Monday, January 16, 2012

Book O' the Fortnight: Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors

Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors
 by Jennifer K. Stuller
Regular readers will recognize the author of the current Book O' the Fortnight from previous mentions here in connection with Slayage and Geek Girl Con, and it is well known that she's one of my favorite people. I met Jennifer K. Stuller at Slayage 4 in St. Augustine, where she gave an incredible presentation on pop culture influences on Joss Whedon's works. At the same conference, we bought her book Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, which she was kind enough to inscribe for Dale and me. I'm kind of ashamed to say that it took me until late last year to sit down and read it cover-to-cover. Don't get me wrong, her book wasn't sitting idle. I dipped into it regularly, reading a chapter here, skimming a section there, diving from index to mid-chapter to see what she had to say about a particular interest here and there, but I just hadn't settled in for the entire journey.

I'm glad I finally did!

Stuller self-identifies as a pop culture historian, and Ink-Stained Amazons  shows the truth of that claim. Her research and methodology are impeccable, and she presents her findings in a narrative that is both fascinating and fun, using a wide ranging, multi-disciplinary approach that sets her work firmly within the changing historical context of the past century or so. More, her writing is immediately accessible, and thoroughly enjoyable. She begins by briefly outlining her focus, being female characters in popular culture which meet at least two of four criteria: 1.) a narrative that "borrows from, or resonates with, classical themes and/or elements of world mythology," 2.) has "an element of the fantastic," 3.) "a uniquely identifiable skill or power," 4.) and "a mission or purpose that benefits the greater good." These criteria set, she then gives the reader an excellent historical overview of female superheroes from William M. Marston's Wonder Woman to Dark Angel's Max Guevara, covering kick-ass female heroes in comic books, comic strips, books, movies, and TV along the way. Importantly, Stuller places the development of these figures within the larger socio-cultural context of (particularly) American culture and the emergence, growth, and change of the feminist movement.

Stuller is also unflinching in her analysis of the successes and failures of both the larger culture and the feminist movement's various "waves." She maintains an admirably clear and unbiased historical lens throughout (which trust me, Readers Mine, is an incredibly difficult thing to do when writing about a subject  that one is passionate about!). From classic historical narrative, Stuller moves in the second section of her book to the mythological and cultural underpinnings and story-structures of female superheroes, combining history, feminist criticism, Jungian archetypes, Campbellian comparative mythology, and fan-love into a powerful in-depth analysis of the successes an failings of specific characters and narratives, from The Avengers to Modesty Blaise, to Xena the Warrior Princess, Charlie's Angels, Buffy the Vampire Slayer,  Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman, and Dark Angel to name just a few. She examines the strange lack of female to female mentoring, positive maternal figures, and realistic female relationships in popular culture, as well as pointing out where such stories have appeared.

With some of the problems and potentialities of fdemale superhero narratives outlines, Stuller concludes with a look at the women who are creating the modern crop of female superheroes. From actors like Nichelle Nichols, Whoopi Goldberg, Lucy Lawless, Lynda Carter, Sarah Michelle Gellar, among others, all of who take their positions as potential role models very seriously, to writer/blogger/activists like Mary Borsellino, Gail Simone, Trina Robbins, and Angela Robinson, who are on the front lines of creating today's female superheros and working against old tropes and entrenched male-centric storytelling, Stuller gives the reader an inside look on the still growing, still evolving history of the female superhero who today is more and more often being brought to life by women.

Stuller's final chapter asks the question "Where do we go from here?" Which she answers with an unflinching "foreward!" In spite of failures, in spite of resistance, in spite of steps forward being accompanied by steps back, the next step is to continue, that each of us, whatever sex, whatever gender, may find in these modern myths the stories that inspire us, and that, in Jennifer K. Stuller's own words, enable us to  find "heroes to relate to, and ways to live heroically."

It is a remarkable, fun, moving and inspiring book, one that I'm glad is on my shelf, and who's author I am so very proud to call a friend. Go buy it.

1 comment:

  1. Egads. This book sounds so awesome!! And I've been telling Jennifer since it came out that it's sitting in my to-read pile. And it still is! Must get to it!!