Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation by Carolyn Cocca
In 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
- The women of Star Wars: Padem Amidala, Leia Organa, Jaina Solo
- The X-Women (especially Jean Grey and Storm)
- 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.