Monday, February 23, 2015

(Audio)book review: The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy and the History of Comic Book Heroines by Mike Madrid

The Supergirls; Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy and the History of Comic Book Heroines

Written by: Mike Madrid

Read by: Colby Elliott

Published: 2009

Synopsis: A much-needed alternative history of American comic book superheroines—from Wonder Woman to Supergirl and beyond—where they fit in popular culture and why, and what these crime-fighting females say about the role of women in American society from their creation to now, and into the future. The Supergirls is an entertaining and informative look at these modern-day icons, exploring how superheroines fare in American comics, and what it means for the culture when they do everything the superhero does, but in thongs and high heels.

Has Wonder Woman hit the comic book glass ceiling? Is that the one opposition that even her Amazonian strength can’t defeat?

What do you do when you're a book reader who has gotten into comics but are too lazy to read the years and years of back issues? You read a bunch of non-fiction books about said comics instead. And since just about everyone can already recite the history of many, many, many male heroes you obviously leapfrog over those non-fiction books and instead set your sights on the ones that are about the ladies and that dastardly F word (dare I say it?), feminism. Females don't get an easy ride in comics. They get an even rawer deal when it comes to female fans. It seems like whenever a fight breaks out between comic fans online there's a female superhero at the centre of it, and it's typically male fans (self-proclaimed REAL fans) versus female/feminist readers. Take for instance the Milo Manara Spider-Woman variant cover controversy. It got to the point where it was near impossible to explain your dislike for that cover without "real" fans shutting you down for pushing the *ahem* feminazi agenda.

The over sexualisation of female characters is a huge issue for a lot of female readers. The Hawkeye Initiative is a brilliant art project that exemplified just how sexualised female heroes are compared to their male colleagues. Not only are women posed to best flaunt their breasts and ass, but their costumes, complete with boob and stomach windows, knee high stiletto boots and g-strings, are impractical and bordering on the absolutely absurd. But it's amazing to see how much we've internalised this type of characterisation of females, because it's often only when a male is replicated in those poses and costumes that the absurdity is actually evident.

Which is where Mike Madrid's book comes in. It's primarily a historical account of female heroes in comics but as the subheading suggests it also explores feminism and fashion as it relates to this history. I saw a few complaints on Goodreads which suggested that the focus on fashion was at the expense of a feminist examination of female superheroes but that's not how I experienced the book at all. When Madrid describes the changes in Wonder Woman's costume, whether that's the longer hems during the 1950s when the comics code authority came in or the elimination of just about all of her clothes sans g-string and bodice during the 1990s,  he does so in the context of the particular era. He isn't describing the g-string to be salacious but because the fact that the costume incorporated a g-string instead of a skirt or pair of pants is intimately tied to the sexual politics of comics at the time. The g-string wasn't just a random choice of the artist drawing Wonder Woman at the time, it was a requisite for female heroes during the "babe" era as Madrid describes it. Or at another point in the book Madrid points out that after J-Lo wore her scandalous Gammys dress every article questioned whether she could actually sit or walk in it while nowhere near that amount of attention has been paid to the accidents waiting to happen that so many female heroes are costumed in while they attempt to save the world and wrangle the bad guys. I did listen to this as an audiobook though, so perhaps the reader's inflection and tone made it clear that Madrid wasn't salivating over the ladies but critiquing a very important component of the character, while that distinction isn't quite as obvious in the text.

This book is fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because it's interesting to see how the real world impacted the comics world, especially when it came to the female characters. When WWII hit and women were needed in the workforce, super-heroines suddenly became a lot stronger and were all about helping with the war efforts. But when the war ended and the men came home, the female heroes were also relegated to smaller roles and positions as side kicks again much like the women who were forced to become secretaries and housewives again. Even Wonder Woman, everyone's go to feminist superhero icon was relegated to being the freaking secretary of the early Justice League even though she was stronger and more powerful than most of the men! However it's frustrating to see how secondary women have always been in comics. It wasn't that I was surprised by this really, even today female characters are left off of merchandise and relegated to support positions, but I hadn't ever really considered how rarely female heroes were written for women. With the exception of Wonder Woman, a great number of female heroes began as female sidekicks to their male characters. They were occasionally included to draw in female readers in the 1940s and 1950s, but they were essentially a sexy way to hook young boys into keeping up their subscriptions to Superman or Batman. Or, in the case of Batwoman, they were included to dispel rumours of a homosexual relationship brewing between Batman and Robin. It's really no wonder then that female characters are still considered secondary to many male (and female to be honest) readers with origins like that.

Even though this book is about female heroes Madrid often used the dominant male heroes of the era to anchor his discussion of the females. While I felt like he occasionally spent too much on these parts, I actually think the book succeeded best when it was comparing the female characters with the male. A prime example of this was when he talked about the female iterations of popular male characters. Not only were the women always called 'girl' or 'miss' in their titles, automatically infantilising them and setting them up as secondary to the men, but their powers were often weighted towards female attributes. Case in point: Mary Marvel is Captain Marvel's twin but where he had a military title and powers like speed and stamina, she had the power of grace. A similar strong point of comparison was made early in the book where Madrid highlights the fact that while male heroes were heroes because they believed in justice, their female sidekicks were heroes because they were in love with the heroes. Talk about setting the females up to fade away into obscurity.

So if you are a fan of females and superheroes this book is made for you. It's not perfect and it does seem to skew heavily towards the first half of the 20th century (the 70s/80s/90s seem to race past) but if this is a subject that interests you I think it's probably a great book to read in collaboration with a number of other books on the subject. And at the very least it's a book full of delicious trivia and historical facts with a nice frosting of feminism which I know I always enjoy.


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