Wonder Women and Bad Girls: Superheroine and Supervillainess Archetypes in Popular Media (2020), by Valerie Estelle Frankel, pretty much lays it all out in the title. Starting in the earliest days of comic books and progressing through the decades to the present, Frankel explores a boatload of characters, the famous and expected (Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Black Widow, Storm, Catwoman) and the lesser known and unexpected (Rulah Jungle Goddess, Pow-Girl, Veda the Cobra Woman). The breadth is a definite strength of the book, though I found myself wanting more depth, especially as when it was there it was insightful.
After a brief introduction, Frankel first moves chronologically through “The Classic Super Eras,” discussing Sheena, The Wasp, the Powerpuff Girls, and Captain Marvel, amongst others. Then the sections are more thematic, with the titles and some representative characters as follows: “Crossing Boundaries” (Steven Universe, Misty Knight, Mystique, Girl Commandos), “Good Girls” (Shuri, Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Starfire), “Outcasts” (Black Widow, Harley Quinn, She-Hulks, Katana), “Reclaiming Power” (Citlali, Poison Ivy, Jessica Jones, Storm, Madam Butterfly).
As mentioned, the breadth is a clear plus here, as Frankel shows off her research by offering up a host of lesser known or completely unknown female heroes/villains. While it’s always nice to get a historical context, where some of these lesser-known ones come from, I especially liked her discussion of contemporary female characters, especially the more diverse ones, as I haven’t really kept up with the industry or paid much attention to the indies (beyond Saga). I didn’t know, for instance, about America Chavez (“raised in many countries by many Latin American women”) or The Janissary, “a Stanford-educated doctor [who] dons a full concealing costume with headscarf and veil as her superhero disguise.”)
While I appreciated the breadth, though, I did have some issues with Wonder Women and Bad Girls as a whole. One is that it felt unbalanced, with too much summary and too little analysis. Much of the book tells us what these characters did, which is obviously necessary to at least some extent, but I wanted much more about how “what they did” showed us something about culture at the time of their origin or what their changes over time say about cultural changes over time. This was particularly frustrating because when Frankel brought this kind of analysis into the text, either through her own insights or through secondary sources, it was often quite interesting and illuminating. As, for instance, when she discusses how Storm is a bit of a contradiction in that she’s clearly a powerful woman in the Marvel universe and one who also takes on a leadership role, but is also, in her origin, more complex a character in that “describing herself as connecting with nature and flying about nude are problematic as they invoke the noble savage trope.” Or when she quotes Caryn E. Neumann on how “comics have long denied the existence of highly capable, attractive, mature women” and then follows up Neumann’s observation with one of her own:
Older men like Lex Luthor or Professor X may have large roles in comics, but women, even ancient ones like Wonder Woman’s mother Hippolyta, basically all look young. Superheroines’ names stress this as they are called ‘Batgirl’ and ‘Supergirls,’ never outgrowing their teens or twenties. Youth, beauty, and goodness are tied together for the women.
Frankel, as noted, offers up some of this sort of deeper cultural scrutiny, but there just wasn’t enough of it in my mind, leaving too much of the text feeling encyclopedic rather than analytical. Finally, I have to admit that the category structure made it hard to get a cohesive or unified sense of female heroes/villains in the grand scheme of the industry. While the categories do prompt analysis of similarities, they also feel a bit arbitrary (in some ways, for instance, it’d be pretty easy to categorize all the female superheroes as “outcasts” in one way or another) and the shifting back and forth across the decades, while not confusing per se, made it hard as noted to get that single thread-line sense. As traditional as it is, I would have preferred the chronological approach to get a sense of how the approach toward portraying female superheroes/villains changed over time or echoed past approaches (or subverted/overturned them) and how those changes reveal something about culture and industry in those times.
I’m glad I read Frankel’s work as it offered up some characters I was unaware of and Wonder Women and Bad Girls does, as noted, provide some intriguing insights. But those teases of insight are what eventually made it a frustrating read as well, as it left me wanting so much more of that.