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Feminist Marvels: A look at Captain Marvel, Jessica Jones, and Spider-Woman’s portrayal and history at SDCC 2017

In the SDCC 2017 panel Feminist Marvels, three professors discuss feminism in Captain Marvel, Jessica Jones, and Spider-Woman’s past.

Three professionals joined up to discuss feminism in comics at the Comics Arts Conference #10: Feminist Marvels panel at San Diego Comic Con. The panel viewed Captain Marvel’s past and the approach Marvel writers took with the character, discussed how Jessica Jones’ recent TV show and comic series has reshaped the industry, and how Spider-Woman’s recent run as a pregnant hero was incredibly progressive and why comics have historically stayed away from pregnant superheroes.

Kicking off with Captain Marvel, J. Richard Stevens (University of Colorado, Boulder) went through her origins, from when Carol Danvers was simply an assistant to the original Captain Marvel, to her being given powers by Captain Marvel’s DNA hitting her (gross) and becoming Ms. Marvel. Stevens detailed how this shift was an attempt by Marvel creators to approach feminism the best way they knew how, but overall it was a clunky delivery. Eventually, the character joined the Avengers and in a historic failure, the publisher introduced a story where she was raped and the Avengers seemingly allowed it and blamed her for it.

This is how Carol Danvers got her powers originally…via an explosion that blasted Captain Marvel’s DNA into her.

So began many years of Marvel attempting to erase mistakes made with the character and the many retcons Marvel has gone through over the years. The most fascinating aspect of this portion of the panel was how Marvel has spent years rebranding the character with new #1 series, which incorporates mind-erasing elements so that the character forgets the things that happened to her. Thus, the character herself changes.

Kelley Sue Deconnick’s, for instance, wrote a new origin for the character where Danvers was an astronaut who gained her powers from space. Brian Michael Bendis also introduced an element where the more she flew the more memories she lost, erasing her memories of being an alcoholic. Going further back, Chris Claremont had her lose her memories in regard to the rape the Avengers basically allowed to happen, but not before having her confront the team over it. Stevens concluded his portion of the panel by suggesting Marvel has spent many years “fixing” the character for future films. “They don’t want the terrible things that happened in the past to come to the forefront when the character is referenced in the movies,” Stevens said, concluding, “It’s almost like her series started in 2012.”

Chris Richardson (Young Harris College) postulates about cultural capital while using philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s philosophical ideas and how characters compete for status through the symbolic capital. “The field is always moving,” Richardson said, and Bourdieu’s concept of habitus–or how society perceives the social world around them versus how things in the field exist–can be shifted by comic book storytelling.

Richardson showed a graph detailing economic capital versus cultural capital, at first detailing how publishers like Drawn and Quarterly and works like Maus and Blankets have high cultural capital but low economic capital, and then discussing female characters in comics and where they land on the scale. Basically put, Wonder Woman is somewhere in the middle (as far as comic sales), but works like Red Sonja are low on both, as she’s basically a sexualized character with low cultural capital.

Richardson then explored the Jessica Jones comic, showing a few panels from the series and discussing how the character has changed cultures habitus. “Jessica Jones forces us to confront our habitus,” Richardson said, and essentially view female characters in storytelling in a more purposeful way.

Richardson showed this panel as an example of how Jessica Jones tackles feminism.

“Things can get more or less popular depending on our habitus; when made unnatural and constructed, it allows us to reshape it in our will,” Richardson wrapped up saying. The character has become a huge success and it’s in no small part because of how she’s portrayed as a strong female character.

The last panelist, Samantha Langsdale (University of North Texas), dove into how Dennis Hopeless’ iteration of a pregnant Spider-Woman was an incredibly rare and progressive depiction of pregnancy in comics. Citing Jeffrey Brown, Langsdale pointed out female characters have largely been constructed to portray physical and sexual perfection and pregnancy is “monstrously feminine.” Pregnancy is treated as a problem to be overcome and one example is Catwoman. The year she was pregnant in comics, Langsdale pointed out DC skipped ever showing her pregnant. “There are remarkably few examples of superhero mothers,” Langsdale said.

Fascinatingly, Langsdale detailed the four ways pregnancy has been shown in comics, citing examples.

  1. The character must give up the child (Catwoman)
  2. The character gives up her hero status (Jessica Jones)
  3. The character repeatedly puts her child in danger (Witchblade)
  4. The character is utterly monstrous (Mothers of Cassandra Cain, Mystique, or X-23)

Langsdale then detailed how Dennis Hopeless’ run on Spider-Woman showed how Jessica Drew’s pregnancy is never framed as an accident or mistake. “[She is] visibly and happily pregnant for the first four issues of the book,” Langsdale said. In an example of a hero giving up their hero status (Jessica Jones gave up her hero status for much of the New Avengers run), Langsdale said, “What is otherwise a slippery and complex character is suddenly one dimensional.”

The panel as a whole shed light on how important strong female characters are today and how publishers have attempted to fix past mistakes and how culturally readers are more interested in well-written characters today.


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