Are you looking for a provocative collection of essays for your syllabus this fall? Take a look at Bad Girls and Transgressive Women in Popular Television, Fiction, and Film, edited by Julie A. Chappell and Mallory Young (Palgrave Macmillan 2017). The title caught my attention—my new sleuth, Kate Clifford, is a woman I consider transgressive in her place and time, and I was keen to see what other artists were doing, and what scholars had to say about them.
What I look for in an anthology is a variety of perspectives, an array of ideas, with a sense of gazing through dozens of facets cut into a topic, each time finding a fresh vista, a new consideration. I was not disappointed.Chappell and Young provide that in their selections, and entertain as well. As I read I imagined what lively discussions this book would inspire in a classroom. The book appeared before the #MeToo and #TimesUp hashtags shook things up, and reading it now it can seem a prequel, but the book stands on its own. Thirteen essays on popular culture ranging from the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the graphic science fiction series, Saga, with stops in between for thrillers (Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), crime novels (Kathleen Mallory in the series by Carol O’Connell), how Medusa’s image changes over time, the tropes of the mean girl queen bee and the angry black woman, domestic disarray in chick lit… Check out the table of contents here.
In her introduction, Mallory Young spells out the legacy being explored: “The ancient Hebrews’ Eve and the ancient Greeks’ Pandora were among the first of a long line to enter the annals of literature and legend by displaying their inability—or refusal—to play by the rules. As the list of historical, mythological, and literary bad girls grew, so did the patriarchal collection of condemnations against them. Eve’s insubordination becomes the justification for centuries of her daughters’ subordination. Works of literature, conduct manuals, sermons, ballads, and plays throughout the medieval and early modern western world confirmed the stereotype, enforcing the good girl/bad girl, Eve/Mary distinction. Women could be passive, voiceless, and powerless—worthy of praise—or vengeful, violent, promiscuous, disruptive—requiring restraint.”
The questions explored in the anthology: “Why in a postfeminist world are women still so often depicted as threats to social order? How have those depictions changed over time? What are the contemporary parameters of ‘badness’ in the popular mind? How has the use of violence as a method of resistance affected those women who wield it? How has the diversity of race, ethnicity, and even species reconfigured the bad-girl paradigm? Are those women who engage in transgressive actions merely upsetting social norms or actually challenging or even subverting the status quo? And finally, is bad-girl behavior as represented in popular texts truly transformative and empowering—or simply playing into a commercialized and ultimately non-threatening reestablishment of women’s traditional roles?”
Reading this collection inspired me to pay closer attention to the assumptions underlying popular culture. Some examples: K.T. Saxton concludes in her article about Vera Caspary’s Bedelia, “capitalism, nationalism, and heteronormative patriarchy are the hazily imagined romantic fictions, peddling the fantasies of the market, state, and gender norms as happy endings.” In J. Gwynne’s article about teachers and transgressive comedy, he notes that “within many comedic genres, women as individuals have been subject to ridicule and denigration, not least because their objectification by comedy is connected to their subordinate position within the wider culture.” E Johnston uses the evolving image of Medusa—monstrous female or victim of male aggression—“to bring into relief compelling evidence of a thriving ‘rape culture’ within contemporary film.” More change: K. Waites describes how far we’ve come from “the femme fatale, the earliest emanation of Hollywood’s warrior woman, who uses her sexuality to manipulate men and exploit the white, hetero-sexist capitalist system for personal gain”; in contrast, the current warrior woman “investigates and attacks” the system. She describes Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) as “a complex figure unique to the postfeminist world, one that operates at the margins of the entrenched system.”
I thoroughly enjoyed it. The overall tone is “provocative” in the very best meaning of the word, arousing interest and, yes, reaction. It will wake you up. A timely book. I’ve come away with a long list of books/articles to read, TV series to revisit or watch for the first time (revisit Buffy, try The Walking Dead when Michonne enters the story—I think I’d like her.), ditto for films.
Watch this space for a Q&A with the editors!