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16 February 2011 @ 07:30 pm
Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology (2010) by Jennifer K. Stuller
Review by Malgorzata Drewniok

This book has been long awaited. Stuller is not the first author ever to take on superwomen in popular culture; she was preceded by Lee Stan (1977), Sherrie A. Inness (1999) and Emily Pohl-Weary (2004), to name just a few. However, no one has tackled this issue as extensively as Stuller has. More and more films and stories feature superwomen, but most still focus male heroes for whom females are nurturers or love interests.

So what is a superwoman? ‘She can be a spy, a secret agent, an assassin, a detective, a witch, a reporter or a superhero. She becomes super by surpassing the limits of the human body and mind, either through rigorous training, an industrial accident, by virtue of being an alien, mutation, or advanced evolution. Sometimes a woman is destined to be super. She can be prophesized and called to duty, or she can be created in a lab. She can be an Ink-Stained Amazon gracing the pages of comics, or a warrior woman of the digital or silver screens’ (p.5).
It is not surprising to learn that Stuller's inspiration came from Xena, Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Ink-Stained Amazons is divided into three sections. Section I, Standing on the Shoulders of Amazons, gives an impressive overview of superwomen and female heroes in popular culture. From Wonder Woman and Lois Lane through Nyota Uhura, Charlie’s Angels and Tura Satana’s characters, Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, to Xena, Buffy and Sydney Bristow of Alias, Stuller traces the growing presence of strong women characters in films, TV series and comics.

In Section II, Journey of the Female Hero, the author examines some characteristics of superwomen. This section of the book is inspired by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) and Joss Whedon’s comment that people need a female hero. A heroine is a damsel-in-distress, whereas a hero is more complex. Buffy would go through the same (or more) as Luke Skywalker (Stuller 2010: 78, quoting Whedon from Power|Up). Stuller emphasises that the real power behind the female heroes she talks about is love. Both Wonder Woman and Buffy, for example, fought to save others out of love. For Stuller this power of love is ‘a reimagining of heroism’ (p. 88).

This section also raises an interesting point: although there are more and more female heroes, they are often taught by fathers/father-figures and female mentors are still scarce. Rare examples of women mentoring other women are Buffy and Sarah Jane Smith (of The Sarah Jane Adventures).

The third section of the book, entitled The Mythmakers, shows there is a need for female mythmakers. More women like Nichelle Nichols (collaborating with NASA), Geena Davis (founder of The Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media) or Trina Robbins and Anne Timmons (creators of the Go Girl! comic series) are needed. Stuller concludes this section stating that although sex and gender should not define us, ‘[w]ho we are influences the stories we tell and the stories we want to hear’ (p.155).

The general claim of the book is clear: we need female heroes in popular culture, not just heroines swept off their feet by male heroes. Although Stuller shows that there is still a lot to be done to give women proper representation in Superheroes-verse, the sheer amount of her examples – from films through sitcoms and TV series to comic books – proves that we already have many strong women to look up to. The author also calls for diversity, for all people to be represented – men, women, straight, gay (or anything in between), as well as racial minorities. Stuller believes everyone can be a hero and popular culture should inspire us to find this hero inside, no matter whether we are male or female. And she is right: we do not need a copy of the existing heroes, we need new ones. This was proven by the debate after the announcement of the possible remake of Buffy the Vampire Slayer the movie (in November 2010): many said then – like Stuller – that we do not need another Buffy story; we need new female heroes.

One might prefer more examples in some sections and more explanation in others, but Ink-Stained Amazons is definitely a worth read for anyone interested in popular culture. Our world without Lois Lane, Princess Leia, Xena or Buffy would just not be the same.

You can find more info on the author and the book at Ink-Stained Amazon.com.