My latest Read Outside Your Comfort Zone book. Why is this a "Read Outside Your Comfort Zone" book?” First, because it’s nonfiction. I tend to read novels, mostly. Second, because I knew it would force me to think more deeply about some of the feminist notions I used to hold so dear…
I’m a sucker for heroes. I haven’t been a comic book reader (until recently), but I love heroes in movies and books. As a science fiction and fantasy reader, there are so many out there. Some have mutant powers, like Wolverine. Some are driven to excel due to personal tragedy, like Bruce Wayne. His seemingly never-ending cash flow doesn’t hurt either, right? Captain America, Green Lantern, Superman - the list of “big name” heroes tends to be heavy on the testosterone.
So it may come as no surprise that I always labeled myself as a “boy geek”. I mean, there just aren’t that many women out there in the books and movies I love for me to idolize and emulate, right? This summer, while following along with a lot of the “Girl Geek” controversy, I got a whiff of the rich (though admittedly more limited) history of the female hero and decided to read Ink Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors by Jennifer K. Stuller.
I loved her introduction. She points out that “the way stories are told and characters presented must evolve as a particular society does”. I know this to be true from the many versions of the Arthurian legend that I have read over the years. (I particularly recommend Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and The Sword of the Rightful King by Jane Yolen). So why, she asks, do modern hero stories keep focusing entirely on the male heroes? Why do women continue to be relegated to the “sideline” roles?
Stuller takes us on a journey through time, starting with the birth of one of the most recognizable kickin’ female heroes of all time – Wonder Woman. I have to admit, I was never a serious fan. I know, I know… it’s almost criminal. She walks us through this icon’s story, and the many permutations of her tale that occur as the tide of female empowerment swept in and out through the years. I gained new respect for both Wonder Woman and Lois Lane, and was frustrated to see their stories buried as time marched on.
I loved the way Stuller organized her book, going through sweeping time periods and showing how the dominant ideas about feminism were reflected by the heroes of that age. I also loved hearing some of the ideas that kick around in my own head (Seriously, “invisibility” was the best power they could give to Sue Storm?) given voice by someone else. I enjoyed reading about some new women I hadn’t heard much about before – like “Spy girl” Emma Peel and the “Birds of Prey”.
Some of my personal heroes, like Leia and Buffy (though they were decades apart), were also highlighted in the book. As a Star Wars fanboy, Leia is near and dear to my heart. Her feisty attitude and strength put her on the top of my childhood hero list. Stuller’s points about how her Jedi abilities are ignored during the movies were well made, though I still feel drawn to her as a character. She comes into the movies already powerful, educated and trained as a leader. I am curious now, though, to follow up on her and read more about her Jedi training.
Stuller opens up many discussions about what it means to be – and create - a woman hero. Does it mean they must be men in dresses? What can the female experience bring to our understanding of what it means to be a human hero? Can motherhood, interdependence, and compassion make all of our heroes more… heroic? Can we show more women mentoring women, instead of just women being brought along by men? No simple answers, but lots of great questions that are designed to show both how far we have come and how much further there is to go.
The book ends with a chapter called “Where do we go from here?” I know some of you out there are now humming the song from “Once More With Feeling” – don’t try to hide it! I know that I intend to get out there and support female friendly comics, movies, and books. I intend to become a better “strong woman” role model for my sons and my students. I also intend to stop feeling guilty about wanting more heroes that I can see myself in – more “Ink Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors”!
How about you? Definitely start by reading this book!
Making it to my “to do” list, based on this book:
“Wonder Woman”– especially those by Gail Simone
The “Birds of Prey” comic series – again, especially those by Gail Simone
“GoGirl!” – by Robbins and Timmons
Finishing the Buffy season 8 volumes (I’ve just finished reviewing volume 2, posted here)
“Fray” – Joss Whedon
The Star Wars books that chronicle Leia's journey in her Jedi training