A Damn Scribbling Woman: an Interview with Jennifer K. Stuller about Ink-Stained Amazons

Blogging as Ink-Stained Amazon on the Bitch blogs, Jennifer Stuller took on Barbarella, Lois Lane, and Tura Satana with her blog Grrl on Film. With her new book, Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, released a few days ago, you can find even more on kick-ass women in popular culture. Read on for my interview with Jennifer about her new book, the cyclical nature of representation in pop culture, the women behind the superwomen, and future plans.

What made you want to write this book? How long did it take?

I’ve always been passionate about women’s history, feminist thought and activism, popular culture and world mythology. When I returned to college as an adult, I’d originally intended to design my studies to focus on women heroes in classic mythology, but around the same time, I’d finally given in to recommendations to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and fell in love. After co-creating and co-facilitating a credited course using BtVS to explore issues of human nature, I began to think about how classic, or archetypal, themes play out in modern storytelling as well as ways those tropes are subverted. As graduation neared, I considered the possibility of continuing on to graduate school but both a friend and my mentor suggested that I instead write a book that embraced my passions. I’m glad I heeded their advice, because while formal academia has its place, I think it’s really important to make thinking critically about popular culture something that’s both accessible and celebratory. Learning should be fun.

Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors is the culmination of a life-long love of kick-ass women in popular culture, five straight years of research and a year of writing. And even though it’s published, I’m still taking notes!

Your book straddles academia, film criticism, pop culture history, women’s studies, and more. Where do you see it on the book shelf?

This is actually a question I’ve thought about myself. I could see Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors in either the Media or Women Studies sections of your local book store, but think it would most appropriately be shelved under Cultural Studies where academia, film criticism, pop culture history, and women studies intersect.

My copies are sitting in my office library among the many books on women and popular culture, and my collection of Bitch magazines.

What is Modern Mythology? Who are ink-stained Amazons?

Mythology refers to a body of stories and to storytelling. Therefore our modern mythology can be found in comics, film, television, and novels. Modern myth serves a function similar to that of ancient myth, namely, telling and hearing stories helps us make sense of our lives. Narratives reflect the world and comment on it as they document events and also imagine them. Stories meditate on human behavior and interrogate the meaning of big ideas: Good and Evil, Morality, Spirituality, Justice, Relationships, Community, Power, and Love. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an example of a series that excelled at addressing these complex, yet universal, ideas.) The same basic themes our ancestors contemplated, crafted to be relevant to their particular and specific time, place, and cultures, are continually revisited through the ages, part of humanity’s endless search for meaning.

The phrase “ink-stained Amazons” was coined by Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, who condemned women writers as “damned scribbling women” and “ink-stained Amazons.” So for me the term is a reclamation (much like the once derogatory, “bitch”). It celebrates women writers, our fingers stained with ink from our quills and our Amazonian strength when faced with those who might seek to silence us. I love the phrase so much that I named my website, Ink-Stained Amazon, and have utilized it as my personal brand.

I also find it evocative of women in comic books – Amazons have so often been used in modern mythology as shorthand for “Strong Women” (see Wonder Woman, Xena, Warrior Princess, etc.) regardless of their purpose in classical Greek storytelling. Also, early comic books were cheap publications that left their mark on one’s fingers, thus making them ink-stained – so readers can be Amazons too.

When we hear “modern” I think we automatically think “progress,” but you point out that in the 80s, and even now in the present, there’s a huge lack of strong female characters (only one example being superhero movies). Why does our modern age still seem kinda backwards?

Progress is slow, often comes in painfully small steps, and is occasionally met with setbacks. That said, when it comes to how gender, race, sexuality, and sex roles are represented in popular culture there certainly has been progress – even if it’s not as much as many of us hope for. There are female heroes in popular culture, but the few there are generally adhere to stereotypes of American beauty: white, blonde, athletic, heterosexual and able-bodied. Which is a very small step indeed. In the book I propose that our stories (and thus our representations) will continue to evolve as humanity does. Increased acceptance of gay marriage, the first ever campaigns by serious Black and female US presidential candidates, and the presence of more women and other minorities in entertainment industry positions means that we will see an ever-increasing diversity in our heroes. We must, because wish fulfillment, fantasy, identification, and inspiration belong to all of us. There is no one way to be heroic, and there shouldn’t be limited or conformative representations of a “hero.” What we need are heroes and heroisms (like feminists and feminisms): Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, Aboriginal, Middle Eastern, gay, straight, male, female, transgender, fat, skinny, somewhere-in-the-middle, athletic, disabled, with the ability to fly, run faster than a speeding bullet, write, parent, kick-ass, grow, and make the world we live in a better place.

One of the things I discovered while writing the book is that the stories we tell are often influenced by where we are politically. Strangely enough, the results are almost cyclical. During World War II there were strong women in comics and in advertisements – and because men were at war, there were more women working in the comics industry. In the 1950s, media and popular culture focused on the homemaking aspects of women’s lives. But during the second wave of feminism, we see a series of sophisticated, sexy, modern women in modern myth – and we did again during the third wave of feminism.

I think right now, as in the 1980s, we’re dealing with the effects of two wars, a recession, and a conservative administration which is why things feel so backwards right now. (Can you name a female hero on television right now who is headlining her own show?) The good news is, this means the near future promises another wave of superwomen. Get out there, Ladies, and make it happen.

Your book transcends a few mediums: comics, movies, and television. Will Buffy fans and film buffs enjoy reading about the world of comic books and vice versa?

Absolutely! There is a lot for fans of various media to enjoy. Part of the book is a history of women in comics, film, and television, and situates these characters in their particular time and place. There are also chapters devoted to bigger themes: love and compassion, fathers and daughters, women as mentors, and women making myth.

Throughout the focus is on kick-ass female action and super heroes, not necessarily the media they appear in. And there are superwomen galore from Wonder Woman & Lois Lane to Foxy Brown and the Doll Squad to Modesty Blaise, the Bionic Woman, Valeria in Conan the Barbarian, Xena & Gabrielle, Lt. Nyota Uhura, Buffy Summers & the Scoobies, Max Guevara, Sarah Connor and on and on.

I also included an A to Z glossary of superwomen, recommendations, and a lengthy bibliography so readers have resources for further exploration and enjoyment.

Where do female creators (for instance like director Kathryn Bigelow), fit into this picture of mythic superwomen? Does it matter if it’s a man or a women behind the character? Camera? Storyboard? (For Jennifer’s three-part Feminist Response to Quentin Tarantino see here, here, and here.)

This is a question I explore in a chapter on women making myth. Certainly, many men have created fabulous, even feminist women characters. In comics there’s William Moulton Marston’s Wonder Woman, and the female characters written by Chris Claremont during his run on X-Men, including Ororo Munroe and Kitty Pryde. In movies there is James Cameron and Ellen Ripley, and Quentin Tarantino and The Bride. On television there is Joss Whedon and any number of female characters, but most notably Buffy Summers. (Though when an actress is involved, I think her participation in creating the character becomes an essential part of our interpretation.)

But while men are able to create inspirational and empowering female characters, it should go without saying that women, like Kathryn Bigelow, should be more recognized contributors to media. It’s important to have diversity in the creation of our culture. And though I’ve often heard women (such as Jane Espenson and Gail Simone) claim that they are not writing gendered characters, they are just writing characters, it’s incredibly difficult to escape being gendered. Our experiences as women will inevitably color our work and I think it’s important to look at how the stories told about women may differ as a result of who is telling them.

What was your favorite part of doing research for the book?

The research itself has been my favorite part! It’s a dream to be able to watch television series and films, as well as read comic books featuring strong women as part of my job. That said, it’s also work. I can’t watch anything anymore with thinking critically about it, or taking notes. And it can be a challenge to present big ideas in a thought-provoking way that is still accessible.

So far, the most rewarding part of this project has been meeting people who share a passion for the subject matter, and the best compliments I can get are when someone says I’ve inspired them to think about something in a new way or introduced them to an idea or a superwoman that empowers them.

What are your thoughts on Marvel’s new program “Marvel Women,” and the release of Girl Comics, a three-part anthology of all-women comics creators. There was debate in the blogosphere that this marginalized women in the comics industry rather than promoted them.

Considering that none of [the past attempts by DC and Marvel to appeal specifically to women and girls] have been particularly successful, it’s easy to see why some feminist comics fans think that Marvel’s upcoming year-long program, “Marvel Women” will further marginalize female comics fans, characters and creators. Personally, I feel that in an ideal world, a diverse range of women characters would be featured throughout mainstream comics, the mainstream industry would hire more women writers and artists, and comics would be written to embrace wider audiences. I think the ultimate goal should be for mainstream publishers to create a variety of series: some that appeal to girls, some that are geared toward boys, and some that are for everyone – but that calling out special comics for girls presumes, or rather, reinforces, the idea that all other comics are for boys, and might continue to be when this “very special” series is over. (It also assumes that girls and boys have specific tastes which differ from one another and are determined by their gender – a problematic discussion for another day.)

Regardless, I think that anything that calls attention to female characters AND female writers and artists is a good thing. Whether that translates to more women in the mainstream industry, or more female-friendly comic titles, remains to be seen – and though I’m not holding my breath, cries of “ghettoization” feed into the idea that these comics have no value and won’t be successful before they’ve even hit shelves. Additionally, it’s not very supportive of the women who have been hired to write, pencil, and ink these issues – which in my opinion isn’t very sisterly. (I can just hear Girl Comics contributor Trina Robbins in my head now saying the same thing … ) There are some amazing names attached to this project and I’m pretty excited about seeing what they’ve come up with. Shouldn’t we be excited about women finding work - - particularly in a male-dominated industry? I think that would be something to champion, not condemn.

Finally, considering that comics, the mainstream industry, and comic book stores continue to be dominated by men, and that attempts to secure the female market have often disappointed, I find it laudable that Marvel and DC recognize that women DO read comics, that they are active and vocal in both fan and feminist communities regarding comics, and as such these companies are still continuing to reach out with new campaigns. For profit, sure, but nevertheless it could potentially mean good things for women who like superheroes.

Any projects on the horizon?

I’m working on sequel of sorts to Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors that will focus on supervillainous women in modern mythology. I’ll also be speaking at WonderCon in San Francisco, San Diego Comic Con International, and The Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses. And stay tuned for info on an anthology of The Best of Wimmen’s Comix.

You can visit Ink-StainedAmazon.com for Jennifer’s blog and the latest on her book. Pick up Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology at your local independent bookstore today!

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

Can't Wait to Read It

I'm really looking forward to reading Ms. Stuller's book--it sounds like a wonderful combination of stories about mythical female characters in the popular realm, critical analysis of the roles those characters have played, and reference book. Too cool!

As a young feminist woman

As a young feminist woman managing the records/graphic novels & comics/films section of an independent bookstore, I'm always on the lookout for empowering entertainment made by and/or about women. I just ordered a copy of this book, and will hopefully add it to an ever-evolving spotlight feature of exceptional stories & songs from exceptional ladies. Thanks for a strong interview and another book I'm excited to read. Bummer about Nathaniel Hawthorne though - I kinda figured he was a feminist after reading The Scarlet Letter...

Thanks a lot for the great

Thanks a lot for the great interview! Probably it was for the first time I was angry and frustrates about living in US just because I had to wait a year -until January 2010 to buy this book. And I have to make a confession that "Ink-Stained Amazons..." book really gave me new ways to read feminism in our media. Now I do now what kind of superwoman I have to be...

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