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Hi everyone! At this point, I’m approximately half-way done with my paper (it’s over 12 pages at this point, woah), and since I plan to get it published in a scholarly journal, I won’t be posting it on here. But I did give a presentation based on my research at Simmons College’s undergraduate symposium this past Wednesday.

Subjects of my research

Agent Carter

The ABC series Marvel’s Agent Carter, which is a spin-off of the Captain America film series focusing on Agent Peggy Carter, a skilled agent for the Strategic Scientific Reserve and the right-hand-woman/love interest of Captain America, as she struggles to prove herself in the sexist society of post-World War II America.

Sailor Moon

A Japanese magical girl anime and manga series that follows 14 year-old Usagi Tsukino, a.k.a. Sailor Moon, and her friends who upon awakening with the power to transform into a team of superheroines, known as the Sailor Guardians, fight for love and justice in order to protect the Solar System.

What is weaponized femininity?

A trope commonly found in female action heroines wherein their femininity is retained alongside masculine demonstrations of physical or mental strength, or functions as something to be manipulated as a tool of empowerment.

Its juxtaposition of masculine power with traditional femininity presents the feminine and the feminine-subject as active agents capable of undermining patriarchal power as well as cultural assumptions of girls and young women.

Offers resistance to what feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey called the “active-male/passive-female dichotomy” of gendered power on film, wherein men are depicted in active roles that bestow them with agency within a narrative, whereas  women in film serve as objectified, sexually titillating spectacles for “the male gaze” of the male audience.

Although hyperfeminine action heroines and female characters who manipulate the terms of their femininity have been the subject of feminist media scholars for years, there is currently no academic scholarship on the trope of weaponized femininity itself. This is because the term “weaponized femininity” is a neologism that began circulating around the feminist blogosphere around 2013. Thus, I was tasked with giving this concept validity as a trope in and of itself.

Component #1 - Masquerade

Female characters use or manipulate the terms of their femininity in order to gain power, navigate through oppressive power structures, or subvert patriarchal authority.

Draws from theorist Joan Riviere’s idea of femininity as strategic masquerade, wherein “womanliness…[can] be assumed and worn as a mask” to hide a woman’s possession of masculine strength.

Often enacted by superheroines, female secret agents, and female assassins, who perform a carefully constructed feminine identity in order to infiltrate the unsuspecting male sphere.

Component #2 - Destability of Gender Assumptions

Wherein hyperfeminine female characters demonstrate physical and/or mental strength on par with men.

The physical power and mental strength of these feminine subjects stands in opposition to cultural assumptions of female passivity,  refuting assumptions of appropriate gender roles by unifying feminine appearance and masculine toughness.

This iteration of weaponized femininity is frequently found in the young girl action heroine, who offers transgressive potential through her unique combination of physical power with stereotypical youth and femininity.

While the young girl action heroine has been featured throughout Western media ― The Powerpuff Girls (1998 - 2005), Hanna (2011),  and The Professional (1994) ― she has proven to be a cultural phenomenon throughout Japanese anime and manga in the form of “the beautiful fighting girl” (sentō bishōjo), young heroines whose “pure and lovable girlishness remain intact” while they do battle and fight to save the world.

Component #3 - Empowered Femininity

The powers of these heroines are characterized as feminine or depicted as stemming from femininity.

Constitutes a reclamation of femininity as a site of empowerment, reinscribing traditionally feminine characteristics with the active power commonly attributed to masculinity.

“The heroines themselves are empowered by their femininity, their weapons and superpowers as pink and girly as Barbie’s accessories, but as lethal as Rambo with heavy artillery strapped to his bulging chest. ”

Divisiveness of Criticism

However, feminist criticism towards these feminine action heroine attests to the weaponized femininity trope having a “double stake” in simultaneously resisting and reinforcing Mulvey’s active-male/passive-female dichotomy

The degree in which these hyperfeminine heroines are coded as sexually desirable objects sees the trope working in favor of the male gaze, presenting their resistance to female passivity as “erotic spectacle” and turning them into “sexist window-dressing” for male audiences.

The empowerment strategy contained in weaponized femininity also bears likeness to the neoliberal “tropes of freedom and choice” contained in postfeminist ideology. Thus, the trope often takes the form of the depoliticized, market-oriented Girl Power narrative that presents surface-level feminist rhetoric in commercial, apolitical ways.

Zack Snyder’s (Dir. Batman vs. Superman) 2011 film Sucker Punch was subject to criticism for the highly sexualized ways in which its heroines were depicted. Variety’s Peter Debruge called the film “misleadingly positioned as female empowerment despite clearly having been hatched as fantasy fodder for 13-year-old guys.”  

My Argument

As valid as these criticisms are, most of them fail to take into account the influence that female-authorship and female-readership/audience have on the trope’s images. Male agency over these narratives is assumed, and thus depictions of female sexuality constructed by female creators can be conflated with sexual objectification.

Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze specifically notes that these sexist images of women are the products of male production and the privileging of male audiences.

Furthermore, for feminist scholarship on Japanese anime (particularly Sailor Moon), theorists tend to apply strictly Western concepts of gender and feminist theory (such as Girl Power) onto these culturally Eastern narratives. This also ignores the fact that there is a rich history of female authorship to be found in Japanese manga.

I my paper I examine how female authorship and an explicit focus towards female audiences influence depictions of weaponized femininity, which I propose give female characters greater agency, subverts sexual objectification, and reinserts feminist gender politics back into the trope itself.

Weaponized Femininity in Agent Carter 

A significantly female production that centralizes female creative power, giving female-agency over a female-led narrative. Not only was Hayley Atwell integral to to show’s development but she’s an outspoken feminist herself who’s emphasized the political nature of her character.

Additionally, two of the three showrunners are women - Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas.

Agent Carter is also the first series within the Marvel Cinematic Universe to focus on a female heroine, and was also developed out of response to feminist criticism that the Marvel series was sidelining female characters. To this date, this series and Netflix’s Jessica Jones are the only two female-led series to exist.

While Peggy Carter’s role as Captain America first love-interest in the comics was minor, she was expanded on into a supporting role in the film. In the series, her male-authored history is challenged under female-authorship, which gives her the leading role. In this way, you can say that women really reclaimed Peggy as their own!

The show’s 1946 setting sees the trope politicized against post-war sexism and misogyny, at a time when women were being forced back into the home and gender roles were being re-established.

Despite her credentials, Peggy is dismissed by her male peers at the S.S.R., who demote her to secretarial duties and exclude her from field work.

In order to clear the name of her War-friend Howard Stark, Peggy is forced to use her femininity as masquerade in order to navigate institutional sexism and conduct her own investigations.

The show’s emphasis on post-war sexism simultaneously serves to provide a metacommentary on the erasure of women from the comic book industry, which began after men returned from the War and pushed women out of the workforce. This resulted in the cancellation of many superheroine comics and superheroine characters being demoted to either love-interests or minor, unsuper roles.

Similarly, Peggy is dismissed by her male colleagues as nothing but Captain America’s “gal”, and the erasure of women from comics is paralleled via the character Betty Carver, Peggy’s fictionalized counterpart on the radio show “The Captain America Adventure Program,” which demotes her role in Captain America’s story the core and powerful ally he revered to a gushing, damsel-in-distress.

Weaponized Femininity in Sailor Moon 

Created by Naoko Takeuchi, a female manga artist, who created the series specifically for young girls, because she saw a lack of female characters in the male-dominated super sentai (Japanese superhero team) genre.

Is a genre-hybrid of shōjo (manga aimed towards young women), mahō shōjo (magical girl), and super sentai. But falls in the realm of what Japanese psychologist and media scholar Saitō Tamaki calls the “beautiful fighting girl” character.

Takeuchi consistently places the experiences of Japanese girls and young women at the story’s forefront, reflecting shōjo’s history of politicizing girl’s experiences (sexuality, gender, etc.).  

A history of female-authorship exists in manga. Specifically, the “beautiful fighting girl” figure that Sailor Moon represents originates from shōjo.

Around the late 70s and early 80s, a new audience demographic for these stories and the beautiful fighting girl arose ― male otakus, or adult male hyper-fans of anime and manga, who came to sexualize these young female characters.

This resulted in many beautiful fighting girl characters and series to become sexualized in order to appease this audience and their consumer interests (such as anime merchandise).

Japanese Gender Politics

Once a patriarchal structured society, Japan in the early 70s saw a change of gender roles as women were given greater social freedoms, such as the ability to make their own marriage decisions.

However, this resulted in a sense of male anxiety and emasculation, and men began to feel socially disempowered relative to women’s increasing social status.

As Saitō Tamaki notes, this change in gender roles informed a sense of sexual entitlement and fetishization of young girls, who are still relatively bound within Japan’s age-based social system (one which expects conformity from children and prioritizes seniority.  

Thus, the beautiful fighting girl character was “hijacked” from female authors and female audiences because her youthful femininity and fictional nature allowed her to be easily fetishized.

The agency over the narrative allotted by female authorship sees the trope used to subvert the Madonna/whore dichotomy, as Sailor Moon’s power is sourced in her “pureness of heart” and yet, while being a clutzy, crybaby of a teenage girl, she’s allowed to be a sexual being and have ownership over her own desires.  

The very concept of weaponized femininity is also queered through the number of characters who express/engage in non-heterosexual love (the lesbian relationship between Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune) or are depicted as having a fluid gender-identity (Sailor Uranus and the gender-bending Sailor Starlights).

When asked why she included such a non-fetishized depiction of lesbians in the series, Naoko Takeuchi stated, “There’s not only heterosexual love, but there also can be a homosexual love, in this case between two girls.“

So, not only does this queerness work to destabilize the notion of female essentialism in weaponized femininity, but this form of queer representation remains radical even in 2016 Japan, which is still very behind in terms of extending anti-discrimination and marital rights to LGBTQ citizens.

Colours the Sailor Guardians Look Good In That Aren't Their Image Colours:
  • Sailor Moon:Green!! especially light green; maroons and plums; oranges and browns
  • Sailor Mercury:Bright oranges and yellows; cool pinks; black & white; mustards and browns
  • Sailor Mars:Blacks and greys; dark blue; yellow; soft pinks (underutilised)
  • Sailor Jupiter:Maroons; browns, muted (but not pastel) colours; blue grays; white; orange-yellows
  • Sailor Venus:Hot pink; white; black; fresh greens; rich purples; cool reds
  • Sailor Pluto:Pastels (obviously mauve); black; vibrant purples; off-white & cream; golden orange
  • Sailor Neptune:Yellow; subdued pink; white & silver; rich purple
  • Sailor Uranus:Hazel & muted greens; orange-red; silver; dark warm purples
  • Sailor Chibi Moon:All kinds of blue and green; yellow & orange; gold; pastel purples
  • Sailor Saturn:Soft pinks; cool reds; white & creams; bottle green