The Mutant Generation: Shaping Stronger and Wiser Superheroines
An Introduction by Emily Pohl-Weary
CONTINUED FROM THE THE FIRST PAGE Some of the happiest memories of my childhood include trips to a local comic shop down the block from Honest Ed’s emporium, in Toronto, called Memory Lane. It was run by a man named George Henderson, one of my grandmother’s odder friends, who had excessive facial hair, a twinkle in his eye and a desire to provide anyone who entered his shop with their most desired item. I believe he also made a comic called Captain George’s Whizzbang, likely named after Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, a popular magazine in the 1920s (hence the name of Diamond Dame’s gang in my short story included in this collection). At the time, my tastes were pedestrian. They ran to Betty and Veronica, Richie Rich and Wonder Woman. Captain George, as he liked people to call him, steered me toward more obscure titles like The Mighty Isis, Shazam and She Hulk. The store closed down over a decade ago, but I still wonder whatever became of Captain G.
I outgrew comics, or maybe just lost interest when I couldn’t find any really cool girl heroes who lasted more than a few issues. Then I found Nancy Drew. For about two years, I wanted to be her (minus the racism and classism, of course, but then I only recognized that years later). I devoured the complete set of old hard covers that my cousin shipped over from B.C. for my birthday. For months, I went around dreaming about owning the Nancy Drew Sleuthing Guide, till my parents took pity on me and bought a copy for my birthday. I read it from cover to cover, as if it were a novel, then set out to practice the techniques outlined in each chapter. I learned to decode secret messages, take fingerprints and analyze handwriting. I practiced on my family. There is nothing like perfection to inspire admiration and Nancy had everything I would never have: tidy hair, wealth, a housekeeper, a fast car and a devoted lawyer father.
When my parents allowed me to buy my first bottle of hair dye (or perhaps simply ceased threatening to ground me) I picked-one guess-titian! I so desperately wanted to be Nancy that, at the age of 13, I started dyeing my hair strawberry blonde and kept it up for so long that I forgot my natural hair colour. Soon, I also learned to lie about my true hair colour: “Sure, it’s natural!” These days, it’s a strange thing to look around at all the women on the subway and realize that nine out of ten of them dye their hair, too. They mostly go for blond streaks.
As women, we strive for perfection, but settle for anything that’s different from our natural state. In my case, I wanted to become the attractive titian-haired slip of a girl who speeds around in her brand-new roadster, never has to do boring chores and solves crimes neatly in her pumps with just enough chutzpah to keep her life from middle-class boredom. She was an alien figure, far removed from the bustling, poverty-plagued neighbourhood in Toronto where I lived: one of the city’s last refuges for new immigrants and outpatients from the Mental Health Centre.
After Nancy, I kind of gave up on girl heroes-I was never cut out to be a wholesome femme with half-a-brain, I realized-just in time for the joys of high school. In truth, she was as unattainable as the caricatures I’d idolized earlier in life. She wasn’t normal. She was very good at everything she did, from dancing to golf to getting loose when her hands and feet were tied. I wasn’t particularly good at anything, or so I thought, so I dreamt about being anyone-anything-outstanding. I guess the capacity to be a pop-culture addict was in me all along, it was just waiting for a kick ass girl hero to come along and unleash it. Mutants and witches with secret lives fighting evil-doers fit the bill. If I had super-strength and could turn invisible, for instance, I would rid the world of torturers, nuclear weapons manufacturers, greedy millionaires who paid their workers pennies, schoolyard bullies, silly gossiping rich girls and warmongers.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve wished fleetingly that I could crush an enemy simply because they were being close-minded, obliterate the cops trailing me home with their high beams on because they thought I was a hooker, or throw some lecherous guy into a wall with a flick of the wrist because he grabbed my ass or made me feel unimportant. Absolute power is coveted most by the powerless, and in our culture, that includes girls. Boys love superheroes, too. In fact, they love them so much they’re Marvel and DC’s target audience. But at that age, girls have a desperate need to identify women who can overcome obstacles (see Walker).
Very little is empowering about the teen years: there’s the subservience to teachers at school, the painful tests meant to confuse, the mystifying body changes, the boys who leer at you on the street, the pressure to start “real life,” or to delay it a few years by conforming to standards set by universities… So it’s easy to see why girls would love today’s empowered, independent females. But why, as we grow older, do many of us never leave behind our fascination with indestructible superchicks? The popularity of shows like Xena: Warrior Princess, Charmed, Wonder Woman and Alias is undeniable (see Stafford). Maybe this is because we still have days when we feel particularly fragile, our self-confidence is low and we appreciate how hard it is to be real (see Smolkin). No matter what our age, we continue to search for control over our lives, bodies, destiny and fantasies.
Perhaps, it’s a bit of a paradox that silly caricatures of ourselves can provide so much empowerment. When it comes to corporate culture, we settle for the least offensive female characters. Usually that means some vapid but distinctive chick who chases around a dude for the duration of the film/novel/comic (see Rundle). Pop culture sets forward a myriad of examples of idealized women. Turn on the TV set for a couple hours, and we’re left with the impression that eternal youth is the most coveted superpower. Everyone wants to be young forever, right? To withstand the bright lights and paparazzi, movie and TV stars have to be smoother and cleaner than we can ever be.
They’re also indestructible. Long after they die, they remain immortalized on film and in photos. Time stands still for Hollywood. And before that, starlets get plastic surgery, Botox (it’s natural!) and go on no-starch diets till they’re bags of bones held together by skin. Flip through the channels some day and take note that all the women over the age of forty look fake, like they’ve been pieced together by some cruel Dr. Frankenstein who’s using a glossy fashion mag model as his template. Who can we look up to as we age and pass beyond the Buffy years (see Kasturi)? Will I forever be forced to escape into the minds of characters who are essentially carbon copies of Betty and Veronica, doomed to fight forever over a dopey red-headed boy?
Intellectually, I know that the real superheroes are all around me (see Bianchini). They’re the people who face and overcome insurmountable hurdles everyday-like being afraid to walk the street and being judged in the subway because the mass media has recently depicted all people with the same skin colour as terrorists or, not just recently, as job-stealing immigrants. When pop culture’s vast ranks of idealized Western beauties offer up only a handful of heroines who aren’t white, how do women of colour escape into entertainment (see Gill)? Should we forget about manufactured heroines altogether and look to each other for inspiration and role-models (see Tamaki)?
Perhaps maturing is not so much about leaving youthful obsessions behind, but about understanding the complex social structures that lead us to desire certain things (see Whittall). Perhaps it’s also about fulfilling our desires and envisioning new role models (see Villegas). It’s how we invent and change society. Everyone needs to step out of their lives at times and dream about things that are beyond the drudgery of the day to day.
Nothing makes me happier than hunkering down on the weekend with a good mystery novel-if the protagonist is female and intelligent-or a video game in which the female has a lead role (see Livingstone). Today, unlike when I was younger, that’s actually possible. I’ve been watching my 17-year-old sister grow up with role models like brainy Willow the witch and grounded, quirky Rory on Gilmore Girls. I think she’s lucky. Sure it’s Hollywood schmaltz, but at least they’re not cheery bottle-blonde appendages or breast-enhancement surgery rejects. We often find ourselves watching silly movies together, cringing internally because of the horrid dialogue and ridiculous premises-such as the notion that a girl’s life could ever possibly be all about some silly boy-and laughing at the good parts.
Women born in the early 70s or later have grown up surrounded by fictional images of superheroes, witches, slayers and freaks; we’re the new mutant generation. With the paradoxical image of the Barbie assassin planted firmly my in mind, I decided to put together an anthology that would critique and celebrate these constructs of the imagination. Naturally, the first thing I did was confer with the most knowledgeable source of information I have about pop culture: my sister and her teenage friends. The four girls who allowed me to buy them ice cream while I picked their brains were Julia Pohl-Miranda (my sister), Kashfia Rahman, Tempest Buie-Pope and Amy Choy. They all come from different cultural backgrounds but they’ve grown into young women alongside Buffy and the spawn of prime time knock-offs who capitalized on the slayer’s successes. I asked them what they think of today’s TV shows, whether there are any kick ass girl characters in the movies and comics and who they think are the best female superheroes. It was interesting to learn that they think many of the current female heroes have the same short-comings they did when I was young. (See the sidebars for some of their answers to my questions.)
Then I approached several writers and artists and told them I wanted to create a book I would have loved to read as a teenager and that my friends and I would like to read now. The response was incredible: they, too, mourned the lack of awesome girls in pop culture (see Vincent). Some writers decided to critique existing characters (see Stinson) and others invented new, better, more interesting superheroes (see Macdonald). Regardless of how inspiration presented itself, the consensus among writers and artists was that no one had ever heard of a book like this before. We were going to delve into the paradox and revel in it, through critical and personal essays, fiction, art and hybrid forms.
The collection you have in your hands is the result of many months of feverish work and thought. The cultural essays include genre overviews, a manifesto for people who affiliate more with the aliens and vampires in pop culture than the humans (see Levy), a powerful piece about mental illness and the creation of fantasy worlds (see Gobatto) and even a do-it-yourself guide to being your own superhero (See Stasko).
Talented artists created powerful alter-egos (see Griffiths), spellbindingly supernatural girls and other-worldly witches (see Boyle). There’s a collage monologue that belies the consumerist concept of the tough but beautiful bitch (see Ahlers). One artist’s work subverts the mythological heroine Medusa (see Butler) and two more look closer to home to find familiar instances of the paranormal (see Poletto) and the superhero in all of us (see Tjia). As befitting a collection about superheroes, the art is heavily influenced by cartoons. An urban superheroine and her two feline sidekicks undertake derring-do in a poor neighbourhood (see Blackett and Crump). The female superhero is placed within the context of a war-hungry, media-saturated world (see Dawson). And there’s even an adventure recipe comic (see Ngui and Wojtyra).
The short stories range from modern-day myths (see Goto) to twists on the kinds of superheroes created by Marvel Comics (see Dellamonica). There are girls who become superheroes in response to girlhood traumas (see Hopkinson) and women whose inner magic makes itself known against their will (see Lai). Writers spin universes filled with magic and transgendered anti-heroines (see Heath Justice) or girl-gangs who trade quasi-magical trance-pronouncements for food and change (see Johnson). A real-life genetic scientist has contributed a fake report on the various mutations that would result in super powers (see Bustos).
Read on to find out how to become your wildest dreams and fight the world’s most insidious enemies. Keep in mind: deep down under our drudging exteriors, there’s a superheroine in all of us just waiting to emerge! Enjoy!