Table of Contents
2. Conceptual overview
2.1. Judith Butler’s cornerstones of gender studies
2.2. A masculinist reading of the superhero genre
2.2.1. The origin story
2.2.2. Dual identities
2.2.3. The role as protector and savior
2.3. First conclusions and an updated research premise
3. Analyzing Kick-Ass
3.1. Kick-Ass ’ metafictive origin story
3.2. Differentiating dual identities, gender performance and hypermasculinity
3.3. Deconstructing the status of the patriarchal protector
3.4. Kick-Ass ’ mission and the narrative ending
3.5. Significant differences between the comics and films
6. Illustration directory
Towards the end of the most recent Superman film Man of Steel (2013) Supermanis confronted by two soldiers — a high ranking male officer and a female subordinate —after destroying a surveillance satellite. Ultimately, the man gives in to Superman’sargumentation as the superior male, while the woman simply bows to his super-attractiveness. Roughly seventy-five years after Superman’s invention in 1938 as “theultimate power fantasy” for American men (Sabin 1996: 57), whose virility struggledunder the socio-economic situation, his role still seems to indicate the idealization of thestrong, potent male. This example supports what numerous scholars agree upon: To thisday superhero stories “most often depict characters who typify conventional gendernorms” (Behm-Morawitz/Pennell 2013: 75), with the traditionally male heroes denoting amasculinist structure (Adamou 2011: 94, Kaklamandiou 2011: 62). In times of changinggender norms and a steeply increasing interest in superhero stories, the unchangedmasculinist structure in contemporary genre representatives becomes more apparent than ever.
This paper will examine how the subversive agenda of the superhero story Kick-Ass unmasks the masculinist nature of the very characteristics that define the superhero genre and how Kick-Ass deconstructs them by offering self-aware alternatives. To do so this paper will first recapitulate essential signposts of the terminology of gender studies and propose a masculinist reading of defining superhero motifs, before confronting this groundwork with the primary texts.
2. Conceptual overview
2.1. Judith Butler’s cornerstones of gender studies
Due to limited space and time, this paper will base solely on the essential ideas put forward by Judith Butler in her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), which stand mostly unchallenged and defining for the field to this day. It should be noted that under a consideration of more theories all claims made in this paper would have to be more thoroughly scrutinized.
Judith Butler’s essential claim is the deconstruction of binary structures betweenthe biological sex and the culturally constructed gender1. She argues that gender is not pre-discursively predetermined by a person’s birth through his sex, nor consequently inherentor stable in his or her personality, but a cultural construction (Butler 1990: 10f). Since thisconstruction is constituted in a certain time and culture, it is constantly subject to changeand redefinition. The construction of idealized masculinity that has been pervasive for mostpart of the 20th century and still partly is today traditionally includes heteronormativity —excluding homosexual, bisexual or transsexual desires —, as well as characteristics such asphysical strength, self-confidence, courage, leadership-qualities, aggressiveness, power,emotional reservation and taking action (Roblou 2012: 77, Adamou 2011: 98, Brown 1999:26f, Kimmel 1996: 83-112). Contrary characteristics are commonly considered unmanly,since they do not fit this ideal and rather define the opposite “Other”, namely femininityand homosexuality. According to Butler, the acceptance of gender as a construct ultimatelyleads to the deconstruction of its binary structure — which ascribes a specific sex onespecific gender — and gender becomes a “free-floating artifice” (Butler 1990: 11).
Consequently, a person does not have a certain gender, but performs according toone through gendered words, gestures, or simply enactments. From a theoreticalstandpoint, the concept of “enactments” alone denaturalizes the distinction between sexand gender and therefore foregrounds “the cultural mechanism of fabricated unity” (175).Yet, enactments of gender are always re-enactments, that “effectively constitute theidentity they are said to express” (180). Wether or not a person performs according to aconstruct of gender or not, he or she cannot prevent “acquiring” any kind of genderthrough this performance.
Gender identity is produced “along culturally intelligible grids of an idealized andcompulsory heterosexuality” (172) ignoring the fact that gender coherence is as much afictive construction as gender itself. Yet, most people desire gender coherence, meaningthat they wish to comply to the gendered identity that the society they live in hasconstructed (178f) and do so by confirmative performance. In terms of masculinity, thisintentional over-performing of constructed, stereotypical norms is called hypermasculinity,often used to conceal shortcomings in comparison to the idealized construct. Since genderperformance must be repeated to maintain a gender, hypermasculinity always occurs under the constant stress to comply. Yet, ever achieving ideal masculinity is as much an impossible fiction as the notion of “true gender” in general (177f).
In short, gender is not inherent, but a social construct that is achieved and consistently maintained through performance. Rendering heteronormative masculinity a social myth does not free many men from the compulsory pressure to comply to it and create hypermasculine, performative masks to cover a true identity between the binaries of gender. The concepts of gender construction, gender performance and hypermasculinity will built the focus of this paper’s analysis.
2.2. A masculinist reading of the superhero genre
Like heroic myths, protagonists whose abilities exceed those of others have existedfor “as long as there has been human communication” (Fingeroth 2004: 37)2. With theinvention of Superman in 1938, the genre of the modern superhero and its defining motifsbegan to conventionalize. However, to this day scholar disagree on which essentialparadigms define the superhero syntax. Besides, genres and defining tropes are alwayssubject to cultural and temporal change3. Among the most commonly considered definingtropes are superhero physics, selflessness, dual identity, costume, name, villains, sidekicks,and an origin story (Packer 2010: 41, 77f; Coogan 2006: 30-39). Due to its limited scopethis paper will not be able to analyze even all of the most promising parameters of thesuperhero genre in regards to a possibly intrinsic masculinist reading. It will thereforeconcentrate on three — the superhero’s origin story, his dual identity and his status as savior inside the plot4 — to hopefully understand part of the traditional genre framework against which Kick-Ass can be read.
2.2.1. The origin story
The origin story tells the superhero’s “transformation from ordinary person to superhero” (Coogan 2006: 30). The dictionary definition suggests that the decisive incident is the obtaining of powers — for example a spider bite for Spiderman —, yet this only retells how an ordinary person came to be a less ordinary person with powers. Important for a superhero’s origin story is his character transformation: What triggered his decision to dedicate his life to becoming and being a superhero?
Most origin stories center around some sort of trauma. Often, they are orphans,suffering from two paradoxical guilts: having survived and having been unable to offersufficient protection (Fingeroth 2004: 65f). Prime examples are Bruce Wayne alias Batmanand Matt Murdock alias Daredevil. Under a masculinist scope, the boys’ feelings ofineptitude directly mirror feelings of inferiority in comparison to the ideal of the powerful,protective male taking action (see 2.1). This existential crisis is no coincidence: “Trauma isby definition devastating to one’s […] sense of stability” (Fingeroth 2004: 67), includingan unstable sense of gender identity. Becoming a superhero becomes a means tocompensate for the ever-lasting wound that constantly compromises the possibility ofachieving the masculinist ideal. While the human self encapsulates and secludes thepathological instability, the superhero self expressively performs its hypermasculine opposite5, which becomes the superheroes’ prime stimulus to put on the mask (Fingeroth2004: 50).
Angst and marginalization conventionally function as other trauma-like triggers insuperhero origin stories (Adamou 2011: 99), the best example being shy Peter Parker, whoturns into the courageous Spider-Man. As a stereotypical introverted adolescent, Peter isdesperately in love with girls that only show interest in the obvious personification of idealmasculinity: good-looking, aggressive Flash Thompson, who, in turn, consistently bulliesPeter. After Peter receives his superpowers, he initially uses them to become a professionalwrestler and buy a car (Packer 2010: 239). While the latter can be identified asintentionally correcting Peter’s unmasculine outward appearance, the former is intended toenhance Peter’s masculine performability.
An origin story, however, does not end with the traumatic trigger. Becoming a herois only completed with the decision to use them heroically. The points of argument in thischapter have so far stood in arguable contrast to Coogan’s claim that “superhero originstories tell of selfish boys made into selfless men” (Coogan 2006: 24). Yet, numerousexamples validate it. Among them, also Peter Parker ultimately uses his powers to protectNew York. When deliberately reading superhero stories as masculinist, their stereotypicallyconsidered feminine helpfulness and selflessness on the one side regularly stand in directopposition to their hypermasculine motivation and their honor and status as potentprotectors on the other side.
2.2.2. Dual identities
The previous chapter has already touched on the defining convention of the dualidentity (Kaklamanidou 2011: 63, Coogan 2006: 39, Fingeroth 2004: 49) — consisting ofthe superhero and the civilian self. Keeping their identity a secret primarily serves narrativemeans: maintaining a normal life, having a job, earning money, protecting loved ones and,ultimately, generating suspense (Fingeroth 2004: 52, Burns/Morris 2013: 146). Thesuperhero identity serves as an intentionally performative function offering anintrospection into the split nature of superheroes as men in modern society (Wandtke 2012:62).
Like all modern men, superheroes are under the constant pressure to comply andperform according to the masculinist ideal, since gender has to be consistently re-achieved.Additionally, their angst and anxieties are usually not resolved but continue. To concealtheir insecurities the superhero self consistently performs enactments of courage andconfidence that classify as extremely masculine, stabilizing hypermasculinity. Mask andcostume function as signifiers of the superhero’s hypermasculine performance. Sincesuperheroes can don and down the mask as they please, Jeffrey A. Brown and Sharon Packer explicitly call it a “masquerade”, highlighting implications of its orchestration and an underlying split personality (Brown 1999: 25/Packer 2010: 135)6 Bruce Wayne is an excellent example of hypermasculinity, since he not only performs the role of the vigilante Batman, but also that of the billionaire play-boy to conceal his trauma (Bainbridge 2009:71)7. Another example from Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986) is Night Owl, who needs toperform in his costume to boost his masculinist self-image in order to get an erection(Packer 2010: 192)8.
In the context of hegemonic masculinity and hypermasculine correction, dualidentities ultimately raise the question of the “true self”: Which self authentically portraysthe character’s true gender identity, and which is the alter ego? Following the interpretationof the superhero identity as a hypermasculine performance, the super self would have to beconsidered the false face, evolved out of deficient masculinity and performed to hide it.Yet, many theorists offer a different solution: As one of them, Sharon Packer claims thatthis “conundrum” is defining to the superhero story (Packer 2010: 134) and comes to theconclusion that there is no such thing as one “true identity”, because both selves can only convey the character together9 (Brown 1999: 32, Packer 2010: 135). However, Packerbuilds on this point to state that superhero stories suggest something else entirely, namelythat the superhero self is the real self, that it is intrinsic to every man’s personality, yet deeply hidden, and that the superhero mask enables one to masculine performances one was always capable of.
As in the previous one, the arguments in this chapter have demonstrated that superhero stories proclaim stereotypically constructed masculinity not only as every man’s personal ideal to be aspired to, but also as every man’s essential gender identity.
2.2.3. The role as protector and savior
When scholars agree that superhero stories tend to be “formulaic” (Rosenberg2013: 5, Packer 2010: 238, Behm-Morawitz/Pennell 2013: 74), they regularly refer to thesuperhero’s status as a protector, who ultimately “saves the day”. This role manifests the patriarchal context of superhero stories, which becomes especially apparent in the superhero’s relationships to villains and female characters.
Male superheroes do not only perform “strength and heroism that exemplify themasculine role of the protector and fearless leader” (Behm-Morawitz/Pennell 2013: 75),their stories also purport the role of the man as savior of society (Wandtke 2012: 50). Sincethe conventional appearance of a villain inevitably threatens the social order at present(Packer 2010: 41), villains are figures of progress making superheroes agents of the statusquo that fight to preserve existing power relationships10. In a gendered context,superheroes fight to maintain the conservative construct of hegemonic masculinity, whiletheir stories denote that the current gender norms are the right ones that need to bedefended (Coogan 2006: 237). Consequently, superhero stories conservatively support retributive justice11 and omit practices of restorative justice, that base on truth-telling,reflecting and conversation, usually associated with femininity rather than masculineauthority (Lyubansky 2013: 192)12.
Unlike the deeply traumatized, yet active men, women in superhero stories seldomleave the role of narrative signifiers of passivity, following hegemonic gender standards(Adamou 2011: 103). Even the contemporary interpretations of female love interests, suchas May Jane Watson, Lois Lane and Rachel Dawes, “still perpetuate the myth of the strongmale and the weak female” (Kaklamanidou 2011: 62). Since male superheroes occupy theposition of the patriarchal savior, women are left with the role of the damsel in distress thatneeds to be rescued by the superhero (Behm-Morawitz/Pennell 2013: 75, Wandtke 2012:63). In addition, the damsel in distress ultimately leads to the classic dilemma of allsuperhero stories: having to choose between saving loved ones and saving society,classically demonstrated at the end Sam Riami’s Spider-Man (2002).
Eventually, relationships with women and marriage — as a means of narrativeclosure (Mulvey 1981) — confront the superhero with the terminal classic dilemma. Since the superhero usually has to quit his superhero identity in order to live a married life, hehas to chose between love and duty. In addition, marriage potentially offers a relief for thetraumatic wound and replaces the need for the superhero identity as hypermasculineperformance. Yet, it rarely comes to that. The fact that “superheroes never move toward aparticular conclusion” (Wandtke 2012: 40) includes the significant avoidance of marriage.Following influential film theorist Laura Mulvey, who interprets the rejection of marriageas strongly narcissistic (Mulvey 1981), this strongly challenges the superhero’s presumedselfless mission as a defining characteristic of the superhero genre (Coogan 2006: 24, see 2.2.1.). Therefore, superheroes avoid marriage, because they cannot suffice without theirsuperhero identity as hypermasculine compensation. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) offers a very illustrative example. After Bruce Wayne tells Rachel Dawes that theycan be together once “Gotham no longer needs Batman”, she asks him in return whetherthe day will ever come that he “no longer needs Batman”. Respectively, in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Bruce Wayne can literally not walk without a crutch, after having quithis superhero identity.
2.3. First conclusions and an updated research premise
After a recapitulation of gender and the defining motifs of male superheroes, this chapter supports the following thesis:
In particular, male superhero characters fill stereotypical genderroles that epitomize idealizations of masculinity. Male superheroesare constructed in ways that emphasize strength and power to aheightened superhuman degree that speaks to Western ideas aboutmasculinity and manhood. (Behm-Morawitz/Pennell 2013: 75)
Regularly, superhero identities are born out of trauma — which often inclines the trauma of deficit masculinity — and used as a performative means of hypermasculine compensation. Superhero stories emphasize the possible success of such a strategy to connect to the essential, ideally superheroic “true self” in every man. This message as well as male superheroes’ role as protectors, which they are forced to perform, serve and manifest patriarchal gender norms.
Since Superman “set the standard for the scores of superheroes thatfollowed” (Roblou 2012: 77), superheroes have supported the myth of hegemonic masculinity13. Yet, all slightly differ, including their masculine readings. As a result, thispaper will look at a metafictive superhero text to focus only on those characteristics of thegenre that have been conventionalized with their masculinist connotation to a degree thatclassifies them as defining structural motives to the superhero genre. The goal is to answerthe following question: How does a contemporary text expose the intrinsically masculinistmeaning to the superhero genre, by offering alternative versions of a traumatic origin story,the hypermasculine concept of dual identity and the superhero’s patriarchal status asprotector? Since the topic arose multiple times, this paper’s analysis will also examinewhat solutions these texts offer to the tension between the superhero’s hypermasculinemotivation and his selfless mission.
3. Analyzing Kick-Ass
Kick-Ass 14 was created by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. in 2008 and has sinceappeared in four comics and two film adaptations. Wether it can be considered a parody ofthe superhero genre remains arguable. In any case, it clearly operates within theintertextual discourse by mocking and eviscerating superhero tropes and “transcendinggeneric, mythic or structural patterns of [super]heroic development in a self-reflexive andmetafictive call” (Schumaker 2011: 130). This sufficiently predestines Kick-Ass for adeeper analysis of the intrinsically masculinist tropes, which this paper has concentratedon, and an examination of how they are revealed and deconstructed. This will include acomparison between the Kick-Ass comics and their filmic adaptations.
3.1. Kick-Ass’ metafictive origin story
Kick-Ass (2010) tells the story, how high school student and superhero enthusiastDave Lizewski creates the superhero identity Kick-Ass and how he comes to fight crime.
By making him a comic book reader, creators Millar and Romita Jr. pave the way for a metafictive reading and a subversive deconstruction of masculine genre tropes15: As a superhero fan, Dave should be more likely to adopt traditional gender beliefs, yet, emulating superheroes offers the chance to replay and negotiate gender attitudes in superhero texts at the same time, ultimately enriching the complex relationships between superheroes and masculinity (Behm-Morawitz/Pennell 2013: 83ff).
Kick-Ass breaks the conventional superhero tradition of an origin story grounded inthe obtaining of superpowers and traumatic suffering, since Dave has neither. Exemplary,his mother dies of an aneurysm, illustrating the death’s normality and Dave’s non-stereotypical status as a normal kid (ill.3). Dave — in his function as the narrating I —even self-reflectively stresses that it does not “take a trauma to make you wear amask” (Millar/Romita Jr. 2010) and therefore “continues to position himself against thestalwarts of the genre” (Schumaker 2011: 139). Nevertheless, Dave suffers from adolescentanxiety, bullying, a low position in the social hierarchy and being over-looked by girls formore masculine competitors. By identifying the “combination of loneliness anddespair” (Millar/Romita Jr. 2010) as decisive triggers of the motivation to be a superhero,Dave hints on the quasi-traumatic motivation of angst. Other quotes reflect this: “All thosecomic-book movies and television shows, you’d think at least one eccentric loner would have stitched himself a costume [16 ] ” (Millar/Romita Jr. 2010).
Besides highlighting “the loner” as prone to develop a superhero identity, theprevious quote underlines Kick-Ass ’ emphasis of the superhero role-model frompreexisting media representations. “The story of superheroes has always been a wish-fulfilling fantasy for young men” (Brown 1999: 32) that largely identify with superheroes. Following Laura Mulvey’s discussion on male identification in cinema17, superhero stories present a character that “can make things happen and control events better than the […]spectator” (Mulvey 1999: 838). By identifying himself with the film — or possibly comic— hero, the male spectator temporarily loses his own ego, and has the possibility to mergewith “the more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego” (838). Kick-Ass doublesthis traditional effect: For the diegetic Dave being a fan of masculine superheroes becomes an “entrée into a version of [himself] that is extremely appealing”18 (Fingeroth 2004: 67). For the non-diegetic reader, on the other hand, identifying with the rather non-masculine superhero fan Dave Lizewski challenges the usual identification mechanism of superhero fans. The alternative — identifying with a weak boy that develops strength and courage out of completely individual initiative inspired by superheroes — simultaneously offers a alternative ideal of masculinity and deconstructs hypermasculinity.
However, Dave’s superhero inspiration and his traumatic anxiety are not the onlytriggers for a superhero identity presented in Kick-Ass. Another is selfless devotion.According to most scholars, such a “mission” (Coogan 2006: 30f) is decisive in mostsuperhero stories (see 2.2.1). The fact that Dave has neither significant powers to beginwith, nor a traumatic incident in his past emphasizes the selfless choice to do good.Metafictive comments by the narrator, as well as other character’s origin stories do thesame: For example, Dave considers it an essential rule of being a superhero to “neverignore a cry for help” (Millar/Romita Jr. 2014). Additionally, fellow superhero ColonelStars and Stripes, who appears in Kick-Ass 2 (2013) , is ex-mafia and a born-again Christianwith no evident feelings of deficit masculinity or need for compensation. This point is evencarried to extremes, when Dave’s friend Marty invents a traumatic origin story, because hethinks it essential to fit into a group of superheroes, before the Colonel tells him, that thedevotion to do good suffices. Hence, deciding to become a superhero is characterized asborn out of social selflessness — and therefore a motivation that is usually characterized as feminine.
While invalidating the trauma as a necessary trigger for superhero identity, Kick- Ass offers multiple alternatives: compensation for loneliness, adolescent desperation,escapism of boredom and most importantly selfless dedication. Kick-Ass 3 (2014) raisesquestions of obsession. At some point, all of them are self-reflectively scrutinized.Conclusively, Kick-Ass deconstructs the conventional masculinist origin story by
1 Yet, Butler stresses that sex itself is never pre-discursive, but constructed and always gendered (Butler1990: 11).
2 Many scholars recapitulate the predecessors of the modern superhero, from ancient myth to the pulp genre (Fingeroth 2004: 37-45; Packer 2010: 52, Kaklamanidou 2011: 62, Sabin 57).
3 A more critical discussion of the term genre and its defining motifs can not be included in this paper for spacial reasons. Texts by theorist Steve Neale might offer as base for a more thorough discussion of genre.
4 The most notable parameters that have to be omitted are the superhero body and his costume. A deeper analysis of the former could examine the iconography of the superhero body as a signifier for power and masculinity (Brown 1999: 27f), while an analysis of the later gives rise to the question how far spandex or leather compromise the superheroes masculinity as constituted by the male body (Roblou 2012: 83).
5 Even Superman, initially the “ideal of perfection”, was in the 1960’s reinterpreted to become imperfect — precisely, orphaned — fitting this image (Packer 2010: 236f).
6 Even Superman, initially the “ideal of perfection”, was in the 1960’s reinterpreted to become imperfect — precisely, orphaned — fitting this image (Packer 2010: 236f). This line of argument directly leads back to Judith Butler’s discussion of “drag” and might produce a follow-up discussion concerning how far superhero costumes classify as drag and therefore mock “both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity” (Butler 1990: 174f).
7 This example suggest a more fruitful interpretation of superheroes’ dual identities along the lines of the role theory (Burns/Morris 2013: 153).
8 Watchmen is a very metafictive superhero story. The scene of Night Owl’s failure to sexually perform is juxtaposed with a TV-coverage of fellow superhero Ozymandias’ confident, athletic performance at the highbar (ill.1).
9 This claim mirrors Judith Butler’s deconstruction of true gender identity and binary gender conception (see
10 A panel from Batman: Absolution might serve as a self-reflective, illustrative example to this theory (ill.2).
11 That evil strictly had to lose and be punished, was enforced by “The Comic Code”, a censoring law intact since the 1950’s. Yet, by the late 1980’s superhero stories like Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986) and Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), as well as, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) offered alternative endings. For more information on The Comic Code, how it came to be passed and its catastrophic effect on the comic book industry, read: Wandtke 2012: 68; Sabin 1996: 68; Packer 2010: 37.
12 This is especially true for male superheroes. Significantly, Wonder Woman’s primary weapon of choice is the “lasso of truth”. Lyubansky almost naturally imagines a “truly restorative superhero” being a woman: “Let’s call her Empathy” (Lyubansky 2013: 195).
13 Thinking about the invention of Superman as the “fantasy super-savior of 1938 America” (Packer 2010: 131) and the authorial function of the Comic Code in the 1950’s (see 2.2.3.) the term myth can be understood as Roland Barthes defines it.
14 If not signaled by publication dates, the cursive spelling Kick-Ass will refer to the narrative as a whole, while the non-cursive spelling will refer to the character.
15 Interestingly, Kick-Ass does not tell the first origin story, in which a superhero enthusiast becomes a superhero. In Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s “Superman: Secret Identity” (2004), Clarke Kent is a high school student and superhero fan named after Superman, who one day realizes that he has the same powers as his superheroic namesake.
16 Interestingly, for Dave, having a costume is a key characteristic of being a superhero. In all Kick-Ass stories, the costume takes up a very important role, both as primary signifier and performative enhancement.
17 Laura Mulvey has made ground-breaking contribution to the analysis of visual media with the scope of gender studies, especially “demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film norm” (1999: 833), since Hollywood films are mostly made by men for a mostly male audience and therefore center around male protagonists. In talking about the process of identification in cinema Mulvey takes up Butler’s notion of the impossibility and the duress to comply to heteronormative, idealized masculinity. Since comics are — at least partly — a visual media, and since superhero stories have seeped into film since the late 1970’s, Mulvey’s claims to cinema should also by applicable to comics.
18 It should not be omitted, that Kick-Ass declares the sheer fun of being a superhero as a prime motivation as well, especially in the beginning.
- Quote paper
- Matthias Kreuter (Author), 2016, How Kick-Ass deconstructs the Masculinist reading of the Superhero Genre, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/424276