Can superheroines escape their gender ?

Elif Sendur's picture


Can superheroines escape their gender ?

by Sophie Bonadé, doctoral student (UEVE/Saclay, SLAM) and Réjane Hamus-Vallée,
professor (UEVE/Saclay, Centre Pierre Naville)
"Jewel is a great superhero name! »
" Jewel is a stripper's name. »
dialogue in Jessica Jones


deadline for submissions: 
December 15, 2018

Call for Papers for n°10 Gender in series:

In 1938, the first issue of Action Comics featured the character of Superman on its cover.
Success came fast. Although Superman was not the first superhero (Gabilliet 2004), he would become
the prototype of the American superhero story. As products of mass culture, which today have a
worldwide influence, superheroes did not confine themselves to comic books for long. In 1941,
Superman also reached TV screens through the animation series produced by Fleischer Studios
(Fleischer 1941). The same year, Adventures of Captain Marvel (English and Witney 1941) was
published, a serial divided into 12 parts. In 1952, the television series Adventures of Superman
(Syndication, 1952-1958) was the first live-action adaptation of Superman's adventures. Many other
superhero story adaptations have since been produced, which soared in the early 2000s with many
television, film and video game adaptations of the stories by the two main publishers of the superhero
genre: Marvel and DC Comics.
While superheroines were born shortly after Superman (Fantomah in Jungle Comic No. 2 in
late 1939/early 1940s or The Lady in Red in the early 1940s, No. 2 in Thrilling Comics), they had
more difficulty than their male counterparts in being adapted to small (and large) screens, with a fairly
marked time lag. This issue of Genre en Séries will therefore be devoted to the place of superheroines
since their creation and proposes to study them both in comic books and through their adaptations in
types of media.
Apart from Trina Robbins' books, which provide a fairly broad overview of the evolution of
superheroines (Robbins 1996) and the place of women in the comic-book industry (Robbins and
Roniwode 1985; Robbins 1999 ; Robbins 2001; Robbins 2013), superheroines are poorly studied,
with the exception of the most famous of them,WonderWoman (Robinson 2004; Bilat 2011; Hanley
2014; Bajac-Carter, Jones and Batchelor (eds.) 2014; Zechowski and Neumann 2014; Cocca 2016).
Most of the time, superheroines are just mentioned in a book (Hassler-Forest 2012) or are sometimes
the subject of a specific chapter (Gray II 2011; Ducreux 2013). We believe it is necessary to
compensate for this delay.
If our questioning focuses on superheroines from comic books, this issue also aims to question
the limits of these characters. Proposing a list of definitional, but not essential, characteristics, as
Jean-Marc Lainé has done (in Lainé 2011, we find the following: superpowers, costume, secret
identity, companions, Achilles' heel, founding trauma, adversary and relationship to the city) is not a
satisfactory definition, as it allows to group under the superhero name characters as old as Gilgamesh
or Hercules (Reynolds 1994 ; Knowles 2007). A definition by characteristics must be combined with
a definition that makes it possible to locate and contextualize the characters that are superheroes and
superheroines. Is Buffy, the vampire slayer (The WB, 1997-2001, UPN, 2001-2003), who has
superpowers and protects the world by looking after the small town of Sunnydale, a superhero? She
is not wearing a suit, but her identity as a killer is a fact she hides from her family during the first few
seasons. Are the action women of 1980s cinema - such as Ellen Ripley from the Alien film series
(Scott 1979; Cameron 1986; Fincher 1992; Jeunet 1997) and Sarah Connor from the Terminator
franchise (Cameron 1984; Cameron 1991) superheroines, since they are fighting to protect humanity?
And what about Max Guevara, the heroine of Dark Angel (Fox, 2000-2002), whose genetic heritage
was modified during childhood to turn into a weapon and who fights as an adult for her right, and
that of her fellow human beings, to exist: does she not recall the X-Men team of mutants?
This issue therefore proposes to study superheroines as such but also in their relationships
with their male teammates. From comic books to animated image adaptations, the reasons for their
relative lesser success compared to superheroes is at the heart of our questioning.
Who are the superheroines and where are they today? What place(s) do they have in the
different media? Who are their audiences? How does the transition from comic book to another
medium transform, or not, the heroine in question? What are their links with superheroes?
Approaches from the different social sciences are welcome in this issue, which will focus in particular
on the following non-exhaustive areas:



1) Evolution of superheroines
A first approach can focus on the socio-historical context of the appearance of these characters
in the tradition of Loïse Bilat's work on Wonder Woman. When Wonder Woman appeared in 1941,
she had physical strength similar to Superman's. However, its creatorWilliam Moulton Martson, also
endowed her with qualities that he considered intrinsically feminine such as softness and charm. This
construction of Wonder Woman is attributable to William Moulton Martson's essentialist vision, but
also to the gender relations at the beginning of the Second World War, when women were called
upon to support the war effort, taking on male roles while remaining male supporters.
Superheroine stories have since gone through 70 years of American social transformation.
The social changes that have taken place since 1941 - changes in the status of women, civil rights,
feminist movements, LGBTIQ+ struggles - have influenced the stories of superheroines. The creation
and simultaneous broadcasting, between 1975 and 1977, of the superhero series The Secret of Isis
(CBS, 1975-1977) and Wonder Woman (ABC, 1975, CBS, 1977-1979) were made possible by the
women's rights movements that shook the United States during the Second Wave of feminism, but
also by the massive entry of women into the paid labour market, which turned them into consumers
to whom a product can be sold (Passerini 2002). In the early 2000s, Jessica Jones, an alcoholic and
borderline ex-superheroine, was created. Alias (2001-2004, Max Comics), the series in which she is
the protagonist, is a meta-report that offers a reflection on the evolution of superheroines, but also on
their future. The character's success in comic books but also on the Netflix video platform (Netflix,
2015-ajd), where the series has been renewed for a third season, supports an unconventional
superhero model. Nevertheless, Jessica Jones must also question the possibility even for a woman to
embody a superheroic figure, because the character has precisely renounced being a superhero.
How are superheroines representatives of their time? How do superheroine stories portray and
interact with American social changes in different media? And does adaptation make it possible to
solve certain "problems" posed by superheroines in comics (objectification, use for scriptwriting
purposes in stories centred on men) or are they reproduced in the target medium?

2) Creation, production, mediation and public
In this axis, priority will be given to studies that focus on the contexts of these comic books
and their adaptations. On the one hand, the reception context: which audiences, for which works? Are
the audiences of superhero and superheroine stories really more masculine? How does this audience
influence the content of these superheroic fictions? In 2013, Paul Dini, one of the creators of Batman:
The Animated Series (Fox Kids, 1992-1995), attributed the cancellation of Young Justice (Cartoon
Network, 2010-ajd) and Green Lantern (Cartoon Network, 2011-2013) to the overly female audience,
which was not good for broadcasting channels, as girls are known to buy fewer toys. While the
reasons for this cancellation were never confirmed by the Cartoon Network, Paul Dini pointed at the
gendered dimension of superhero productions that are intended for the youth market in relation to the
importance of the sale of ancillary products in their profitability.
This also raises the question of the production context: who are the people who create these
superheroic adventures? Can the gender relations that are played out within a television channel, film
studio, video game production company or comic book publishing house influence its brand identity?
The CW channel, for example, which produces many of the current superhero television series, was,
when it was created in 2006, the network with the highest number of female employees and its identity
was marked by the production of series for young women such as Gossip Girl (Le Fèvre-Berthelot
2015). Can CW's recent production - Arrow, The Flash - be seen as a desire to remasculinize its
audience - after Mark Pedowitz was appointed head of the network in 2011 - or are these series also
dedicated to a female audience? If so, how can we explain the inclusive approach of these television
series that feature racialized, homosexual, bisexual and soon-to-be transgendered characters and on
which the CW is basing its brand identity in a video announcing its upcoming series for the 2018-
2019 season (AlloCine)? While these superheroic television adaptations play the card of a certain
diversity, it is worth questioning the timidity of the film adaptations on this subject: we had to wait
for the 21st film produced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain Marvel (Boden and Fleck
2019), to have a superheroine as the main protagonist.

3) Superheroine stories and politics
This axis aims to analyse the place and role of television and film superheroines by observing
the narrative construction of these characters. How is the scene set for superheroines? What role do
superheroines working alongside superheroes play, for instance in Heroes (NBC, 2006-2010), the
Avengers film franchise, the Batman: The Telltale Series video game (Telltale Games, 2016), Batman
(ABC, 1966-1968), and Gotham (Fox, 2014-ajd)? More generally, these superheroines must be
examined as heroines (Cassagnes-Brouquet and Dubesset 2009), but also as women of action (Monk
2010; Bilat and Haver 2011).
It is also necessary to question how superheroines can experience other types of domination
than gender. Superheroes and superheroines were originally white, heterosexual characters - even if
their sexuality was never mentioned - and they often come from higher social classes. Today, these
representations have diversified. Racialized and/or non-heterosexual superheroines exist, and a
transgender superhero appeared in the fourth season of Supergirl (CBS, 2015, The CW, 2016-ajd).
The status of all superheroines must nevertheless be questioned. The use of the image of Ms.
Marvel (Kamala Khan), a Muslim superhero, to fight Islamophobic campaigns in San Francisco
evokes a certain political power of these representations, but what is really happening? Do
superheroines contribute to challenging patriarchal norms or are they pure post-feminist products
devoid of any political substance (Cervulle 2009)? Are they simple feminist pop characters who
spread a message of individualistic empowerment without its political and collective side or do they
spread globally the idea that women, whoever they are, can be heroines and even more?
Proposals for articles, accompanied by a short biography, should be sent to and before 15th December 2018. The authors will be
advised by 15th January 2019 and the articles must be sent by 30th April 2019, for publication after
proofreading in Autumn 2019.

Selective bibliography
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Le héros était une femme...: le genre de l’aventure, Lausanne, Éd. Antipodes, p. 239‑260.
BILAT Loïse et HAVER Gianni, 2011, Le Heros Etait une Femme.... le Genre de l’Aventure, Lausanne;
Charenton-le-Pont, Ed. Antipodes.
CASSAGNES-BROUQUET Sophie et DUBESSET Mathilde, 2009, « La fabrique des héroïnes », Clio.
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Call for Papers for n°10 Gender in series:
Call for Papers for n°10 Gender in series:
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