Girls Who Bite Back examines turn-of-the-millennium pop culture, particularly superhero and comic-related pop culture, as it relates to females. The anthology defies any other description, and Pohl-Weary has gathered essays, articles, short fiction, and comix between the covers. The book even features “Crisis Girl in ‘Springrolls,'” a recipe presented in the form of a superhero strip. It’s a mixed smorgasbord, and the quality of the pieces being dished out varies significantly. Developing a list of useful categories by which to rank this work would have been impossible. Still, the best make this a book worth biting into.
Edited by Emily Pohl-Weary.
First Published: 2004
“Holy Butt-Kicking Babe, Batman!” by Nikki Stafford looks at the history and antecedents to shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena, Warrior Princess, and Alias. Stafford examines the positive and negative qualities of the recent crop of butt-kicking, cleavage-revealing superfemales. She also notes that these characters have been created by men, and wonders about the implications. Lisa Rundle picks up the concern in “Cinematic Superbabes Are Breaking My Heart.” She also raises other questions. What about the fact that many female viewers enjoy the eye candy aspect as much as the most sexist males? Both authors, to their credit, avoid simplistic ideological answers.
Candra K. Gill’s “‘Cuz the Black Chick Always Gets it First” provides a critical and insightful look at racial politics in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The author clearly watched and enjoyed the show, but its racial subtext bothered her. She does not question the intention of the show’s creators, and she notes alternate readings of many troubling aspects. Nevertheless, the troubles remain. The origin of the Vampire Slayers, for example, deserves thought. In the final season, Buffy meets her patriarchal makers, and questions their motives and methods, finally responding with the violence they understand. However, those men are Africans, “coded as rapists,” and “having the…. white female confront three Black men and accuse them of violation smacks of early twentieth-century rape narratives in which white women were depicted as the prey of Black men” (51) (The Turner Diaries shows that convention still appeals to a portion of the North American population).
Carly Stasko’s “How to Be Your Own Superhero” uses the superhero mythos to examine the lives of real people. While she looks at specifically female lives, the metaphor applies equally well to males. Esther Vincent’s “When I was a Girl, I was a Boy” develops the interplay between role model and reality. The piece juxtaposes the author’s quest to find the “perfect” female action figure and her own search for a suitable role model.
Role models also form the subject of Nancy Gobatto’s “Ready to be Strong: Buffy, Angelina, and Me?” Her analysis rambles a bit, though her comments on Angelina Jolie accurately indicate the double standard still prevalent in the media. Female stars, historically, have been categorized as “unstable or crazy” (128) for actions that seem of secondary importance when males engage in them. Popular press remembers Jolie’s “legendary” sex life, but “the cultural memory” focusses on her, rather than on ex-husband Billy Bob Thornton, who was very much a part of that publically-exposed personal life.*
Other outstanding pieces include Catherine Stinson’s “Red-Headed Orphans Rule” (a look at Anne of Green Gables, Little Orphan Annie, and Pippi Longstocking) and Elizabeth Walker’s “Suffragettes, Vigilantes, and Superheroes.” This latter work provides an excellent overview of women in comix. She also comments on the “Enids,” a type prevalent among female comic readership, best represented by Ghost World‘s troubled antihero, Enid, and Harvey Pekar’s wife and collaborator, Joyce Brabner.
A high point, Hiromi Goto’s “Stinky Girl” takes a magic realist look at a downtrodden character, the victim of weight, racism, relative poverty, and a nagging, slightly crazy mother. Goto’s excellent, descriptive prose style carries the tale to its odd, uncertain end.
Daniel Heath Justice’s “High Fashion and the Necromantic Arts” nicely spoofs the stereotypes of Dungeons and Dragonsesque fantasy literature. Other stories became tiresome; some read like the blogs of pop-culture-obsessed girl geeks. Mariko Tamaki’s “Diary of a Broom Girl” is well-written, but somewhat whiny. “The Danger Room Girls” by Sherwin Tjia attempts fiction in the form of an online chat; I would’ve logged out.
Matthew Blackett and Meagan Crump present a stylized strip illustrating the adventures of “The Parkdale Three,” a hero and her cats with an interest in culture jamming. Willow Dawson’s “Levitation Girl in ‘Good Afternoon America'” juxtaposes a superhero’s activities with the afternoon news. Most of the illustrated material consists of folios of sketches, like Eliza Griffiths’ “Karate Girls.” Their appeal will vary from viewer to viewer.
Your Mileage May Vary
The editor has assembled a diversity of material. Regardless of gender, those interested in recent popular culture will find something worth reading.
*True enough, but who wants to fantasize about Billy Bob Thornton?