Theatre Ph.D. Dissertations

Lycra, Legs, and Legitimacy: Performances of Feminine Power in Twentieth Century American Popular Culture

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Jonathan Chambers (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Francisco Cabanillas (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Bradford Clark (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Lesa Lockford (Committee Member)


As a child, when I consumed fictional narratives that centered on strong female characters, all I noticed was the enviable power that they exhibited. From my point of view, every performance by a powerful character like Wonder Woman, Daisy Duke, or Princess Leia, served to highlight her drive, ability, and intellect in a wholly uncomplicated way. What I did not notice then was the often-problematic performances of female power that accompanied those narratives. As a performance studies and theatre scholar, with a decades’ old love of all things popular culture, I began to ponder the troubling question: Why are there so many popular narratives focused on female characters who are, on a surface level, portrayed as bastions of strength, that fall woefully short of being true representations of empowerment when subjected to close analysis?

In an endeavor to answer this question, in this dissertation I examine what I contend are some of the paradoxical performances of female heroism, womanhood, and feminine aggression from the 1960s to the 1990s. To facilitate this investigation, I engage in close readings of several key aesthetic and cultural texts from these decades. While the Wonder Woman comic book universe serves as the centerpiece of this study, I also consider troublesome performances and representations of female power in the television shows Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the film Grease, the stage musical Les Miserables, and the video game Tomb Raider. Allied with my analyses of these cultural texts, I examine the historical context of these final four decades of the twentieth century by focusing on several significant social and political moments and movements, such as the rise of first-and second-wave feminism, Reagan-era conservatism, and the scandals that brought Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky into the public eye in the 1990s. Throughout my study, I focus on issues including, but not limited to, the performance of feminism, representations of the female body, and the pernicious and deeply embedded nature of traditional gender roles.

In terms of findings, this study reveals that despite the progress that has been made in such areas as increased health benefits for women, the narrowing of the gender gap in pay, and more positive portrayals of feminine aggression in popular culture, there is still a great deal of work to be done regarding the overall performance of female power. Indeed, there remains a dearth of performances that do not hypersexualize women, link their power to that of their male counterparts, or villainize those who exercise strength and threaten the status quo. In sum, my hope is that this study will prompt a reevaluation of the narrative structures and icons deemed "feminist," performances of womanhood that are praised as wholly and unproblematically positive, and texts that are considered unambiguously empowering, thus encouraging more responsible representations in years to come.