The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines

Book cover: The Supergirls by Mike MadridIt was all in that subtitle: fashion, feminism, and comic book heroines…awesome, awesome, and awesome! Although I’ve never been a reader of comics, I was immediately intrigued by the premise of Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls, and it’s been on my TBR list for a long time. Starting with the dawn of the comic book industry in the early twentieth century and taking readers to the present day, Madrid walks readers through a very interesting timeline of the state of female superheroines. Woefully underdeveloped when compared to their male counterparts, the “supergirls” have almost always gotten the short end of the stick.

The book begins in the 1940s with the dawn of the Phantom Lady, a woman who fights crime at night and lives as a wealthy socialite by day. With each decade, supergirls take on different forms and fashions to fit the needs of their era (the mod supergirls of the 1960s must have been so much fun to look at). But regardless of the time period, supergirls have usually had only one limited purpose: to entice male readers. As such, they often played second fiddle to male superheroes.

The very thought of a woman usurping the role (read: the masculinity) of someone like Batman or Superman would have caused an uproar. Many a supergirl met her demise by hanging up her cape and settling down to get married or have children, so as not to upset the boys’ club of superheroes. In a handful of more alarming instances — particularly in the hyperviolent 1980s, in which some supergirls were even violently raped or killed off — supergirls who did not know when to throw in the towel were punished severely:

Yellowjacket went from superhero to wife beater. Wasp got a black eye, Yellowjacket got kicked off the team and they both went to divorce court. The Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl found that the radiation encountered on a mission with her team was the cause of her miscarrying her second child. While the Black Canary claimed she didn’t want to be a mother, injuries that she suffered at the hands of drug dealers rendered her unable to bear children.

But more commonly, female superheroes suffered from writers just not knowing how to write a female character that could be intelligent, strong, and still sexy enough to keep male readers interested. Ironically, one of the biggest sufferers of this dilemma happens to be the most famous supergirl of them all: Wonder Woman. People typically know her for the sexy costume worn by Linda Carter in the Wonder Woman series, but no one really knows her background or what she stands for. In her decades-long history, her character has been rewritten and recostumed almost too many times to count.

The book was filled with interesting commentary about characters I had never even heard of.  That’s why it was all the more disappointing when I ran into my biggest problem with the book: sexist language. It just completely blew my mind that a book whose author is obviously passionate about highlighting the triumphs and hardships supergirls have faced — sexism included! — would resort to using terms like “slattern” and “trollop” in reference to the present-day celebrities whom present-day comic book writers have modeled some of their supergirls after. It only happens a few times in the book, but it’s alarming nonetheless, especially since Madrid’s commentary of the sexism in the comic book industry is so spot on. That (rather large) qualm aside, the book is a fun, quick read; it’s excellent for people like myself who know almost nothing about most superhero back stories.

The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines was released on September 1, 2009 by Exterminating Angel Press.

IndieBound | Powell’s | Amazon
I read it as a(n): paperback
Source: interlibrary loan
Pages: 334

4 thoughts on “The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines

  1. Great to see your review of this, I remember reading it long ago. Thanks for pointing out the language issue, definitely an issue! Like you I was reading it with little or no background knowledge on any of the superheroes or heroines.

  2. Does Madrid at all discuss female writers of superheroines? It might be a little too recent considering the publication date of 2009, but Gail Simone pops out as the most visible female writer. And there are some male writers that handle female characters well—Paul Dini and Bruce Timm have always impressed me with how they handle female characters who are sexy, strong, and complex, although it’s only a villainess who leaps to mind (my beloved Harley Quinn, currently suffering under a very out-of-character costume design in Suicide Squad). I by no means am trying to downplay Madrid’s point—it’s definitely a huge problem!—but I’m just wondering if he covers any examples of well-written superheroines in The Supergirls.

  3. Mike Madrid covers Gail Simone’s run on Birds of Prey and Manhunter, both of which feature strong female protagonists written by a female author. I own all of those comics and they are some of the best in my collection.

    I also produced and voiced the audio book.

  4. Aaaagh!!! This sounds so awesome! I never read comics growing up, except for like Archie.

    But in college, I really got into them, especially from an academic standpoint. [I know, not fun anymore, but fun!]

    Definitely adding this to my list, and for some reason, it reminds me of this great book about Nancy Drew and girl sleuths I read a while back. Did you review that recently? Someone did, and it’s fantastic.

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