Superwomen, The Eisners, & Leia Organa’s PhD: A Conversation with Carolyn Cocca

Editor’s Note: One of my goals for Comics Academe is to promote the work of women working as academics and scholars in the field of Comics Studies. I reached out to Carolyn Cocca about her Eisner Award-winning book Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation, and she generously agreed to an email interview even while in the midst of a move!


Kate Tanski: Hi Carolyn! Thanks again for agreeing to speak with me about your Eisner Nom and Win! Congratulations! I was curious to see how many other women have been nominated in this category and how many have won previously, so, I did a little research, and the Eisner Award for Best Academic/Scholarly work category was created in 2012, and since that time, there’s been 31 books nominated, 37 total nominees (since several books had more than one author or editor), and 11 women nominees, including yourself. What do you think about that? Like the proportion of nominations, and also, the company that you’re joining? These are some pretty impressive names, and scholars with disparate backgrounds and home disciplines. I definitely have some thoughts on how representative this group is of what we call “Comics Studies” in general, but I’d love for you to talk about that to get us started.

Carolyn Cocca: Thank you! It’s such an honor to be nominated, I would have been totally ok if I hadn’t won. Having your peers vote for you is a tremendous feeling, though, and I was really pleased that I had the opportunity to publicly thank those who supported my work on the book, especially my mom, who came with me to the ceremony. Shout-out to the women of Table 37—Corinne, Clara, Megan, Jazmine, and Rosie from Women Write About Comics, and Taneka and Sara who created the webcomic Deja Brew. It was such a nice coincidence to be seated with people from WWAC, since we did quite a bit of this interview before the Eisners! I felt very lucky to have such a great group of people to spend the evening with.

I am glad to see, as you said, that over time the nominees have come from different perspectives. I am not sure, though, that the nominees in any given year reflect the universe of academic work that’s out there, which is growing and diversifying more all the time. Thank you for gathering the data about nominees’ gender. It’s so important to do that “quantitative” work to see the big picture, along with the “qualitative” work of looking at individual people and stories. I was the only woman nominated in the academic/scholarly category this year, but I don’t know how many books were considered for nominations and how many of them were written or edited by women. Of the nine people who have won an Eisner in this category since its creation, four are men and five including me are women (two of whom co-edited a book with a man).

The overall percentage of female nominees, 11 out of 37 so about 29%, can be looked at a number of different ways. It’s about triple the percentage of the top 500 comics from last year by women writers or artists. It’s about double the percentage of movies that star women. It’s about half of the percentage of people with PhDs, potential authors of scholarly works, who are women. Women are more than half of the population. So in most areas of life, we should expect to see about half men and half women. When we don’t see that, we should question it.

KT: Secondly, let’s talk about the project itself, Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation. That’s a heck of a title! Do you have anything you want to share about it? Anything particularly meaningful?

CC: I put a lot of thought into the title, so thanks for asking!

First, I wanted to make “superwomen” a word. If you type the word “superwomen,” it will get underlined in red as an error, but “supermen” will not. That we as a culture assume that women can’t be super but men can is unacceptable.

Second, I wanted to avoid using the words “female superhero” in the title, even though I do that in the book itself. Using those two words together acknowledges that when we say “superhero” we almost always mean a male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied superhero. That’s why when we talk about a superhero who doesn’t fit that description, we use a qualifier, like “female superhero,” or “black superhero,” or “queer superhero,” or “disabled superhero.” And that bothers me, just like the word “superwomen” getting underlined bothers me.

Third, while the short title “Superwomen” tells you the book is about female superheroes, the subtitle should tell you what the book focuses on, or what conclusions it comes to, while talking about those superheroes. In short, the book reveals longstanding inequalities of gender and power, and how representations of superwomen are one of the many ways we can see these inequalities persist. Representations are changeable, and inequalities are changeable, and we need to use our power to push for more equity and equality in every area of our lives.

KT: And let’s talk a little bit more about this project and how it came about. Was this a dissertation or presentation that you turned into a book, or a separate, discrete, book project?

CC: My dissertation was written in 1999-2000, and became a book called Jailbait: The Politics of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States. That book and Superwomen are more similar than you might think. Both are about how we think about and treat people differently based on gender (and race, class, age, and sexuality), how that has changed and also not changed that much over time, and how we need to do better.

Superwomen started out as one article about Wonder Woman, and then snowballed when I started thinking about how analyzing other characters would enable me to talk about different intersections with gender, like Barbara Gordon in terms of gender and disability, Storm in terms of gender and race and sexuality, etc. Their “differences” then allowed me to more easily point out what was taken for granted with most other characters: their able-bodiedness, their whiteness, their heterosexuality. So I wrote articles about these two characters too. But those short pieces couldn’t tell the full story that I had begun to put together, so I kept going.

I really wanted to get at why female characters were the way they were and are the way they are, so I looked at the political and social trends from each character’s creation to the present; how comics were accessed at different times, like on newsstands, or in local comic shops, or through digital downloads or libraries or bookstores; whether the character was onscreen as well and how that compared to her print version; and the interplay of editors, writers, artists, parent companies, and different audience groups about that character. The combination of all of these elements explains why a particular character looks a certain way at a certain time.

KT: There’s two things that I think are really interesting when it comes to the categories of women that you talk about. I’m a rhetorician by training, and as much as I dislike Aristotle, I find myself categorizing even when I don’t want to and finding meaning in that. Inside the book you’ve organized it by devoting a chapter to each of these superwomen: Wonder Woman, Batgirl—in multiple incarnations—The Birds of Prey, The women of Star Wars—Padme Amidala, Leia Organa, and Jaina Solo, The X-Women, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (again, all of them), and the Captains Marvel and Ms. Marvels.

For your women, you don’t limit yourself to comics, although the women you include who have their origins outside of comics have appeared in comics—all of these women are transmedia, or might be someday (Kamala Khan will no doubt make a live-action appearance at some point!). So, since their media does not unite them (although you could argue that in some ways, their transmedia unites them), why these women? Are they all women you were previously personally invested in? Was there anyone that you had to go do research on? I’m just really curious about why these women.

CC: I didn’t choose only characters in whom I was personally invested (although that was tempting), and I did extensive research on all of them. I looked at representations of the characters in thousands of comics as well as in related novels and television and films; at interviews with writers, artists, and editors; at writers’ and artists’ websites, Tumblrs, Instagrams, blogs, tweets, fan letters, and podcasts; at academic works about the characters, about civil rights movements, about feminist theory, critical race theory, queer theory and disability theory, and about pop culture; at comics journalism about the characters; and at sales figures.

I didn’t want the book to be only about one character, but I also didn’t want it to read like a list of every female superhero character ever. I thought it would be more useful to compare female superheroes and their allies to each other, to compare them to themselves over time, and to compare them across media. So, that meant: 1) several recognizable characters, each with pretty well-developed supporting casts, 2) who have been around for a while, 3) who have been in at least two (print and screen) or preferably three or four different formats (comic, novel, tv, film).

The problem with this design, which I meant to be neutral, is that it doesn’t produce a neutral result: most of the characters that meet all three requirements are white, cisgender, non-queer, and non-disabled. Granted, as I say repeatedly in the book, in the universe of superheroes, most characters and creators can be described this way. More authenticity and diversity are imperative.

KT: And then my second categorical question is this—all of these women are either women who have a legacy character, or a solo hero role that has been filled by multiple people, or they’re a group of women—in some cases, like in Star Wars, a maternal line. Is that something you wanted people to notice or think about? That seems to me to be a theme that I picked up from your introduction—this emphasis on women, perhaps even on community?

CC: Yes and yes. The female hero isn’t usually a male hero archetype who happens to be female. The male hero purports to be a strong, silent, lone wolf. The female hero tends to be more overtly community-oriented, working with and drawing strength from others. On the one hand, these are stereotypes of gender. But if you look more closely, you see that the male hero’s story just about always reveals that someone, at some point, has supported and/or loved that male hero, and that the male hero is a hero because he cares for others. We need to allow male characters—and men—to be able to acknowledge that no person is or needs to try to be an island, that interdependence is not weakness, that we are all stronger in community.

KT: You use a lot of personal stories in this book, and talk about what the superwomen mean to you and have meant to you. One of the main arguments of the book (to me) is that if you diversity representation, it has a profound personal impact. That’s not the usual argument of books in this category, which are often historical, biographical, practical, or theoretical. This is something that I share, and I know why it’s important to me, but why is that important to you?

CC: I tried to confine the personal stuff to the introduction and conclusion, but you’re right, it’s in there. Political scientists are supposed to analyze data in an unbiased way, and the data tells me that superheroes are important. But also they have been personally important to me for as long as I can remember, and I wanted to be open about that. They embody our hopes and aspirations. They inspire us to be our best selves and to do good. They encourage us to be brave and to stand up for ourselves and for others. They empower us. And they especially empower us when they look like us, when we can see more easily see ourselves as them. Academic studies from different disciplines show this, but we also just know it. We feel it when we feel our hearts soar as a superhero soars, literally or figuratively.

Certain people have seen themselves represented as heroes over and over, way out of proportion to their actual numbers in the population. Others, from more marginalized groups, have only rarely seen depictions of themselves that are not stereotyped, sidelined, or sexualized. This is not, and never has been, normal or natural. It is because of discrimination and it has to stop. It’s time our stories showed the truth, that any one of us can be a hero.

KT: Book projects take a ridiculous amount of time—is there any addendum you would add based on seeing Wonder Woman? Also did you have the same emotional reaction that I and many other women had where they’re crying in the movie theatres? Do you have thoughts  on what this says about us as a culture, and how does that relate back to again, this theme from your introduction, that representation matters?

CC: Yes, I cried. As did everyone I know, female and male. Because representation matters. Here, after 75 years—75 years!—was a multi-dimensional female superhero on the big screen, showing not only girls and women but men and boys that women can be heroes too. That heroism isn’t just physical strength, but it also encompasses courage and compassion and kindness and love. That heroism is about doing what’s right, even when those “in power” tell you not to. That heroism can look like Antiope, or like Samir, just as easily as it can look like Steve. Deep down we already knew all of this, despite laws and customs and media that have been telling us otherwise for far too long. I think we’re crying with relief, with anger, with happiness, and with hope.

That said, I had issues with the film.  First, Diana (not unlike Rey or Jyn in the most recent Star Wars films) is pretty much the only woman in the second half of the movie. Etta, who’s been part of the Wonder Woman mythos for 75 years, could have gone to the front with the three newly created male characters, or some or all of those newly created characters could have been female. Second, Diana shows compassion, but she also is quick to violence. In decades of comics, by contrast, she has almost always gone by the credo summed up by Gail Simone in Wonder Woman #25 (2008), “We have a saying, my people. ‘Don’t kill if you can wound, don’t wound if you can subdue, don’t subdue if you can pacify, and don’t raise your hand at all until you’ve first extended it.’”


Third, the reveal that Diana’s father is Zeus not only undercuts her unique origin as a superhero born of women (crafted from clay by her mother, given life by goddesses), but it also undercuts her upbringing—she defeats Ares not because of her Amazon training but with her demigod powers, not because of her Amazon compassion but in anger, not because of the Amazon credo of an extended hand or a pacifying lasso but with deadly force.

All of these moves, to me, felt like the filmmakers were uncomfortable with what they had laid out in the first half of the movie: a woman, part of a community of diverse women, all heroes. I am thrilled that the movie is making more money than almost all superhero movies have. I am thrilled that director Patty Jenkins fought to film and highlight the “No Man’s Land” scene when surrounded by men who didn’t see the point of it and told her not to do it. I am thrilled that the movie has touched so many. I am hopeful that the film (and my book) will inspire people to keep pushing to disrupt and dismantle stereotypes and inequalities of gender and power and representation.

KT: On that topic—in addition to your Eisner nom, you’ve gained a little anonymous infamy thanks to some tweets that went viral about the possibility of Leia Organa having a PhD, which the OP mused about when reading your book. It’s now been covered by major news outlets around the globe, including the Washington Post. Academics have been accused more than once about writing books that only 100 people will read, or dismissing scholarly texts as amounting to little more than an echo chamber. And it’s true that perhaps few academics will experience their work “going viral”—what has the experience been like for you?

CC: It has been pretty strange!

What happened was, I put in my book a quote by George Lucas about Leia from the 2004 DVD commentary of A New Hope. Part of the the quote was that Leia “got her PhD at nineteen.” That wasn’t even the main point of what I why I included the full quote, but that’s beside the point right now.

So, Dr. Rebecca Harrison of the University of Glasgow read the book and with a picture of the book page tweeted “Leia had a PhD? … Can you imagine having everyone call you Princess when you were actually Dr. Organa?” Her point was that women are often not called by their titles because they’re assumed not to have them (because sexism). This still happens to me often: I’ll get called “Ms.” even in academic settings and by peers, while my male colleagues get called “Dr.” the same has happened to Becca Harrison, and I’m sure a lot of other women have similar stories.

What blew up and became a Twitter “moment,” with thousands of retweets and likes of the original tweet along with about forty news articles that spawned more tweets and comments, was “Leia has a PhD!” Most people were very excited about it. And has been exciting for me to have been the source for something that clearly means a lot to so many. A few pushed back and said, “That’s not canon!” Neither I nor Becca claimed it was canon. But it’s clear from the response that many, many people really like the idea, and if it also means that more young women feel they have a reason to look up to Leia and/or aspire to earn a PhD, then I’m quite happy about the whole thing.

Several of the articles described Becca Harrison a Star Wars “fan” or a University of Glasgow “student,” rather than calling her Dr. Harrison or noting she had a PhD. None of the articles that mentioned me and my book referred to me as Dr. Cocca or noted that I have a PhD. One credited a male journalist with the discovery and didn’t mention either one of us. So, with sad/amusing irony, her original point about women and their titles was totally made.

KT: That’s surreal! Life imitating art imitating life, or something. Thank you for sharing that. And I have one last question for you. You recently did a panel in DC at the National Museum of Women in the Arts called “Who are the Superwomen of the Universe” with Ariell Johnson, Gabby Rivera, and Ashley Woods. Do you have any future such presentations planned, or a sequel project in mind?

CC: The women on the panel at the Museum were so bright and warm and inspiring—it was a real privilege to be there with them. You can see the whole panel at My next “big” presentation is a keynote at a comics conference in Germany, but that’s months away. I’m giving a talk on superwomen in the fall at my school, the State University of New York at Old Westbury.

I am currently writing a book chapter, for an edited volume, about Supergirl in comics and on tv. And I plan not only to update my work on the characters already in my book, but also to expand to other characters who have become more prominently “transmedia” since I wrote the book, such as Jessica Jones and Misty Knight and Colleen Wing. I’m not sure yet whether those analyses will be individual pieces or become parts of a new book.

In the meantime, people can find me in a few places: a recent Talking Comics podcast, discussing the Wonder Woman movie at length along with many newly-released comics; a recent Talking Comics Presents podcast, talking about Star Wars comics, novels, and animation thus far in 2017; a recent Batgirl to Oracle podcast, discussing representations of female characters in general, with particular attention to Barbara Gordon, X-Women, and Wonder Woman; and the Superheroes Decoded documentary that recently aired on the History Channel. My Tumblr is, my Twitter handle is @carolyncocca, and the best way to contact me is email:   

KT: Carolyn, that all sounds amazing! Congratulations again on your Eisner win and I’m so looking forward to your next projects. Thank you again so much for being so generous with your time!

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Kate Tanski

Kate Tanski

Recovering academic. Fangirl. Geek knitter.