From Wonder Woman to Buffy Summers, Emma Peel to Sydney Bristow, Charlie’s Angels to the Powerpuff Girls, Superwomen are more than just love interests or sidekicks who stand by their men. In her new book, Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, author, writer, blogger and pop culture historian, Jennifer K. Stuller, explains how the female hero in modern mythology has broken through the boys’ club barrier of tradition and reveals the pivotal role of high-heeled, costumed, and kick-ass crimefighters in popular culture.
Jennifer K. gives an overview of the book:
Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer. I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride.
—AUNT MAY in Spider-Man 2
In Sam Raimi’s 2002 film, Spider-Man 2, Aunt May tells her nephew, Peter Parker, that she believes “there’s a hero in all of us.” If this is true, what happens to our social consciousness if the presence of our mythic heroes is—and has always been—overwhelmingly male? In a world where many young girls would rather be Harry Potter than Hermione—or Peter Parker than Mary Jane Watson—I often wonder where our “Wonder Women” are.
Well . . . there have been a few.
As a little girl in the 1970s, I adored the televised Wonder Woman series. Each time the ever-graceful Lynda Carter transformed herself from Diana Prince into the Amazon Princess by holding out her arms and spinning from her alias into her true identity, my younger sister and I would hop up out of our seats to twirl along with her. We hoped that by mimicking her magic we too could possess the admirable powers of justice and truth, compassion and love. Carter’s pirouettes look a bit silly in retrospect, but as a child, they meant possibility. My sister and I may never be endowed with superpowers, though like all children, we certainly hoped we would be, and as adults secretly still do. But seeing Wonder Woman’s acts of bravery and kindness, her reaching beyond the everyday, allowed us to see the potential in ourselves.
Wonder Woman was joined by Charlie’s Angels and The Bionic Woman, each series an attempt to capitalize on the women’s liberation movement ofthe 1970s. In the subsequent backlash years of the 1980s, superwomen in modern myth enjoyed a sporadic presence at best, though the revitalized Star Trek franchise did feature women in positions of authority and leadership, such as Chief of Security Lieutenant Tasha Yar and Dr. Beverly Crusher. She-Ra: Princess of Power, a spin-off of the animated series He- Man and the Masters of the Universe, as well as Princess Leia of the Star Wars movies, showed young girls they could aspire to power—if they were royalty. The strongest women on American television were career women Murphy Brown and Claire Huxtable. While groundbreaking in their respective ways, they weren’t exactly mythic—or even capable of more-than-human acts.
The Uncanny X-Men comics, as written by Chris Claremont, featured prominent females, including original member Jean Grey, as well as new characters Ororo Munroe, and her protégée Kitty Pryde. But superhero comics have not traditionally been written with a female audience in mind. The powers that be in the comics industry assume that girls don’t read superhero comics, because they don’t typically buy superhero comics, and there- fore publications in that genre aren’t typically made for girls. Needless to say, it’s a tired cycle that many fans (and several creators) are still working to break.
Movie representations of superwomen historically haven’t fared much better than their four-color sisters of the printed page. In the 1980s and early 1990s, action heroines Sarah Connor of the Terminator films, Ellen Ripley of the Alien franchise, and arguably, to an extent, Charly Baltimore of The Long Kiss Goodnight and Nikita of La Femme Nikita, were the proud few to infiltrate what continues to remain a male-dominated genre. Each of these characters left her mark in a revolutionary way, and yet each was also limited by socially accepted gender stereotypes that kept her from being radically progressive. To this day, superhero movies still focus on male characters, with women in the supportive roles of nurturer and love interest.
The few superhero films that do feature female leads have failed miserably at the box office; infamous examples Elektra and Catwoman were received with great negativity. But unlike Spider-Man, X-Men, or Superman Returns, these films were poorly, shamefully, and embarrassingly produced. Regardless of the lack of attention to the source material (which is often problematic to begin with), it’s the lack of monetary success that captures a studio’s attention, framing further disinterest in committing proper re- sources to female-centric projects. As in the comics industry, the powers that be assume audiences aren’t interested in superwomen when, in fact, they just aren’t interested in subpar movies about superheroes.
This lack of heroic female role models in popular culture can be dis- tressing for a little girl, as well as for a grown woman. We’re shown too manyimages of us as beauty queens, femme fatales, vixens, girlfriends, mothers, and damsels in need of rescuing. We can be these things, but we can also be more.
In the late 1990s, two serendipitous things happened on a personal level that led to the book you hold before you. I came to realize that even if they appear scarce, superwomen do exist—and not just as someone’s ex- pendable love interest or second-rate sidekick.
The first was that I met my husband, a man who had grown up fasci- nated by the stories surrounding both comics and their creators—something that as a woman I hadn’t had much exposure to. Sure I’d watched Wonder Woman, and other television series based on comics, but my own experi- ence with print comics was limited to the Archies tantalizingly placed at child’s-eye level in the checkout line at the supermarket.1
So whenever we watched a superheroic film, be it X-Men, or Spider- Man, he would give me the full background mythos of the various char- acters. I learned what happens to a man when he has been bitten by a radioactive spider, and about the crucial difference between organic and manufactured web-slingers. I heard stories about the mutant threat and the dangers of angering a man who had previously been exposed to gamma rays. Listening to the stories he told, with their themes of loss, love, and redemption, I began to appreciate these tales on a new level and finally rec- ognized that superhero stories are American culture’s modern expression of myth.
Modern myth serves a function similar to that of ancient myth, namely, telling and hearing stories helps us make sense of our lives. Narratives reflect the world and comment on it as they document events and also imagine them. Stories meditate on human behavior and interrogate the meaning of big ideas: Good and Evil, Morality, Spirituality, Justice, Relationships, Community, Power, and Love. The same basic themes our ancestors con- templated, crafted to be relevant to their particular and specific time, place, and cultures, are continually revisited through the ages, part of humanity’s endless search for meaning.
Myths can be fantasy and they can be real, and sometimes, they are reality wrapped in metaphor and thus used as a way of teaching values. Recognizable character types such as the Hero, the Mother, the Father, the Sidekick, the Trickster, and the Villain—which according to Carl Gustav Jung were a global phenomena embedded in the human unconscious—give us ideas about who we are, and who we do or do not want to be. When these archetypes—as Jung termed them—are used in stories they can teach us about our socially appropriate roles, how we fit into our communities, and about our human potential, both terrible and great.2Archetypal themes and big ideas may retain their significance for any given culture, but the ways stories are told and characters presented must evolve as a particular society does. For example, myths were once part of an oral tradition, and then they were expressed through the written word. Later, we were able to experience the wonder of the world through cinema, radio, comic books, and television—and all of these are where we can find our modern mythology.
In light of this, it was troublesome to me that although women’s roles have evolved, and in fact, female and male roles have changed, modern hero stories, like those of classic world myth, continue to focus on male experience and fantasy; and that women in these stories continue to fill the supporting roles of mothers, wives, temptresses, and goddesses. Additionally, because heroism is often confined to power fantasies, there is little room for female experiences to be considered heroic.
Now, not every audience will be able to identify with Star War’s Luke Skywalker in his quest—even though he follows the archetypal hero’s journey. But, we all need to be able to imagine that we are capable of destroying the Empire and saving the galaxy from oppression. Certainly, many humans have at times felt powerless, perhaps, to use an ancient example, like the mythic David, small and standing up against a world of Goliaths. We want to believe we are capable of phenomenal acts and we need stories to teach us that, indeed, no matter our gender, race, sexual preference, or physical challenges, we can be heroes.
As my curiosity was piqued, serendipity again stepped in. The second marker on my path to this book was that female superheroes began to appear on television screens in numbers I hadn’t seen since I was a little girl. First came Xena, Warrior Princess, and soon after, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both had (and continue to possess) cult appeal, but the characters were also impressive enough to make their way into a larger social consciousness. They became icons, with a popularity and marketability that enabled the presence of even more female heroes in popular entertainment media.3
A combination of watching these innovative series and contemplating the stories my husband had shared led me to wonder about the history of superwomen in modern mythology. Buffy and Xena may be relatively well- known, but who are the overlooked, or at least quietly celebrated, charac- ters? Where can we find stories about female agency and adventure? What about our feats of physical strength and our personal growth?
Wanting answers, I began to chronicle a history, which ultimately be- came Section I of this book, “Standing on the Shoulders of Amazons.” This begins in the late 1930s and highlights characters from American popular culture, as well as a few British and East Asian influences, all the way fromLois Lane and Wonder Woman up to the currently running (at time of writing) superwomen of television’s Heroes.
This history, of course, cannot be all-inclusive. Throughout the book, when I have addressed a television show or film series, I have generally included the entire series as a complete text (and when I haven’t I’ve noted otherwise). When I’ve mentioned a comic character, it has been in terms of a particular incarnation, story arc, or writer to make a point about a larger theme.4 Those who are sticklers about canon will note that “retcons”—a narrative tactic that retroactively alters a previous story arc to change current continuity—may negate or alter a point that I have made. This is why I want to stress that while a character’s history may be addressed, this book is about common narratives that recur in representations of heroic women. And there is always room for more histories, revised editions, and so on— especially as I hope this book inspires women to go out and study modern mythic women, as well as create them.
So, what is a superwoman?
She can be a spy, a secret agent, an assassin, a detective, a witch, a reporter, or a superhero. She becomes super by surpassing the limits of the human body and mind, either through rigorous training, an industrial accident, by virtue of being an alien, mutation, or advanced evolution.
Sometimes a woman is destined to be super. She can be prophesized and called to duty, or she can be created in a lab. She can be an ink-stained Amazon gracing the pages of comics, or a warrior woman of the digital or silver screens.
For the purposes of consistency in this book, each of the characters I’ve chosen have, more often than not, met at least two of the four criteria, discussed in the following sections.
The Narrative Borrows from, or Resonates with, Classical Themes and/or Elements of World Mythology
Many serials, be they print, digital or film, have complex mythologies that appropriate and blend classic tropes, legendary quests, and symbolic archetypes.
Wonder Woman and Xena, Warrior Princess borrow from a combination of ancient Greek and Roman mythology to create hybrids of classic tales and modern politics, while series Alias and Heroes strive to establish their own unique mythos, with much less overt reliance upon the stories of our common past.Regardless of the source material, these mythic stories transcend everyday experience. They tap into a larger tradition of storytelling that for millennia has allowed humans to fantasize about our potential. We see recognizable characters that are often the embodiment of an idea or an ideal, and because we so readily identify with them, their stories allow us to vicariously experience the extra-ordinary.
An Element of the Fantastic
Superwomen generally are involved in paranormal, mythic, or magical circumstances. It’s important to note that in these types of stories “magic” is often translated into, or conflated with, science.
Agent Dana Scully of The X-Files frequently encountered fantastic circumstances. The extraterrestrial phenomena, religious mysticism, telepathy, extrasensory perception, and other acts of transcendence, which were the foundation of her investigations, forced her, and us, to suspend disbelief and engage with the extraordinary.
On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow Rosenberg was adept at both science and magic. Though she was not the lead character, her contributions to the good fight were just as important as Buffy’s.
Buffy herself had prophetic dreams, and Veronica Mars of Veronica Mars had slightly paranormal, if haunted, dreams that aided her investi- gations.
The birth of Alias’s Sydney Bristow was prophesized in the fifteenth century by the fictional Milo Rambaldi—a combination of Nostradamus and Leonardo da Vinci.
A Uniquely Identifiable Skill or Power
As noted above, superwomen are uncannily good at something that allows them to accomplish their tasks—often with flourish. Their capabilities are usually achieved through a combination of innate ability and intense training.
Each of the Potentials on Buffy could become the Slayer—a warrior girl of superstrength, precognitive dreams, and accelerated healing. But it is the skills they gain by rigorous practice that see them through their greatest battle.
CIA agent, Sydney Bristow, has a preternatural capacity for language, but was also schooled from an early age in espionage. Dr. Catherine Gale and Mrs. Emma Peel are extraordinarily intelligent and champions in martial arts. And though often the damsel-in-distress, Lois Lane’s trademark . . .
“Female heroes abound in literature, film and all walks of life, although most people don’t know that they do. Not surprising given how much they challenge the gender roles in which women and girls have historically been confined. This wonderful book shows female heroes breaking out of gender boxes left and right and illuminates new possibilities for the indomitable hero in all of us.”
Kathleen Noble, Ph.D., author of The Sound of the Silver Horn: Reclaiming the heroism in contemporary women’s lives.
"Once upon a time -- only a few years ago, actually -- women could turn on their TV sets and glory in the adventures of Buffy, Xena, Sydney Bristow, Dana Scully, and many more strong, ass-kicking women. Today there is not one show on the small screen that stars a female action hero. What happened? Comics are not much better. Aside from the occasional exception (for which we are grateful) like Birds of Prey, and women writers like Ivory Madison (The Huntress) and Gail Simone’s newly feminist interpretation of Wonder Woman, most comic book action heroines continue to be male-written and drawn creations whose breasts are bigger then their personalities.
Now along comes Jennifer Stuller, with her very entertaining book, Ink-Stained Amazons, to explore the whys and wherefores of pop culture super women, and perhaps jolt us all into demanding more and stronger women characters. Thank you, Jennifer. We need those role models!"
Trina Robbins, author of The Great American Superheroines (Palace Press, 2009)
About Jennifer K.
Jennifer Kate Stuller is a professional writer, critic, and scholar, and the author of Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology—a comprehensive history, critique, and reference guide examining feminist history and potential within popular...