I’m broadly sympathetic to celebrating the power and range of audience productions of culture and to Henry Jenkins‘ arguments about convergence culture and about reading the total range of textual production around a cultural property.
Sometimes Jenkins gets carried away: I don’t think consuming the totality of productive work around The Matrix rescues the second two films, to mention one somewhat infamous example of his tendency to argue that paratext and metatext inevitably or commonly elevate the richness and value of cultural production. In fact, the wider range of Matrix-work has frequently been just as wretched or pretentious or half-baked as the two sequels were.
I was thinking about this issue tonight because my daughter has a Halloween-costume request that I felt sure would be easily served through standard commercial channels. She wants to be one of the female X-Men, partly because she’s been watching the more kid-friendly X-Men animated series X-Men Evolution.
So I know my X-Men pretty well, though I took a long hiatus from reading their books during much of the ghastly 1990s and really only dialed back in somewhat during Grant Morrison’s run on the title. My daughter’s favorite character, unsurprisingly, is Kitty Pryde. I pointed out that over her lifespan as a character, she’s mostly known for having hilariously bad costumes. I offered to see if we could find the somewhat standard-issue black leotard with yellow overlay that a lot of the X-Men have worn at times and some wear on the cartoon show. Rejected. I showed her pictures of other Kitty/Shadowcat costumes. Agreement that they’re pretty horrible, she’s less committed to Kitty Pryde.
So we move on to Rogue. Daughter loves the more recent Rogue costume, the green-and-white one with a hood. I take note, but suspect that’s going to be a cosplay-only sort of thing. Maybe the older green-and-yellow thing with the headband. I show her some Phoenix costumes, she grudgingly allows that these might be ok.
So I sit down afterward to do a bit of searching. Here’s what I find as far as standard commercial outfits. If you’re female and a kid and you want to be a superhero, you’re basically out of luck unless Wonder Woman is your favorite.
Well, not quite. You can be an X-Man, it turns out. You can be Emma Frost. Well, not the usual slutty Emma Frost outfit if you get the kid version, just, well, it looks like a slightly repurposed angel costume. If you’re a tween and up, though? You can go full-slutty Emma Frost. I don’t even think she appears in the Evolution show. If she did, I doubt she’d be the kind of character a pre-teen girl would love to dress up as. Heck, even given her more heroic turn in recent years, she doesn’t exactly scream out “role model for young girls”.
So. What else? There’s still a few Teen Titans costumes out there, but she was the cartoon version of Raven last year. Most Batgirl, Catwoman, Supergirl costumes are for teens or adults or have a much more sexualized look. (There’s a Catwoman costume for girls based on Halle Berry’s fetish-style costume from the film. WTF?) There’s a Girl Captain America. There’s Pink Spider-Girl.
About the only one that I think is kind of ok besides the Raven costume that she’s worn already is Violet from The Incredibles. Or she could be a female Green Lantern, I guess. These suggestions are shut down immediately.
So I start to think about making a green Phoenix outfit, which seems a bit easier to contemplate than the Rogue-with-green-hood outfit. A green leotard as a starter seems doable. Then I start searching for yellow vinyl boots and gloves and end up pretty much right away at lingerie-and-naughtier web sites. Time to put this aside for a bit and figure out how much work I’m going to do here. (There’s cosplayers selling outfits but they’re adult sized and mucho money, as they should be.)
To go back to where I started, though, this is where you start to see how much some subsidiary systems of cultural production are curiously impoverished when it comes to standard commodities that align with the readings and desires that various pop-culture audiences can produce.
Yes, I know full well that the superhero genre comes into the game with all sorts of hugely sexist preloading. I mean, I started throwing out other female superheroes to my daughter to see what else might work, and I had to bite my tongue on most of them just in case she agreed: Zatanna? Black Canary? Um, no. I don’t really want to start googling for sites that sell pre-teen-sized fishnet stockings, thanks very much.
I really do think that women and girls who read comics make much more out of them than what the source text ostensibly provides. I think that kind of work happens in all media, with all texts. It’s just that the whole system is a series of funhouse mirrors: an audience makes the text richer and then turns to look for some other product which will echo or redouble the work they’ve done, only to find most secondary commodity systems even more impoverished and threadbare. Or, as in this case, they find the sexist content of the core properties is hugely amplified. (It doesn’t help that the sexualization of Halloween has gone from being one dimension or angle of adult participation to being pretty much the only commodified approach available to women. At this point, if you’re a woman and you don’t want to be “Whore Nurse”, you’re pretty much going to be making a concept-costume for yourself.)
Whatever the political and social significance of that amplification, I can’t also help but feel that it’s also a lost business opportunity. I don’t know that there’s that many girls my daughter’s age who want to dress up as Rogue, but surely there’s enough who don’t want to be “Pink Female Captain America” for there to be a payoff to manufacturing some slightly more expensive superheroine costumes.