Saturday, March 12, 2016

Prior to NeMLA 2016: The MCU As Literature and Domestic Ideology in Superhero Narratives

For months now, I’ve been busy. Not just busy, but busybusybusy. Forgetting to eat, barely a moment to breathe, a to-do list that’s more of a too-much-to-do list. And while I love the work I do, it often feels like I don't have the time to properly live my double lives as non-profit director and independent scholar, let alone find time to write about them. Next week’s a big week, though, and Big Weeks occasion an exception to my perpetual no-time-to-write frenzy.
My companions are so critical these days
This week is the Northeast Atlantic Modern Language Association’s 47th Annual Convention, and I’ll be co-chairing both a panel and a roundtable with my colleague Derek S. McGrath. These panels reflect our mutual appreciation for approaching pop culture texts through a literary lens. In the twenty-first century, the superhero narratives in comics, films, television shows, and other “non-literary” texts so voraciously consumed by fans and laypeople constitute shared reading material which transcends social boundaries, textual experiences held in common on a global scale. These stories speak to us, they delight and inspire us, and if literary critics don’t recognize the power of superhero narratives in the digital age, they miss an invaluable opportunity to use analysis to enhance viewers’ intellectual engagement with these texts. 

Luckily for NeMLA-goers, Derek and I have assembled our own super team of scholars ready to dive right in and hold these deep discussions. These sessions are going to be as joyful as they will be trenchant and intellectually stimulating, the perfect combination for any fan-scholar or scholar-fan.

Just check out the paper titles:



If you’re keen to glean insight into my own papers, check out my presentations’ abstracts:


For “The Monster In The House: Domestic Ideology in Superhero Narratives”:

Choosing Monstrosity:
Black Widow, Reproductive Rights, and Domestic Agency in the MCU

“You still think you're the only monster on this team?” Agent Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) asks Bruce Banner (the Hulk) in Avengers: Age of Ultron, having just recounted the terrible trauma she endured in the Red Room, her voice catching on her words. Black Widow’s line here ignited a furious if polarized online reaction from fans, some denouncing her characterization as reductive and disempowering, other defending her right to mourn the loss of reproductive capability as the sole woman on the superhero team.

Feminist criticisms of her characterization certainly provide useful insight into the heteronormative teleology of romance at work in the film’s narrative; whether her “monster” comment is read as her echoing society’s stigma or her labeling herself, the film’s overall conception of idealized domesticity remains the standard conservative definition of nuclear family with a woman giving birth (as depicted through the Barton family). However, when assessed in the context of literary domesticity and in terms of her character development across Marvel Cinematic Universe appearances, the degree to which Black Widow’s arc relies on disempowering gender stereotypes as they relate to domesticity emerges as more complex than the “monster” comment debate would seem to suggest.

This paper will demonstrate how Black Widow’s negotiation of forcibly imposed sterility and monstrous motherhood, when assessed through the lens of American literary domesticity and gender studies as formulated by critics Carol Smith-Rosenberg, Gloria Steinem, and Jennifer Stuller (among others), provides a nuanced narrative of agency and choice amidst gender-based inequality previously unavailable in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Building on Black Widow’s characterization as sexually objectified femme fatale in Iron Man 2 and her character’s focus on Steve Rogers’ romantic interests in The Winter Soldier, I argue that Avengers: Age of Ultron’s depiction of Black Widow taps into modern narratives of reproductive rights and ultimately affirms the importance of domestic spaces as sites in which narrative conflict between superhuman heroics and human domestic desires play out. Given her choice during the film’s climactic battle to prioritize the Avengers’ mission over her burgeoning romance by triggering Banner’s transformation into the Hulk while saying she “needs the other guy,” Black Widow’s negotiation of monstrous motherhood illustrates a mode of female agency than more empowered than it may initially seem.

For “The Marvel Cinematic Universe as Literature”:

Fighting for Interdependence: 

Domestic Flashbacks and Narrative Strategy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is by now famous for its bombastic, explosive elements: Chitauri hordes tearing through a rip in the cosmos in The Avengers, the enormous Black Aster breaking through the golden shield of NovaCorps ships in Guardians of the Galaxy. But the fantastic explosive requires something to explode, and “super” is a hierarchical term, since for something to be “super” there must also be an average point of comparison, a thing against which it can be deemed superior.

Within the literary epic tradition, this hierarchy often plays out in terms of narrative oscillation between battle scenes and domestic scenes; much like The Iliad's juxtaposition of battlefield aristeia with quotidian domesticity, the aforementioned climactic battle scene in Guardians features over-the-top violence of Ronan’s space invasion interspersed with images of Xandarian families fleeing in terror. Such structural contrast of superhero glory against domestic vulnerability builds momentum and purpose, enhancing the battle’s tension and stakes by reminding the audience of what it is that they’re fighting for: families, children, life and renewal amidst destruction and chaos. 

This formulation, however, often posits a powerless domestic in need of superhuman saviors, and in the context of domesticity in American literary history, can ultimately reinforce sexist gender paradigms in that such representation masculinizes and centralizes the world of battle while feminizing the home and marginalizing the women contained within it. The MCU, however, manages to escape some of the sexist trappings of separate spheres ideology through its meta-narrative strategy of using domestic flashbacks to represent "separate" spheres as positively interdependent.

This paper explores the MCU’s ubiquitous use of flashbacks to domestic spaces/memories in order to explicate the device as a function of the domestic that essentially recasts as positively interdependent the traditionally separate spheres of home and work. Specifically, examining the flashback sequences in Daredevil’s second episode, “The Cut Man,” as well as several MCU films (in particular, Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avengers: Age of Ultron), reveals how domestic nostalgia provides emotional/psychological motivation for work undertaken by superheroes well outside of domestic spaces, creating a rich interplay of positive interdependence between the home and the battlefield, between public and private, between the human and the superhuman, redefining the standard antagonistic dichotomy of conventional domestic ideology.


Derek and I encourage “questions from the audience” in advance. Back-channeling the conversation enriches the conference experience for everyone, so leave a comment/tweet at me (@metamare)/be social with your social media accounts and tell me what you think. Let’s get this NeMLA party started!

You will, though. Oh yes, you will.

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