I was given The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines for Christmas by my lovely wife. She was really excited for me to read the book because feminism and comic books are two of my favorite topics. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by this book.
When I first saw the title of this book, I assumed a woman had written it. I got all excited because finally! A book about superheroes written by a woman! Oops, my bad. I know it’s a not necessarily the author’s fault, but all the blurbs about the book are also by men. Not a great start for a book about an industry known for its misogyny and old boys’ club. There are plenty of awesome women in comics like Gail Simone or G. Willow Wilson who should have been asked to write or blurb the book.
Mike Madrid at least seems to have researched the history of women in comics. He describes himself as an avid reader of female-fronted comics since he was a child, which is a plus.
The chapters are broken down into decades and what the main tropes of women in comics were for each decade. I found some of these fascinating.
I didn’t really know much about the 1940s, other than it being the period Wonder Woman first appeared. I was keen to learn about how awesome Phantom Lady was. She was a crime fighter with no real powers, like Batman, and kicked as much ass as he did. Phantom Lady has since been revived by DC comics. Silk Spectre in Watchmen is based on Phantom Lady, so this makes a lot more sense to me now.
I also found the 1960s and 1970s chapters fairly good in describing how publishers fucked up their characters while trying to make them hip. I found what happened to Wonder Woman and Lois Lane during the Civil Rights era and the start of the second wave of feminism interesting.
Wonder Woman was stripped of her powers at one point and began living in Greenwich Village, fighting regular criminals with karate that unfortunately she learned from a very racist character named I Ching. They gave her this story arc in order to help Wonder Woman seem normal, which might make it easier to connect with the modern woman.
At one point, Lois Lane was turned into an African-American woman in order to find out what being black is like. This is some major WTF-ery there. This story appeared in issue 106 of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, her ongoing solo title at the time.
Madrid addresses both of these instances as horrible things to do to your flagship characters. He correctly points out that Batman and Superman never have really had to be reinvented for whatever tastes male readers wanted.
The author’s handling of queer issues left much to be desired. He discusses how Batwoman (Kathy Kane) was originally created to appease sentiments over Batman and Robin being gay. Batwoman was supposed to be Batman’s love and boy, did the writers try. He points to the fact that Kathy came out as a lesbian in the late 2000s in the comics as some sort of irony.
He seemed to understand that queer people are oppressed, but his word choices and usage reveal himself to be either straight or someone who uses old-timey language when discussing sexual orientation. This book came out in 2009, and uses terms like “homosexual” instead of implementing more accepted terms like queer/gay/lesbian/ etc.
What ultimately turned me off of the book was the casual transmisogyny in a throwaway line about She-Hulk. Discussing how She-Hulk was streamlined and got a sexy makeover in the early ’80s after a few years of existence, Madrid describes how Hawkeye responded to the newly sexy She-Hulk. Hawkeye stated, “Talk about trying to get silk purses from sow’s ears.” She-Hulk picked up Clint and kissed him. Clint was not so enthused. Madrid describes Hawkeye’s reaction as “…repulsion, as if he had been smooched by a transvestite.” The problematic nature of this sentence almost made me stop reading the whole book. Let’s break down why this is awful. “Transvestite” is an outdated word, even in 2009, to describe trans people no matter where they fall on the gender spectrum. Secondly, the idea of trans people being gross is implied by how Madrid writes about Hawkeye’s reaction. Madrid implies that cis-het men would be repulsed if they found out their hot girlfriend was designated male at birth. That is textbook transmisogyny and has led to countless trans women being assaulted or killed simply for existing.
I finished the book only because I had less than two chapters to go. I figured I might as well read about the 2000s, in case he covers how awesome the “Kitty Pryde saving the world by dying” storyline was. He doesn’t because it wouldn’t have fit the narrative focus of his 2000s chapter, which is motherhood.
Plain and simple, a woman needs to write a book that describes their reactions and readings of female superheros and female comic characters. It needs to include more input from the industry in general. Madrid, either through lack of resources or lack of care, did not interview a single industry person for his book. His section on Birds of Prey would have been awesome if he had interviewed Gail Simone. I would not recommend this book at all and would caution anyone looking for feminist reads on comics to find something else.