Review: Lessons from The Woman Fantastic in Contemporary American Media Culture

Cover Art from The Woman Fantastic

TCover to The Woman Fantastic in Contemporary American Media Culturehe Woman Fantastic in Contemporary American Media Culture

Elyce Rae Helford, Shiloh Carroll, Sarah Gray, & Michael R. Howard II
University Press of Mississippi
November 2, 2016

As a pop culture enthusiast and active feminist, I’ve had countless conversations (some would say, “arguments”) about the status of fictional women in comics, books, movies, and television shows. There is usually one person in these conversations who insists I need to be less easily offended because fiction is just that—fiction. Bah! As Jacques Derrida said, “The truth inhabits fiction as the master of the house.” In other words, fiction reflects our lived reality, and I believe fiction provides an opportunity to recognize our successes and our failures.

It was during the controversial appointment of Wonder Woman as an honorary United Nations ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls that I found The Woman Fantastic in Contemporary American Media Culture, an edited collection by Elyce Rae Helford, Shiloh Carroll, Sarah Gray, and Michael R. Howard II. After reading a comment from Jeffrey Brez, a spokesman for the U.N., that “[s]ome people voiced a concern that they didn’t feel it was appropriate for a fictional character to be representing women and girls,” I was ecstatic to find the editors of The Woman Fantastic explain that the figure of the “woman fantastic” is “an artificial construction of womanhood that ‘does’ gender” in ways that “reflect back to us what we mean when we talk about gender.”

With an interdisciplinary approach to the portrayal of the “woman fantastic” in contemporary American media, this collection examines her appearance across comics, books, and television. The essays in The Woman Fantastic largely focus on popular characters from widely loved texts in order to emphasize the most basic characteristic of the woman fantastic–she is essentially fictional. Her struggles and achievements, however, reflect daily reality, and readers will find a bit of themselves and their experiences in the diverse cast of fantasy and science-fiction characters.

So who is the woman fantastic and what does she reflect back to us? The Woman Fantastic is broken into three sections: the Making of Today’s Woman Fantastic, Expanding the Horizons of the Woman Fantastic, and the Woman Fantastic in Social and Theoretical Context. Although these section titles sound sexy, I didn’t feel like they accurately captured the content within them. What I gained from the individual sections about the woman fantastic, rather, were three lessons about what it means to be a woman in the United States today and ways that I can talk about those definitions.

Lesson 1: “People can be two things at once

Cover: Essential Savage She-Hulk, Volume 1 (Marvel, 2006)

The first section, “The Making of Today’s Woman Fantastic,” depicts the woman fantastic as a woman caught between two opposing archetypes. The ferocious, empowered She-Hulk is pitted against her professionally successful yet timid alter-ego Jennifer Walters, for example, thereby creating false dichotomies based on stereotypical expectations about what a woman can and/or should be. “Stories about women tell us stories about ourselves,” J. Richard Stevens explains, “but those stories still appear to tell us more about how males think about female stereotypes than anything else” (31). Indeed, these stereotypes abound throughout contemporary media and continue to baffle me. Rather than choosing sides, though, this section presents the woman fantastic as a person whose strength and agency grow from a complex combination of seemingly contradictory identities. The woman fantastic does not have to choose between action heroine and loving mother, as proven by Battlestar Galactica’s Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, nor does she have to fit into a single cultural or racial category, as seen by Talia al Ghul. Part one highlights the ways that all women occupy multiple identities and calls on readers to celebrate these intricacies rather than feel compelled to choose one over the other.

Cover: Kitty and the Midnight Hour (Grand Central Publishing, 2005)

Lesson 2: “Whoever controls the language, the images, controls the race

In “Expanding the Horizons of the Woman Fantastic,” the second section, the woman fantastic acknowledges the influence that media has over our daily reality and points to the radical change that can be made when women use the media and its associated technologies to their advantage. The media’s power to “other” women because of their educational, cultural, economic, physical, or sexual deviation is at the heart of each chapter. Scholar Rhonda Nicol points to Kitty Norville, the werewolf and host of a supernatural radio talk show in the Kitty Norville Series, as exemplary of an othered woman who uses communications media to influence narratives about race (coded as “species” in the series) and gender. Through her talk show, the Midnight Hour, Kitty is an agent of change in her community by privileging knowledge as a means of empowerment and, as a result, “she not only achieves agency for herself but encourages others to find their own agency by giving them a public forum in which to discuss their lives, thus affirming their right to exist and be heard” (129). The woman fantastic seizes opportunities to inspire agency through media technologies while countering negative representations of women that often occupy those spaces.

Lesson 3: “I can do whatever I want

Cover: The Seven Realms: The Complete Series (Disney Hyperion, 2013)The concluding section, “The Woman Fantastic in Social and Theoretical Context,” confronts and destabilizes the external expectations that the woman fantastic must contend with. From images of the ideal body to familial and cultural traditions to notions of chastity and sexuality, the chapters in this section recognize the influence that external forces can have on perceptions of identity and value. “Control and discipline,” Joan Ormrod explains, “[are] at the heart of modern bodily discourse to manipulate and reform the body shape and presentation” (166). The woman fantastic, however, openly challenges and undermines such regulations in order to resist attempts to govern her body. In their examination of The Seven Realms Series, for example,  Katherine A. Wagner and Megan McDonough call attention to the various names that Raisa ana’Marianna uses (Rebecca Morley, Briar Rose, and Brianna Trailwalker) as she struggles with the fragmented identity that her parents impose on her. Over the course of the series, Raisa constructs her own identity and eventually chooses a name that reflects her assertion of self. The woman fantastic recognizes her body as a sovereign space and claims agency through her individual choices.

The lessons that I found in The Woman Fantastic were not surprising, but the book is made potent by the current political atmosphere. As a result, the collection is a valuable tool for discussing and analyzing the fictional and factual representations of women as well as a starting point for women who feel threatened or effaced by the current discourse circulating in the media. The chapters are largely jargon-free thereby making the content accessible to all readers, and there is no need to be familiar with individual characters, authors, or series to appreciate and understand the woman fantastic.

While The Woman Fantastic in Contemporary American Media Culture is a great starting place for meaningful conversations about the status of all women in the United States, I was disappointed in the book as a work of scholarship about media. Individual essays discuss representations of the woman fantastic as if it is uniform across comics, literature, and television, and little attention is given to the qualities or nature of each medium. In fact, Joan Ormrod’s essay, “Body Issues in Wonder Woman 90–100 (1994–1995),” is the only one to consider how conversations about one medium intersect and diverge with another. Every medium has idiosyncrasies, and it seems obvious that those notable qualities would produce differing representations of the woman fantastic. Though it may be the result of bringing together scholars from differing areas of study, this omission was a major disappointment for me as a reader and as a scholar. Despite the three lessons that I found compelling in the collection, it seems that a major lesson is still missing.

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Morgan Podraza

Morgan Podraza

Morgan is a professional weirdo. She drinks at least 4 cups of black coffee everyday to fuel her research on comics and film. Tweet her cute animals and silly gifs at @MorganPodraza.