By Chandler Mordecai
D’Amore, Laura Mattoon. Vigilante Feminists and Agents of Destiny: Violence, Empowerment, and the Teenage Super/heroine. Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.
In her monograph, Laura Mattoon D’Amore, analyzes comic and young adult fantasy literature super/heroines to reimagine the connections between violence, empowerment, and agency. Through feminist methodology and close-reading strategies, D’Amore develops the term “vigilante feminism,” which she describes as the “intersection of the justice-seeking vigilante with the equality-seeking feminist” (5). She analyzes the stories of teenage vigilante feminists in texts, tracing moments of trauma, such as abduction, physical, emotional, and sexual violence, and discusses how each character uses violence to regain agency and protect other women and young girls. D’Amore frames the super/heroine and her often violent actions to correct patriarchal harm and injustice. Backdropped against “real life problems of sexual violence, assault, abduction, trauma,” D’Amore’s vigilante feminists exist in violent worlds where systems of protection and justice have failed women and girls (3). Through an interdisciplinary approach and reading of various texts across genres, D’Amore positions female vigilantes as characters whom readers can identify with to address the varied trauma they may have experienced.
D’Amore does not champion violence but rather understands it as a symptom of the brutal worlds where these characters and readers exist. Critiquing the notion that women’s violence in response to violence is anti-feminist, D’Amore presents a convincing argument that violence can be cathartic and result in knowledge sharing and community building among women and young girls. For example, in the introduction, she discusses real vigilante women, such as the Civilian Joint Task Force in Nigeria, “an all-female sector” who “hunt Boko Haram criminals” who target, abduct, and assault women and girls (12). She positions this group as an organized collective of women combating femicide through often violent tactics. Furthermore, she situates her book and the vigilante feminist within historical social movements, such as It’s On Us, #MeToo, Time’s Up, and #WhyIDidntReport, reinforcing her argument that readers often experience the violence committed in fictional fantasy worlds and their own realities. D’Amore reveals the violence in fictional and real worlds but argues that the vigilante feminist can contribute to cultural discourse on feminism and trauma.
The first chapter, titled “Finding Agency after Trauma: Crafting a Community of Consent in Sarah J. Maas’ Young Adult Series A Court of Thorns and Roses,” commences D’Amore’s argument of violence as a tool of empowerment and catharsis in the wake of patriarchal trauma. She outlines the plot, characters, and style of Sarah J. Maas’ popular young adult novel, A Court of Thorns and Roses, published in 2015. The chapter closely reads the ACOTAR series through lenses of childhood studies, young adult literature studies, trauma studies, and agency theory and traces moments when the series’ protagonist, Feyre Archeron, experiences trauma (31). The incorporation of trauma and agency studies adds nuances to D’Amore’s argument that violence creates a disconnection between the self but can also be reappropriated in agentic ways. For example, D’Amore highlights Feyre’s desire to learn self-defense. Feyre’s decision causes her to negotiate violence as she physically fights enemies who threaten her, her family, and her community throughout the series (56). Furthermore, D’Amore refers to comics as a genre suited to represent serious themes because they can allow audiences to witness and discuss traumatic events. She also applies this framework to popular literature, such as Maas’ fantasy series, to analyze “the role of narrative in the lives of girls and young women who consume stories” (57). This chapter demonstrates how readers of the vigilante feminist, particularly girls and women, can view Feyre’s journey to empowerment through developing physical strength and reimagining fighting as freeing.
D’Amore moves from young adult fantasy literary to the comic super/heroine to continue theorizing the vigilante feminist. In the second chapter, “‘Choice is Your Weapon’: Violence, Empowerment, and X-23’s Journey Toward Consent and Agency,” D’Amore tracks the trauma of Marvel superheroine and Wolverine clone, X-23 or Laura Kinney. Employing close reading strategies to over 350 comics between 2003 and 2018, she notes the depictions of X-23/Laura Kinney’s lack of agency, as she is created in a lab to be a weapon without her consent. D’Amore’s focus on the weaponization of choice is striking because she also positions choice in relation to violence as a tool of empowerment. For example, X-23/Kinney can eventually choose whom she inflicts violence upon and to what purpose. Comparing the story of X-23/Kinney to cultural discussions of consent, D’Amore identifies how young girls and women often feel powerless in patriarchy, but that X-23/Kinney serves as a symbol of utilizing choice to “focus her strength on the protection of others” (62). This chapter raises questions about how to read graphic violence in texts, and it emphasizes how the vigilante feminist can choose violence to disrupt patriarchal systems to reclaim agency.
Furthermore, the construction of the vigilante feminist within young adult fantasy literature reappears in chapter three, “Hunting Wolves: Violence, Agency and Empowerment in Jackson Pearce’s Retold Fairytales Young Adult Fantasy Series.” Here, D’Amore presents a compelling analysis of how trauma catalyzes the emergence of the vigilante feminist. The vigilante feminist is not born but is made and molded in response to the violent world she inhabits. In the two fairytale retellings discussed in this chapter, Sisters Red and Sweetly, both female protagonists experience violent trauma and carry the burden of knowledge that “monsters really exist” (90). This knowledge motivates them to hone their bodies and skills through violence to protect others from monstrous threats. This chapter reinforces D’Amore’s position that the vigilante feminist uses violence as protection.
However, the fourth chapter, “‘I Know How to Do Things Most People Don’t’: Rape and Vigilante Justice on a College Campus in MTV’s Sweet/Vicious,” diverges from fiction and comic interpretations and instead analyzes a television series. This chapter depicts violence and vengeance as cathartic, studying the series’ female protagonists, college students and survivors of assault. These characters actively use violence as a tool of retribution in hopes of deterring assault and avenging survivors. This chapter further solidifies how vigilante feminism is often prompted by the failure of justice systems, specifically systems on college campuses. Since this series “mimics the real world,” this reader would have liked to see a discussion on the possible consequences and sustainability of vigilante feminism in the real-world college setting (141). D’Amore’s utilization of Sweet/Vicious as a visual text expands the mediums in which the vigilante feminist can be viewed and studied.
While these texts are grounded in fictional and often fantasy worlds, they depict real-world experiences of trauma and violence that can resonate with readers. D’Amore not only situates the vigilante feminist as a framework within literature, comic, culture, and trauma studies, but she also theorizes the impact these characters and texts have on audiences, particularly young women and girls. Furthermore, D’Amore acknowledges how violence, particularly in the United States, is rooted in white supremacy and marginalizes people of color, especially women and young girls. The book’s introduction and conclusion briefly highlight how white supremacy fuels violence against people of color. However, discussions of race and female vigilante super/heroines are absent in chapters 1-4. Throughout these chapters, a discussion of the intersections of race, violence, and feminist vigilantism would benefit the construction and analysis of vigilante feminists within texts and their impact on readers. However, citing protests over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbury, and Trayvon Martin, D’Amore posits the rage, sadness, and frustrations that have been poured into these protests, rallies, and calls to action as “people…tired of being silenced” and standing up “sometimes aggressive, sometimes violently–until their cries of pain were heard” (144). The book’s conclusion highlights these instances, showcasing how the absence of justice creates a potential righteousness for vigilantism. D’Amore asks audiences to consider violence in response to violence as an authentic reaction, a method of survival, and even a vehicle for agency.
D’Amore’s book, Vigilante Feminists and Agents of Destiny: Violence, Empowerment, and the Teenage Super/Heroine, creates timely discussions of violence in the fields of feminism, critical trauma, comic, and literature studies by developing a framework for the teenage vigilante feminist super/heroine in texts and theorizing the potential impact this character may have on audiences, particularly young girls and women. For example, D’Amore’s discussions of fictional vigilantes with real vigilante women, such as the “Gulabi (Pink) Gang” in Upper Pradesh, India, redefines the frames in which violence is viewed through feminism. D’Amore selects popular texts “found across television, film, young adult literature, and comics” and works to reimagine fantasy violence as a constructive agent (5). Readers interested in feminism, intersectionality, critical trauma studies, comics, and literature will find D’Amore’s book engaging and helpful. D’Amore’s work pushes readers to consider violence as not inherently negative but a potential tool of empowerment, protection, and survival in cultures that normalize violence against women and young girls.