WONDER WOMEN! character Jen Stuller is a Seattle-based writer and scholar, specializing in gender and sexuality in popular culture. A critic, thinker, and an occasional knitter, she has vowed to use her powers only for good.
Her most recent book, “Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology,” is a comprehensive history, critique, and reference guide examining feminist history and potential within popular culture. She is also Programming Creative Director for GeekGirlCon.
WONDER WOMEN! Executive Producer Erin Prather Stafford recently interviewed Jen about her book, popular culture and love for the character Modesty Blaise.
EPS: Your book “Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology” argues that Superwomen, from Wonder Woman to Charlie’s Angels, are more than just love interests or sidekicks who stand by their supermen. How did you become interested in this topic? What inspired such a thorough examination of female heroes in our popular culture?
JS: As long as I can remember I’ve been interested in stories about adventurous girls and women. My favorites as a child were those of Dorothy Gale, Pippi Longstocking, and Alice in Wonderland. From them, I learned that curiosity, bravery, and compassion lead to life-changing journeys and life-long friendships.
Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman was also incredibly formative. She was both graceful and powerful – that, combined with her belief in, and support of women (and her belief in herself), informed that kind of person I wanted to grow up to be.
When I went back to college at nearly 30, I had just fallen in love with the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Around that time, American culture was also seeing a revival of the superhero genre – especially in film. I started thinking about why we weren’t seeing women on screen in superhero roles, particularly at the level we were seeing men. I wondered about the journey of the female hero. Are her trials and tasks different from that of the male?
I decided to make this the topic of my senior thesis, which eventually took the form of a book proposal. That, of course, evolved into “Ink-Stained Amazons”, where I explore the history of female super and action heroines in film, television, and comics, and how they were influenced by, and in turn, influenced, real world politics and social mores in American culture.
The book also explores the specifics in how female heroism is represented, as well as advocates both media literacy, and the production of media by women.
EPS: How did you become involved with the WONDER WOMEN! project?
JS: I became involved with WONDER WOMEN! when Director, Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, approached me after a presentation I’d given at the Comic Arts Conference at WonderCon on feminism in Lois Lane and Wonder Woman comic books of the 1970s. She was interested in how my work investigated ways in which feminism and popular culture influenced and reflected social and political values about gender. And in fact, my history of this interplay, “Ink-Stained Amazons” was about to be published – so we had a lot to talk about! It’s been wonderful to watch the evolution of this inspiring film, be a part of it, and of course, to become friends with a wonder woman like Kristy.
EPS: During the panel “Sheroes in Media: Women and Girls Changing the Game” at the Seattle International Film Festival, a discussion emerged about the term “superheroine.” Could you share your thoughts on the word and why it’s not the preferred way you use to describe women characters in action roles?
JS: I was sharing how I struggled over terminology when writing “Ink-Stained Amazons”. I really want to acknowledge and celebrate female strength but don’t want to use gendered language that instantly mark something as other than the norm. (Why can’t a hero be a woman? Why must we say “female hero”?) The word “superhero” isn’t inherently male, but the word “heroine” definitely provokes ideas about gender – particularly in regards to a female role within a narrative.
Ultimately, I’ve decided on using either “female super or action heroes” or “superwomen” when describing my work or discussing these characters, stories, and representations. It still marks female heroes as “other.” But, in many ways, that’s how they’re treated culturally, and I feel these terms come across as more powerful than the traditionally weak “heroine.”
Of course, I’d rather that the word “hero” did not imply gender at all.
EPS: Some commenters have claimed that with the success of Hunger Games, Avengers and other movies showing women in positive action roles, times have changed. Is this true? Do we still have a long way to go regarding the presentation of women in these types of roles?
JS: It’s true that in the past couple of years we’ve seen a resurgence of superwomen in film (not surprisingly, we’ve also seen a resurgence in feminist political action). And this is very exciting. But while we can observe some changes, we also do have to look at what compromises are being made, and where representation is lacking.
For example, The Hunger Games is a box-office hit featuring a female action protagonist – though many have criticized the producers for “white-washing” the character of Katniss Everdeen, who is described in the book as “olive-skinned.” It’s still a step forward to know that a studio is backing not just one film featuring a female hero – but a whole trilogy – especially as it proves that audiences will come out and spend money on stories about women.
Brave is the first film from Pixar to feature a female protagonist, and yet, the creator and original director, Brenda Chapman, was replaced by a male colleague. What does it mean when women are discouraged from telling stories?
Haywire, featured a highly-skilled action heroine in MMA fighter, Gina Carano’s Mallory Kane – one who was deadly, proactive, and never sexualized or objectified. But it didn’t excel at the box office (and personally, I found the narrative boring).
We’ve seen the eponymous protagonist of Hanna, and Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow (who received nearly as much screen time in The Avengers as Iron Man and Captain America – arguably the two male leads of the film), Noomi Rapace as a proto-Ripley in Prometheus, and Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, among others. Though, for the most part it should be noted that generally these female characters are not the protagonist, but supporting players, and most conform to specific and restrictive standards of beauty, including white skinned, thin-bodied, and heterosexual.
We have to recognize where these representations “got it right” but also temper our celebration with informed critique so that we can be better.
EPS: You’ve revealed your favorite female hero is Modesty Blaise. What’s the background for this character and why do you love her? Where can people find her?
Discovering Modesty has been one of the highlights of my research. Not only is she an amazing character, but, as it turns out, an influential one in both American and British popular culture.
She was created in the early 1960s by Peter O’Donnell, and appeared in newspaper strip stories and novels for 40 years – all written by O’Donnell. Her story can be found in my piece, “Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise: The Princess of Spy-Fi Kicks Ass, and She Does it Backwards and in High Heels“. Titan Publishing is currently reprinting volumes of all the newspaper strips – the novels and collected short stories can be a bit harder to find. There are also two films, Modesty Blaise (from 1966 – and truly terrible stuff, not even “so bad it’s good”) and My Name is Modesty (from 2004, which I think is actually quite good, though it’s very low-budget – it stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who you might recognize as Game of Throne’s Jaime Lannister).
As for why I love her: she’s extraordinary. She’s highly skilled, sophisticated, smart, compassionate, and adventurous. She embodies all those qualities that inspired me in characters as a little girl – but in an adult protagonist. She’s complex, not like so many stand-in female characters, who only serve as plot points in male stories, or as eye-candy in their own. She’s sensual and sexual, but isn’t defined by her sexuality. She’s independent, but not a lone wolf. She has dear friends, and in return is one of the best companions anyone could ever hope for – thoughtful, considerate, and if you really mean something to her, even willing to risk her life for you. She has loving and romantic relationships with men who respect her autonomy, but her relationship with her life partner Willie Garvin, is always strictly platonic.
She is a business woman, an adventurer, a loyal friend, and a bad-ass babe.
EPS: Your book delves a lot into television shows with strong female characters. What are you currently watching that embodies some of the same qualities people loved about Buffy or Alias?
JS: I’ve found that television is the medium with the most, and the most complex, female characters. Currently, I am loving the Canadian series, Lost Girl, created by Michelle Lovretta with feminist intent, and Executive Produced by Jay Firestone, who previously co-produced the television series Nikita, starring Peta Wilson.
The premise of Lost Girl is about as silly-sounding as that of a cheerleader slaying vampires in So. Cal – and, of course, a series that turned out to be much smarter than the title made it seem: Lost Girl is the story of a bisexual succubus private detective named Bo as she navigates the light and dark worlds of the fae.
But it works. And it works well.
Not always, of course. But I’m thrilled by how the series creators manage to explore Bo’s sexuality without objectifying it, or her. That is a really fine line to walk, and they have so far been successful. Our hero is independent, strong, smart, compassionate, and has a female best friend named, Kenzi, who is delightful and snarky and supportive. It’s rare that we see women heroes working together, especially in a mentorship-type relationship, and one where there is never a hint of sexual attraction. These two put each other’s well-being ahead of other relationships – though those exist too.
The cast is wonderfully diverse, and the storytelling creative. The low-budget production quality can occasionally be distracting, but that, along with the genre format, allow for a lot of subversive storytelling. Can you imagine? A woman whose sexuality IS her power, but isn’t the whole of her?!?!? Amazing.
EPS: Are you working on a new book?
JS: Right now I’m thrilled to be editing and contributing to an anthology on Fan Phenomena and Buffy the Vampire Slayer for Intellect Ltd’s new Fan Phenomena series. I’d love to do a revised and expanded edition of Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors, especially as we’re starting to see a lot of content featuring women and girl super and action heroes – as well as, women using non-traditional forms of media production to tell stories.
I have some other projects I’m working on featuring women and popular culture, so stay tuned!
EPS: What’s the backstory for GeekGirlCon?
JS: GeekGirlCon evolved out of the desire to provide safe spaces for female geeks to come together to share their work, celebrate their passions, network, make friends, and eventually contribute to the evolution of geek culture – in STEM professions, pop culture industries and representations, and in the treatment of women at other cons.
The organization evolved out of a standing room only panel at Comic-Con International in 2010 called “Geek Girls Exist” and was built, and is maintained, by over 40 all-volunteer staff members and our extended community.
We just marked our two year anniversary, have produced two successful, meaningful, and inspirational cons, as well as hundreds of events both online and throughout the Puget Sound region – and we’re going to keep celebrating, and keep making a difference!
EPS: What aspirations do you have for the depiction of women in action roles?
JS: I would like to see more diversity in our depictions in regards to race, ability, and sexuality – without the overwhelming focus on mainstream, heteronormative ideas about what is or isn’t sexy, what is or isn’t powerful, and on what it means to actually be heroic.