Anna Peppard discusses pop culture studies and her book Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero

"...Twenty years ago, when the first X-Men movie came out, it was still considered risky to take superheroes “seriously,” and market them to adults as well as kids and teens. Now, you almost can’t be a major player in the entertainment industry without a superhero property; every network, big movie studio, and steaming service is investing in superheroes..."
Anna Peppard

Dr. Anna Peppard is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellow in the department of Communication, Popular Culture, and Film at Brock University. (While she is based in Ontario Canada, she claims to have no knowledge of the vigilante known has the Mighty Moose.) Much of her research centers on representations of race, gender, and sexuality in popular media. She is also the co-host for the podcasts Three Panel Contrast and The Oh Gosh, Oh Golly, Oh Wow! Podcast. Her most recent publication is the book, Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero. Wanting to learn more about her career and Supersex, I was able to interview her for ScifiPulse.

You can learn more about Peppard by following her on Twitter at @peppard_anna.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what pop culture franchises were you a fan of? Are there any that still make you feel young?

Anna Peppard: When I was very young, in the pre-internet, pre-DVD era, we had about five TV channels and no VCR, so my options for consuming pop culture franchises was relatively limited. I read a lot of books, though, and always gravitated toward action-adventure—anything with Robin Hood or King Arthur, that was my jam. The one TV franchise that obsessed me as a kid was the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. I was very invested in the history and mythology, but the episodes seldom aired in order—that infuriated me. One day, Krang and the Technodrome would be marooned in Dimension X, and the next day, it would kick back to the origin episode. I’m sure my completist tendencies regarding superhero comics—including my insatiable need to read every single appearance of my favorite characters—extend, in part, from that early frustration. When I was older (between twelve and thirteen), Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman became my main pop obsession.

In Supersex, I revisit Lois & Clark within the historical context of the postfeminist 1990s, and reflect on the ways it shaped everything from my view of adult relationships to my methods of consuming and critiquing superheroes; to this day, my favorite superhero stories feature heavy helpings of romance. The TMNT cartoon makes me feel incredibly old, because re-watching it as an adult, it was immediately obvious that the epic emotional landscapes I remember were largely products of my childhood imagination; my kid brain made it into something way bigger and better than it is. But superheroes can still make me feel, if not “young” per se, then definitely joyful and optimistic in a youthful way. Each time I fall in love with a superhero story, the world seems full of beautiful possibilities, just like those best moments from childhood.

Yanes: As a fellow academic, I am aware that many scholars are researching popular culture. Why do you think this field has grown so quickly?

Peppard: Pop culture studies has grown in fits and starts. There was a surge of pop culture scholarship in the 80s and early 90s, then a bit of a lull, followed by another explosion in the 21st century. I don’t think there’s any single explanation for this, but the internet is a huge factor in the most recent explosion. This is true for at least a couple of reasons: first, because the internet has pop-ified our existence in various ways (the meme-ification of politics being an obvious example), and second, because the type of research people like me do, which involves analyzing old television and comic books, was so much harder before the rise of digital culture. If you were writing about Marvel comics back in the 90s, your research often depended on you painstakingly collecting hard-to-find physical issues.

In contrast, when I wrote a dissertation on Marvel comics in the 2010s, I was able to access digital collections of virtually every Marvel comic ever published (some obtained legally, some illegally—but it was all for a good cause!). For comics studies, at least, the internet has basically unlocked huge vaults of historical content. But it’s not just a matter of technological determinism, of course. The superhero blockbuster era has compelled more scholars to (re)evaluate the contemporary relevance of superhero stories; that’s led to more university courses on superheroes, more essays, and more books, as well as more reprints of old comics. Twenty years ago, when the first X-Men movie came out, it was still considered risky to take superheroes “seriously,” and market them to adults as well as kids and teens.

Now, you almost can’t be a major player in the entertainment industry without a superhero property; every network, big movie studio, and steaming service is investing in superheroes. It’s never been more true that you can’t understand culture without pop culture, and you can’t understand pop culture without superheroes.

Yanes: From a professional standpoint, do you worry that this field is becoming too saturated with scholars? For instance, if a student said they wanted to pursue a career in academia studying popular culture, would you think that is a good idea?

Peppard: I think pop culture studies has almost infinite space to grow. Pop culture is always changing (in fact, keeping up with the pace of change is one of the major challenges for pop culture studies), and there’s so much historical content no one has even considered; most TV shows have never been subjected to any sustained academic analysis, which is so strange to me given what a big part of our lives television has been since the 1950s. That said, because pop culture studies is especially susceptible to trends—which publishers are very happy to cash in on—the output can be a bit uneven. The past decade has seen a glut of books on superheroes, and not all of these books are breaking new ground; many rehearse the same ideas, with shiny new covers featuring whatever superhero movie is popular that year.

Pop culture studies benefits from its accessibility; you’re writing about texts a lot of people already know and love, and you can use that familiarity to make complex artistic, philosophical, and sociological concepts less intimidating, and hopefully help other scholars see those concepts in a new light. My favorite pop culture scholarship balances accessibility with rigor, but it’s hard to get that balance right. As to whether I’d encourage someone who’s hoping to work in academia to study pop culture—that’s a tough question. Because the field of pop culture studies is still struggling for legitimacy, it can be hard to make a case for yourself on the job market. That said, there are new positions being created in the field, and universities do, I think, value scholars who are able to integrate pop culture into, say, courses on gender studies or African American literature. I think the most important thing is to make sure your research is diverse, intersectional, and mobile. But that’s true for pretty much anyone studying any discipline within a very competitive job market.

Yanes: Your current book is Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero. What was the inspiration for this book?

Peppard: I created this anthology because for most of my life, I’ve wanted to read it—ever since I first fell in love with superheroes, and wanted to talk about why I loved them, but quickly realized my love was out of step with how superheroes are often discussed. Historically, discourse on the superhero genre has characterized it as a genre driven by violent fantasies and simplistic moralities aimed primarily—even exclusively—at men and boys (and even more specifically: straight, white men and boys). The first waves of superhero scholarship often reflected these assumptions; my experience as a female fan finding subversive feminist and queer meanings in the superhero genre’s embrace of unapologetically flamboyant bodies seemed invisible, even impossible. While I’ve always been aware of the superhero genre’s political shortcomings, I’ve also always enjoyed it as a space of radical possibility, in which strong women fight and love alongside beautiful men, who often love other beautiful men (not to mention beautiful mutants, monsters, aliens, and robots).

What particularly fascinates me about superhero sexuality—what I call “supersex”—is that it’s so intensely contradictory. All the superhero genre’s spandex and exaggeratedly embodied melodramas make erotic possibilities flagrantly present. Yet due to historical censorship and cultural prejudices, supersex has also been, for most of its history, officially absent; the first and only time Batman’s penis appeared on panel—in 2018’s Batman: Damned #1—it created such an uproar that DC quickly censored it, apologized, and blamed it on “production errors.” Those contradictions demand unpacking—why do so many people want to read about a hero who wears head-to-toe fetishistic black spandex and leather but never want to see him take it off? I don’t think we can properly understand the appeal of the superhero genre without understanding the complex role of sexuality within the fantasies it offers.


Yanes: In addition to editing the book, you contributed the introduction and one of the chapters. While conducting research for the chapter, “‘No One’s Going to Be Looking at Your Face’: The Female Gaze and the New (Super)Man in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”, what was some information that took you by surprise?

Peppard: Before revisiting Lois & Clark, I didn’t properly realize how much my career resembles my twelve-year-old self’s dream of being Lois Lane; I may not be a star reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, but I am an adult woman who gets paid to write about Superman! In all honesty though, this revelation unnerved me a bit, since it made me wonder: is my entire academic career animated by my teenage crush on Superman? I’m all for following one’s passions, but some things can be the wrong kind of juvenile. Examining the ways Lois & Clark trumpets equality while continually justifying Lois’s inevitable subordination also saddened me; re-watching this show in the late 2010s, I saw such a perfect distillation of the 90s postfeminism I grew up with, which told us we didn’t need to fight for equality because it had already been won, when it so clearly hadn’t been. I didn’t call myself a feminist until my early 20s because growing up in the 90s gave me such a distorted picture of what being a feminist meant; I thought it was something old-fashioned and outdated that had nothing to do with my very modern life.

Ultimately, though, researching and writing about Lois & Clark made me realize there is something positively feminist about it, located in how the show offers up Clark/Superman for the female erotic gaze. Traditionally, superhero stories exaggerate the eroticism of female bodies and minimize the eroticism of male bodies (at least officially); female bodies and costumes are designed to highlight sexual characteristics, while male bodies and costumes are designed to highlight power characteristics. This split reflects a patriarchally informed gender dualism wherein women are objects, while men are subjects. Lois & Clark definitely emphasizes Superman’s power, but also makes him unusually accessible to the female gaze by lovingly lingering on his partially naked body, and dwelling on eroticized transformations. In my chapter for Supersex, I perform a close reading of Lois and Clark’s time-travelling honeymoon, which includes multiple sexy transformations, wherein Clark is dressed and undressed by Lois on behalf of the female audience. Eroticizing male characters does not, on its own, make a story feminist. But feeling, as a woman, like you’re allowed to look, and have desire, and not feel guilty about those things, does matter. I don’t think Lois & Clark should be the end of anyone’s feminist journey. But it was, for me, a place to start. Lois was always more than the sum of her parts, and so am I.

Yanes: In regards to the research done by other contributors, what research illuminated you the most?

Peppard: Choosing a favorite essay from the collection is impossible. I selected these thirteen essays from dozens of proposals, and shepherded them from the proposal stage through multiple drafts to the final product—they’re all my babies, and I want anyone who picks up the book to read all of them! But I was particularly affected by Brian Johnson’s essay “Dazzer, Melodrama, and Shame: Mutant Allegory, Closeted Readers.” Johnson’s essay masterfully combines personal reflection with careful consideration of the warring subversive and conservative impulses embedded in the X-Men’s mutant metaphor. The X-Men—superheroes who are born different and fight for a world that hates and fears them in the context of a found family—strongly resonate with queerness.

Academics have embraced this association; a preeminent example is Ramzi Fawaz’s book The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics. Johnson acknowledges this potential through his close reading of the queer coding of the X-Men character Dazzler, and that character’s importance in the birth of his own queer consciousness. He also, however, illustrates the limits of the X-Men’s queerness. Because this queerness is usually relegated to metaphor, and because X-Men comics tend to emphasize the importance of hiding one’s true self from a judgmental public, these stories both represent the closet and advocate staying inside it.

While I’ve done plenty of work critiquing the superhero genre’s less-than-progressive gender and sexual politics—both within Supersex and elsewhere—I can sometimes be a bit utopian about superheroes. Johnson’s essay reminds me to keep my flights of fancy grounded in lived realities, and does a fabulous job illustrating the subjectiveness of the superhero genre’s contradictions. The same story that inspires queer pride in one reader can inspire queer shame in another; this subjectiveness is central to the simultaneous power and danger of supersex.

Yanes: Broadly speaking, the majority of comic books seem to come from and reinforce a cis-gendered and heteronormative perspective. What, in your opinion, are some of the obstacles that prevent new perspectives from becoming normalized?

Peppard: Continued cultural prejudices and the behavior of a certain subset of fans, who happen to be very aggressive and loud. There isn’t space, within the confines of this interview, to review the entire history of “Comicsgate.” But I will say that as a comics scholar, I’m particularly baffled by commonly parroted attitudes like, “superhero comics never used to be political,” or “I hate this new trend where superhero comics are trying to use diversity to attract new readers.” Comics have 100% always been political.

There’s also a long history of superhero comics creating new characters to reach more diverse audiences. Superheroes like Wonder Woman and Miss America were directly marketed to girls during WWII, and lots of girls read them. Supergirl was similarly marketed to girls in the 60s, and Marvel created several female superheroes in the 1970s, including The Cat, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, and She-Hulk that were meant to resonate with feminism. Many of the new Black superheroes of the 70s at least attempted to resonate with Black readers, and the “All-New, All-Different” X-Men launched in 1975 explicitly used gender, racial, and ethnic diversity as a selling point. And there have always been queer fans of superhero comics; Fredric Wertham documents queer experiences of reading comics, albeit in a negative light, in his infamous anti-comics diatribe Seduction of the Innocent from 1954.

I know I’m getting at your question in rather a roundabout way, but the revisionist history deployed by fans who affiliate with Comicsgate is an example of the active suppression of the superhero genre’s actual historical diversity. And this suppression is a factor in some fans’ unwillingness to accept more diverse depictions of gender and sexuality in contemporary comics. To be angry about comics evolving to include more canonically queer characters, you have to be a) homophobic and b) believe the superhero genre wasn’t always queer. Speaking as a scholar and fan, I would argue that the superhero genre has always been queer—perhaps not intentionally or consciously, but certainly in terms of the possibilities it creates and the ways it’s been consumed. Supersex unpacks this queer history, in the hopes of helping normalize it in the present, and broadening our understand of what superheroes stories have been, and might be.

Yanes: Currently, which comic books currently being published are the most sex positive?

Peppard: I’m going to limit my answer to mainstream superhero comics, since there are so many sexy comics being published these days—it would be impossible to discuss them all. There’s been a lot of excitement around the depiction of sexuality within the recent reboot of the X-Men franchise (beginning with the event “House of X”/“Powers of X”). Longtime fan favorite character Kitty Pryde (now going by Kate Pryde) recently came out as bisexual, and Wolverine, Cyclops, and Jean Grey are in a polyamorous relationship. I have mixed feelings about some of these depictions. I think there’s still a bit too much hinting, and not enough showing in the current X-books; while there’s been some playful innuendo between Cyclops and Wolverine, they haven’t kissed on panel or stumbled naked out of each other’s bedrooms. But I’m interested to see where it goes, and hoping for the best.

The current Guardians of the Galaxy series, written by Al Ewing, is also doing some exciting things; the team is dominated by LGBTQ characters, and team leader Star-Lord was recently revealed as bi. I’d also recommend the recent one-shot Lords of Empyre: Emperor Hulkling (2020), written by Chip Zdarsky and Anthony Oliveira with art by Manual Garcia, and the Steve Orlando-penned Midnighter and Apollo (2016-17); all these stories are queer, shameless, and deeply romantic, without sacrificing any of the high stakes, high adrenaline action you expect from superhero comics. Finally, because I’m a total Nightcrawler stan, I’m also going to recommend Age of X-Man: The Amazing Nightcrawler (2019) written by Seanan McGuire with art by Juan Frigeri. This miniseries is set in an alternate reality where mutants are beloved, but sex is forbidden. Nightcrawler adores his new life as a Hollywood star, but can’t deny his passionate nature, resulting in an illicit affair with his co-star, the shapeshifting mutant known as Meggan. McGuire and Frigeri explore the relationship between sexuality and heroism, which we too often assume are incompatible. In this comic—sex is love, and love is heroic.

Yanes: When people finish reading Supersex, what do you hope they take away from it?

Peppard: I hope readers come away from Supersex with a deeper appreciation of the complexity of the superhero genre’s historical and contemporary treatment of gender and sexuality. While Supersex never shies away from superhero stories’ historical prejudices and exclusions, it also foregrounds the genre’s diversity. Contributors discuss everything from the relationship between fashion and empowerment in stories starring the first comics superhero, Miss Fury, created by fashion illustrator-turned-comics artist Tarpé Mills, to the symbolism of topping and bottoming in gay superhero porn parodies, to lesbian and trans fanfiction and fan art. I’ve spent entirely too many years feeling invisible in superhero fandom and scholarship; I want this book to help other fans feel more visible, both to themselves and to those people who were making them feel invisible. There’s nothing in the superhero genre’s founding themes of multiplicity, transformation, and freedom from earthly constraints that says it can’t appeal to diverse gazes. In fact, these themes create space for diverse gazes. Sometimes, that space has been small, and we’ve had to fight to make it bigger. But rebellious forms of supersex were always there, seething like the Hulk inside Bruce Banner’s thin skin, ready to bust out and make a glorious, world-saving mess.

Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?

Peppard: I’ve got a few things in the pipeline, including a book on the iconic 60s spy-fi TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., discussing representations of gender, race, and sexuality in conversation with the birth of transmedia storytelling. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. helped pioneer telling a shared universe story across multiple platforms, including two TV shows (The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the spinoff The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.), books, comics, magazines, and toys, and the fandom around U.N.C.L.E.—much of it led by female fans—helped lay a foundation for modern fan practices; U.N.C.L.E.’s fans were very well-organized and active, and, along with the original Star Trek, U.N.C.L.E. is something of an ur-text for the development of fan fiction (especially slash fan fiction). I’ve also got a couple of podcasts on the go. I’m the co-host of Three Panel Contrast, a monthly discussion of historical and contemporary comics classics; you can find it wherever you get your podcasts, and follow us on Twitter @3PanelContrast for fun extras. I’m also launching a second podcast, called The Oh Gosh, Oh Golly, Oh Wow! Podcast, which is going to be a weekly issue-by-issue re-read of the classic comics series Excalibur. We’re hoping to debut it at the end of January, but you can visit or follow us on Twitter @GoshGollyWow for updates!

You can learn more about Peppard by following her on Twitter at @peppard_anna.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Scifipulse on twitter at @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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