Sunday, April 24, 2016

Female Representation in Speculative Fiction Teen Romances and Superhero Stories: Past and Present

When two of my colleagues and I were preparing a presentation on the Romantic Industrial Complex for my Women's Studies class, I found a meme that I think says it all about how female representation in teen romances and speculative fiction stories has ebbed and flowed over time:

I have an interesting take on these two tales because Buffy the Vampire Slayer was popular when I was in high school and college (I was born the same year as many of the primary characters), and the Twilight series was popular when I first started teaching middle school in 2006. I did not watch Buffy in high school and college, as I was focused on Dawson's Creek, Felicity, and Friends (although I was a little young to watch Friends when it first came out), and I was not as into speculative fiction as I am now. However, I wish I had watched Buffy when I was younger, as I think a lot of the themes would have been helpful to me at that age. I binge watched it more recently as a thirtysomething and found it healing, for reasons I'll elaborate on in another writing piece.

I started reading the Twilight series in my mid-twenties, in part of out curiosity because of my love of vampire stories and in part to relate to my students, who pointed me into the direction of Twilight and The Hunger Games (which, by the way, was better). I liked the first book in the Twilight series, but I thought they got progressively more problematic as they went along. When I watched the Twilight films in my late 20s, I wondered why Bella didn't go for Jacob, with whom she seemed to have a healthier relationship. Although I found aspects of Buffy and Spike's relationship problematic, particularly in some episodes of Season 6, I would far rather my female students, potential nieces, and daughters (if I have one) have Buffy as a role model than Bella. I don't have a problem with teenagers reading and watching the Twilight series, but I think they should do so with critical literacy and critical media literacy perspectives that encourage thought and discussion. I heard Stephanie Meyer speak once at a Barnes and Noble in Atlanta, and she said she thought many readers misunderstood Jacob's intentions. Since Bella narrates the novels, Edward comes across more positively than Jacob, although the movies clearly paint Jacob in a more positive light. Perhaps part of the discussion could be how people perceive their relationships when they are in them and very young, versus how we perceive them once we are older, more distanced from them, and have had some time to reflect.

Since we FINALLY have a Wonder Woman movie coming out soon, it's intriguing to me to think about how Wonder Women has set the tone for other female characters, particularly characters like Buffy who are superheroes or who have superhero-like qualities. Lillian Robinson's book Wonder Women (2004) explains how Wonder Woman as a superhero has changed over time in correlation with the values of various decades. This visual post is spot on in showing these shifts over time.
During World War II, men were fighting, and women were working so-called men's jobs in the U.S. Charles Moulton, known otherwise as psychologist William Moulton Marston, had a feminist view of Wonder Woman as a dominating, strong female who ruled a female's utopia known as Paradise Island. Moulton had a worldview in line with radical feminism and believed that women’s empowerment in sexuality and in other areas of life would make the world a better place. 

Eventually, Wonder Woman left Paradise Island, in part to follow her love interest Captain Steve Trevor (Robinson, 2004). It is ironic that although her creator subscribed to feminist beliefs, some of which were radical, she still ended up making a major life choice based on following a love interest. Still, her overall persona in the early comics conveyed strength, although some later artists and writers of the Wonder Woman comic did not follow Marston’s vision and made her a more traditional woman. Over time, Wonder Woman’s history shows the changes of people’s attitudes toward women, as she is much more empowered during some decades than others (Robinson, 2004). In spite of these shifts in representation, Robinson (2004) argues that Wonder Woman has paved the way for more recent postmodern comics with non-linear plotlines and female characters who, akin to Judith Butler’s (1990) theories, challenge ideas of traditional gender performance, such as the Incredible She-Hulk, Xena the Warrior Princess, Elektra, Scarlet Witch, Carol Danvers a.k.a. Captain Marvel, and Sue Storm Richards a.k.a. “Invisible Woman,” among others. 

I know some of my hard core comics friends disagreed with me on this, but I was disappointed in the Batman vs. Superman film, including the portrayal of Wonder Woman. Her superhero costume was great; it was short, but it looked like a warrior costume, and I loved her in the fight scenes toward the end. However, before she was in her Wonder Woman garb, I thought she was hyper-sexualized in some scenes. I can see the point that part of the idea was to depict her chemistry with Batman, but those low-cut dresses? Seriously? And I know they addressed why she didn't come through until the end, but I would have liked to have seen more of her in superhero form sooner. Maybe they will make up for that when she has her own film, though.  

Overall, I remain hopeful. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is still a cult classic that fans of all age watch more than once. People are looking a teenage romance novels, and romance novels in general, with a healthy critical eye. We now have a teenage Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel and many other comics with diverse characters, in terms of race and gender. And, to close, we have Zoe from Firefly and the Serenity comics and film, and hopefully even more characters like her will follow. 


Robinson, L. (2004). Wonder women: Feminisms and superheroes. New York, NY: Routledge.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: No Future for You

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: No Future for You Buffy the Vampire Slayer: No Future for You by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I definitely haven't always liked Faith, but it was nice to see her make a comeback in this book. I am intrigued about what happened between her and Robin Wood, who was one of my favorite characters in Season 7 of the TV show, and I hope that plot gets developed more in upcoming episodes of the comic. I thought the references to fantasy gaming were clever, and I could appreciate them even though I am not a gamer myself. Honestly, I do not like Kennedy, so I will be interested to see what does or does not happen between her and Willow. I was also excited that the backstory of what made Dawn a giant came out more, and I love seeing how her rapport with Xander evolves. Xander is definitely a character I have grown to appreciate more over time, so I am excited to see more of him in the comic series. I love the art work in this volume, and I loved it even more than 8.1. This book was a win and has me yearning for more of the Buffyverse!

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Review: I Am Princess X

I Am Princess X I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a fun action/mystery story that combined traditional fiction and comic/graphica forms, and I enjoyed reading it. May and Libby reminded me of myself as a kid, and I appreciated their creative friendship. It was refreshing to read a story about adolescent characters that focused on hobbies, family, and friendships more so than romance. There was a little bit of chemistry between Trick and May and the potential for their friendship to evolve into something more over time, but it didn't become the central focus of the novel. I would be interested to read a stand-alone graphic novel version of the Princess X story, as I loved her character. The plot of this novel was intriguing, and it definitely picked up toward the end, and I couldn't put it down. I want to read more of Cherie Priests's fiction now.

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review: The 100

The 100 The 100 by Kass Morgan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am so happy that my friend Will Walton recommended this book for our Avid Bookshop Young Adult Literature book club, and that we voted for it, because I loved it and devoured it in just a few days, even though this is the busy time in the semester. At first, I thought it was going to be a fun, but campy teen romance novel with a sci-fi/Dystopia twist to it. There were definitely romantic love triangles to it, which is appropriate for the age group of the protagonists (late teens). But there was so much more to it than that! It still has me thinking about a lot of philosophical issues: How far should you go in breaking the rules if you're doing it to help someone else? How much would you sacrifice for someone you love? If human beings had to start over on a futuristic Earth or another planet, would we get it right, or would we just make the same mistakes over again? How and why do governments become so corrupt? How does social class play a part in our society and our destinies, and would the same trends occur if we colonized another world or a floating ship in space? Wow! I am sure I am reading this book differently as a person in my thirties than a teenager would, but I believe or at least hope that it would get thoughtful teenagers who are critical thinkers pondering some of the same issues, and maybe others I haven't thought of! I didn't think I would get sucked into another fandom right before starting my dissertation, but now I want to read the other two books in the series AND watch the TV show! At least the topic and the series relates to my dissertation ;). That's a story you can hear about another day! But I'm super excited about this series, especially since the female characters are tough and savvy and are willing to fight hard for what they want. I love this book and wish there had been more like it when I was growing up. I think they would have helped me. But I plan to recommend this book to the students I teach and to other kids with whom I interact. :)

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review: Ordinary Affects

Ordinary Affects Ordinary Affects by Kathleen Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book and found the vignettes toward the beginning especially compelling. I have an interest in affect theory and ethnography, and reading this book increased my understanding of both concepts. This ethnographic observations of every day life and the passions behind the events showed an intriguing, alternative way to represent data that parallels other feminist qualitative researchers I have read so far, such as Margery Wolf and Bettie St. Pierre. The introduction of the book was helpful in disseminating the book's overall purpose. Overall, I am intrigued to read more about affect theory and how to put it into action with my own research. The affect Stewart describes in these vignettes reminds me of what I've experienced in some fandom events I have attended, so I am excited to explore the concept further.

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Friday, April 1, 2016

Review: SuperMutant Magic Academy

SuperMutant Magic Academy SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was not as good as This One Summer, which Jillian Tamaki created with Mariko Tamaki, but it was witty and made me laugh out loud at times. This book started out as a web comic, so the novel is non-linear and feels fragmented at times. The characters are great, though. Think of a hyper, profane version of Harry Potter combined with Buffy the Vampire Slater with punchy satire and references to pop culture and philosophy. It's a great read if you are in a reflective mood, but also need a nice belly laugh.

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