canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Girls Who Bite Back: Witches, Mutants, Slayers and Freaks
edited by Emily Pohl-Weary
Sumach Press, 2004

Reviewed by Anne Borden

In this new anthology, Emily Pohl-Weary presents the work of emerging North American female artists, writers and critics in speculative fiction (sf), a genre encompassing fantasy and science fiction that publishers are increasingly marketing towards women and girls. To its detriment, Girls Who Bite Back is heavy with banal cultural criticism, but the fiction sections are definitely worth the read.

Some of the collection’s graphic gems include Meagan Crump and Matthew Blackett’s comic riff on gentrification, (The Parkdale 3) and Lisa Smolkin and Sonja Ahlers’ riveting, post-feminist zine art. Fiction by A.M. Dellamonica and Carma Livingstone radically challenges the usual stock characters of sf (teachers, large corporations, mothers, scientists and even superheroines). Larissa Lai’s The Combing is a painful coming of age story that meditates on power, family and the bond between female friends.

Perhaps the strongest story is Kij Johnson’s Myth Girls, a haunting dystopia about life "underground" that is as much a cyberpunk dystopia as it is a straight up story about living on the streets today. If you’re going to stand in the bookstore aisle and read one story, make it Myth Girls.

Candra Gill’s essay Cuz the Black Chick Always Gets it First: Dynamics of Race in Buffy the Vampire Slayer focuses on representations of indigenous cultures and African Americans in the massively popular WB show. Drawing on Samuel L. Delany and Kent Ono’s post-colonial theory, Gill focuses on the life and death of Willow and other African American characters as only an exacerbated fan could – at once harshly critical and yet cautiously hopeful that new, more liberated characters will emerge. Likewise, fan Nikki Stafford looks at "the comic book origins of TV’s superheroines," offering a media savvy take on television writing and representations of superheroines from Wonder Woman to Xena.

With a few exceptions, however, the book’s cultural criticism is mostly uninspiring – not unlike a stack of C-grade Women’s Studies 101 essays. Many essay titles are red-flagged with first person pronouns ("Buffy, Angelina and Me," "The Cyborg, The Alien and Me," "My Quest for a Female Action Hero") and Pohl-Weary’s pen was not strong enough to edit out obvious gaffes (e.g., "This was the era of World War II and propaganda, a time when it was clear who was the enemy and who was an ally" or "From early childhood, we learn to see ourselves and be seen, as we form our sense of self. In our society, identity so often is ill-defined by consumer choices"). There’s some great new information about the history of comics in these essays, but it’s mostly lost.

Also, much of the writing comes across as unconfident, undermining the empowerment model that has vaulted the best female talent in the genre. "Nobody listened to me," is not a compelling refrain for an emerging writer, and too much energy is wasted in defensive posturing against male-dominated comic culture. Most sf readers want work that actually takes risks with gender, as evidenced by the popularity of Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavio Butler, Delany and Ann Rice.

The most compelling and popular sf artists and critics are of course undistracted by the so-called sex war - they’re busy making great work, and if it happens to destabilize dominant notions of gender, well then so much the better. The edgiest fiction in Girls Who Bite Back is at once evocative and challenging, fiercely re-presenting gender, class and the politics of power with a creative fury that bites. In the good sense of the word.

Anne Borden lives in Toronto, where she works as a writer and editor.







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