The Supergirls: A feminist response to catsuits?

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

Lillia Robinson begins her book Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes with the following observation:

The immanence of an alternative and implicitly feminist mythology in the stories of female superheroes is one of the unexplored aspects of these comics, for the general critical silence around the comics is only deepened when it comes to feminist criticism, which has produced even less study of the form than the pop-culture mainstream.

I think this uniquely uncritical approach–uniquely uncritical, that is, for feminism, which has rarely hesitated to question most other established institutions and verities–is due to the preference for a heroic icon over an understanding of how the representation of such an icon derives from and serves–as well as challenges–the dominant social forces.

Immanence, feminist mythology, institutions and verities, yadda yah….In short, there’s a surprising gap of research, let alone feminist research, on female superheroes from comics. Trina Robbins has turned out some amazing books on women and comics, including one on female superheroes, but she can’t do it alone (and good luck trying to find her work at your nearby Barnes & Noble). That’s why I’m excited about Mike Madrid’s new book The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines not to mention the fantastic online resource he put together to go along with the volume.


From the Supergirls website:

Comic book superheroines bend steel, travel across time and space, and wield the awesome forces of nature. These mighty females do everything that male heroes do. But they have to work their wonders in skirts and high heels.

The Supergirls, a cultural history of comic book heroines, asks whether their world of fantasy is that different from our own. Are the stories of Wonder Woman’s search for an identity, Batwoman and Power Girl’s battle for equality, and Manhunter’s juggling of crime fighting career and motherhood also an alternative sage of modern American women?

The chapters are divided by both different archetypes of female superheroines: “The Queen and the Princess,” “The Girlfriends,” “Sirens and Suffragettes” as well as trends within the comic narratives (superhero moms, superhero sex, and of course, sexy superhero outfits). Madrid’s website has a “Visual Guide” to Supergirls, a great abbreviated reference guide which provides introductions to each era’s supergals, plus briefly places the comics in pop culture context of its time. Seriously—check it out, I got lost for good while somewhere in the Batwoman section.

Things get really exciting in the ’70s!

Although I have nothing besides the sneak peek to go by, it looks like Madrid’s book will be able to fill in the gaps left by the Visual Guide. Hopefully the feminist analysis will suffice, since female superheroes occupy a very specific space that combines empowerment with objectification (so much ass-kicking…so little clothes) and sends mixed messages on femininity (I think this panel of Lois Lane using superpowers to make pancakes for Superman is a pretty good example).

C’mon Lois, there has to be a crime happening somewhere, right?

K. L. Pereira bemoaned the forgotten “feminist” 1940s origins of Wonder Woman in Bitch no. 33 (“Female Bonding: The Strange History of Wonder Woman”), and at the very least Madrid’s book will hopefully bring back the forgotten history of female comic heroes. An excerpt from the first chapter, “A Secret World” starts: “Although the prevalent image of the female comic book crime fighter is that of a sexy nymph in a revealing costume, this was not always the case.” There’s the modestly-dressed Woman in Red, Madam Fatal “the first transvestite crime fighter,” and Red Tornado, aka Ma Hunkel, “…a burly, working class mother who dresses in long johns and a cape, and disguises herself by wearing a cooking pot over her head. Passing herself off as a man, Ma Hunkel stamps out crime in her New York neighborhood, becoming one of the first female superheroes.”

The Red Tornado: Now that’s a second shift!

I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of Supergirls, hopefully it will start some new discussions not just about female superheroes, but their cultural significance in American pop culture, and be able to reach outside feminist audiences. .

..Now when are we gonna get a Wonder Woman movie?!

When Comics and Cleavage Collide [Blogtown, PDX]

Female Bonding: The Strange History of Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman Animated Movie Premieres at New York Comic Con… And It’s Actually Pretty Wonderrific
Adventures in Feministory: Women’s Comics of the ’70s and ’80s

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

The History of Superwomen in American Popular Culture

Trina certainly can't do it alone! And I'm very interested in this book. But please check out my work on feminism and comics at as well as my forthcoming book - which Trina endorsed!

It situates female heroes in American popular culture in their historical context, looks at themes specific to the representation of women heroes, and talks about women making myth.

By the way, Trina's "The Great American Superheroines" is going to be re-released with new material by Palace Press in the near future - keep an eye out for it! And keep an eye out for me at WonderCon and San Diego Comic Con International where I usually give a presentation on women in comics. Next year I'll even be signing books!!!!! :)

Jennifer K. Stuller

Can't wait!

Thanks Jennifer! Your book looks awesome and I'm thrilled that Trina's book is getting republished. I can't wait til I see both on the shelves! Congratulations!

As someone who just finished

As someone who just finished reading it, I will definitely vouch for Madrid's book. I was so happy to see this pop up on the site!

Not only is Supergirls wonderfully researched and written, but the information is presented in a format that's accessible for even non-comics fans. Madrid does a great job of bringing in both obscure and mainstream knowledge, while also relating events in the comics industry to other forms of pop culture. He frequently compares heroines to pop stars that were popular around the same time or, somewhat more rarely, political figures and movements. It's a really nice touch.

As someone whose done a lot of research for her own writings about females in comics, I get easily frustrated at writers who don't seem to see the bigger picture. But Madrid is definitely his own breed, and obviously a lover of comics. The book deserves all the recognition it can get!

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