Tough Girls.(Review) / (book review)
Author/s: Adrienne L. Mclean
Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture By Sherrie A. Inness. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. $19.95 paper; $47.50 cloth.
In Tough Girls, Sherrie Inness considers the relative toughness of women in a wide range of popular culture texts and forms: television shows like Charlie's Angels, The Avengers, The Bionic Woman, The X-Files, and Xena, Warrior Princess; films like the Alien and Terminator cycles, Thelma & Louise, Tank Girl, Silence of the Lambs; women's magazines; comic books. Inness contends that how tough women "are depicted in the media has become an important issue in recent years because they are being depicted more frequently than in past decades" (4), and that "popular media are still deeply ambivalent about how to depict tough women so that they do not challenge gender conventions too dramatically" (5). Both of these statements (which are repeated, with little variation or development, throughout the book) are true, but they are not news. No scholar of popular culture who's been paying attention to the work of his or her cohorts over the past ten-plus years should expect the mass media to be anything but "deeply ambivalent" about issues of identity politics, and Inness's failure to produce a nuanced and careful argument, or even a solid definition of toughness itself, reduces the book's usefulness considerably.
In her first chapter, for example, Inness writes that she does not think of the contestants in a televised Miss Fitness America contest as tough, because she "recognizes" that "despite their bulging muscles and buns of steel, they looked stereotypically feminine in all other respects" (12). Later, however, Inness quotes Judith Butler in order to make the case that "any subject who presents an effective performance of toughness can be tough, despite the body's sex" (22). And, when she turns to Xena, Warrior Princess--the subject of her penultimate chapter, and the most "progressive" representation she finds of tough women on television--Inness simply asserts that while "stressing Xena's beauty, the program also highlights her sexual desirability, which, amazingly, the show manages to do without compromising her toughness" (174). How does Xena manage amazingly to do this? By being "self-reflexive," according to Inness, and therefore not only "at odds with more traditional television shows" but with television itself. The evidence Inness produces that television is "typically not self-reflexive" (170) is a quotation from a 1989 article (by Larry Gross), thus leaving aside not only the virtually constant barrage of self-reflexivity that commercial television has been emitting for most of the past ten years but also an enormous and important body of scholarly work exploring it. To Inness, it's enough to say that even though Xena looks like a "chick in a brass bra," she's really "satirizing" that convention (171), and that this makes Xena tough as opposed to the "pseudo-toughness" of Emma Peel in The Avengers or the angels of Charlie's Angels, because they produced only a "paradoxical" message that "helped to reaffirm stereotypes about the sexuality and femininity of women, attributes that worked to diminish the impact of the women's toughness" (49).
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