And now for some fun with Julie Chappell and Mallory Young, the editors of Bad Girls and Transgressive Women in Popular Television, Fiction, and Film. While gathering my thoughts and impressions to compose a review of the clever and timely anthology they’d assembled, I jotted down a list of conversational queries. Much to my delight, they both responded with enthusiasm. Enjoy!
MY: We actually started focusing on the subject of Bad Girls long before this particular movement. The collection grew out of a conference session we organized in 2013. But while I certainly can’t claim I saw the movement (or the election results!) coming, I’ve been around long enough to know that new waves in the status of women are a constant. Sometimes those waves bring significant progress, but more often it’s a two steps forward, one step back situation. So I truly believe there’s always a need for a collection like this. As far as a follow-up volume, let’s see how this one goes first!
JC: We’ve both been part of the Second Wave since the late 1960s so are used to “swimming upstream” in our lives and careers! But, sexual harassment is only a part of the issue for me. This book is about much more than that. All the contributors’ essays challenge the untreated patriarchal myopia and its consequences. We talked about a second volume at the beginning of this project but have agreed to wait and see where this one takes us.
MY: I’m so happy to hear that! That’s certainly one of our major goals in focusing on popular culture—to make people more aware of what we’re absorbing all around us. I’ve been studying the representation of women in popular culture since before 2005, when I co-edited a collection of essays on “chick lit” (and two years later one on “chick flicks”). So I can’t say this project really changed my responses. But it did continue and deepen my awareness of the issues. And the diversity in the types of texts we ended up including expanded the parameters in some exciting ways.
JC: I have to admit that before grad school during the Reagan years, I was generally a skeptic about the benefits of pop culture research. But early in my study of medieval and early modern literature and history, I was reading Richard the Redeless (which invoked Ethelred II, posthumously called the unræd, the ill-advised) and listening to Bruce Springsteen’s latest album when I realized that pop culture was nothing new and provided a necessary and integral path to understanding more diverse aspects of human nature and culture. The Bad Girls’ contributors’ essays have reaffirmed the importance of studying pop culture and seriously expanded my knowledge of significant pop culture “texts.”
MY: I was unfamiliar with Vera Caspary too—what an amazing find! My other discovery was the graphic series, Saga. I had read a couple of graphic novels (Maus is one of my all-time favorite books), but I had never heard of this one. Now I’m a devoted fan: I’ve read all eight volumes and I’m looking forward to Volume 9, due to come out this fall. My own TBR, TBW, and TBRW lists do keep growing!
JC: I grew up with Wonder Woman comics for inspiration for my own bad girl tendencies, but, as an adult, I considered graphic novels just as I had comic books, for children. Consequently, I had not read any graphic novels even though my husband had encouraged me to as he taught them for years, including Maus, Persepolis, and Pedro and Me, among many others. So, I admit that Mihaela Precup and Dragoş Manea’s perspective on Saga was definitely the most wonderful discovery for me. The Wonder Woman film has corrected much of the patriarchal issues of the original comic book character but cannot seem to shake the patriarchal notion that women must be beautiful above all else. In contrast to Alana and Hazel in Saga, Wonder Woman has a long way to go yet! I have for many years read and taught a variety of crime fiction in short and long form. Perhaps my Swedish roots have drawn me more toward a love of Swedish novels from Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö to Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon series. I also love crime fiction on film and television, including the 1944 film adaptation of Vera Caspary’s novel, Laura. But, Bedelia and Kirsten Saxton’s essay were revelations!
MY: One of my favorite features of this collection is the constant back-and-forth movement that you identify here. I think what stands out for me is the amazing variety of perspectives in contemporary popular culture. In my view, both Waites and Johnston are right: so much has been done; so much remains to be done. In the Introduction, I mentioned the TV series Supernatural which struck me as putting forward a startlingly regressive view of women and women’s roles. (Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, given that the show originally targeted an evangelical Christian audience.) After I wrote that essay, though, audiences were treated to a major shift in perspective, with a surprise revelation that the mother of the central “demon-hunter” brothers, who was previously seen entirely in the role of a victim, was herself a strong and capable demon hunter. I strongly suspect the show’s writers and producers were influenced to change the original concept to fit the views of a broader, more mainstream audience. I was pleased to see that. But that doesn’t mean other antifeminist views aren’t still being put forward—most troubling are those, as Johnston pointed out, geared towards young audiences.
JC: I definitely agree with your appreciation of historical background from the scholars and even in their sources. Joss Whedon moved out ahead of his contemporaries with his characterization of the female vampire slayer, Buffy, in the 1992 film, but the movie did not, as I understand it, follow Whedon’s artistic vision. He secured his vision with the television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, giving us a strong and independent female lead and a marked change from the earliest vampire tales of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with that era’s weak and helpless Gothic female victims. Kaley Kramer brilliantly teases that out in solid historical context. But even Buffy fell victim to modern audience’s inability to embrace women standing alone in their strength and principles. Buffy had several fraught relationships with men—Angel, Spike, and the military buffoon, Riley. Yet, ultimately, Whedon refused that sentimental view. The backlash in fiction has occurred, in my view, with the extremely popular series for the Youth market, Twilight, and its copycats in fiction and film. The heroine is again weak and troublingly shallow. The television series Grimm has some kick-ass women, but, as Mallory has noted with Supernatural, it took some time (and perhaps young women’s protests) to give these women some screen time. It certainly was my hope that Bad Girls would foster rethinking such weak-willed female leads as in Twilight to the more challenging women of Buffy and Saga.
MY: Not yet! I taught a class on Bad Girls in Literature, Legend, and Popular Culture in Spring 2017, just before the book came out. I did provide pre-publication copies of a few essays (our secret!) to students who focused their major papers on related subjects. Since my course covers Bad Girls from the Hebrew Scriptures and ancient Greek texts to the present, I probably won’t have a chance to use the book as a whole. But I will continue to recommend particular essays for individual projects. Still, I do think it could be used very effectively in a class focused on popular culture or women’s studies. And I would certainly love to hear how it might be received. I hope anyone who does make use of it will contact us and let us know.
JC: Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity before my retirement at the end of the 2017-18 academic year to use this collection in the classroom. I taught my first “Bad Girls” class as a senior seminar in 2003 and a graduate course a decade later exploring historical and fictional “bad girls,” including Sappho, Margery Kempe, Catalina de Erauso’s Lieutenant Nun, George Sand’s Marianne, and, of course, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. As Mallory and I started talking about putting this collection together, we realized that we had been teaching “bad girls” most of our careers! I am sorry that I won’t get an opportunity, at least as far as I can see it now, to incorporate this collection into a course.
MY: I’m partial to all of the essays in the book, of course, but I do think the essay on Saga is especially revealing and insightful. Most surprising to me—though I admit this just reflects my own prior ignorance—is that it was written by a young couple from Bucharest. I had no idea American graphic novels are of serious interest in Romania.
JC: I am very proud of the diversity of the subject matter and the insightful and careful scholarship of the essays in this collection. These reveal and often explode ancient and modern myths about women’s worth and capabilities that hide in plain sight and persist in popular cultural media. But, for me personally, it is also Mihaela Precup and Dragoş Manea’s essay on Saga that is the most revelatory, coming to it as I did with an uninformed (and, yes, ignorant) prejudice against graphic novels. I must let their words about the significance of the Saga series be my last words on this. In their introduction, they rightly assert that Saga “subverts staid representations of gendered subjects and locates in the act of productive alienation an oppositional praxis that remains crucial for the feminist project.”
Thanks to Mallory and Julie for engaging with me about this knock-out anthology! And just to remind readers, here’s the publication info.