Anindya Syam Choudhury and Kinshuk Chakraborty
Dr. Anindya Syam Choudhury is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, Assam University, Silchar, Assam. His current areas of interest include World Englishes, the politics of English(es) in postcolonial contexts, language-literature interface areas like Stylistics, postcolonial literatures in English(es), especially writings in English from India’s Northeast.
Kinshuk Chakraborty is Ph.D. scholar in the Department of English, Assam University, Silchar. He is pursuing his research work in the domain of revisionist mythology in post-millennial Indian fiction in English.
‘Postfeminism’ is a term that is often used to describe a media and publishing phenomenon, with the societal perception that many or all of the goals of feminism have already been achieved. This perception, however, ironically contradicts many essential feminist ideologies. In fact, postfeminism may purport to be a powerful tool for women but it also insinuates that women lack agency, saturating the media with examples of ‘girl power’ and ‘real’ depictions of women, merely to make women consumers of their own selves. This article begins with a discussion of what constitutes postfeminism and a postfeminist world-view before dwelling on how comic books constitute a significant part of this postfeminist media culture. Comics are a unique popular-culture art form with the potential to inform, persuade, and model attitudes and behaviours. Although they are often overlooked as potential research materials, comics provide powerful and reflective messages about varying cultures, and garner the possibilities to challenge the prevalent status quos and develop profound meaning that challenges conventional narratives. However, this potential to challenge cultural norms in comics is, in many cases, warped and manipulated by ideological impositions and consumer backlash. It has been found that comic book narrative structures device a model of ‘consistent’ storytelling and stereotypical character delineations to attract and satisfy the readers while being conscious of the power structures that arouse such forms of ‘consistent’ creations. In this context, it may be pointed out that comic books also attempt to subtly critique these very power structures through the incorporation of minute cultural analysis and problematic character developments in them. Popular comics with female protagonists or with a female congregation appear to be primary instances of such kind of narrative modeling. In such comics, women are often defined in the postfeminist sense of empowerment and sexual freedom, but only through their engagement with the consumer culture. What is reinforced through the strategies of postfeminism is the idea that through consumerism and overt displays of sexuality, women can assert a deeply feminized power but with the demand that women buy and display specific, culturally aligned performances. Initially, there have been attempts to manipulate these cultural implications by adhering to their principles while subtly critiquing and commenting on them. The representation of Wonder Woman’s in Ms. magazine, an American liberal feminist magazine, was one such attempt, trying to incorporate feminist ideologies under the guise of popular representations of women. But such representations have, since then, only helped in reinforcing those prevalent popular conceptions. While Wonder Woman’s legacy had become one that meant that empowerment happens by being overtly sexual, the primary goals of Ms. magazine failed to reach out to people because it was hard for many women to relate to characters like Wonder Woman. Although there have been attempts to create more relatable female comic book characters, they also appear to have fallen prey to the dictates of the popular/consumer culture. Detective Comics’s Harley Quinn and the female superhero team ‘Birds of Prey’ provide crucial examples for understanding the postfeminist representations imbibed in comic books. Marvel Comics’s Araña (Anya Corazon), Dust, and Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan) also provide significant case studies of the postfeminist world-view and its implications upon the racial and religious quandary of such narratives. This paper would attempt to look at such comic book representations related to the aforementioned female characters (and also refer to their motion picture and animated series counterparts) through specific lenses of feminism(s) and gender studies to enquire into the mechanisms of postfeminist representations and their intricate association to consumer culture.
Keywords: Comic books, consumer culture, Ms. Marvel, postfeminism, superheroines, Wonder Woman
The Postfeminist World-view: Different and Differing Perspectives
The term ‘postfeminism’ has been mired in controversies of various kinds right since its inception in the 1980s. While, as Sarah Gamble points out, there has been a bit of confusion around postfeminism (as also around postmodernism) primarily because of “the semantic uncertainty generated by the prefix”, with ‘post’ being usually taken to mean ‘after in time or order’ and not exactly “rejection”, scholars like Tania Modleski (in Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a ‘Postfeminist’ Age) and Susan Faludi (in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women) have been quite forthright in their description of postfeminism as essentially anti-feminist (37). Modleski, for instance, has stated that postfeminist texts “are actually engaged in negating the critiques and undermining the goals of feminism”, thereby “delivering us back to a prefeminist world” (3). In a similar vein, Faludi has portrayed postfeminism as a kind of anti-feminist backlash, resulting in the undoing of the ground gained by feminism:
Just when record numbers of younger women were supporting feminist goals in the mid-1980s (more of them, in fact, than older women) and a majority of all women were calling themselves feminists, the media declared that feminism was the flavour of the seventies and that ‘postfeminism’ was the new story – complete with a younger generation who supposedly reviled the women’s movement. (5)
This attack on postfeminism, through the rhetoric of relapse, is counterpointed by ‘sex-positive’ (post)feminists like Naomi Wolf, Katie Roiphe, Christina Hoff Sommers and Camille Paglia et. al., whose work “is underpinned by a binarised distinction between ‘victim feminism’ and ‘power feminism’” in which the latter is positioned “as the only viable way in which to counteract the supposed lack of agency in victim feminism” (Gillis and Munford 167). Advocating ‘power feminism’, Katie Roiphe, in The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism, for instance, decries the inappropriate image of the victimisation of women (which, in her opinion, furthers the perception of women as sexual objects) fostered by second-wave feminism in the following manner:
The image that emerges from feminist preoccupations with rape and sexual harassment is that of women as victims…. This image of a delicate woman bears a striking resemblance to that fifties ideal my mother and the other women of her generation fought so hard to get away from. They didn’t like her passivity, her wide-eyed innocence. They didn’t like the fact that she was perpetually offended by sexual innuendo. They didn’t like her excessive need for protection. She represented personal, social, and psychological possibilities collapsed, and they worked and marched, shouted and wrote, to make her irrelevant for their daughters. But here she is again, with her pure intentions and her wide eyes. Only this time it is feminists themselves who are breathing new life into her. (6)
In this context, mention may be made of an incident narrated by Misha Kavka (in her article titled “Feminism, Ethics, and History, or What is the ‘Post’ in Postfeminism?”) when she saw a sticker reading “I’LL BE A POSTFEMINIST IN A POSTPATRIARCHY” stuck onto the doors of “out-and-out second-wave feminists” (29). Kavka considers this instance to infer that while postfeminism initially began as a theoretical approach to deconstruct the aging concept of feminism, it soon turned into a completely new concept which attempted to look at itself as a signifier of historical periodization. The ‘post’ of the term ‘postfeminism’, thus, potentially signifies a movement ‘after’ feminism in a chronological sense. In the words of Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharff, when used in this sense, postfeminism might be said to mark an “epistemological break within feminism” which “implies transformation and change within feminism that challenges ‘hegemonic’ Anglo-American feminism” (3). When considered in such a way, a postfeminist approach might address the theoretical gaps of second-wave feminism, which has often been criticized for its white, middle-class, Anglo-American bias with regard to the issue of oppression of women.
In many ways, then, postfeminism has often been seen as a phenomenon drifting away from the ideals or goals that constituted the core of feminism. This wavering away from the goals has caused a sort of detachment and this makes those goals and ideals seem to be something of the past. As a result, there is a sense of simmering nostalgia attached with those detached values and goals and gender traditionalism. However, while postfeminism has been seen to exhibit a reactionary stance, it cannot be denied that postfeminism inextricably relies on feminism to function as a discourse. This “double entanglement” of postfeminism, leading to a complexification of the backlash argument (“Postfeminism” 28), has been pointed out lucidly by McRobbie, who remains one of the pioneering commentators on the complex relationship between feminism and postfeminism:
[P]ostfeminism . . . [refers] to an active process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 1980s come to be undermined. . . . [T]hrough an array of machinations, elements of contemporary popular culture arc perniciously effective in regard to this undoing of feminism while simultaneously appearing to be engaging in a well-informed and even well-intended response to “feminism.” (“Postfeminism” 27)
Another important facet of postfeminism is its fascinating resemblance to neoliberal culture. Dane Richardson and Victoria Robinson, in their book Introducing Gender and Women's Studies, describe neoliberalism as a framework that espouses the idea of liberating the markets and leaving them to the freeplay of the market forces and withdrawal of government control on issues like social welfare. They also argue that it is useful to think of neoliberalism “as a form of regulation or governmentality and an ideological framework of ideas and values that emphasise commodification and consumerism, professionalization and managerialism, and individualism and freedom of ‘choice’” (xxi). The neoliberal stratagem makes empowered women responsible for her individual choices – choices which tend to cater to a consumerist culture. In essence, the choice rhetoric is one of the main foci of the postfeminist world-view.
In this scenario, a woman’s ‘choices’ based on her own ‘self’ takes a detour from the political to the personal as she is now empowered because she can choose, as the postfeminist rhetoric would suggest, as opposed to a time in the very distant past where she may have been forced to live a certain type of life. In a particular situation, an ideal postfeminist subject, despite having a plethora of choices and options to choose from, tends to choose a specific criterion which is rendered desirable to her. Tasker and Negra point out that “postfeminism is white and middle class by default” (2), but the postfeminist stance towards racial discrimination triggers the gory history of marginalization of the women of colour. Though the postfeminist world-view guarantees individual space to women, including those coloured, a careful observation reveals how it caters to the needs of white women and accords them a privileged status. While women of colour do appear in postfeminist media texts, the focus is overwhelmingly on assimilation as well as respectability. While the postfeminist culture staunchly believes in a situation where all ‘empowered’ women have access to equal opportunities, the plight of women subjected to racial discrimination is pitiful because it does not seem to do enough to accord them the dignity of existence.
Postfeminism and Wonder Woman, the First Superheroine
In the light of the above discussion on the postfeminist world-view, it would be interesting to analyse the noticeable changes that have occurred in the last few decades in the domain of superhero comics, especially with regard to the issue of the representation of women characters. Historically under-represented or misrepresented, superheroines became more prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s, when more and more female-led titles and powerful female characters appeared in a male-dominated world. While many second-wave feminists were involved in Black and Hispanic civil rights movements, as well as the emerging politics around gay and lesbian rights, “it is the intersecting of a range of concerns, including gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, age, and class, that came to be the defining element of the so-called third-wave in the early 1990s, and is the key to understanding recent shifts in representations of gender in superhero comics”, as Curtis and Cardo point out in their article “Superheroes and third-wave feminism” (382). An understanding of this is important for appreciating the recent shifts in the representations of gender in superhero comics. While diverse superheroines began to appear in the later decades of the 20th century, their representation had its ‘real’ initiation through the figure of Wonder Woman although Fantomah, created by Fletcher Hanks, predates her by a couple of years. While different interpretations of the character have emerged over the years, the most common Wonder Woman origin story is the one in which Queen Hippolyta of Themyscira created a clay sculpture of a little girl and begged the Greek goddess Aphrodite to bring her to life. The child named Diana grows up and trains herself in the island of all-women Amazon warriors. The island is hidden from the rest of the world, until an American spy pilot in World War II, Steve Trevor, crash-lands there. Diana then leaves Themyscira to join the war effort, adopting the name ‘Wonder Woman’. In some recent works like Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Tim Hanley’s Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World's Most Famous Heroine and Noah Berlatsky’s Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, the authors have tried to unravel several deeper mysteries behind Wonder Woman’s origin. Berlatsky in his work, for instance, has pointed out how Marston (the creator of Wonder Woman), a psychologist, developed his “DISC theory, which referred to Dominance, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance” and applied it to his creation of Wonder Woman (8). Throughout the years that Marston wrote and developed the comic character, images of bondage and extreme violence were an inextricable part of the character of Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman, for instance, could be seen either chained or subduing others with her own lasso on a regular basis. The chaining of Wonder Woman could be regarded as symbolising the struggles of women during the Suffragette Movement in the United States, and the breaking of the chains possibly symbolised the breaking free of women from social fetters put in place by patriarchy. In the words of Finn, Marston used Wonder Woman to promote his ideological agenda of “women’s political power, economic independence, and social authority” although “the comic book’s persistent bondage theme” and her skimpy costume “undermine Wonder Woman’s agency and relegate her to an object of male fantasy” (7). After Marston's death in 1947, the character was stripped of her super-abilities and new storylines were created to display Wonder Woman as having greater agency in leisure. This new interpretation provoked a critique by prominent feminist, Gloria Steinem, who then put Wonder Woman in her classic costume on “the cover of the first stand-alone Ms. magazine in July 1972” (Berlatsky 14). Although the extent of bondage in the comics decreased since Marston's time, it still retained its popularity among the readers, and even Steinem had been enthusiastic about this version of Wonder Woman’s character. In this context, Berlatsky in his book points out that "images of disempowerment, then, may be popular with women because they mirror women's actual disempowerment" (13). Berlatsky takes the example of Wonder Woman #13 (which was reprinted in the 1972 Ms. collection) where there is a crisis in Paradise Island and the Amazon women require Wonder Woman to show them how to “snap the heaviest chains, and giant boulders” (14). Though the story ends with the Amazons succeeding in their quest under Wonder Woman’s supervision, the imagery of bondage hardly diminishes, as “the Amazon girls, all dressed in short, flirty skirts, are shown winding ropes and chains around the (as always) be-swimsuited Wonder Woman, tying her fast to a wooden pole . . .” (15). In this regard, Berlatsky asks the following questions:
Why does raising women’s self-esteem require bondage imagery exactly? Isn’t there a way we could get the feminist message without the cheerful-yet-kinky sexual charge? (15)
Hence, although Wonder Woman may appear to be a representation of women empowerment and may seem to promote homogeneity among women, the methods used in representing such empowerment are problematic and the homogeneity appears forced. From a postfeminist worldview, the Wonder Woman in chains (although she undergoes various transformations with regard to her dress, weapons, etc., over the many decades of her existence) would possibly represent a kind of ‘victim feminism’ (which was discussed earlier), without much agency, independence and freedom of choice. However, Wonder Woman also seems to “enact patriarchal notions of strength" and becomes a kind of hybrid entity where a woman “must meet masculine measures of success” while still upholding her femininity (Laura Lane et al. 498). This is a quintessential postfeminist framework into which Wonder Woman seems to fit.
Comics, Postfeminism and the Representation of Contemporary Superheroines
There is no gainsaying that comics are a unique popular-culture art-form with the potential to inform, persuade, and model attitudes and behaviours. As Groensteen points out, comic books are a “story-related pleasure”, an “art-related pleasure”, and a “medium-related pleasure”, a combination that cannot be found in any other medium whether it be film, television, photography, or novels (10). In a similar vein, Duncan and Smith opine that “at their best, comic books can accommodate content as profound, moving, and enduring as that found in any of the more celebrated vehicles for human expression” (2). It is worth mentioning that the last two decades have seen a substantial change in regard to the representation of characters in the comics. Especially, the 1960s and 1970s have seen the underrepresented women characters appearing and occupying space in what has been assumed to be a male-dominated world. To understand the shift in representation and the blitzkrieging of female characters, it is important to take a detour to the civil rights movements of the Blacks and the Hispanics, and the political movements for gay and lesbian rights. While these movements were organised to address specific issues affecting those particular groups, the intersection of several factors like colour, race, ethnicity and class became a unified driving force for the movements which subsequently triggered a massive shift with regard to the representation of women characters in comics. Duncan and Smith claim, in their book The Power of Comics, that although comics can “function as catalysts for the raising of social consciousness among their readers, the industry that produces them has a less consistent record for taking more direct action to change existing disparities in power relations” (265). In order to convey ideological meanings, comics function as “imagetexts” that utilize both textual and visual communication (Mitchell 56). The representations of race and gender are some of the most apparent ideological descriptors on the comic book page because of their visual cues. These representations maybe wayward, bearing no semblance with reality. As Royal explained:
To put it bluntly, comics - by necessity - employs stereotypes as a kind of shorthand to communicate quickly and succinctly. This being the case, it is up to the comics artist to tell her or his story as effectively as possible without slipping into the trap, even inadvertently, of inaccurate and even harmful representations. (68)
Comics and their creators may purposefully or unintentionally misrepresent characters or reality in order to fulfil presumed stereotypes, perpetuate ideologies in the prevalent culture, or otherwise appeal to readers. In this paper, an attempt has been made to analyse and explore these ideological undercurrents pertaining to the postfeminist world-view, with specific references to the discourses of gender which both compliment and challenge it. The representations that have been considered for analysis in this paper include DC Comics’s female superhero team ‘Birds of Prey’ (particularly Oracle and Vixen), the anti-hero(ine)/villain Harley Quinn, and Marvel Comics’ Spider-Girl (Araña), Dust, and the new Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan).
One of the main reasons for the recent intervention in superhero comics is precisely that third-wave feminism/postfeminism is part of a broader engagement with the intersectional axes of class, sexuality, race, ethnicity, disability, and complex gender politics which have come together in really innovative ways around the wider issue of representation. While third-wave feminism is replete with contradictory stances, positions and diverse movements, this diversity has actually been a major enabler in bringing together writers to herald a significant impact on the genre superhero comics. In their article titled “Contradiction as Agency: Self-Determination, Transcendence, and Counter-Imagination in Third Wave Feminism”, Valerie R. Renegar and Stacey K. Sowards point out that contradiction is precisely what leads to innovation. "Contradictions found in third-wave feminism" they write, "are often designed to challenge traditional notions of identity and to create ambiguities, divergences, incompatibilities, and different ways of thinking" (6). They argue that contradictions enable women "to discover and experiment with the various dimensions of themselves" (8), which can consequently enable "new possibilities and options for everyday experiences and activism" (2). As Shelley Budgeon has noted, another key feature of third-wave feminism is seeing "popular culture simultaneously as a site of pleasure and an object of critique" (280). This is also in keeping with Christine Gledhill's idea of "pleasurable negotiations", which is basically a call for "rethinking relations between media products, ideologies and audiences" and a way to understand femininity and womanhood not as abstract "textual" positions, but as "lived" socio-cultural categories (169) from which women make varied use and interpretation of media products. Postfeminism, much like postmodernism, caters to the late capitalist culture that thrives on work, leisure and a consumerist culture. It has been largely able to intergrate itself with economic discourses, signifying that the self must conform to the existing demands of market culture.
The writing in Birds of Prey supports female agency while the artwork denies it, and, through this balance of agency and denial, it creates a postfeminist imagetext. Other features such as consumerism, self-surveillance attribute a postfeminist colour to it. The text is postfeminist because it projects powerful characters but again limits their capacities besides indulging in racial discrimination. There are a few moments in the work that show a postfeminist world-view at work, even in a writing trajectory that is meant to emphasize the strengths of women and their relationships with one another. One of the important incidents in the work is when Barbara is in hospital, crying after her seizure, but Black Canary, another female character, shows Barbara how there is mascara all over her face. This incident suggests that even in times of pain Black Canary cares about Barbara’s appearance or, at least, believes that Barbara would want her to help maintain her appearance. Black Canary surveys Barbara to keep her exterior in check and up to the standard beauty codes. Barbara, after all, must conform to the codes of sex appeal and exquisite appearance. The industry thrives in making women appear desirable, conforming to the traditional heterosexual notions, and thus the postfeminist culture expects women to appear how the free market desires them to so that they become viable consumables across the media. Another instance of how maintaining a particular kind of ‘acceptable’ appearance occurs during the second fight between Huntress and Vixen. As Huntress kicks Vixen in the face, a caption box reads, “Come on... you’re a model, Mari. You can’t like getting your nose broken” (Dixon 3). Even during a fight, Huntress aims to snap Vixen back into reality by attacking her superficial features. A broken nose, to Huntress, may have a greater effect on a model (who cares about her appearance) than some other sort of brute force. In a fight scene, one would expect the characters to focus on surviving rather than on how they appear, and yet Huntress targets Vixen’s superficial beauty. Through Huntress’s aiming at Vixen’s nose what is intended to be shown perhaps is that the way to make a woman truly feel pain is by attacking her physical appearance, specifically her face. Birds of Prey seems to reinforce stereotypes and also emphasizes impractical clothing and things that do not serve much purpose. There is, of course, an espousal of the belief in emancipation of women but the artwork seems to be besmeared with conventional sexist/racist practices. The costumes that the characters wear point towards this: while Vixen’s costume covers her entire ‘black’ body thereby hiding the racial signifiers, Huntress’s costume is interesting because she wears only a one-piece swimsuit with a cut to show her midriff and thigh-length boots.The artwork does not give her pants or anything similarly practical. Black Canary’s costume in Birds of Prey comprises a black, leather swimsuit with fishnet stockings. The characters, therefore, are kept racialized and sexualized possibly in order to cater to the requirements of the (white) male gaze, and this runs counter to the female power argument that the comic book supposedly espouses.
The inclusion of ‘hot’ superheroines has been in vogue within the realm of comic books for decades. The designers have more often than not crafted the superheroines, irrespective of the medium, in a way which has enabled them to wield their sexual power. Whether good or evil, the drawings of these women has constituted what has been called “bad girl art”, a term that originated in the 1990s, and which referred most specifically to comic book women who were “anti-heroine characters, often portrayed as cruel, mercenary, or demonic . . .” (“Bad Girl Art” Online). In her work titled Busting Out All Over: The Portrayal of Superheroines in American Superhero Comics from the 1940s to the 2000s, Brandi Florence analyses such a kind of “bad girl art” in which (anti)superheroines (having “super-sized” breasts, strong thighs, and thin waists) are often depicted in uncomfortable, erotic positions (97). In Birds of Prey, the one Black female character, Vixen, is portrayed as feral and savage. Her representation is inherently flawed and troublesome because she is mostly portrayed as erratic. Of course, her mind is being controlled by one of the villains for a significant portion of the story but the comic still paints her as animalistic. Vixen is tied to the primal, animal-like representation; her name itself is a sexualized reference to foxes, and she can tap into the natural world to draw upon the powers and traits of animals. Vixen’s portrayal is primarily negative because it relies upon racist attitudes towards Black women as primal and animalistic; she is shown to have the potential for transgressing the divide between humans and animals. This particular type of representation resonates with Patricia Hill Collins’s notion of ‘matrix of domination’, which she elucidates in her book Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. Collins utilises this concept to underscore that one's position in society is made up of multiple contiguous standpoints rather than just one essentialist standpoint. It assumes that power operates in a top-down manner by forcing and controlling unwilling victims to bend to the will of more powerful superiors. Collins opines that "depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed…. Each individual derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of oppression which frame everyone's lives" (226). In addition, Collins emphasizes "that people simultaneously experience and resist oppression on three levels: the level of personal biography; the group or community level of the cultural context created by race, class, and gender; and the systemic level of social institutions" (227). Vixen’s animal power is explicitly a sign of this because she is Black and can switch between different species of animals in order to exhibit her superpower. This representation is troubling because the text apparently tries hard to celebrate the power of women. What it ends up doing, however, is relying upon racist stereotypes.
Birds of Prey puts forward the argument that differently-abled people should be treated equally, and that they possess many unique and liberating traits. So the representation of the ‘bad girl’ in case of the character named Barbara Gordon (the Batgirl) gets transformed into one of a quintessentially ‘good girl’ owing to her physical disability because it forces her to give up the mantle of Batgirl. The transformed Barbara Gordon is represented as the computer-hacker, Oracle, whose aptness with technology is unmatched. Despite being physically disabled, she is a genius in the world of computers, a hacker with unmatched agility and agency. The various representations of disability in popular culture are necessary to develop positive attitudes towards the differently-abled people and celebrate them as equals. Garland-Thomson claims that “disability – like gender – is a concept that pervades all aspects of culture: its structuring institutions, social identities, cultural practices, political positions, historical communities, and the shared human experience of embodiment” (“Integrating Disability” 4). In American culture, the differently-abled people have generally been ignored in favour of the able-bodied ideal, and if a differently-abled person happens to be a woman, her misery gets multiplied manifold. In this context, Barbara Jordan can be said to have negotiated her double jeopardy (of being a woman and a differently-abled person) skilfully by utilizing her photographic memory and technological prowess to carve a niche for herself in the comic book universe. Barbara Gordon’s case seems to be akin to what Ellis and Kent point out in Disability and New Media:
Digital media and online technology hold the promise that people with disability will be included in social life, diminishing the impact their impairment has on their social life. (59)
Both a sex-positive approach and the adoption of “rhetorical strategies” (Valerie R. Renegar and Stacey K. Sowards 8) of patriarchy – such as the claim that "our desires aren't simply booby traps set by the patriarchy" (Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards 136) – have meant that women writers have been able to use images of scantily-clad heroines and do a ‘Good Girl/Bad Girl’ makeover of characters that previously were not drawn that way, such as the transformation that Harley Quinn went through at the hands of Amanda Conner. Harley Quinn appeared in the DC animated Universe as the Joker’s psychiatrist and later his girlfriend, thereby situating herself on the side of the evil as a member of gang Criminal Gallery/Rogue’s Gallery. Initially, Harley appeared in full clothes, covered from tip to toe, but soon changed into a ‘hot’ sleazy figure in shorts. Initially, the less sexualised representation meant that she was under the control of the Joker. After being out of the relationship with the Joker, Harley Quinn dons an attractive outfit to charm others through her sexualised portrayal but then again she stays in complete control of it. The most important figure in her life now is Poison Ivy, another female character undergoing a transformation from villain to anti-hero, and with whom Harley starts a relationship. In bed together, they chat, almost like teenagers, with Harley wearing a pair of pink fluffy bunny slippers, a sign of childishness or innocence in stark contrast to her actual life. She is also regularly shown making herself up and choosing different costumes, because she could not stand to be as boring as Superman and wear the same outfit every day. This appropriation of the supposed tools of patriarchy (makeup, high heels, etc.) fits very well with some of the aspects of third-wave feminism, such as renegotiations of ideas of femininity and fluid sexuality.
In DC’s New 52 series (where Harley Quinn has a stand-alone comic book title), Harley Quinn is shown to inherit a property and rents a part of it tenants. She uses the roof to shelter animals in the first volume. She exhibits the role of a psychiatrist, a vigilante, an animal rights activist and a landlord. She is also a bisexual woman who has had her skin bleached bone-white and needs to put on makeup to pass as ‘white’ (and hence ‘normal’) when she returns to her professional engagements as a therapist. She arrives in Coney Island riding a motorbike laden with all her belongings. The bike itself is a customized chopper and can be read as an appropriation of a traditionally male symbol of virility. In her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Judith Butler analyses this kind of representation as an instance of the ‘performative’ criteria favoured by heteronormative (and its related) ideologies. Specifically, Butler conceptualizes gendered subjectivity as a fluid identity and contends that the individual subject is never exclusively ‘male’ or ‘female,’ but rather is always in a state of contextually-dependent flux. That is, gendered subjectivity is not something "fixed" or "essential" but a sustained set of acts, "a repetition and a ritual" (xv). The comic book offers an avenue to challenge patriarchy and postfeminist constructions if Harley rejects the Joker (or any other male partner) and relies upon her female community. However, the comic book’s continuous projection of Harley’s desire for the Joker (from whom she has separated) disputes and dismantles whatever positive infrastructure was put in place. The comic book contends that women need and desire men no matter whether their attention is reciprocated in any meaningful way.
Fiona Avery’s Amazing Fantasy released by Marvel Comics in 2004 introduced a Latina Heroine, Araña Corazon (Anya), and it marked a watershed in comic book history. Her real name is Aña Sofia Corazon, but she uses ‘Anya’ for the case of pronunciation of others. The first six issues of Amazing Fantasy focus on the context of the story where the readers are informed about WebCorps, Anya’s role as Hunter, her ties with Miguel, the importance of the death of her mother in this series, her investigative reporter father and his background, her ties with Spiderman, and more about the enemy organization Sisterhood of the Wasp. Comic book artists rely on certain techniques to enhance the superhero fantasy world for the audience. However, in doing so, characters’ bodies are objectified to reveal their superhero strengths. This objectification is especially problematic with regard to the depictions of women characters because it leads to an overt sexualisation of their characters. Although the techniques involve knowledge of muscle groups and comic book traditions, the reader also notices that women’s bodies are meant to be on display or objectified in ways different from those for male characters. The tight buttocks, ample breasts, long yet muscular legs, narrow torso, muscular arms, and fuller hips are meant to capture the tough, rugged, beautiful, and ‘sexy’ women, as Hart discusses in his work How to Draw Great-Looking Comic Book Women. Hence, although many of these women (Anya included) have superpowers and skills beyond those of the layperson, their bodies are idealized and objectified in negative ways in the same manner in which women’s bodies are presented in magazine advertisements where these are on display and women are “ready for sex” (Hart 7). So the reader has to fight the urge to sexualize the characters and remember that these bodies have been drawn and created for the comic book’s fantasy world and that part of the fantasy is the comic book heroine’s body. Durham stated that heroines often have their bodies as focal points with a focus on “slenderness and voluptuousness that epitomize current dominant definitions of beauty” (26), and Anya is no exception to this. In fact, Anya has the woman’s body type which is often depicted in the media: a narrow waist, fuller hips, ample breasts, lighter skin, and long hair.
The stereotypical representation of sex and race has always been an indispensable aspect of the media. Anya, too, has been represented in similar lines with the projection of her Latina identity. The projection goes further as she differentiates herself from other non-whites and affiliates herself with the other Latinas. Anya prioritises her family over everything but apparently it is the ‘workplace’ which foregrounds itself as a ‘real’ family to her. Although she is concerned about her father’s well-being, the workplace takes prominence in her life and becomes her ‘family,’ especially in scenes (where she has spiritual contact with her dead mother) where she creates and sustains connections to her mother through ‘conversations’ about her mother’s death and her own role in avenging that death. It is also at work where she truly connects with other Latinos and begins to build ethnic relationships and expresses her Latina identity. When she finally realises the significance of her heritage, and the roles of her mother and father, she truly emerges as a superheroine; she does not adopt the moniker of ‘Spidergirl’ (as her peers suggest based on the example of Spiderman) but embraces her mother’s maiden name ‘Araña’ as her heroic alias.
The multiplicity of ethnic, religious and gendered (mis)representations is most evident in a character called Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, who was created in 2013 and who started featuring as Ms. Marvel (written by G. Willow Wilson) since February 2014. A Muslim and a Pakistani-American Superheroine, her religious orientation and ethnicity, crafted carefully by Wilson, an American Muslim herself, immediately brings to mind another Sunni Muslim Marvel superheroine, the Afghani-American Sooraya Qadir, known as ‘Dust’ after her abilities to transform her body into dust particles. A comparison between Kamala Khan and Dust is important here since the representation of Dust, who debuted in 2002, in a post-9/11America, “is fraught with Orientalist sentiments and a Western male gaze” (Kent 523). With regard to representation of Dust, especially the utilization of the image of the oppressed Muslim girl waiting to be rescued from the clutches of the ‘brutish’ Afghan men, who do not seem to be able to live in peace, Dar has the following to say:
She is an "oppressed" Muslim girl who was rescued from Afghanistan by Wolverine, a Western male mutant. Wolverine is told that the Taliban were trying to remove Dusťs clothes, obviously to molest her, and since there weren't any "good Muslim men" around to take a stand against the Taliban's perverted behavior, who better to rescue her than Wolverine, or rather, "Western democracy? (107)
What is further interesting in the representation of Dust is her costume, which has received considerable critical attention. Although, as Julie Davis and Robert Westerfelhaus has pointed out, in comics “superheroes do not typically dress in ways that signal religious affiliations” (802), Dust chooses to wear an ‘abaya’ (a long outer garment) and a ‘niqab’ (a kind of veil), which mark her off as a Muslim woman, adding an exotic dimension to her character. While Dust’s agency in choosing her costume is appreciable, the primary reason that she gives for doing so (‘protecting herself from men’) plays into the Islamophobic stereotype of (Muslim) men being lustful and Islam being a religion which puts harsh restrictions on women in particular. This is nothing but a misrepresentation of the notion of modesty in Islam.
In stark contrast to Dust, Kamala Khan does not wear any ‘abaya’ (although her Turkish friend, Nakia, does wear a headscarf), and, interestingly, she is differentiated from her conservative, orthodox brother, gesturing towards the fact that Islam is not merely a monolith. Kamala Khan is shown to leave New Jersey in trying to find and gather her lost self and the place she originally belongs to. In a particular story arc, she leaves Jersey feeling unsure about who she is and where she belongs, only to discover that "the missing pieces" in her life "aren't part of a place," but things that she, as a young, super-powered, Pakistani-American woman, has to work out for herself (Ms. Marvel 4-5). She discovers that there is no holiday for her and no place of refuge. In Karachi, Kamala Khan is confronted with a situation where she needs to showcase her superheroine stuff to save the situation. Bereft of her superheroine costume, she moves around in red leggings, blue dress and red scarf, part of which is worn as ‘hijab’ and ‘niqab’. Wilson uses her to give expression to traditional feminist tropes about equality and empowerment, as she negotiates relations with people and institutions on the path to working out who she is and what she wants. Age and the particular forms of discrimination faced by her generation are other central themes in Wilson's writing and Kamala's story. The sensitive case here is Ms. Marvel’s gender, as her creator Wilson knows very well. Coming from New Jersey and living in a socio-economic group ordinarily referred to as the working class, Wilson's Ms. Marvel also fights gentrification by property speculators. Ms. Marvel is, then, a young, Muslim woman, a Pakistani-American, and a working-class millennial. In the words of Fixmer and Wood, this represents the "kind of solidarity that incorporates difference while transcending identity politics" (240), or what R. Claire Snyder calls "a dynamic and welcoming politics of coalition" (176). Kamala Khan is portrayed as a successor to Carol Danvers (the original Ms. Marvel). In this context, Kamala has not only to suffer from the imposed roles of gender, race and ethnicity but also from what Harold Bloom calls the ‘anxiety of influence’, where the identity of her ‘self’ is put into an unstable state because she has to act keeping the legacy of her precursor, Carol Danvers, in mind. In conclusion, it may be said thatalthough superheroines have often been accused of perpetuating and bolstering certain stereotypes, which a postfeminist world-view may be said to entail, the incorporation of a diverse range of superheroines belonging to different religious, ethnic and sexual orientations (from Wonder Woman, who started her journey in the 1940s, to the postmillennial Dust, America Chavez and Kamala Khan) has also enabled their creators to find a space to challenge many “aesthetic and narrative conventions in superohero comics” (Curtis and Cardo 382).
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