Thursday, June 28, 2007

Battle Babes and Warrior Women

Which reminds me...

Emma Peel first appeared on The Avengers TV series in November, 1965, in the U.K. This was followed quickly by the series’ appearance on ABC television in the spring of 1966. 1965 also marked the appearance of the first Modesty Blaise novel, in both the U.K. and the U.S. The Modesty Blaise movie appeared soon afterwards (1966), but it was a severe disappointment to Modesty Blaise fans (and there were a lot of us, very quickly), because the movie played the whole thing for laughs.

You can stretch both the Modesty Blaise and The Avengers chronology of the “battle babe” back three years, to 1962, when the MB comic strip first appeared, and when Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), showed up in The Avengers. Honor Blackman, of course, later became Pussy Galore, in Goldfinger, first knocking 007 on his ass, then succumbing to some combination of judo and masculinity to give up her lesbian ways for some Bonded sex. Clearly something was going on in the adolescent male libido in the mid-1960s, that had been submerged in popular culture during the 1950s.

The transformation of Wonder Woman from the 1940s version to the 1950s version may hold a few clues on the submergence. Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist and consultant to D.C. comics. Marston instilled some overtly Freudian themes in the original Wonder Woman, including the trope that her wrist bands were needed to keep her from going berserk. The strong bondage elements in the 1940s Wonder Woman comics were an obvious target for Frederic Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent and the Kefauver hearings that made such effective use of Wertham’s work. The result was a drastic taming of the content of Wonder Woman, muting her dominance and amplifying her love of Steve Trevor to effectively become the reality that the previous bondage symbolism had only alluded to.

Supergirl appeared in 1959, and her initial fortunes are perhaps all-too-emblemic of the times. Here she was, the only other survivor of a destroyed world, and what does her cousin do to her? He sticks her in an orphanage and keeps her identity and very existence a secret. She also undergoes Superman’s trick-her-to-teach-her-a-lesson ordeal only slightly less often than Lois Lane. It’s not that surprising when she falls in love with her horse (who turns into a handsome man when a comet comes by). Who else does she have?

But something was obviously brewing underground, tamped down by the happy-suburban-housewife weight of the 50s, and the eruption found all sorts of vents in the 1960s. Sue Storm went from having just the power to make herself invisible to tossing around force field projectiles in only a couple of years. Modesty Blaise escapes from her prison camp, and Emma Peel takes up espionage as a hobby.

There’s a direct line of succession from Modesty Blaise to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In fact, the connection is through a single comics writer, Chris Claremont, writer of the X-Men for 16 years. Claremont set out to write strong female characters into the book, and one of his first actions was to model the origin of Ororo/Storm after that of Modesty Blaise. Kitty Pride also stands out as an exemplar of teenage supergirl, having the ability to walk through walls. In general, if the hallmark of pulp fiction is that, when the action shows you send a man through the door with a gun, Claremont would have the person be a woman, still with guns blazing, but maybe even coming through the wall, rather than through the door.

Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” has spoken of his lifelong love of comics, and credits Kitty Pride as a model for his strong teenage characters, as well as the Dark Phoenix saga for informing the “Dark Willow” arc in the sixth season of Buffy. In “Firefly”, the character of Zoe, a former soldier, is referred to by her husband as a “Warrior Woman,” (along with an indication as to how this makes her good in bed). Whedon is currently writing an X-Men comic for Marvel, and has been announced as doing a Wonder Woman movie.

The incidence of the battle babe in popular culture went from a nadir the 1950s, to the torrent seen in the last decade, but what do we make of it? On the one hand, it appears to be the male adolescent version of the “enforced seduction” archetype in gothic romances; a strong character of the opposite sex takes a great deal of anxiety out of the process. The reader/viewer can assume a passive role, while all of the initiative is taken by the strong Other.

The flip side is that one cannot really come on too strong with a battle babe. If she doesn’t like what you’re doing or saying, she’ll just kick your ass, without bothering with any legal stuff. If she does like what you’re doing, she’ll still kick your ass, but you’ll wind up having sex with her (“When did the building fall down?” asks Buffy after her first time with Spike). For confused men who claim to not knowing the difference between compliments and harassment, the simplicity of the arrangement is appealing.

Whatever the deeper reasons, it’s pretty obvious that “nice girls” don’t become warrior women, and that the adolescent male would rather have someone other than a “nice girl” to fantasize about. Given the popularity of many of these icons with adolescent females, it remains to be seen just how many of the boys will grow up to deal with the reality that the fantasies can create.

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