by: Charlotte Johanne Fabricius , March 30, 2023
by: Charlotte Johanne Fabricius , March 30, 2023
Gendered Defenders: Marvel’s Heroines in Transmedia Spaces, edited by Bryan J. Carr and Meta G. Carstarphen and published by The Ohio State University Press in 2022, brings together a collection of essays on the women of Marvel. The book examines ten female superheroes across a series of transmedia appearances, with an avowed interest in examining ‘how gender roles are negotiated and challenged’ (Carr & Carstarphen 2022: 21) in these properties. As such, while some contributors consider twentieth century representations, primarily in comics form, most of the chapters discuss recent comics, film, television, and video game versions of Marvel heroines. This is a timely and admirable effort to expand scholarly conversations surrounding issues of gender, representation, and corporate-owned media.
Unfortunately, the collection also suffers from a lack of clear editorial direction, resulting in contributions that vary a great deal in persuasiveness and clarity. The editors have elected to split the introductory section into three chapters, including a short opening chapter written by Carr and Carstarphen, followed by an overview of the gender politics of Marvel properties, written by Carr. This chapter is strongest in the characterizations of contemporary media coverage and fan debates. However, the attempt to provide context by giving a history of female characters in Marvel comics neglects the vast body of academic work on this topic, citing only two scholarly sources.
This overview is followed by a feminist manifesto by Carstarphen which, while very promising in its ideas, seems only tenuously connected to the content of the book. For instance, Carstarphen’s offered framework of ‘trans/linear feminism’ (in Carr & Carstarphen 2022: 26) is not taken up by any contributors, disappointing the promise of the chapter. It also remains unclear why these three chapters were not combined into one introduction, which could have connected the framing to the subsequent analyses more directly.
An attempt is made at making the collection coherent by having all chapters open with an in medias res dramatic retelling of a key scene from the Marvel transmedia universe. These passages, which are described in the promotional material as ‘vivid retellings of character-based scenarios,’ (The Ohio State University Press 2022) read largely as extended paraphrases of plots and scenes and are not always attended to in any analytical detail. For some contributors, the mandate to open each chapter with such a retelling happens at the expense of a clearly stated aim and direction to the analyses, making for meandering and vague arguments. However, when handled with direction and brevity, these chapter openings do provide a rhythm to the book which can otherwise be lacking in edited collections.
The choice of subject matter is equally commendable. The superheroes under discussion include both popular characters, whose appearances have garnered scholarly critique, and ones who have, thus far, lacked the attention of scholars. For the chapters on less-discussed characters such as Pepper Potts and Agent Carter, this makes for arguments that only begin to scratch the surface, having little prior scholarship to draw on. Coupled with the transmedia approach––which is inevitably less attentive to the specifics of each medium and representation––this sometimes makes for arguments that stay at the level of paraphrase and flagging topics for future discussion.
There are some key exceptions. In particular, the chapters on Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Shuri, and Jessica Jones, stand out as thorough and timely contributions to the field. Amanda K. Kehrberg’s ‘Jessica Jones: A Superhero, Unadorned’ reads the comics and television versions of Jessica Jones with attention to the links between gender and morality, arguing persuasively that the character resists binary conceptions of both. Kehrberg goes beyond character biography into considerations of comics pages and costuming choices, exemplifying the potential strengths of a transmedia framework. While occasionally meandering, the chapter is in conversation with and significantly adds to the existing scholarship on Jessica Jones.
Similarly, ‘“Don’t Scare Me Like That, Colonizer!”: Black Panther’s Shuri through a Postcolonial Feminist Lens’ by Rachel Grant offers a well-situated reading of the character Shuri, who has garnered the attention of fans and scholars alike after her central role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the overall argument that Shuri is used to express Afrofuturist and Africanfuturist ideas has been offered by many other scholars and critics, Grant’s readings have solid theoretical grounding. The chapter carefully distinguishes between the various feminist and other political projects that come to the fore through Shuri’s character. Grant thus adds to existing discussions of the character and the role of Africanfuturist and feminist ideas in Marvel properties.
Maryanne A. Rhett offers an equally nuanced approach in the chapter ‘Kamala Khan / Ms. Marvel, Islamic Feminism, and a Global Dialogue.’ This is the strongest chapter in the collection and should be essential reading in the growing amount of scholarship devoted to Kamala Khan. Rhett carefully lays out a framework of Islamic feminism, demonstrating its usefulness in understanding the political project of the Ms. Marvel reboot and subsequent appearances of Kamala Khan across Marvel properties. The attention to culturally specific feminisms and the ways they are handled in the comics and beyond is an example of what books such as this one can do at their best.
A final stand-out of the collection is ‘Eating Nuts, Kicking Butts, and Becoming a Feminist Icon’ by CarrieLynn D. Reinhard. Despite having little scholarly discussion on Squirrel Girl to be in conversation with, Reinhard adds an insightful and concise analysis of the character which balances persuasive close reading and more general observations. Reinhard demonstrates how Marvel attempts to ‘have it both ways’, arguing that Squirrel Girl is presented as ‘both a subversion of superhero tropes and a commodification of girl power that allows Disney/Marvel to develop the largest possible consumer base/fandom around her’ (in Carr & Carstarphen 2022: 173). Connecting this perceived editorial maneuvering to developments in feminism politics of the Global North since the 1970s, Reinhard provides insight into not just the example of Squirrel Girl but the gender politics of Marvel. Thus, like the other chapters highlighted in this review, this is a valuable contribution to ongoing scholarly discussions of the impacts of feminist theory and activism on corporate-owned popular culture.
A clear strength of the collection is the diversity of feminist perspectives employed by the contributors. It is thus jarring to see a couple of chapters, the introduction included, draw uncritically on the idea of a ‘monomyth,’ in the tradition of Joseph Campbell. Drawing on this idea in the context of feminist critique without discussing the heavily simplified and Western-centric arguments at the core of the notion of ‘universal’ narratives of heroism, from which women are seen to deviate, is a puzzling oversight. The idea of superheroes constituting a form of ‘modern myth’ is not necessarily unproductive, but it is telling that the majority of the chapters eschew this framing entirely.
Overall, while rather uneven, Gendered Defenders adds to the scholarly discussion surrounding the representation of women and feminism in a multimedia conglomerate which has historically been notoriously hostile to both. The strongest chapters are those which engage with specific and clearly delineated feminist frameworks, demonstrating the resonances between Marvel superheroines and feminist visions of more equitable popular culture.
Carr, Bryan J. & Meta G. Carstarphen (eds.) (2022), Gendered Defenders: Marvel’s Heroines in Transmedia Spaces, Columbus: The Ohio State University Press.
The Ohio State University Press (2022), ‘Gendered Defenders: Marvel’s Heroines in Transmedia Spaces’, promotional material, https://ohiostatepress.org/books/titles/9780814215272.html (last accessed 16 December 2022)
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