POISE, Miss Lane! Super-Femininity in U.S. Comic Books in the 1940s and 1950s

in Bodies in Flux
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Abstract

During the 1950s, comic book series emerged in the US that specifically targeted teenage girls. Filled with the adventures and mishaps of female superheroes and starlets chasing fame, they taught teenage girls that their super powers consisted of proper body posture, flirting with men, and the knowledge of how to dress and apply make-up. Some of the comics presented women with super powers, reflecting on ideas of the posthuman, overcoming not only bodily limitations but also those presented by the gender binary. Other narratives followed a regular girl on the quest for stardom in dreamy places such as Los Angeles or New York City. Propagating conservative ideas on proper body weight and form, these publications intended to teach girls to take care of their bodies though exercise (in high heels and sexy leotards) and extensive grooming. But the texts also undermined cultural narratives of 1950s femininity by suggesting to girls careers beyond motherhood and domesticity, and the promise that they can save the world, too. Within the constraints of proper conduct (encompassing chastity, a strong work ethic, and obedience to superiors and elders) the young protagonists of girls’ comic books do not spend their time in the kitchen, but in fights, restaurants, in gyms and beauty parlors. The comics, while promoting the need to find husbands, also suggested to girls the value of ambition, financial and social independence, and self-care before the care for others.

This chapter explores the texts’ messages about the health, well-being, and desirable appearance of the female body, focusing on sexuality, weight management, and dietary and beauty regimens. The texts are mostly conservative in their views of the female body and teach the readers to objectify themselves, as women’s bodies appear as constantly scrutinized. But I suggest that their appeal for their readers’ care of self or super-human strength, points beyond an understanding of the female body as a sum of its reproductive functions, and therewith to a proto-feminist understanding of the female body.