Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Feminist Mistake

John and Belle take a look back at one of the most infamous of Jim Shooter's Adventure Comics stories, issue 368's "Mutiny of the Super-Heroines" (May 1968 cover date).

It isn't remarkable that the story is incredibly dumb, of course. That sort of thing happens. But I'm pretty impressed at how pitch perfect its tin ear is, Betty Friedan-wise. Doesn't miss a note. It even goes the extra mile of NOT having any hint of a lesbian subplot between the ambassador and Supergirl, which would be TOO obvious.

When things are this badly written - by Jim Shooter - what do you think is actually going on with the writer? Is he just sitting there weeping with laughter at what he has wrought? [their link, not mine - ed.]

No, he was 15 years old, 16 at the most, and that's probably what 15-16 year old boys thought back in 1968. When John wrote his post, he didn't realize Shooter was still a teenager. But in these "enlightened" times anyone can cringe when they see what was going through his mind and into his script. The girl Legionnaires are mind-controlled, but Supergirl finally breaks free of the control when Shadow Lass tells her that she'd set Brainiac 5 to doing housework. The Silver Age paragon of sweetness and femininity says, "When Shadow Lass made me think about what would happen to Brainiac 5 in a feminist world, my mind revolted ... my super-will snapped your control!"

When the villain (Ambassador Thora) commits suicide rather than return to her homeworld having failed to get Earth to change to a matriarchy. But while she was here, her homeworld overthrew its matriarchal government, and as Kara says, "...which goes to show that, despite our puny interference, there's a force in the universe that has a way of setting things right!" So even to Supergirl (via Shooter), having the men running things is the way things should be run.

One commenter put it a lot better than I could:
One can see in Shooter's storytelling a sort of throbbing conflict between a recognition of the barefaced wrongness of a "patriarchal background" and an instinctive allegiance to his gender and the status quo. Why would the dude feel the need to write this story, but to explain why something that seems wrong (the oppression of women) isn't actually wrong.

Kevin Drum of Washington Monthly mentions this article, and there are some comments there to read. Gary Farber makes the correction that Shooter was 15-16 when he wrote this story, not 17 as had been assumed on John and Belle's page.

More discussion of this story and article at PZ Meyers' Pharyngula: "Remember, kids, be nice to your girlfriends so that they'll squelch any uppity feminists who threaten your dominance!"

Incidentally, the letters page 3 issues later (issue 371) has a few comments on the story (go here and scroll down). Bruce Riley of Cleveland realizes you really can have two "girls revolt" stories separated by 4 years, as long as you change stuff:
I have just finished reading "The Mutiny of the Super-Heroines." At first I thought it would be like "The Revolt of the Girl Legionnaires" in ADVENTURE No. 326, but I was wrong. What made it different was giving the heroines extra powers, using more girls, and the major role played by Supergirl in defeating the villain. I did find two mistakes, though. On page 15, Star Boy's insignia is missing, while Ultra Boy's insignia is gone on page 16.

Interestingly, the only female's response to the story, from Shelley Van Geffen of New Orleans, discusses not the story but the clothes. Remember, that's all girls think about. That, and making fools of the boys. Oh, and jewelry.
Your Leigon stories are great! I havbe only one complaint. The uniforms of Cosmic Boy and Element Lad are PINK! Don't you think pink is a bit too feminine for heroes as great as these two?

For a bit more pre-modern look at what passed for feminist commentary back in the early Silver Age Legion (Adventure 326, Nov. 1964), remember how Queen Azura of the planet Femnaz caused the "Revolt of the Girl Legionnaires" (as recounted by Chris Sims for Prism Comics).

Let's see if anyone takes me to task for my calling this post "the feminist mistake" (a pun, of course, on Friedan's "Feminist Mystique" - and not my pun, it was John and Belle's).


Anonymous said...

You know, Mick Jagger wrote a song in 1967 entitled "Under my Thumb" about where he thought women should be. Anyone screaming about that? I think he was considerably older than Jim Shooter when he wrote it, too.

Neither of those Legion stories bothered me at the time because out of alllll the comics out there, the Legion had Saturn Girl. Saturn Girl was out there demanding equal rights long before it became fashionable to give them to women in comics.

I grew up with a Wonder Woman worrying about what Steve would think, Supergirl wondering which suitor she would marry, and Invisible Girl fawning "Oh Reed!" Then we had Imra bossing the guys around and demanding she go on dangerous missions because she was a Legionnaire.

I really love her hate mail in the early issue mail bags.

Imra is probably responsible for my being who I am today. If she could demand equal treatment from the boys, I, as a young girl, could too...and did.

So, all of these folks a million years after the fact wanting to BBQ ole Jim for a standard goofy silver aged comic story of the day, just makes me smile. He didn't think anything unique for his age and gender in that space and time.

Heck, I know people today that still have those attitudes, men and women alike. It's just not politically correct to express them in public.

To me, the strong superheroine has become sort of a boring stereotype in itself now. Where's one that likes to sew and cook when they aren't kicking butt?

Jonathan Miller said...

Why did Shooter write the story?

The answer's probably simple: because Mort Weisinger told him to. Shooter has said in various interviews that Weisinger essentially gave him briefs for the stories he wanted to buy; often the covers were drawn before the stories were written. So Shooter wasn't writing with all of his own sensibilities, he was also writing for the sensibility of his 50-something editor.

In the end, I don't think Supergirl is validating the patriarchy or whatever; remember, the Legion's 30th century was a pre-woman's movement view of an equalitarian society--written and drawn by men, of course. Taking that into account, I always interpreted Kara's comment as suggesting that "setting things right" involved a balance between the genders, not having either women or men subjugating the other.

Of course, that could be my idealistic side...