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Review of Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation

By Carlos D. Acosta-Ponce

Cocca, Carolyn. Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Carolyn Cocca’s Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation applies feminist, queer, and social theories, cultural criticism, and media theory to female superheroes, stimulating and problematizing the cultural and academic discourses surrounding them. Superwomen narrows the analytical focus of previous texts on female heroes such as Trina Robbins’ The Great Women Superheroes (1996), Sherrie Inness’ essay collection Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture (2004), and Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of the Comic Book Heroine (2009), by emphasizing the representational problems attached to perceived feminist characters. Cocca explains that the origins of these characters respond to specific sociocultural contexts, and to an ongoing conversation about gender roles and expectations. Therefore, she understands these heroines as the simultaneous embodiment and undermining of feminist ideals. Cocca deftly guides the reader through her definition of the underrepresentation of female superheroes across comic books, film, and television. She interprets this underrepresentation as a complex dynamic of different social, cultural, political, and ideological factors that can make the portrayal of female superheroes an often-contradictory effort. Through the interdisciplinary theoretical lens applied, Cocca explores how factors such as social context, publishing history, technology, and social media influence how these superheroines are portrayed.

Superwomen argues that diverse representation of female characters is vital in exerting positive influences on the current male-dominated, heteronormative pop culture market, empowering women from every social spectrum. Cocca’s major point of contention is that female superheroes are grossly underrepresented and stereotyped, even in today’s increasingly diverse landscape, and identifies a hierarchical, privilege-based status quo where most superheroines are white, heterosexual, upper-middle class, able-bodied women. Cocca observes that creators, editors, publishers, and readers have “struggled over the meaning of gender and how gender intersects with other identity categories” (2). In this context, Cocca appears to draw on Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s concept of intersecting social identities and Patricia Hill Collins’ interlocking systems of oppression to establish the historical and theoretical baseline for how female superheroes are created and portrayed. Cocca conducts a critical examination of the history of Wonder Woman, Batgirl, the Star Wars women, the X-Women, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Captain Marvel, and Ms. Marvel, contextualizing it within the influence of editorial agendas and feedback from readers. For Cocca, female underrepresentation is compounded by how “repetition of stereotypes exerts power” and can be normalized in media (5). Female superheroes subvert some of these stereotypes, but this does not mean that these characters are free from detrimental representations.

In a concise historical analysis, presented in the introduction, Cocca synthesizes seventy-plus years of comic book history, focusing on the major successes and failures of superheroines at the hands of their most prominent writers. Cocca’s analysis takes the reader through the periods known as the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Dark/Modern Ages of Comics, effectively summarizing the major events in the history of female superheroes and situating them in their sociohistorical environment. For example, Cocca examines how the Golden Age of Comics’ female superhero was conceived as feminist due to the prominent role women played in World War II-era United States, and how she was subsequently suppressed due to the “reassertion of ‘traditional’ values as male war veterans were integrated back into American life and female workers were pushed back into the home” (8). This approach allows for a clear understanding of the interrelationship between social context and the representation of female superheroes in comic books and other media.

Cocca also examines the current status of these characters. She recognizes that sociopolitical changes, coupled with the increased availability of comics in venues outside the comic book shop, have taken the conversation around female superheroes to a much higher level of prominence. Additionally, Cocca credits the increased (but still dismal) number of female comic book creators and independent publishers, the advent of digital media, the popularity of female-led young adult fiction, the use of social media to engage audiences, and the more inclusive and diverse nature of comic book conventions as contributing factors for increased representation. However, Cocca is not overly optimistic since the demographic shift has not reached the point where the vocal, territorial, male twenty-something demographic who feels that “their tastes [are] being put down” (15) becomes a minority. Ultimately, Cocca argues that the major problem that underrepresentation in female superhero characters illustrates is a synchronized, contradictory depiction of strength and objectification, where they destabilize gender norms due to their strength and power while simultaneously reinforcing these same norms via their characterization as objects. Within the context of these contrasting representations, Cocca analyzes some of the most well-known female superheroes.

Chapter 1, titled “‘The Sexier the Outfit, the Fewer Questions Asked’: Wonder Woman,” delves into Wonder Woman’s quality as an aspirational and threatening character who unsettles gender norms. Cocca conducts a detailed survey of the character’s media history from its beginnings in 1941 to the current Gal Gadot film version. Cocca begins by contextualizing Wonder Woman’s early feminist characterization in the 1940s within creator William Moulton Marston’s polyamorous relationship with two women, both feminists and suffragists. Cocca explores Wonder Woman’s evolution from her beginnings as a feminist character, her subsequent, post-World War II reincarnation as a less divine, more heteronormative character who “while deploring the inequality of men and women, … confesses envy for being a ‘wife and mother,’ softening her challenges to American gender roles” (27), and her animated and live-action incarnations in film and television. Cocca concludes that the variations in Wonder Woman’s portrayal are the result of “an unequal world, in which girls and women are devalued” (52), and where the male-dominated status quo is protected by making powerful characters like Wonder Woman less threatening. Cocca’s nuanced analysis of Wonder Woman appears to recognize her nature as an ‘other’ whose divine origin, super powers, and privileged white, heterosexual, able-bodied circumstance limit her potential to be representative in a contemporary context. In this manner, Cocca’s treatment of Wonder Woman accurately captures the character’s past as a paragon of gender equality and her present as a problematic yet inspirational icon.

“‘When You Go Out at Night, You Won’t Be Alone’: Batgirl(s) and Birds of Prey,” the second chapter, traces the evolution of Barbara Gordon in her roles as Batgirl and Oracle in comics and television. The centerpiece of Cocca’s examination of the Batgirl phenomenon is her simultaneous existence as the young, impetuous Batman protégé, and the older technological prodigy who would subsequently become the backbone of the Bat-teams and the Justice League. Cocca interrogates the history of the character through its numerous permutations, from Yvonne Craig’s purple-clad 1967 portrayal in the Batman live-action series to the 2016 ongoing comic book series Batgirl and the Birds of Prey. Cocca explains that Batgirl originated within a white, privileged, middle-class, heterosexual framework, but that evolved into an ostensibly more compelling character after becoming paralyzed in 1988. For example, Cocca notes that unlike other characters with disabilities such as Professor X, Daredevil, Cyborg, and Misty Knight, who are given powers to compensate for their disabilities, Barbara Gordon only has her intellect. Cocca also observes that,

[Barbara] succeeds as a superhero not in spite of or because of her disability, but while living with it. This not only better represents the daily lives of people with disabilities, but can lead all readers to ‘reimagine disability’ as a common human experience and work to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. (66)

Cocca’s analysis concludes that Batgirl is a member of the small group of heroines who have been able to recover from their fridging and that transcend their origins. Nevertheless, Cocca recognizes the inevitable limitations of representation of Barbara’s “young, attractive, intelligent, healthy, white, cisgender, heterosexual, wealthy, independent, and disabled” characterization (66-67). This chapter leaves the reader with a clear understanding the Barbara Gordon is only a partially successful attempt to pay attention to intersecting, marginalized social identities.

In Chapter 3, “‘Somebody Has To Save Our Skins!’ Padmé Amidala, Leia Organa, and Jaina Solo in Star Wars,” Cocca examines the roles of the aforementioned characters. This trio of characters is squarely set within Cocca’s framework of the simultaneous upholding and undermining of feminist ideals, particularly due to their subversion of binary gender roles as leaders and warriors, while coming from significantly privileged backgrounds. Cocca observes that “all three characters are exceptionally privileged in terms of race, class, ability, and sexuality, and face no discrimination in their seemingly postfeminist and colorblind universes” (87). This chapter also introduces the casual reader to Leia Organa’s and Han Solo’s daughter, Jaina, a character that, along with her twin brother Jacen, depicts a gender subversion dynamic where she is “brash, rebellious, confident, [and] capable” while he is shown as more insecure and susceptible to the Dark Side of the Force (93). Cocca also identifies the “numerical imbalance” between male and female heroic figures in the Star Wars universe, as well as how these female characters are “sexualized in ways that their male counterparts are not” (88). Indeed, women in Star Wars are observably underrepresented, and the few women who reach prominence are subjected to narrative devices such as a metal bikini or a breast-baring outfit. For example, Cocca observes that Padmé Amidala “transitions from a strong and self-assured ruler and fighter at fourteen to a frightened pregnant girlfriend/wife in her twenties (109). Although Cocca never makes this claim directly, Padmé’s transformation appears to be another instance of a female character being unable to negotiate her emotions without upsetting the existing power dynamics. This examination of the women of Star Wars concludes with the author problematizing the current perceived feminist agenda in 2015’s The Force Awakens and 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Although these films are mostly about the heroic journeys of female characters Rey and Jyn Orso, Cocca argues that the dialogue between female characters in these films is too sparse to attribute any sort of grand feminist narrative, and that women remain vastly outnumbered by men.

The following chapter, “‘No Such Things as Limits’: The X-Women,” examines some of the female superheroes from Marvel’s mutant universe created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963. Seen as another example of female superheroes being significantly outnumbered by their male teammates, Cocca considers the women of the X-Men universe to be one of the most diverse and representative environments for the portrayal of female superheroes. The world of the X-Men is a place where, as Cocca argues, “the outcast can find her or his own identity, strength, and community among a group of outcast ‘others,’ who have one trait in common but perhaps not others” (121). Nevertheless, these portrayals are far from perfect. The first and most representative example in this chapter is that of the earliest of the X-Women, Jean Grey, a.k.a. Marvel Girl. Cocca explains that Jean Grey was initially submitted to traditional gender expectations, often acting as cook or nurse for the male members of the team. Her early portrayals depicted her as prone to fainting when she overused her powers. Cocca credits the need to “make the themes of non-discrimination more palatable to some” as the cause why the X-Men were predominantly white and male regardless of the book’s stance against prejudice and discrimination (121). Later versions of Jean Grey saw her as an exceptionally powerful mutant whose powers were dampened by the paternalistic figure of Charles Xavier because she could not be trusted to control those powers. Another X-Woman, Storm, is described by Cocca as “the first major black superheroine” (125). Storm’s portrayal, however, is problematic. Cocca sees her relationship with the weather and how it reacts to her state of mind as an example of “yet another female for whom both emotion and power are issues” (126). Cocca runs the gauntlet of X-Women throughout their decades-long existence and their adaptations across media to show the writers’ attempts at addressing diversity while still falling into the constraints of traditional social identity expectations. Cocca’s analysis shows that the X-Universe’s attempts at representation have been the most successful of those discussed, yet stereotypes and other representational issues still make an appearance, limiting the degree to which the status quo is upset.

Titled “‘Slayers. Every One of Us’: Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Chapter 5 delves into the media history of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a product of the “girl power” craze of the 1990s. Cocca’s perception of Buffy is that of a superheroine who actually wants some of the prescribed normalcy of traditional gender roles. That desire is stymied by the supernatural phenomena attached to her role as Slayer. Buffy’s characterization is the ultimate subversive force. Buffy is the pretty, petite, blonde girl who, in any other medium, would nervously wander into a dark alley and undergo a horrible, potentially lethal experience. Instead, she is the creature that instills fear in the hearts of her supernatural enemies. However subversive, Buffy still presents some inherent representational difficulties. Cocca argues that “due either to the viewpoints of its main writers who were all white, and/or due to assuming its consumers would be generally middle class and white, the show’s portrayal of ‘difference’ was centered more on gender and sexuality rather than race and class,” signaling how often representational limitations can be hardwired into characters by their creators (177). Cocca also examines Buffy‘s exploration of queer issues and other challenges to heteronormative social identities in the relationship between Willow and Tara, mentioning how creator Joss Whedon’s treatment of the relationship was widely celebrated by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. However, she also recognizes that this relationship ended in tragedy after Tara dies and Willow almost annihilates the world while dealing with her grief in another instance of a powerful female character who cannot negotiate her emotions without her powers making her dangerous. The chapter concludes with commentary on the show’s self-referential humor and how its “apolitical, postfeminist, commodified girl power” (180) can be the seed for a newfound approach to intersectional representation in comics, television, and film. Ultimately, the takeaway from this chapter is that Buffy‘s accessibility can help facilitate the discourse needed to enact significant change in how intersecting identity categories are negotiated in popular media.

The final chapter in Superwomen analyzes Marvel Comics’ Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel as the result of the contemporary discourse about intersecting social identities and the rapidly evolving nature of comic book characters. This chapter examines the complicated history of these two characters who have been not only interchangeable at some points, but as in the case of Captain Marvel, have also been both male and female, depending on which of the fifteen different incarnations of the character the reader encounters. Cocca’s early analysis covers the adoption of the honorific Ms. in 1977 and Marvel’s intentional contextualization of the character within Second Wave feminism, the problematic and sometimes mixed messages about gender and womanhood the characters sent, and Gerry Conway’s interpretation of the character as suffering from dissociative identity disorder, where Ms. Marvel and her secret identity of Carol Danvers did not coexist. Reflecting upon the issue of Carol’s mental illness, Cocca explains that the “‘split personality’ (clinically, dissociative identity disorder) can be read as Carol Danvers’ mind being much weaker than her life journey would indicate. It can imply the because she is female, she could not handle the notion of being a superhero” (187). One of the most compelling observations made in this chapter is the recognition that these characters have instigated or been at the center of contemporary discussions about feminism more often than many other female superheroes, a fact that becomes even more apparent with the appearance of Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American, Muslim teenager, as Ms. Marvel in 2014. The result of Marvel’s recent diversification strategy, the new Ms. Marvel is the most representative of the mainstream superheroines in the current canon because she is the embodiment intersecting social identities. Cocca cites a cross-section of critical and popular opinions to demonstrate the new Ms. Marvel’s popularity, and highlights how diversity in the creative process of these superheroines transfers onto their narratives.

Finally, Cocca’s conclusion to Superwomen discusses where the conversation surrounding superheroines should go. As she does throughout the book, she sees efforts to have a more representative character landscape as significant steps towards an ideal environment where women of diverse backgrounds can see themselves in these superheroines, but nonetheless far short of what needs to happen. She recognizes that many comic book writers are reluctant to break with stereotypes and to engage the more diverse segments of the reader population, due to deeply-ingrained notions about gender. Simply put, to increase diversity and representation in female superheroes, diversity and representation need to increase on the creative side. Cocca also opens the door for the application of the intersectional feminist lens to the continuously growing number of female superheroines across different media, compelling other scholars to keep track of the changes occurring in this representational landscape. This would elicit must-have conversations about representation in popular and academic circles, giving prominence and mainstream attention to these issues. Furthermore, there are extensive pedagogical applications for this scholarship in several educational levels, drawing further attention to the issue of representation.

Superwomen is an accessible text that can be enjoyed by both lay and expert readers. It succinctly summarizes the history and issues surrounding some of the most well-known female superheroes while having a robust bibliography and enough theoretical depth to satisfy any popular culture scholar. Furthermore, Cocca encourages readers and audiences to show that they will no longer be silent about the dismal representation of historically marginalized groups in fiction; it is a call to rally the newer, more diverse, more active, and more engaged fandom to demand representation in popular culture. The message is clear: diversity and representation matter.

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