Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation by Carolyn CoccaSuperwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation by Carolyn Cocca

Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation by Carolyn CoccaIn Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation, Carolyn Cocca turns a sharp eye on gender (along with race and class) in the world of superheroes, looking through the lens of several female heroes in particular. These are, in order:

  • Wonder Woman
  • Batgirl
  • The women of Star Wars: Padem Amidala, Leia Organa, Jaina Solo
  • The X-Women (especially Jean Grey and Storm)
  • Buffy
  • Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel

The structure allows a sort of best of both worlds exploration. Since Cocca moves chronologically, we get a sense of the grand sweep of change (or sadly, either the lack thereof or its glacial pace). But we also get to bore in on details thanks to the chapter-by-chapter focus on a single character, an aspect often lost in books to simply move through time. It’s also a nice mix of extremely well covered characters (Wonder Woman, Buffy) and those less extensively analyzed, such as the Marvel women. I also appreciated the coverage of the animated works, which often go ignored.

Stylistically, Cocca is consistently engaging, her prose clear and fluid. The content is well researched, organized, focused, and incredibly detailed, and the entire work is wholly and thoroughly accessible throughout, making for reading that is enjoyable, stimulating, and thought-provoking.

Some of this is well traveled territory, and so those conversant with the topic won’t be surprised for instance to hear about how Wonder Woman’s creator had an overtly feminist motivation, or that female heroes such as Jean Grey or Sue Storm often fainted while exercising their powers. Nor will they be shocked at the difference in posing and costuming between male and female superheroes. Superwomen‘s value here for such readers then isn’t in the presentation of new information, but in how good a job Cocca does placing these things in context of time period and culture, as well as highlighting how a more diverse authorship and artistry (as opposed to just more diverse characters) can make a huge difference. Pointing out, for instance, how early female heroes were “clever, strong, and independent-minded” thanks to the way women’s societal roles changed in WWII, or how the hyper-sexualized “Bad Girl” art of the time could be seen as a backlash to Second Wave Feminism as well as a response to changing distribution methods. And even with such familiar items, Cocca does have some freshness via some historical tidbits, specific textual references, or some particularly apt quotations from producers.

Cocca also does an excellent job in Superwomen when dealing with the inherent complexities. It would be easy to oversimply matters, to create heroes and villains, paint things as black and white, but cultural issues like gender, race, and class are never so simple. Nor are the people who swim in that culture. And so Cocca lauds Chris Claremont or Joss Whedon for their positive influence in lessening the knee-jerk sexism and/or outright misogyny, but she also criticizes them for some of their blind spots or less laudable storylines/characters, pointing out, for instance, that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was “overwhelmingly white” and either glossed over issues of class or handled them in some problematic fashion.

Similarly, she explores the sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t conundrum of dealing with Batgirl’s paralysis (thanks to being shot by the Joker). On the one hand, fans were upset that yet another female character had been robbed of her powers and agency (even as she found both as Oracle) at the hands of a male villain. On the other hand, many were thrilled at the depiction of her as Oracle, showing that differently–abled people did not have to be relegated to the sidelines or defined by their physical issues. And then, when the writers decided to heal her, some were overjoyed at her rejuvenation as a strong hero, while those who loved her Oracle character were dismayed at the loss of one of the few differently-abled characters.

I could say many more positive things about Superwomen, while I only had two very small quibbles. One is that for such a visual media, I would have liked more illustrations beyond the ones included. And second is that the pieces could have used a little further editing to cut out some duplication, such as several explanations of “fridging.” I assume some of these pieces appeared in other form elsewhere, and that’s the reason for explaining some terms or events in each one, but in a collection it became a little repetitive. As noted though, these were very minor quibbles, not even complaints so much as “it would have been nice if …” sorts of issues.

Insightful, sometimes depressing or infuriating, always engaging, Superwomen is an excellent addition to the world of superhero criticism.

Published in 2016. Over the last 75 years, superheroes have been portrayed most often as male, heterosexual, white, and able-bodied. Today, a time when many of these characters are billion-dollar global commodities, there are more female superheroes, more queer superheroes, more superheroes of color, and more disabled superheroes–but not many more. Superwomen investigates how and why female superhero characters have become more numerous but are still not-at-all close to parity with their male counterparts; how and why they have become a flashpoint for struggles over gender, sexuality, race, and disability; what has changed over time and why in terms of how these characters have been written, drawn, marketed, purchased, read, and reacted to; and how and why representations of superheroes matter, particularly to historically underrepresented and stereotyped groups. Specifically, the book explores the production, representations, and receptions of prominent transmedia female superheroes from their creation to the present: Wonder Woman; Batgirl and Oracle; Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel; Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Star Wars’ Padmé Amidala, Leia Organa, Jaina Solo, and Rey; and X-Men’s Jean Grey, Storm, Kitty Pryde, Rogue, and Mystique. It analyzes their changing portrayals in comics, novels, television shows, and films, as well as how cultural narratives of gender have been negotiated through female superheroes by creators, consumers, and parent companies over the last several decades.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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