the success of such titles, it would be more effective an argument if his readers knew whether or not the characters’ success had extended beyond the pages of the comic itself. While neither Vixen nor Black Panther (Shuri) is still a running series, Gabriel’s comments regarding “diversity” and sales provoked CBR’s Hoffman to explore recent and current successes in Marvel’s titles. Hoffman reports that “The Mighty Thor [starring Dr. Jane Foster] remains Marvel’s No. 2-selling ongoing superhero series; Invincible Iron Man (starring Riri Williams) is also in the top 10…. And then there’s Ms. Marvel and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, two series whose trades have also made the bestsellers lists” (Hoffman). Brown’s broader argument that sincere, well-written superheroine titles can be embraced by a large readership is certainly evident in today’s comic book sales climate.
The fifth chapter, “Supermoms?,” examines an uncommon focus of analysis in comics studies: the pregnant female body. Brown’s considerations of several comics titles in this chapter create a compelling case for identifying mainstream comics as not only misogynistic, but also hostile toward women’s bodies. A woman’s pregnant body quite literally threatens her definition of a superheroine; “Conventional [superhero] bodies tend to be impenetrable, â€˜plastic’ in that they can stretch, grow, shapeshift, and anything else the writers can dream up” (137). For Brown, challenging those bodily boundaries “takes on added significance with female characters […] which reveals a deep-seated fear of female reproductive abilities” (137-8). For one, when a female superheroine is pregnant, her body has been penetrated, and the evidence of such a flaw becomes visible in ways other characters and readers themselves cannot ignore.
As Brown frames it, pregnancy is always portrayed as a problem in comic book plots, and the woman’s response to her pregnancy tends to fall into one or more of the following four tropes: (1) the heroine embraces motherhood and forfeits her super career; (2) the child soon leaves the picture, either through the mother’s choice or other storyline elements, and the mother can return to her heroism and, of course, sexualized form; (3) the mother risks the life of her child in trying to balance her identities as mother and superheroine; (4) the mother is purely monstrous, creating or raising a child for, at worst, explicitly evil purposes or, at best, unintentional evil purposes. Brown then parallels these depictions with those of glorified fatherhood, strengthening his claims that the genre is, regrettably, plagued by a “persistent misogyny,” an overlooked aspect of the genre that industry leaders like David Gabriel must interrogate if they want a sustainable fan base (read “sales trend”) beyond its current efforts to reflect a primarily white, male, heteronormative, and able-bodied audience within their “core” titles.
Chapter 6, “Sex, Romance, and the Teenage Superheroine,” presents readers with another bittersweet exploration of a new wave of superheroines: the teenager. Brown finds it surprising that teen superheroines “avoid the most rudimentary sexist logic of superhero gender and identification” (154). Rather than being portrayed either as dangerously sexy or submissively sexual, these teen superheroines are given much greater character diversity than their mature counterparts. In a genre with such “persistent misogyny,” such a phenomenon might seem unlikely. Yet, Brown explains why the new wave of teenage superheroines have found success amongst a largely-male readership: “Teen heroines allow readers to explore insecurities about relationships and romance. […] As relatively novice heroes, adolescents are permitted to make mistakes and the wrestle with decisions and the consequences of their actions in a manner that would be unthinkable for icons of masculinity like Superman and Batman” (156).
The storylines of teen superheroes take on a more emotional slant, especially as told by the younger superheroines: motivations, insecurities, relationships, flirting and unrequited crushes, safe dating behaviors, and mature attitudes about sex. Many of the stories, “model romantic acceptance and patience as desirable traits for young readers, other storylines present warnings about inappropriate dating behavior” like unsafe sex and the red flags of partner abuse (165). Having heard for decades that there are no good comics out there for young girls, Brown’s assessment contains a cautious optimism that is refreshing after several chapters about the cultural climate that continually objectifies, undermines, and over-sexualizes its women in popular culture. Perhaps, as Brown alludes, the next generation is currently our best hope for more nuanced roles for superheroines—at least until they mature into women.
The seventh chapter focuses primarily on “Girl Revolutionaries” starring in feature-length films. Because this chapter does not include analysis of comics texts, it may be of less interest to comics scholars specifically, except that, like others, it is well written and compellingly argued; “the heroines of these tales combine a progressive idea of adolescent girlhood with a cultural critique of patriarchical systems of oppression” (168). Brown uses examples of girl revolutionaries to consider conflicting ideologies in today’s second wave feminism, postfeminism, and neoliberalism. The stars of films like Divergent and Snow White and the Huntsman have the potential to shift today’s individualistic postfeminist leanings toward a more collective, activist feminism. Neoliberalism often stumbles as it negotiates these competing feminist lenses. For example, the most compelling examples he uses are the cross-advertising efforts linked to The Hunger Games. In one ironic effort after another, companies like CoverGirl and Subway attempted to market their products—a “Capitol” line of eccentric cosmetics and a submarine sandwich with spicy ingredients—in connection with a film series about a totalitarian government that privileges an excessively materialistic Capitol and facilitates a battle royale each year with its eleven other districts, who are impoverished and starving. The public response reflected an awareness of the offensive marketing, “aligning with the anti-consumerist message of the narrative” (183). Brown’s argument in this chapter is an important reminder that superheroines in mass media—as inspiring and progressive as they can be—are first the product of commodification, marked by exchange value within the context of the culture industry. His argument is nonetheless hopeful, as his example of Hunger Games transmediation failed to elicit sales, instead evoking a negative response. This chapter’s value is the reminder to readers that our role as consumer is indeed more active than we may consider or embrace.
“Pretty Little Killers,” the final chapter, examines the young female action characters in recent films that, unlike their comic book counterparts, receive mixed treatment—both from writers/directors and fans. If comic books are known for their stubborn genre conventions related to masculinities and American ideologies, then Hollywood films could be defined by their addiction to sexual display and resistance to substantial action heroine roles. Brown identifies Hollywood’s dilemma as the cause of such depictions: “Hollywood films need to appeal to as wide an audience as possible in order to generate a profit” (230). The fact that live action films—unlike comic books—require living human bodies “creates a marked contrast in how we envision characters physically according to our own beliefs or mass media standards” (230).
Beginning with an analysis of Kick Ass and Hit Girl, Brown argues for a reconsideration of gender traits assigned to young boys and girls. Hit Girl is an eleven-year-old assassin who curses like a sailor and mercilessly massacres like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. Then, through the example of Sucker Punch, Brown chronicles “the problematic muddling of notions about sexualization and sexual empowerment” (210). While Brown argues against the sexualization of the characters in this example, he concludes the chapter with a reminder that interpretations vary. Hit Girl embodied justice in her ironically petite frame; the innocence of the girls of Sucker Punch, however, is called into question because of how filmmakers sexualized their young female bodies. Where some viewers see subjugation, others see empowerment. According to Brown, there is an element to these young superheroines that can create a unified viewer response, however: our culture enjoys watching the values of swift justice being delivered to a deserving brute by an inarguably innocent character.
A compelling aspect of Brown’s book is the conclusion, which gives readers insight into the author’s consideration of Wonder Woman—a character he has clearly contemplated for some time, as have many of his readers, I’m sure. Brown laments the lack of a Wonder Woman feature film in Hollywood; a fact that would now require a retraction due to the release of such a film in the summer of 2017. Brown does, however, acknowledge her inclusion in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, noting fans’ excitement more for her role than the epic battle between the men. In addition to a superheroine on the silver screen since publication, there has also been a recent trend of action (super)heroines gracing the small screen, including Agent Carter, Supergirl, Jessica Jones, and Misty Knight (in the Netflix series Luke Cage). With varying degrees of success, the persistence of creators and fans to tell the stories of strong, brave women indeed reflects the change Brown argues for: the shift in our tendency “to think along mutually exclusive gender lines” (237).
Brown’s book is a rich resource of nuanced, case-based arguments attempting to capture this unique moment in American culture. Increasing activism and vocalizations for issues like gender equality, Black Lives Matter, and transgendered rights demonstrate gradual shifts in American culture and therefore in the values and consumer behaviors of the American population. A thread that persists through this text is the complicated dialogic relationship between culture and genre. Generic conventions reflect our culture’s perceptions of gender roles, the capabilities of female heroines, the sexuality of women of color and young adults, and so on. Comics, films, and television shows introduce audiences to these new action heroines that are only possible because of acknowledgement of misrepresentation or underrepresentation of nuanced female characters in active, heroic roles.
The strength of this book lies in its careful presentation of the reality of our current social climate: mass media often engages in the simultaneity of selectively reinforcing gender stereotypes while redefining the spectrum of possible action heroine traits. Using both cultural studies theory and genre analysis, Brown constructs compelling arguments for shifting change that does not have to include either blind cheerleading for (post)feminist progress or pessimistic determinism that action heroines will only ever be valued by their subjugation to the male gaze. Brown’s message, like the reality he studies, is incredibly nuanced; progress is often accompanied by stagnation. David Gabriel’s comment on diverse titles and Marvel’s declining sales is yet another example of such regression. However, as Brown illustrates expertly through the text, audiences and sales drive generic experimentation; if we demand it, then the characters we value (culturally and monetarily) will materialize.
Griepp. Milton. “Marvel’s David Gabriel On The 2016 Market Shift.” ICv2.com 31 March 2017. https://icv2.com/articles/news/view/37152/marvels-david-gabriel-2016-market-shift
Hoffman, Charles Paul. “No, Diversity Didn’t Kill Marvel’s Comic Sales.” Comic Book Report, www.cbr.com. 3 April 2017. http://www.cbr.com/no-diversity-didnt-kill-marvels-comic-sales