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.
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!
I have been truant far too long! But here I am, unveiling the cover for the third Kate Clifford, A Murdered Peace, which will be published on 2 October in the US, UK, and Canada. At long last Kate is depicted with a bit of weaponry and one of her wolfhounds. I’m pleased. Yes, I know, that’s the ruins of Clifford’s Tower in the present, not York Castle as it would have been—far larger, walled, a true castle complex, but one must choose one’s battles.
Here’s the copy for the book:
It is deep winter in York, 1400, the ground frozen, the short days dimmed with the smoke from countless fires, the sun, when it shines, low in the sky. It is rumored that the Epiphany Rising, meant to relieve the realm of the Henry the usurper and return King Richard to the throne has, instead, spelled his doom. As long as Richard lives, he is a threat to Henry; so, too, the nobles behind the plot. The ringleaders have been caught, some slaughtered by folk loyal to Henry as they fled west, and the king’s men now search the towns for survivors.
A perilous time, made worse for Kate Clifford by the disappearance of Berend, her cook and confidante, shortly after Christmas. Her niece saw his departure in a dream—he said he was honor bound to leave. Honor bound—to a former lord? One of the nobles who led the uprising? Is he alive? She is hardly consoled when Berend reappears, wounded, secretive, denying any connection to the uprising, but refusing to explain himself. When he is accused of brutally murdering a spice seller in the city, Kate discovers a chest of jewels in his possession. Some of the jewels belong to her old friend Lady Margery, wanted by the king for her husband’s part in the uprising. For the sake of their long friendship, and the love she and her wards bear for him, Kate wants to believe Berend’s innocence. So, too, does Sir Elric. And he has the powerful backing of the Earl of Westmoreland. All Kate need do is confide in him. If only she trusted her heart.
I’ve just recently completed the final edit and it’s now with the copyeditor. For this edit I read the manuscript aloud, listening for repetitions, infelicitous language, and what I think of as the overarching melody of the book. It’s remarkable how much more I catch when I’m reading aloud.
What struck me was that although the action of the book arises from the Epiphany Rising and Richard II’s imprisonment in Pontefract Castle, it’s the characters who carry the story. All the characters I’ve come to love–Kate, Berend, Elric, Lille, Ghent, Jennet, Eleanor, Marie, Petra, Phillip, Lionel (well, I don’t exactly love Lionel), Clement, Griselde, and a few new to the series. And that’s just how I want it to be. There is a great deal of sorrow and conflict, but some sweet joy as well. I’m proud of it.
Meanwhile, I’m hard at work on the 11th Owen Archer, A Rumor of Wolves… more about that soon!