Selling the Feminist Utopia: Popular Feminism and the Promotion of Marvel’s “A-Force”
This post is based on a presentation I gave at Transitions 6: New Directions in Comics Studies, a one-day symposium held at Birkbeck, University of London, October 31st 2015.
With recently (re)launched characters such as Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel and Thor, Marvel Comics has made a name for itself as a company actively invested in notions of “diversity.” In this post I’ll be looking at some of my findings from my research about representations of feminism in popular culture.
To do this, I’ll be using Marvel’s new all-women Avengers comic A-Force (2015) as a case study to look at how different issues about feminism and women’s empowerment come to the fore in the media. I touch themes of feminism and postfeminism, looking at how articles in the popular press thought of A-Force as a potentially feminist text and I’ll be raising some questions about how the press deal with a text that has been read as oppositional in a male-dominated industry. Because this is such a complex topic, I don’t intend to provide concrete answers. Instead I’ll draw attention to the main issues and suggest ways in which these articles navigate the highly contentious topic of feminism in the popular media.
So why is “popular” feminism so hotly debated?
Going back to the 1960s and 1970s, Western second wave feminists were largely opposed to popular media as they considered these to be tools of the patriarchy which promoted oppressive and limiting images of women. Feminism was thought of as being oppositional to the popular, giving rise to various modes of feminist media production which drew on often avant-garde conventions considered to exist outside of the mainstream (particularly the feminist filmmaking).
Later on, feminist issues were increasingly incorporated into Western social consciousness, with many feminist concerns being addressed in politics and legislation — for example equal pay, marital rape laws, anti-discrimination laws, and so on. Many accounts suggest that since the 1980s, feminist issues have also been included in popular culture, which has prompted discussions about whether or not these representations, often referred to as “popular feminism,” are “real” feminism, or whether they are merely a sanitized, consumer-friendly version of feminism which has been co-opted by the patriarchy (or, indeed whether they are something altogether different).
However, this narrative of the media of the 1960s and 1970s being devoid of feminist sentiments versus the popular depictions of feminist issues from the 1980s onwards may be over simplistic since there have been portrayals of popular feminism since at least the 1970s, as I discuss later.
Postfeminism and popular culture
Recent discussions have been about postfeminism in the twenty-first century and what role this might play in representations of feminism. Postfeminism is an elusive and complex subject (which I’ve discussed previously), but to summarize, postfeminism can be defined as a culture or social attitudes in which feminism is actively incorporated and feminist goals are considered acceptable — even common sense — while feminism as a political movement is portrayed as “past” or no longer necessary because women have supposedly achieved equal status to men. According to Angela McRobbie, it is feminism “taken into account.”
Here we end up with phenomena such as the Girl Power craze of the ’90s, the basis of which is the empowerment of women, but which was specifically positioned as not feminism, as evidenced by the Spice Girls’ manifesto quote “we can give feminism a kick up the arse.”
We also get his in comics, for instance when Wonder Woman artist David Finch expressed that he considers Wonder Woman to be “a beautiful, strong character,” but not feminist. So postfeminism is, above all complicated and contradictory, incorporating sentiments which are for all intents and purposes feminist but in many ways re-packages them in a way which makes them seem commonsensical.
Feminism and the media
Arguably postfeminism is a form of popular feminism, which is possibly why there is still a lot of hostility towards popular feminism within academic feminism, which is characterized as being somehow more “genuine” feminism. The feminism/popular dichotomy has been criticized recently by a number of writers, including Stéphanie Genz, who argues against the “artificial dichotomy between the academic ivory tower and popular culture.”
Genz and Brabon remind us that most women today actually encounter feminism through the media, unlike their second wave mothers and grandmothers, who might have engaged with the feminist movement through politically motivated circles. As Rosalind Gill puts it, “most feminism in the West now happens in the media.” Increasingly, discussions are moving away from asking whether or not texts are feminist, but rather considering what forms contemporary feminism, or indeed postfeminism, can take in relation to the media and those who consume it.
Popular feminism and comic books
With that in mind we can think about feminism and comic books. Mainstream comic books have been considered male territory in terms of both content and audiences, with the classic white male hero being a frequent focus. However, with the release of characters such as Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Thor and many others, Marvel comics has been increasingly lauded as a company which takes into account the many criticisms which have characterized comic books as being exclusionary and unfriendly towards women, people of color, and basically anybody who isn’t a white, heterosexual, able-bodied man. The release of books such as Captain Marvel (2012–2013, 2014–2015, 2016-), and in particular Ms. Marvel (2014–2015, 2015-), which features a young Muslim heroine, have been perceived as heralding a new era of inclusivity from the publisher, as exemplified by this Guardian article by Dorian Lynskey. This in itself is a cultural discourse which has been constructed and can tell us something about contemporary feminism and how it is engaged with in the media.
The first issue of A-Force, co-written by G. Willow Wilson and Marguerite Bennett and drawn by Jorge Molina, and which features an all-women team of Avengers, was heavily publicized as engaging with feminist issues. The first issue was released last February to much anticipation, in part due to the press coverage it received in prior months. The book is part of a Marvel event titled Secret Wars (2015) (not to be confused with a previous event in the 1980s which has the same title, a point I come back to later), which spans the whole of the Marvel universe. The nine-issue series is accompanied by a number of tie-in mini-series, one of which is A-Force. A story almost impossible to describe in ways that aren’t really confusing, Secret Wars is about the Marvel Universe as we know it coming to an end. In the series, all the universes within the Marvel Universe have combined into a planet called Battleworld, which incorporates different elements of the different universes. So we see a return to storylines involving Marvel’s alternate universes, some of which were published decades ago; for instance House of M, a storyline from 2005 in which hundreds of mutants ended up depowered, is being continued in the mini-series Secret Wars: House of M (2015). Alongside these familiar titles are some new and experimental mini-series, including A-Force.
A-Force focuses on a team of female superheroes who live on the so-called “feminist utopia,” Arcadia, an island where women are in charge. It is nonetheless ruled by the authoritarian ruler Victor Von Doom, who runs a strict regime and has the power to punish those who act against it. The series is about his team of law enforcers, led by She-Hulk, as they deal with the appearance of mysterious portals and a new gender-fluid character called Singularity. Themes include feminine empowerment and sisterhood, which brings us immediately into feminist territory, while the book is doubtless a product of a contemporary culture informed by postfeminism.
Promoting the feminist utopia
The book was heavily promoted in both comic book and mainstream press. Looking at the promotional articles surrounding the book, we can see the issues of popular feminism I mentioned earlier in action. Overwhelmingly, these articles referred to the traditionally male-dominated comics industry. For example, Sarah Fox of The Slanted wrote that “Marvel is addressing the dude-focused problem that has plagued the Marvel Universe for the last few decades by highlighting a new dream-team of female superheroes,” while Claire Landsbaum wrote about “a genre historically focused on male heroes” for Vulture.
They also talked about the book as being a response to fans demanding more visibility for marginalized peoples in superhero comics — this was mentioned in articles for CNET, Tech Times, Mashable, Vulture and TIME. The term “feminist utopia” was thrown around a lot, although none of the articles actually explain what is meant by it, which reveals something about how feminism and its meanings are taken for granted.
Also notable are the standard press-release statements from the creators which were often quoted in most (if not all of) these articles. Here we see the creative team refer to issues of identity and diversity:
“We’ve purposefully assembled a team composed of different characters from disparate parts of the Marvel U[niverse], with very different power sets, identities and ideologies.”
“Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel … were really changing a lot of industry math in terms of what could sell, and so Daniel [Ketchum, Marvel editor] thought maybe it is time for an all-female Avengers book,”
and also notes
“They’ve [Marvel] become very committed in the last couple of years to telling new stories, to gender diversity, to getting more voices out there so they said, ‘Here’s the roster. Go nuts.’”
Here we can see that a large, popular media corporation (Marvel) is being portrayed as actively engaging with feminist sentiments to do with representation and empowerment. But we can also see that how this is thought of is through the potential selling power of such a book (Wilson refers to “industry math,” for instance).
A main selling point of the book, therefore, has been its engagement with feminist discourses — in other words, popular feminism. This is a break away from the idea of the second wave, anti-capitalist movement to a more contemporary, commercialized feminism.
Some might argue that this represents a depoliticized version of feminism which is commodified and commercially viable. But there is more to say about the ways in which these articles use feminism as a selling point and this is to do with comics’ history with popular feminism (and indeed postfeminism).
Above is the front cover of liberal feminist magazine Ms. released in 1972 by feminist activists Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes. It features a repurposed cover of Wonder Woman accompanied by the words “Wonder Woman for president.” The image of Wonder Woman was used to recuperate the character, whom Steinem argued had been moved away from her feminist mission statement over previous years.
Rebecca Munford and Melanie Waters provide a detailed analysis of the cover and the multiple meanings it has generated about popular feminism. Much like A-Force, Steinem and Hughes’ use of Wonder Woman on the Ms. cover can be considered “an attempt to mobilize the commercial marketplace for political ends,” as suggested by Munford and Waters. They go on to argue for the significance of the Wonder Woman image as being indicative of shifts in ideas we have had about femininity and women’s empowerment.
Here, we can draw parallels between A-Force and the Ms. magazine cover, since A-Force has surfaced at a time in which forms of feminism are shifting, for instance through postfeminism, or even the fourth wave of feminism enabled by modern technology such as the internet. It’s interesting that both of these popular feminist media are in some way related to comic books and superheroes.
Nonetheless, Munford and Waters note the complex nature of the Wonder Woman image, arguing that overall it
“emblematizes the complex and contradictory nexus of debates that has characterized … the fraught relationship between feminism and popular culture.”
This contradictory nature becomes more acute when considering the role of postfeminism in popular culture, and indeed in relation to A-Force.
Munford and Waters argue that postfeminism, or “ghost feminism” as they refer to it, is characterized by “temporal slippages” in which “images or ideas from the past might return to haunt us” while helping to shape new feminisms; “the ghostly projection of a feminist future.”
This idea that the concept of time, or temporality, plays a role in how ideas about feminism and women’s empowerment are shaped is useful. A focus on the temporality of postfeminism can help us make sense of some of the discussions surrounding A-Force. For instance, A-Force is part of a Marvel event steeped in nostalgia — it’s named after a previous storyline, it indulges in fan favourite storylines perhaps unfamiliar to new readers.
And yet, promotional articles seek to convince us of the fresh, new nature of the book in conjunction with its feminist themes. Wilson states,
“We’re having very interesting discussions in comics about gender, about competing ideologies, about how to be inclusive without making fans of the classic canon feel alienated. These are big questions for the whole industry right now and everybody is grappling to answer in fresh and relevant ways.”
She also refers to “new stories.” References to temporality — the future of comics, comics now, as well as the past of comics — were markedly present in press articles, for instance positioning the past as being conservative or anti-feminist.
For example, the following was said about the book:
“Even the most traditional fans finally seem to be accepting that women can play leading roles in the comic book world too.”
“Marvel Comics … is already light years ahead of the entertainment industry when it comes to awesome female characters.”
“A-Force is another big step forward.”
“In the ashes of the old Marvel universe, co-writers G. Willow Wilson and Marguerite Bennett are building something unique.”
These statements are interesting because of their, in Munford and Waters’ terms, temporal slippages and this is what I would argue positions the book within postfeminist frameworks.
The (non-feminist) past vs. the (feminist) future
Further references to time were made by Wilson and Bennett. Wilson says,
“I think an announcement like this is not as shocking as it would have been a couple of years ago … And since that’s been overturned, everyone is excited to be on the cutting edge. Nobody wants to be left behind.”
In this statement, Wilson claims the announcement of an all-women Avengers book would have been “shocking” in previous years due to the conservative politics of the broad and slightly vague notion of “the past,” while she also draws attention to the newness of the book’s politics and the need for publishers to “keep up” with the politics of now.
This nowness is portrayed as divorced from the oppressions of “the past.” But I would question a feminist rhetoric that denies an engagement with feminist history, since in this case “the past” is considered “not feminist.” When dealing with feminist issues, we need to keep track of the movement and how it has been shaped by history, including the ways in which history has been selective in its portrayal (for instance by erasing certain marginalized voices, and favoring others). This is particularly acute for a storyline which is so entrenched in nostalgia.
Similarly, Bennett focuses on the equally vague concept of “the future” when she states that
“People are ideally going to be reading these stories for decades to come, so I want to write to that future that I hope we will catch up with.”
Again, we see a disavowal of the politics of “the past” in favour of a progressive “future,” as if to say “that’s not how things are anymore, now that we are enlightened.” Of course, the inequalities faced by women and other marginalized peoples are not identical to those they faced decades ago, but there is still much work to be done, as evidenced by feminist, black rights and LGBT movements such as #EverydaySexism, #BlackLivesMatter and #GirlsLikeUs.
The critical response to A-Force’s first issue has been similarly fascinating, with a notable contribution from historian Jill Lepore, who wrote the book The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014), and who was unhappy with A-Force’s portrayal of feminine empowerment, a criticism to which Wilson herself responded something along the lines of “you don’t know what you’re talking about because you don’t read comics,” a point we should perhaps leave for another day.
Glancing at the critical reception of the book, there is a discomfort at characterizing it as specifically feminist, with some critics choosing instead to promote it as a “gender-neutral” book that is empowering and relatable to everyone, in which the characters “just happen” to be women (of course, in the world of fictional narratives whereby people sat down and decided the course of action for the characters and story, nothing ever really “just happens”). This dissonance between the pre-release articles and the critical reception is notable and perhaps most indicative of the convoluted and complicated nature of postfeminist culture.
Complexities of postfeminism
According to Munford and Waters, postfeminism involves “strange temporal (dis)locations that characterize mainstream representations of feminist and feminine identities.” These dislocations were particularly present in articles promoting A-Force. As I have discussed, the all-encompassing notion of diversity is solidly within the vocabulary of popular media producers. This complexifies the issues present in the relationship between feminism and popular culture, a relationship which I’m sure is bound to become even more complicated.
I’ll finish here with a quote from Genz which I think represents A-Force and its surrounding narratives quite well, and helps situate it within a particular postfeminist moment.
“Postfeminism is neither ‘retro-’ nor ‘neo-’in its outlook and hence irrevocably ‘post-.’ It is neither a simple rebirth of feminism nor a straightforward abortion … but a complex resignification that harbors within itself the threat of backlash as well as the potential for innovation.”
Genz, Stéphanie. 2009. Postfemininities in Popular Culture. GB: Palgrave MacMillan.
Genz, Stéphanie, and Benjamin A. Brabon. 2009. Postfeminism: Cultural Texts and Theories. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Gill, Rosalind. 2007. Gender and the Media. Oxford: Polity.
Hollows, Joanne, and Rachel Moseley. 2006. “Popularity Contests: The Meanings of Popular Feminism.” In Feminism in Popular Culture, edited by Joanne Hollows and Rachel Moseley, 1–22. Oxford: Berg.
McRobbie, Angela. 2007. “Post-Feminism and Popular Culture.” In Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, edited by Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, 27–39. US: Duke University Press.
Munford, Rebecca, and Melanie Waters. 2013. Feminism and Popular Culture : Investigating the Postfeminist Mystique. London: I.B. Tauris.