Asking Tough Questions: Ms. Marvel and Tokenism in the Classroom

I’m proud to say that teaching the first volume of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel in my college fiction classes has become somewhat routine. In each of the zillion times I’ve helmed an “Intro to Fiction” course, Ms. Marvel has always been someone’s first encounter with a “Muslim superhero” (I put that term in quotes because of the difficulty in defining that term) and it has always been someone’s favorite work of the semester. Most of our conversations revolve around how Ms. Marvel undoes stereotypes that pop culture at large attaches not just to Muslim figures, but heroes and villains more generally. Thus, Ms. Marvel becomes a tool that I use to help students look at the media they consume more critically, precisely because it is “outside the norm.”

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Recently, I had the privilege of guest teaching Ms. Marvel for a 300-level course. At my university, these courses are typically reserved for professors and senior grad students. Having never taught anything myself above a 100-level course, I was admittedly quite nervous – these undergrads were smart, sharp, and would keep me on my toes. They did not disappoint: while I didn’t have to go through my usual schtick of “here’s is why representation is important,” I did have to teach in a way that required me to adapt and formulate ideas on the fly. I’ve never been very good at that, even as a student myself. So, when a student pointed out that Ms. Marvel was problematic because of tokenism, I froze. In teaching 100-level classes, this point had never been brought up by my own students, and I myself had never considered it. I was at a loss for how to respond, and looking back, I’m still quite sure I made a mess of it.

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Gendered Space: The Alamo Drafthouse Wonder Woman Screening

If you’re excited for the upcoming Wonder Woman movie and have been keeping a close eye on on the press, like me, then you may know that a bunch of people have their boxer briefs in a twist because of an upcoming women-only showing of the film.

Alamo Drafthouse is a popular movie theater chain in Texas, and one location in Austin has recently announced a planned showing for June 6 in which only women (and people who identify as women) are allowed to attend. On top of that, the theater released a statement saying, “Everyone working at this screening — venue staff, projectionist, and culinary team — will be female.”

So of course, men flipped their shit.

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People have been calling the event sexist and threatening to boycott the film and the theater. None of these threats had much effect, however. The Alamo Drafthouse defended their event, offered a second women-only showing, and made plans to expand the event across the country.

While it’s satisfying to sip a cup of male tears, I want to put snarkery aside for a moment and actually think about this whole situation. People (mostly white men) have been trying to make the argument that if the tables were turned in any way, the situation would not be seen as positively. How would a showing of Black Panther for African Americans-only go over? What about a men-only showing of any film?

They’re right in one regard – a men-only showing of a film would definitely not be the same. But why? The answer, I’d argue, has to do with purpose and privilege.

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Visions of the Past and Corruption in “The Dark Phoenix Saga”

I’ll talk about Jean Grey forever. For comics fans, she’s probably the character that is most cited in discussions about women and cosmic power, and for good reason. Her bond with the Phoenix Force and her iconic storylines (such as The Dark Phoenix Saga) are rich with opportunities for critical inquiry. While scholars such as Lenise Prater have talked about Jean Grey and female power, many of these arguments merely end with a criticism of sexism in comics. In her article about gender and power, Prater specifically takes up the issue of adapting the comics to film, emphasizing how the X-Men films “exhibit an anxiety about women’s capabilities and construct their power as inherently dangerous” (Prater 160). Jean Grey’s turn to evil, notably, is changed from the comic to the film. As Prater observes, ” Jean Grey/The Phoenix is slowly corrupted by power thanks to the machinations of the Hellfire Club… When the women in the films lose control of their powers, it is because of something inherent to their powers rather than because villains exploit their weaknesses. Indeed, whereas Jean Grey cannot retain control over her powerful psychic abilities, the male characters’ loss of control is always due to an attack from an outside force” (Prater 163-164). While useful, I find Prater’s description of “power” to be vague – is Jean corrupted by power itself? I have a hard time believing that, since as the Phoenix (the good version), she seemed to do just fine.

In expanding this analysis and looking more closely at the ways in which the Hellfire Club seeks to corrupt Jean Grey, I want to examine the trajectory of the illusions which Wyngarde uses. Whenever Jean is overcome by the illusion, she is “transported” back to the 18th century. Given that the role of these illusions is to “[give Jean] a taste of some of her innermost – forbidden – needs and desires,” these visions of the past can largely be understood as a point of exposure for the pleasure taken in socially unacceptable emotions. In Jean’s case, I suggest, the forbidden need/desire is the privileging of the individual over the group.

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This blog post will examine Jean Grey’s “visions” of the 18th century in The Dark Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont. By analyzing the way in which her individuality corrupts her, we can read The Dark Phoenix Saga as not only a story about the dangers of female pleasure and power, but also as a criticism of the individual, lonesome hero. Granted, the characteristics associated with the Dark Phoenix can be read as “unfeminine desires,” such as sexuality and superiority over men. Feminist criticism would read this comic, then, as a metaphor for patriarchal control of the feminine and the fallout that results from it. However, Jean’s power is not only femininity gone awry: by reveling in the pleasure of being not only a slave owner, but a monarchist in her 18th century vision, Jean’s “dark desires” are less female agency and more inappropriate models of individual power.

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“That Has Nothing to Do With Us” : Renee Montoya and Male Entitlement in Gotham Central

Gotham Central is a 2002-2006 police procedural comic set in Batman’s hometown of Gotham. Focusing on the underappreciated Gotham City Police Department (GCPD), the comic follows various officers as they take on big bads like Mr. Freeze, Firebug, and Two-Face with minimal involvement from our favorite caped crusader.

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My favorite badass.

One of the story arcs, “Half a Life,” follows detective Renee Montoya as she is outed as a lesbian by Two-Face, who has fallen in love with her. The story is by far one of the most famous ones from Gotham Central, having won an Eisner Award, a Harvey Award, and the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, all in 2004. While many have praised the story, I want to focus on Montoya as the nexus point for male entitlement in the comic. Those who have commented on the topic before mostly point to Two-Face’s affection for Montoya. Two-Face still believes that he and Montoya can have a relationship, despite being at the center of the plot that outed her. Blogger LadyRhian for “Deep Thoughts” describes this assumption as the result of Two-Face’s mental state, writing, “You have to wonder why, knowing of Renee’s lesbianism, Harvey Dent thought it was still possible to win her love. Well, I suppose that’s part of why he’s insane- refusing to accept outcomes he doesn’t like.” While the inability to accept defeat can certainly be part of the explanation, I don’t think an analysis like this explores the comic as much as it could. The whole story is not just one of lesbian experience, but of male entitlement. Harvey Dent is just the culmination of everything the comic sets up from the very beginning.

In this post, I’m going to examine the story of Montoya’s outing and Harvey Dent’s refusal to accept her lesbianism as part of a larger conversation about misogyny and the rejection of queer women. I by no means am suggesting that author Greg Rucka is rejecting queer women or that the story is meant to reject queer experiences, but rather, “Half a Life” dramatizes society’s misogyny over the entire story arc, not just in the climatic moments.

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Comics to Read (and Teach) in the Trump-Era

In addition to being a huge nerd, I’m also a college literature instructor. I teach students how to analyze literature and media in various forms, though my specialty as a medievalist usually relegates me to introductory-level English courses. For fun (and to bolster my job application portfolio), I sometimes design syllabi for future courses I’d like to teach. Go ahead and judge me, but it’s a legitimate way to procrastinate and be productive at the same time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of comics I’d assign to a class were I given the freedom to do what I want. Given our current political landscape (and the massive amounts of reading lists out there, like this one, that do the same thing), I thought about comics that would be fruitful for analysis during the Trump era. I’ve included a list with a brief description of the comic and why I think it would be appropriate, and hopefully (if I never get to teach it), it’ll at least be of some use to you, my readers.

In no particular order, here they are. I’ve provided 15 entries to reflect the 15 weeks that I teach during the semester.

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Revising Notions of Feminism and Medievalism in “Monarch”

When I watched episode 4.03 of Tabletop, I teared up.

I haven’t been a board gamer for very long, but gaming has always felt like a male-dominated hobby, even as more and more game designers increase the level of female representation in the worlds of their products. Granted, the exclusion of women is not at the same level as video game and comics communities – to my knowledge, there aren’t nearly as many board gamers that go around protesting feminism, but there are still pockets, whether it be at cons or public events, where I feel anxious meeting other gamers for the first time.

So imagine my delight when Wil Wheaton showcased Monarch on the latest season of Tabletop – a game designed by a woman (Mary Flanagan), with art by a woman (Kate Adams), featuring all female characters. And with a medieval-fantasy theme to boot!

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Wil’s praise of the game echoed my feelings exactly: “It is the only game I have ever played where all the characters are women, which I think is pretty awesome in a male-dominated hobby.” But my delight went further than just gratefulness for representation. As a medievalist, I’m always interested in pop culture that makes use of medievalism. Much of it tends to be very masculinist – the thrill of the Middle Ages in pop culture is in all the barbarism. Killing and pillaging are encouraged, as we see in Game of Thrones and even Champions of Midgard, a board game featured on Tabletop just before Monarch. I’m not disparaging violence in any kind of fiction, but there is a tendency for fantasy set in the faux-Middle Ages to focus entirely on that violence and derive a kind of pleasure in it that is discouraged in real-life or even more modern-set media.

Monarch is not about fighting. There is competition, but there isn’t a moment where one player has to combat or kill another player (or even a NPC in the game). While other board games are nonviolent, there’s something delightful about the way Monarch is working that can not only revise our ideas about women in gaming, but also our ideas about the Middle Ages (however fantastical they may be portrayed). In this blog post, I’ll first analyze the gameplay of Monarch to show how the combination of all-female characters and nonviolence pushes back against more masculine norms in board gaming, especially when examined as an alternative to games where colonialism or militarism is the main objective. Next, I’ll talk about how the premise and gameplay has the capacity to revise pop culture’s misconceptions about the Middle Ages and fantastical elements we associate with the “medieval” to shape more complex and feminist views of the past.

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De-Gendering Heroism: the Case Against Essentializing the “Female Hero”

A colleague/friend of mine is teaching a class this semester on the development of heroes and politics, focusing primarily on comics and graphic novels, but with a few prose works thrown in as well. We went over his syllabus together, and I saw some canonical choices: Achilles, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Batman, Superman, X-Men, Watchmen, and V for Vendetta. All wonderful characters and properties, mind you – I’ve taught a lot of these myself in my “Heroes and Monsters” courses, and there’s definitely a trajectory to trace in the development of heroism starting with ancient Greece up through today. I also think there’s value in looking at pop culture’s most revered and successful heroes – the money makers, the figures that audiences will flock to see in movie theaters. By reading original material, we’re more equipped to see how a hero/character has changed (or not) depending on the social and political climate in which they appear. The origins of James Bond, for example, shows us how the figure has been changed and adapted over time but still retains roots in a post-war era.

While male heroism has visible threads that stretch back to classical literature, female heroism is rather hard to spot, much less define. Lest you get the wrong impression, my colleague/friend is not neglecting prominent female characters. His syllabus includes Wonder Woman, Kamala Khan, and others where women play prominent roles (Jean Grey in X-Men, for example, and Irene Adler). But for many critics, the pattern of female heroism has been inconsistent: where women aren’t damsels in distress, they’re sidekicks or imitating violent masculinity. Where women aren’t scantily-clad sexual fantasies, they’re wielding power that’s either too much for them to handle or threatening to the male characters. The premise of the course got me thinking: Where does feminine heroism lie, and how does it exist in a form that isn’t imitative of masculinity yet is also not constructed as less valuable?

After a while, I realized I’m not really that interested in these questions at all.

Trying to define what “female heroism” looks like, to me, misses the point. It’s impossible to essentialize womanhood and femininity, just as it is impossible to essentialize heroism. While it is worth while to try to develop models of heroism for female characters that differ from the archetypes we see in movies, tv, and comics that privilege a certain type of masculine heroism, to say that female heroism is somehow, at its core, different from male heroism is to ignore areas where human behavior is not defined by gender and to insist on a gender binary that pop culture critics are struggling to overthrow.

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There are so, so many books and articles about Joan of Arc embodying “female heroism.”

This blog post will overview classical and folkloric definitions of “hero” and put them in dialogue with feminist criticism in order to reach a definition of “hero” that shirks gender identifiers. First, I will overview the “male as default” worldview and show how it affects fiction’s construction of the superhero. From there, I will propose turning to a de-gendered definition of “hero” which can help audiences avoid gender binaries and essentialism. Lastly, I will apply the de-gendered definition of “hero” to several models to show how heroism is at work.

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The Middle Ages is Not Your White Male Patriarchal Fantasy: Ten Medieval Women Who Would Make Excellent Protagonists

***Spoilers for Vikings Season 4 below***

Recently, I’ve maintained that it’s near impossible to make a movie or tv show set in the Middle Ages or antiquity that’s “good” – partly because whenever these things are made, the tendency is always to portray the time period as particularly barbaric or strange. Stories set in the middle ages, whether historical fiction or fantasy, typically manifest this barbarism through “weird” religious practices, excessive violence, or extreme sexism. As a result, it seems like the same stories are told over and over again: man wants land and/or power, man fights with other people to get land and/or power, women stay on the sidelines and serve male interests by either having babies or being victims of violence. Imagine my fury as a medievalist – I can barely read epic fantasy or historical fiction anymore, and I cringe at every announcement that a new medieval-inspired tv series or movie is announced.

That being said, I made an exception for Vikings, because although it had a lot of fighting and drama, it did a relatively good job respecting the various cultures and portraying its women in various roles: shieldmaidens, mothers, wives, queens, earls, seeresses, etc. By having women who were complex and different from one another, Vikings seemed to break the mold of excessively patriarchal medieval dramas and push for a more familiar or relatable middle ages. Season four, however, seems to resort to Game of Thrones gimmicks concerning their women. While previous seasons saw Lagertha and Aslaug respect one another and even get along, season four pits them one another, having Lagertha resent Aslaug for seducing Ragnar. Aslaug is also killed off, becoming another victim in the show’s string of female characters who die needlessly. [Insert nerd rage.]

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There are countless articles and blog posts that explain the harm in having stories which kill off female characters for shock value, as well as the nonsense of season four of Vikings. There is also plenty of discussion about the stupidity of insisting that things must be horrible for women in the name of “historical accuracy,” and how creators all too often equate the barbarity of the middle ages with sexism in order to make our current time period look better by comparison. But while it’s good to criticize shows for these lazy storytelling techniques, there’s not much discussion of what historical figures and stories could be drawn on instead. My guess is that the extend of knowledge isn’t all that great, and I don’t blame people for this – after all, it’s primarily male and white history that gets showcased in popular depictions of the middle ages, and it’s the same case for classrooms, unfortunately.

As a result, my purpose in this blog post is not to summarize the arguments for better female representation, but instead, to showcase a number of women who lived during the middle ages who would (whether by themselves or as inspirations) make excellent protagonists for a tv show, book, or movie. Ultimately, I don’t want the stories of these women to be replicated on screen with 100% accuracy – we already throw accuracy out the window when adapting history for popular consumption, and honestly, I’d rather throw out the “problematic” parts of history, however “accurate” they are, in favor of a more inclusive story. My goal in showcasing these women is to not only give out free ideas (*cough cough* credit me in your acknowledgements *cough cough*), but also to communicate, through just a few examples, that the excuse for “historically accurate” misogyny in medieval-set stories is simple fuel for a white male patriarchal fantasy.

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“Watchmen” and the Queering of Rorschach

Whenever I teach Watchmen (which is often around this time of the semester), my students always offer up some brilliant nuggets of observation or analysis that I had not considered before. Sometimes it’s about a panel or series of panels, sometimes it’s about narrative structure, sometimes it’s historical insight. I take some pride in knowing a lot of things about comics, but I don’t profess to be the Most Knowledgeable or someone who has all the answers.

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Today, I pressed them on the character of Rorschach. I got some interesting answers, among them the theory that in Chapter VI, “The Abyss Gazes Back,” Rorschach himself could be the abyss, which is interesting given the number of panels that feature Rorschach just looking dead-on into the reader’s eyes (I think there are more of these kinds of shots than in any other chapter). I’m super proud of them for coming up with that – I hadn’t considered it before. But another thing I prompted them to talk about was the queering (academically speaking) of Rorschach. Rorschach as a character is violent, misogynistic, and has a level of morality we would formally consider “grey.” All of these are typical hallmarks of comic book masculinity (at least, traditionally). But despite falling into categories of violent masculinity, there are moments in the text that challenge the categorization of Rorschach, and in this post, I’ll talk about how the queering of Rorschach assists in that frustration of categories throughout Watchmen. Whether or not Rorschach is actually a gay male is, in my opinion, impossible to determine given the evidence. Instead, I will be analyzing the homophobic slurs thrown at him as well as the backstory of his mask to argue that Moore and Gibbons use queerness as a signal of difference that informs our reading of Rorschach’s antiheroism throughout the entire graphic novel.

***Warnings for homophobia and violence below, including slurs and graphic images.***

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Dodge and Gender Identity in “Locke and Key”

To distract myself from last week’s election, I sat down and made my way through Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez’s comic, Locke and Key – perfect, I know, given that it’s a supernatural horror comic. But this post isn’t about politics, nor is it going to deviate from this blog’s original vision: to critically analyze nerd media beyond evaluating whether or not something is good or bad. I’m going to plow ahead and look at my main interest (gender) in the context of this comic, primarily through the object called the Gender Key.

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In case you haven’t read the series, Locke and Key tells the story of the Locke family following the brutal murder of the father, Rendell. The family moves into Rendell’s childhood home in the aptly named Lovecraft, Massachusetts, a home called “Keyhouse” where there are hidden keys hidden throughout the building. These keys open various doors and locks, all of which are supernatural: there’s the Ghost Key, which allows the user to become a ghost when they pass through a certain door; there’s the Head Key, which allows users to open up someone’s skull so that thoughts or memories can be added or removed from the mind; and there’s the Omega Key, which opens the Black Door to… somewhere (spoilers!). By far, the most interesting key to me was the Gender Key, which allows users to change gender when he or she walks through the Gender Changing Door. Our main villain, Dodge, uses this door to disguise himself numerous times, thus leading our heroes to believe an evil woman is after them when in reality, it’s their best male friend.

There’s so much I can say about this key and gender, so I’m just going to jump right in. Overall, my goal is to explore the ways in which gender shifts in this comic to force us to confront our expectations about gender binaries. The first section will analyze the origins of the Gender Key and the user’s ability to use it to escape certain societal expectations. The second section will analyze evidence of Dodge’s gender identity and investigate to what extent we can understand him as a genderfluid character.

***WARNINGS for discussion of rape, assault, homophobia, and transphobia below.***

(If I mess up pronouns, please correct me.)

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