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Tights and Tiaras: Female Superheroes and Media Cultures

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Tights and Tiaras: Female Superheroes and Media Cultures was a conference held at Monash University on 12 to 13 August 2011. I heard about it a few days before, so I changed my plans to attend.

UPDATE:  this post is getting a consistent flow of visits, so I’m updating it to include the links direct to the essays by the presenters, now that Monash University’s Colloquy Journal issue 24 features academic essays by the original speakers.

The Venue

Held at the Japanese Studies Centre at Clayton campus, the venue seemed particularly appropriate to explore comics and manga.  Unfortunately there was a problem with heating, so I spent the first day freezing.The second day there was even less heating, but I was wearing my warmest woollen jumper, that is so warm it’s practically viable for Arctic conditions. My hands and feet were still iceblocks.

I loved the hints of traditional Japanese architecture in the building and gardens. The size was suitable and yet a bit sad – I would have thought a conference like this could have appealed to a much larger audience here in Melbourne, therefore requiring a much larger venue. From comments I’ve heard from a number of people, this convention could have been much larger but people just didn’t hear about it. I hope future conventions or conferences run by Monash grow in visibility and attendance in the future – I’ll definitely give them a plug if I hear about them in time.

The Food

It seems that most SF/Fantasy conventions don’t cater. Monash University caters. Last year I attended the Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe convention at Monash, which ran for 3 days, fully catered for morning and afternoon tea and lunch, including wine for book launches and drinks ’n’ nibbles for closing (see DM issue 1 for a review). Tights didn’t cater quite so lavishly, but there was quite a lot of ‘bang’ for your buck, with lunch, morning and afternoon tea catered. There was an optional dinner on the Friday night as well, which was a good ice-breaker.

The Sessions

There were 2 days of single streamed sessions. This, to me, was a good thing. There was no agonising over which session to attend or miss. I just walked in, sat down and soaked it all up. And I learnt more about the history of comics, cartoons and media than I expected; so much so that I now have an idea of the extent of my ignorance. Ah well, time will heal even my inadequate knowledge of these matters, especially if I manage to keep hearing about these Monash conferences in the nick of time. The following are rewrites of some of my notes, not a rewrite of a recording. Below are only snippets of talks intended to give an indicator of the flavour of a presentation; at no time have I tried to recreate the entire talk. If I have misinterpreted or misrepresented a speaker, my apologies. Please let me know.

Karen Healy

Karen Healey
Karen Healey

Karen Healy worked with the title Pedestals and Poles: good girls, bad girls and women in comics.  Karen bemoaned DC Comic’s recent significant reduction of the number of women working in comics. 5% to 10% of comic fans are female but they tend to ‘shop and grab’ rather than linger in the comic stores. 92% of comic fans are supposed to be male, with an average age of 29.  Karen questions whether objectification of women and violence are off putting to women. Karen recited a letter to Dan Didio: ‘Sluts, Victims and bitches. What those numbers seem to mean to you.’ Sluts are interpretations of female characters as sex objects, sexually enticing and available.

This dominant sexual stereotype of women as sluts is demeaning as these characters are less heroic, less powerful, less able to be taken seriously as the men. Karen showed us images of men put in the same pose as the soft porn images of women appearing on comic covers – it was quite amusing. Karen compared depictions of deaths of women in comics, which are sexualised representations of violence, as opposed to the men who die in macho and non-sexualised scenarios. Stephanie Brown was used as a primary example; the audience had been tricked into believing she would become the next Robin, before she was brutally and sexually murdered.

On the lighter side, Karen discussed feminist SF and fantasy conventions, Rhiannon Bury making women friendly spaces online, Trina Robins the comic book historian, Girl Wonder, the female friendly comic store map, the con anti-harassment project, comic book awards for female creators and more.

Introduction

Introduction to Tights and Tiaras: Female Superheroes and Media Cultures conference by  Deb Waterhouse-Watson and Evie Kendal

Fairy tale heroine or fable super spy

Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario and Zachary Kendall presented this session, asking, ‘Does princess culture ally with the superhero genre?’  To which they replied with a definitive yes.  Peter Coogan’s definition of the superhero genre requires a mission, power and identity that incorporates a codename, costume and chevron.The speakers affirmed that princesses have power with costume and fashion adding more power. Examples were used of early evolutions of fairy tales and the more recent Fables series, including From Fabletown with love and Fables: Fairest.

Rebecca-Anne C. Do Rozario’s essay Comic Book Princesses for Grown-Ups: Cinderella Meets the Pages of the Superhero

Prince Charming by day, super heroine by night

Catherine Baily addressed this topic, discussing the defiance of gender binaries in Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl UtenaUtena’s story is a subverted fairy tale, subverting cultural convention by dressing in a masculine-type uniform, competing athletically and having magical powers with phallic symbolism. The US translation of Sailor Moon required changes to the story; the girl couple ceased to be lesbians and became cousins living together instead. The US picked up the series before the really gender bending characters were brought in. It is unknown if the next release of the series will restore the original character relationships.

Catherine E. Bailey’s essay Prince Charming by Day, Superheroine by Night? Subversive Sexualities and Gender Fluidity in Revolutionary Girl Utenaand Sailor Moon

Supermom

Michelle De Stefani discussed Family Ties, Who’s the Boss and The Cosby Show, comparing these stories with many more recent superhero shows where the superheroine either gives up the child for the career, gives up her career, the child is at risk or the feminine figure is monstrous.Media currently depicts the full-time working mum as selfish, while the ‘good’ (stay at home) mother is evil in disguise. The current ‘good’ mothers are domestic goddesses, flexishift soccer mums, Alpha mums or yummy mummies.21st century alternatives are the warrior mum or the pregnant assassin. The secret life of supermom requires that she gives up all self-time and activities in favour of devoting her entire self to parenting and working.

Wonder Woman wore pants

Ann Matsuuchi questioned the origins of Wonder Woman, who was invented by William Moulten Marsden, the creator of the lie detector, and his two co-wives; Wonder Woman originally challenged sexism. When US comics started, they included a female audience much more so than today, so Wonder Woman was an answer to Superman. (Sadly my notes for this lecture don’t translate into a cohesive argument, so if I try to say much more I run the risk of putting words into the speaker’s mouth.)

Ann Matsuuchi’s essay: Wonder Woman Wears Pants: Wonder Woman, Feminism and the 1972 “Women’s Lib” Issue

Wonder Woman for a day

Matt Yockey talked about a charity day by Excalibur books meant to show compassion for domestic violence victims with a goal of moral regeneration. Wonder woman is defined by voluntary submission to her mother and the state, reconciling state and individuals, while representing love and equality for everyone. The idea of the charity day was that comic book fans can change the world. DC Comics objected to Wonder woman day because they didn’t want Wonder Woman associated with domestic violence even in this positive light. Therefore, Wonder Woman day ended in 2010; it is now called the Women of Wonder day.

My Wonder Woman

Andrew Freidenthal identified Wonder Woman as a feminist icon, superheroes as a commodity and a true political icon. Steinem treated Wonder Woman as a commodity for the feminist movement. Collective memory and pop culture are inexplicably linked. Personal and collective memory are replaced by a collective history that consists of films, events etc.Wonder Woman is the first superhero expressed in a purely political utopian society.

Wonder Woman changed over time. In 1972, Miz Magazine had a cover depicting Wonder Woman running for president in 1000 years.

Wonder Woman’s powers were important to the character, but DC Comics took her powers away. Previously, Wonder Woman was as powerful as Superman, a utopian view of this empowered woman. Freidenthal asked if Wonder Woman was diminished by the sexist movie and TV show. The debate focuses on her appearance rather than her abilities. Character versus image.

Motivation to fight

Kitana from Mortal Kombat
Kitana from Mortal Kombat

Jane Felstead discussed Maneaters and fandancers: exploring representations and personal motivations of female characters in Mortal Kombat. Jane introduced some background first – 42% of gameplayers are female, but this includes casual players; most high violence games are male dominated. Texas had a gamers conference and banned women in order to combat misogyny. Lara Croft was created as a sex object.

Instead of creating two individual female characters for Mortal Kombat 2, the creators made one a clone of the other. Over time these characters have had their clothing reduced to hyper sexualise them. Earlier they were based on real people but no longer.

Kitana, the original and ‘good’ character, hides behind her fan and giggles girlishly when she wins a fight.She is fighting for the soul of her boyfriend. While male characters fight for honour, fame etc, female characters fight for familial motivations such as love.

Mileena is a clone of Kitana, created by a sorcerer to steal Kitana’s throne. Mileena is the monstrous feminine in expression and costume.She has two finishing moves in a fight – ‘be mine’ and ‘man eater’ where she rubs her semi-naked body with blood if she wins. Mileena was the first female character from a game to appear in Playboy.

Mileena from Mortal Kombat
Mileena from Mortal Kombat

In games there is not much between the princess and the monster in terms of choice of characters. Male characters don’t rub blood on their bodies if they win. While the male characters haven’t changed much over the years, Mileena and Kitana have become much more sexual and wear less clothing.

Jane Felstead’s essay Man-eaters and Fan-dancers: Exploring Gender Representation, the Female “Other” and Geek-girl Alienation

The female superhero

Kevin Patrick has been researching the history of comics, with a  special focus on Moira Bertrand. At age 14 Bertrand began being published in 1945. The central character was Jo, a curvaceous Broadway dancer with a magic cape, portrayed as American and placed alongside US military troops. These comics aspired to present themselves as US comics when they were first published because Australian comics had an austere image and were less popular. While Bertrand was very popular early on, her work petered out in the late 1960s with the advent of TV. Bertrand went into commercial illustration, portraiture and commercial design.

Kevin has been researching Bertrand and trying to access either original or copies of Bertrand’s work. If you can help, please contact Dark Matter and your information will be passed on to Kevin.

Dinner

There was a conference dinner on the first evening, with good food and good company. For me this really broke the ice and helped me enjoy day two much more. Well, to be honest, I was going to love day two anyway, with all the discussion of Buffy, art, local authors speaking and more. Don’t mistake the brevity of my notes for lack of enjoyment: I enjoyed it too much to take many notes, and now I can’t remember exactly what was discussed. It’s also easier to take notes if I’m either learning something or in disagreement; when I’m in complete agreement, it seems too obvious to take notes. It was stimulating and inspiring, however, and it added more material to my ‘must read’ list.

Xena and Buffy

Hayley Ricketson and Ted Janet explored Buffy and Xena with reference to a number of other papers including Sex and the Slayer: a gender study of Buffy, Undead TV by Elana Levin, From girl to goddess and A hero’s journey by Campbell. They discussed the impact of ensemble casts enabling incorporation of female characters and ‘new men’
evolving to love and respect strong women. Male villains try to kill Xena and Buffy for glory in war, but try to be with them in love. This dichotomy doesn’t happen for male superheroes.

The stake is not the power

Alexandra Heatwole looked at how the feminine connection with family connects Buffy to life and love, as a personal strength. Kendra and Faith didn’t have these connections, which was their weakness. This was epitomised in ‘Super Buffy’ in Primeval (Season 4, episode 21); Super Buffy is made up of all the Scoobies (Buffy’s ‘gang’). It was together that they triumphed over Frankenstein’s monster, as alone even Buffy could not
prevail.

Alexandra also referred to Christina Lucia Stasia’s Wham, bam, thank you ma’am: the new public/private female action hero and Mary Jane Haley’s feminist sociology works.

Buffy the trans-media hero

Emma Bedows discussed this topic, lauding Buffy as an ideal transmedia hero whose story has expanded through movies, TV, comics and novels. Emma discussed conventions of genre and narrative with reference to Chandler’s 1997 paper: An introduction to gender theory.

Each platform has its unique identity: Podomore has an online reading experience, whereas the TV to Comic dynamic features design synergies, superhero archetypes alongside character and story world continuity. Market synergies were discussed, including the single author model, genre and reception.The final point regarding TV to comic conversion was flow as a central requirement of compatibility.

Replication of tone was discussed. Emma mentioned that there has been little research of semiotic flow in transmedia formats, but expanded upon recurring motifs such as Buffy’s blonde hair, Joss saying Buffy should look like Buffy in the comics, not necessarily like Sarah Michelle Gellar; Mr Pointy (the stake) and Willow’s crooked smile.The TV version has been replicated through flow into the comic series.Emma discussed the significance of tone in semiotic transcendence and the role of discursive practices: space versus flow.

Emma Beddows’ Buffy, the Transmedia Hero  essay.

Artist and authors

The next event for the day was a panel with artist JKB Fletcher, the artist who does the Dirty Faces and Superheroes projects (interviewed here), Alison Goodman and Karen Healey. I was under the misapprehension that Alison and Karen were overseas authors, so I was pleased to learn they are locals. However, I haven’t read their works yet, but they’re on my ‘must read’ list (and ‘must interview’ if they will agree).

Fletch talked about his work and his upcoming exhibition. Karen had a reaction against urban fantasy and paranormal romances, plus she wanted to see her world in a book. Hence Karen wrote a novel (or novels) set in New Zealand. For readers from the northern hemisphere, this would have the impact of an alien world that is well-realised because it is the author’s world. Alison Goodman had a reaction against YA (young adult) science fiction, hence Singing the Dogstar Blues. Eon, one of Alison’s characters, is a young woman disguised as a male to get power in court.

Karen and Alison’s talks both inspired me to read their works. Now I just need to have their books sitting on my desk waving at me, and I’d read them in record time. I thoroughly enjoy a good YA book, especially one that stands out among the crowd.

Bigger naked breasts

Julie-Ann Naumovska presented a discussion titled: We have bigger naked breasts to worry about: girl power in the Charmed universe, for which I had no basis even from which to take notes. Not having seen the TV show, I had pre-judged it and written it off, only to be curious late in the series. By then I had missed out on the early seasons and hubby was definitely not interested, so the entire series passed me by. This being the case, I put down pen and paper and didn’t even try to take notes. Julie-Ann’s talk was quite an eye-opener as she explored feminism versus sexualisation of the characters, alongside their relationships with men. Issues of reproduction, motherhood and external pressures on intimate relationships were also covered.  The finale and the fate of the sisters were explored in detail. Someone lend me the DVDs? Please? I want to watch it now…

Sisters are doing it

Deb Waterhouse-Watson discussed Tin Man, the reboot-come-sequel to The Wizard of Oz. Deb compared Dorothy in the original (weak, passive, pleasing, domestic, house-bound whose quest was going home) to DG in Tin Man (an active agent, fearless, rescuer/saviour, mechanically minded, transgressive, whose quest was coming home). Dorothy’s power comes from the shoes that she stole from another woman. She kills the witches with symbols of domesticity – the house and water. DG’s power came from  something her mother gave her, power from touch: the female body is a source of power, countering the female body as corrupt and polluted.

The villain in Tin Man was a man-eater who sucks the essence from a male and looks like she’s having an orgasm while she’s doing it.  ‘The boobs of power’: winged monkeys fly out of her boobs. The villain was possessed as a child by another witch, which solves the problem to some extent.

The performative nature of heteronormativity was discussed – The Wizard of Oz film was used subversively by the gay community.  Deb argued that the character of DG is not just a male hero ‘in drag’ – that is, she is not simply a masculine character in a female body, as many other female superheroes are accused of being. She employs a different, arguably ‘feminine’ style of leadership, based on validation and encouragement, showing compassion, in addition to her stereotypically ‘masculine’ qualities.  Deb referred to Lissa Paul and Anna E Altman (‘Welding brass tits on armour’).

Deb Waterhouse-Watson’s essay Re-/deconstructing the Yellow Brick Road: Gender, Power and Tin Man

Sugar and spice

Evie Kendal discussed the Power Puff Girls.  I vaguely remember the Power Puff Girls, but I don’t recall ever sitting down to watch it with my children. This presentation blew my mind, and as such I spent more time listening than taking notes. Evie talked about presentations of femininity versus masculinity, including the power of the three heroines, their relationship to their father/creator (to whom the girls attribute the role of father and mother), their relationship with other boys, adults and empowering of kindergarten-aged girls. Ms Cerebellum is the girl’s role model; she’s smart but also has an hourglass figure, wears high heels with a suit and the audience never sees her face.

Evie Kendal’s essay There’s No One Perfect Girl: Third Wave Feminism and The Powerpuff Girls

Jean Grey as Phoenix

Lenise Prater compared the earlier X-men comics, Dark Phoenix saga comics, and the movies. In the earlier comics, Phoenix had power and control, which have gendered implications. According to Lenise, the Dark Phoenix saga presented Phoenix as  wonderfully ambiguous, both part and not part of Jean. Jean is described as reborn as Phoenix who sides with good and saves the entire universe. Professor Xavier lost control, allowing his id to attack the X-men. There is a parallel development between Phoenix and Xavier, culminating in Xavier battling Phoenix (an alien) and sealing her off inside Jean’s mind with Jean’s help, this latter point being crucial.

The movies in comparison show Phoenix as a woman’s loss of control, inherent to her powers, and the responsibility is hers. In contrast, male loss of control is always represented as the result of villainous attacks. Rogue was also discussed in this context; in the comics Rogue has compensatory powers for her isolation, but not in the movies.
Thus the movies appear to buy into the whore and Madonna dichotomy regarding power and female sexuality. Rogue and Jean hurt those close to them, showing female sexuality as dangerous. This is also the case in some of the comics where Phoenix usurps phallic power and Dark Phoenix eats her son.

Lenise Prater’s Gender and Power: The Phoenix/Jean Grey across Time and Media  essay.

Naked Mystique

Ross Murray discussed Mystique at length, mostly covering the comics but also with reference to the movies.  Mystique first appeared in Marvel comics in 1978. She’s had a long, varied history in that time, but one thing appears consistent: her superpower mimics clothing so she doesn’t wear actual clothes. Ross talked about Mystique’s relationships, that reveal Mystique’s lovers are usually female. There was a story sequence where the woman Mystique loved grew old while Mystique stayed young. This was another session where I knew very little about the topic, so I took fewer notes in order to focus on the presentation and the images. I was left with the impression that, although I tend not to appreciate superhero comics, I would love to read some of the Mystique sequences in comics to see her development.

The End

Tights and Tiaras was a fantastic couple of days, sitting and listening to the academic viewpoint of pop culture icons. If I hear of any further conventions run by Monash University, or other local universities, I will definitely attend if at all possible.This was a really enriching experience. My only disappointment was that I did not have sufficient  background knowledge to fully appreciate some of the presentations.

UPDATE:

Tights and Tiaras: Next Best Thing includes links to essays by the speakers at this conference.  So much better than my meandering recollections of what occurred.  Enjoy.

Nalini
Nalinihttps://www.darkmatterzine.com
Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.

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