What motivated you to write Superwomen?
As a kid, my three male neighbors and I would play “superheroes.” I was always “the girl,” whether that was Wonder Woman, or Princess Leia, or whoever, while the guys got to choose from among many characters. As I got older it still seemed that female characters were much less numerous than the male characters and were more sexualized than the male characters, and usually have weaker powers and less interesting stories. So I decided to formally apply my political science and gender studies training to this issue and found that what I felt growing up is true not only about superheroes but also about the way women are portrayed across fiction–they are portrayed much less often, with much less nuance, and with much less power. There has been some change over time, but not very much. So Superwomen investigates how and why this is the case.
Your book is subtitled ‘Gender, Power, and Representation’. What do you mean by ‘representation’?
Superwomen examines how female superheroes have been and are currently portrayed across media: with words and art in print, and with dialogue and framing and action and casting on TV and in movies.
Representation matters, and while writing the book, I realized just how much. Yes, they are fictional, but superheroes are aspirational figures, inspiring us to be our best selves. And it is just easier to imagine yourself as a hero if you see someone who looks like you represented as a hero. Some demographic groups have been overrepresented as heroes for a very long time, far out of proportion to their actual numbers in the world. And people from more marginalized groups in our society have been underrepresented and stereotyped across fiction for far too long.
“Some demographic groups have been overrepresented as heroes for a very long time, far out of proportion to their actual numbers in the world. And people from more marginalized groups in our society have been underrepresented and stereotyped across fiction for far too long.”
If all we ever see in fiction, most of the time and over and over [and there are multiple studies that have statistics on these assertions], is that women are side characters whose role is to support men and be rescued, and they are interested in their own looks and in romance, are emotional and fearful, or are not even present at all, then these portrayals can reinforce or foster a worldview in which it seems natural and normal that women and girls are presumed less credible and less competent, are subject to various forms of discrimination, and are rarely in positions of power. But diversity, authenticity, and complexity in storytelling and characterization engender tolerance and empathy by showing us that anybody can be a hero.
How would you explain the increasing popularity of women superheroes in popular culture?
There are multiple reasons for the increasing diversity and popularity of non-male, non-white, non-heterosexual superheroes:
- Changing population demographics and gains of civil rights movements based on gender and sexuality, and race,
- The very people who got made fun of for liking superheroes in high school are now writers and artists and producers and directors, making comics but perhaps more visibly, blockbuster movies and new TV shows seen by millions,
- Comics as a medium, which are associated very closely with the superhero genre, are no longer considered to be just for kids, as is evidenced by New York Times bestselling works and by real life heroes like Congressman John Lewis using the medium to tell his story in March,
- There are many more conventions for people to attend, creating profit for companies, communities for fans, and fan-creator interactions
- Social media, tumblrs and superhero-oriented websites allow for fan communities and provide immediate links between fans as well as between fans and creators
- The digitization of comics means you don’t have to go into a local comic shop, which might be an unwelcoming or geographically-distant place, and
- You can get collected comics at your local bookstore or library.
All of these elements build on each other, diversifying the fan base and the character base. But much of this change is only at the margins. The universe of superheroes remains overwhelmingly male (and white). Of the 25 or so superhero TV shows on air or in development, two star women; of the 50 or so superhero movies out or in development, two star women. About 13% of the top 200 superhero comics star females, and about that same percentage of superhero comics are written or drawn by females. Five, 10, and 15 years ago, it was half that number. Most of the female characters and creators are white, non-queer, and non-disabled. Most superhero media don’t pass the very, very low bar of the Bechdel test, that is, “It has to have at least two women in it, who talk to each other about something besides a man.”
There may be a zeitgeist of awareness and conversations about diversity, there may be a Wonder Woman movie about to come out and Ms. Marvel may be a game-changing comic that stars a Pakistani-American Muslim teen, but change is slow and it is being fought. It is being fought through social media, at conventions, and in local comic shops. And some of it, as in the gaming world and as in our presidential election, has included threats against those pushing for more diversity.
What do you think makes Supergirl or Batgirl different from Superman or Batman? Do you think the figure of the superwoman disrupts traditional conceptions of femininity?
I think it’s important to answer these questions by first saying how male and female superheroes are similar. Like Batman and Superman, Batgirl and Supergirl and Wonder Woman fight for justice, protect regular people, use their powers to do good, inspire us to be our best selves. What’s different and special about Batgirl and Supergirl and Wonder Woman is that they do all of this through female bodies. They demonstrate that heroism and intelligence and strength and leadership are not male traits. Rather, they are human traits that can be performed by anyone.
Female superheroes disrupt what we have been taught: that “white, male, and powerful” go together as some kind of neutral norm such that any other demographic group having power is non-neutral, and lesser, and threatening. Female superheroes are threatening because they go against our gender norms that masculinity equals strength and femininity equals weakness.
How do representations of Superwomen negotiate issues surrounding race, gender, and sexuality?
When you put together the genre’s historical emphasis on white and male superheroes on the one hand, and more marginalized populations who want to and should be able to see themselves as superheroes on the other, then superheroes become a flashpoint for all kinds of political and cultural struggles, for instance, over gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, religion, and disability.
Decisions about characters and their representation are not solely top-down from a company nor solely bottom-up from fans. Rather, there is a complex interplay in the arenas of production, distribution, representation, and audience reception and action. Editorial boards, writers and artists, parent companies, and different audience groups have pushed and pulled at representations of female superheroes through different political contexts and cultural moments. Each has their own biases and their own agendas, but each can learn from the others and be moved as well. So Superwomen not only explores representations of superwomen in comics as well as in related television and films, but it also examines the interplay between these groups that has produced certain representations at certain times. It looks at interviews with writers, artists, and editors; writers’ websites, tumblrs, instagrams, blogs, and tweets; and fan letters to editors, websites, tumblrs, instagrams, blogs, tweets, and podcasts. It also takes into account how female superheroes’ manufacture and distribution has changed over time, affecting their accessibility to different groups and thereby how they are marketed and to whom.
So what you get, as short as I can say it, is the following pattern:
- In the 1940s, when comics were sold on newsstands, they had to appeal to a large audience. We were at war and women had to contribute to that effort, and had to be recognized for that. As written and drawn by men as well as a number of women, female characters were independent and spunky and strong.
- After the War, through the 50s and most of the 60s, you have the same kind of traditional gender roles in comics that were being pushed in daily life as a return to “normalcy.” The female superheroes became weaker, interested in domestic life and tasks, motherhood, and romance with men. They were written and drawn almost entirely by men.
- In the late 60s and 70s, as Second Wave feminism became more prominent, well-meaning, mostly white male creators tried to inject some feminism into their characters, but much of it was caricatured—the characters were just more anti-male and bitchy, and still interested in romance with men, and fashion.
- In the 1980s and 1990s, the growth of the direct market of local comics shops, higher sticker prices, an emphasis on high sales of superhero comics, and a loosening of the Comics Code homogenized the comics fanbase—it became older, more male, more white, etc. This coincided with a backlash against feminism and civil rights movements. So you had men drawing hypermuscular male characters and hypersexualized female characters.
- Then in the late 2000s and early 2010s, together with the rise of third wave feminism and gains of civil rights movements, rise of social media, availability of digital comics and trade paperbacks in bookstores, and a vocal backlash to the 90s-00s portrayals, you have a bit more diversity and more “Bechdel test” passing. There are new titles starring female characters, and relaunched ones that are more nuanced and less sexualized characters.
Your book explores popular but academically-marginalised mediums like film, comics, podcasts, and social media. It also focusses on genres like science-fiction, fantasy, camp, and horror. Do you think that this marginality can sometimes provide radical possibilities? I’m also curious to know how such radical potential fits with the publisher’s bottom line…
At the end of the day for companies like DC and Marvel, it’s about money. The conventional wisdom that only white males read superhero comics—while never true—has been proven false numerous times in recent years because sales of superhero comics are up, sales of superhero merchandise is up, and superhero TV shows and movies are making a lot of money. This couldn’t happen without a broader and more diverse fanbase. And that fanbase has clamored for and then supported companies’ moves to diversify its characters.
Marvel editor in chief Axel Alonso, who by all accounts has sought to increase the diversity of creative teams as well as characters, has said of these decisions, “This isn’t affirmative action. This is capitalism.” And this is where the difficulty comes in. A superhero-character-owning company will diversify their staffs or their characters not solely because it benefits other people, because it is the right thing to do, because fans say they want it, nor because it’s an idea whose time has come. They will do it because it’s in their economic interest. But individual dollars for individual comics or movies cannot guarantee systemic change; only collective political action that empowers formerly marginalized groups can. There may be a furthering of more equal representation of characters through individuals’ dollars purchasing superhero-related goods. But dollars can also serve to uphold the unequal economic, political, and social systems in which the superhero genre is embedded. The numbers of people on each side are irrelevant because if those pushing for inequality have more dollars than those pushing for equality, the former will be catered to by superhero-producing companies. At the moment, the companies have discovered, there is money to be made from diversifying–at least at the margins.
“Because it’s all about profit, companies are more willing to take risks with certain products rather than others. When I looked across comics, novels, television shows, and movies, I found that the cheapest-to-produce print media had the most numerous, most progressive and most nuanced characterizations of female superheroes.”
Because it’s all about profit, companies are more willing to take risks with certain products rather than others. When I looked across comics, novels, television shows, and movies, I found that the cheapest-to-produce print media had the most numerous, most progressive and most nuanced characterizations of female superheroes. Multimillion dollar movies had the least numerous, least progressive, and least nuanced ones. Television was in the middle.
Comics have traditionally been the most marginalized medium of these, and genres such as sci fi and horror have been as well—thought to be the province of a small number of people, of ostracized nerds. But their very marginalization opens up possibilities as producers feel as if they’re catering more to a niche than to a “traditional” mainstream, and as the settings and tropes of these genres can allow for fantastical reimaginings of gender and power far different from that of our world.
What kind of challenges do you think researchers face when analysing or appraising popular and contemporary culture?
If you mean, within academe, then I would say the challenges are very much dependent on one’s institution and perhaps, rank. I am a tenured person in an interdisciplinary and supportive academic department, so I could pursue this research because I wanted to. For untenured people, or those in departments who are strictly within one discipline, this pursuit could be more difficult. For someone in this latter kind of position especially, there may still be an old bias against investigations of “low” rather than “high” culture. But there is evidence that this is changing, given the number of articles, journals, and books in the field, and the number of, for instance, comics studies courses being taught. Outside academe, there are more outlets than ever for pop culture journalism, either on pop culture news websites, or by starting your own blog or youtube channel, or through social media.
If you mean, in terms of interviewing fans and creators, or accessing old comics, that’s a different issue—but all fields face those kinds of problems of obtaining sources.
For newcomers to critical or theoretical discussions of pop culture, can you recommend any places to start?
These two readings are pretty short. The first is on the importance of representation, and the second provides some statistics about portrayals of women versus men in movies in front of and behind the camera (and these statistics basically hold across comics and TV as well).
- Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, 2014. “The Danger of a Single Story.” Everyday Feminism (October 25). [Read More]
- Smith, Stacy, Marc Choueiti, and Katherine Pieper, with Yu-Ting Liu and Christine Song. 2014. Gender Bias Without Borders: An Investigation of Female Characters in Popular Films Across 11 Countries. Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media. [Read More]
These edited books have chapters by different people on different topics, so those new to reading about pop culture can choose which aspects of that topic interest them most.
- Durham, Meenakshi Gigi and Douglas Kellner, eds. 2012. Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, 2nd ed., Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Davis, Lennard J. ed. 2010. The Disability Studies Reader, 3rd ed. New York and London: Routledge.
- Howard, Sheena, and Ronald Jackson II, eds. 2013. Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation. London: Bloomsbury.
- Inness, Sherrie A, ed. 2004. Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture. Gordonsville, VA: Palgrave Macmillan.
What’s next for you?
I plan to keep working in this field, expanding my analysis to other characters and updating the statistics that provide the base for the deep dives into specific characters.
Superwomen is available from Bloomsbury.
About the Author
Carolyn Cocca is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, Economics, and Law at the State University of New York, College at Old Westbury. She is the author of Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation, Jailbait: The Politics of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States, and various articles, book chapters, and posts. You can follow her at carolyncocca.tumblr.com and on Twitter @CarolynCocca.