Theatre Ph.D. Dissertations

Title

Performing the Female Superhero: An Analysis of Identity Acquisition, Violence, and Hypersexuality in DC Comics

Date of Award

2016

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Department

Theatre and Film

First Advisor

Jonathan Chambers (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Lesa Lockford (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Margaret McCubbin (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Jane Schoonmaker Rodgers (Other)

Abstract

In this dissertation, I argue that comic books are a form of dynamic and performative aesthetic communication as identified by performance studies scholars Ronald Pelias and James VanOosting, among others. Additionally, I use the standards of comic book creation as established by artists Will Eisner and Carl Potts. I seek to discuss and evaluate Western Society’s restrictions on feminine agency. Female bodies and identities are actively performed on the page through a combination of comic book structure and the process of narrative activation by the audience. I do so through an exploration of the central effects of the dominant, patriarchal, hegemonic forces that pervade the Detective Comics (i.e., DC) comic book universe—as they pertain to the characters of Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, and Power Girl—with the aim of situating these forces in that fictional realm in relation to the expectations of the constitution and performance of gender within our own real-life society. I investigate the important differences between female and male superheroes through a discussion of owned vs. acquired or allowed agency.

To accomplish this, I use what I refer to as a critical fan perspective to examine three specific areas over three chapters: acquisition of superhero identity, violence, and hypersexuality. I do so through an analysis of the performance implications of comic book text, image, and sequential narrative. First, in Chapter I, I use the concepts of the origin story and the trial or test of worthiness to investigate the disconnection that exists between male and female superheroes. In sum, within DC comic books, the male superhero is often offered the choice to adopt his heroic status while the female superhero must be chosen or allowed to adopt that identity. Second, in Chapter II, I explore the violence committed against and by women to discuss the ways that hegemony enacts violence against female superheroes and the policing of violent acts that they are frequently scripted to commit. To do so, I examine in particular the comic book variation of the rape-revenge narrative and what I refer to as the “gendered moral code,” a standard for acceptable violence often only applied to the female superhero. Finally, in Chapter III, through a discussion of feminine hypersexualization, I explore the representation of the female form as a means of structuring the identity of heroines and stripping them of agency. I argue, here, that the exaggerated hypersexualized female body becomes the dominant identifying marker.

By way of a textual and imagistic analysis of Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, and Power Girl, I conclude that through their meeting of standards for aesthetic communication and performance, the female and male superheroes within comic books represent a cinematic and lifelike performance of gender with real world implications. While there are certainly some differences between real world enforcement of gender performance, violence, and sexualization and those performances established within the DC comic book universe, for the most part, comic books—through the use of script, plot, action, costuming, and art—enforce, reinforce, and even exaggerate the hegemonic binary. Ultimately, through my analysis, I work to situate comic books as a medium worthy of greater academic consideration beyond just literary texts—specifically within the arena of performance studies and cultural critique—while also establishing the real world implications of their content when considering areas of gender identity.

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