Whoosh! Issue 41 - February 2000

TOUGH GIRLS:
AN "INTERVIEW" AND STUDY GUIDE

By Darise Error
Content copyright © 2000 held by author
Edition copyright © 2000 held by Whoosh!
3984 words



"Interview" Aftermath (01-06)
Questions and Some Answers (07-49)
NWSA Journal Review (50-59)
Conclusion (60)
Biography



Tough Girls: An "Interview" and Study Guide




Interview Aftermath


There once was a chick name of Xena

Check out the book at Amazon.com.

[1] I undertook the assignment of reading Sherrie A. Inness' Tough Girls for three primary reasons. First, I have always been interested in pop culture, and in gender issues in general and specifically within pop culture, hence my intense fascination with Xena: Warrior Princess. Secondly, my Whoosh! editor was looking for someone to read the book and conduct an interview with the author. The third reason is that it was pretty hard to say no to Kym Taborn when she gave me a copy of Tough Girls as a gift. I decided that, as a college instructor, it might be beneficial to me as well in my teaching.

[2] I read voraciously, making copious margin notes. I found myself intrigued by and in total agreement with Professor Inness on many issues. I found myself in total disagreement about several central points too. Any book that can inspire that much thought and consideration, however, is a positive thing. A general observation I had about the book itself, however, was that its author had, seemingly, "bitten off more than she could chew" well. The book deals with popular culture's depiction of and society's ideas about "tough" women: in early and contemporary television, in comic books, in films, in science fiction, in magazines and print ads, etc. Trying to discuss so many venues and genres allowed for only a terse, cursory examination of each. I would have preferred an in-depth treatment of less issues, and the book as it stands left me with many questions like, "I wonder what the author would think about this or that?"

[3] I was excited about doing the interview as it would give me a chance to discuss my agreement as well as points of departure with her, and I hoped also that the interview would give her the opportunity to further explore issues I felt went underdeveloped in the book itself.

[4] I thoughtfully and painstakingly constructed a list of detailed questions and submitted them to her via e- mail. What I hoped for was an interchange, but I would have settled for a set of short but insightful responses to most of the questions. I gave Professor Inness the option of not answering all of the questions, as the list was lengthy (and detailed answers could have become another book themselves), but I assumed she would see fit to answer the bulk of them. It seems, however, that Professor Inness either did not have the time or the interest, or both, to give these questions significant consideration. To my dismay, she skipped the majority of them, and almost all of the ones I considered to have real substance.

[5] As I was more disappointed by the "interview" than I had been by the points of contention I had with her book, I was of a mind to simply scrap this entire project. I did not find much worthy of publication. Though my editor was sympathetic to my position, she also asked if there was anything of interest in the things I had gleaned from the book or the "interview". I came to the conclusion, however, that the material I had produced and collected might inspire someone to pick up Professor Inness' book, and then that this information might be of "study guide" value to someone reading Tough Girls. The questions are potentially provocative in and of themselves - both those she elected to address and those she did not.

[6] I enthusiastically recommend this book, by the way, as an intellectual exercise, if nothing more. There is much to be gained from pondering its assertions and conclusions, whether you agree with her or not. To that end, I present this information, hopefully, as a catalyst to aid your own mental processes. What follows is the letter with the list of enumerated questions I sent to Dr. Inness. Where she elected to respond, I have given her answer verbatim. Where she did not, I specified that as well. I conclude with another reviewer's assessment and critique of Tough Girls.


Questions and Some Answers


There was nobody tougher or meaner

Another book by Ms. Inness.

[7] ERROR: Ms. Inness, I read your book Tough Girls over the summer, and I found it most provocative. I am currently an adjunct professor in the English Department of a local community college, and I am a pop culture junkie! (It frequently finds its way into my lesson plans.) I have also always been interested in gender issues, so your book was of interest to me on two fronts. I enjoyed it thoroughly, by the way.

[8] For this interview, what I will do is submit a list of questions which you can answer via e-mail at your leisure. Kym Taborn, the Editor in Chief, told me to proceed for two different audiences: specific things for people who might have already read your book, and more general things for people who haven't read it but who might be interested in doing so. I will also focus mainly on Xena as a Xena periodical is the forum in which this interview will appear. After I receive your responses, I will then edit your comments and my questions into a format that seems appropriate. (My 'editing' will probably be more an issue of ordering the questions and responses so they seem to "flow.")

[9] Again, we sincerely appreciate your willingness to be interviewed, and I hope the article will drum up even more interest in your book.

[10] 1. To begin with, as I read, I found myself thinking that because of the references you make and the television shows you elected to focus on, you must be around my age. Do you mind my asking how old you are? I'm 33. (I will publish that or not publish it if you prefer. I was just interested!) I'd also be interested in what the social climate was like in terms of gender roles when you were growing up? Who were your "real-life" role models, and how well did they reflect pop culture at the time?

[11] Then, fill in a few other biographical details - whatever you feel comfortable sharing plus where you went to school and received your degrees, and if you are currently working on another book.

[12] INNESS: I am 34 and grew up in California. Right now, I am an Associate Professor of English at Miami University, Ohio. I earned my PhD at the University of California, San Diego. I have published or edited a number of other books besides Tough Girls including: Running For Their Lives: Girls, Cultural Identity, And Stories Of Survival. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000; Delinquents And Debutantes: Twentieth-Century American Girls' Cultures. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. New York University Press, 1998; Millennium Girls: Today'S Girls Around The World. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998; Breaking Boundaries: New Perspectives On Women'S Regional Writing. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness and Diana Royer. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997; The Lesbian Menace: Ideology, Identity, And The Representation Of Lesbian Life. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997;

Nancy Drew And Company: Culture, Gender, And Girls Series. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997; Intimate Communities: Representation And Social Transformation In Women'S College Fiction, 1895-1910. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1995.

[13] ERROR: 2. Why is pop culture a worthy topic for scholarly examination? Why your interest in the representation of "tough girls" in American pop culture? Also, I was wondering if you wrote this book originally as a Master's thesis or dissertation, or if it's an expansion of a convention paper or papers.

[14] INNESS: No, it was not. [Note: She elected to answer nothing but the final question in the above series.]

[15] ERROR: 3. Define "tough" in terms of how the current American socio-political climate defines the concept. Are the characteristics of "toughness" masculine by nature according to the general definition of this concept? What "feminine" characteristics does this definition include? Exclude?

[16] Inness skipped this question.

[17] ERROR: 4. When I was discussing your book with my brother, he made the observation: "Guys like a girl character who can kick butt while showing hers at the same time!" How does a woman's sexuality impact (undermine!) an audience's perception of her "toughness?" (I am asking the question in terms of both the female character's sexiness/sexual appeal and her sexual orientation.)

[18] And on a related note: Do male characters have their toughness diminished by 'sexiness' too? (There were no shortage of sexy, bare chest shots of Stallone in RAMBO and ROCKY movies, for instance.)

[19] INNESS: This is a fascinating issue you bring up. As I mention in Tough Girls, I think sexuality works very differently for men and women in the media. Men can be sexy without having it diminish their toughness. Women, however, are much more likely to battle with the fact that sexiness is often seen as diminishing their toughness.

[20] ERROR: Is it possible to redefine toughness, even in our society, in such a way as to include sexual appeal - even for female characters? The sex "entertainment" industry, for example, trains women to be 'hardened' predators prowling for cash. Their catch-phrase is "Men will get scr*w*ed, but they won't get laid!" Why is this not "toughness" in society's current definition of the term? Or is it?

[21] Inness elected not to answer this portion of the question four either.


Season 4 made her slide

Yet another selection.

[22] ERROR: 5. Why do you think American society today insatiably desires "tough girl" characters in pop culture?

[23] INNESS: For many reasons. Toughness in women/girls is the latest fad, something that Hollywood has discovered will sell. The appearance of so many tough women in the media also is indicative of our changing cultural values about tough women in real life. The media is an ideal place for society to act out its greatest fears and fantasies about toughness in women (and men).

[24] ERROR: 6. Speak a bit about "toughness" in Charlie's Angels (TV, 1975-1980) and The Avengers (TV 1961-69). I was a huge Angels fan myself when I was a wee one, and Whoosh! published a pretty nice article last year which was a comparison between Xena and Emma Peel.

[25] No response to this question.

[26] ERROR: 7. What does Xena, the character, borrow (if anything) from the Angels, and how is she different from them? What makes Xena tougher?

[27] INNESS: I think Xena is definitely following in the footsteps of the Angels (and the Bionic Woman [TV, 1976-1978]). Like the Angels, Xena is a tough character who sets out to right society's wrongs, without the assistance of any men. However, the Angels had to do obeisance to Charlie (even though he never appeared in person); I see Xena as a much more independent character.

[28] ERROR: 8. I'd also be interested in your comparison between Mrs. Peel (Diana Rigg's version, not the wretched Uma Thurman debacle) and Xena.

[29] No response.

[30] ERROR: 9. You do not specifically discuss these characters, but I found myself wondering throughout the book how you would view them, so I will ask. How would you rate television's Buffy from Buffy The Vampire Slayer (TV, 1997-present) and Seven of Nine from Voyager (TV, 1995-present) in terms of toughness?

[31] No response.

[32] ERROR: 10. Are you actually a Xena aficionada, or did you examine the series merely for purposes of this book and then abandon it? If you are not a fan, why did you elect to include it, and why did you place the Xena chapter at the very end of your book? If you are a fan, what is it that attracts you to the show? In either case, how many episodes/seasons had you actually seen when you wrote the book?

[33] INNESS: Yes, I am a fan. I wanted to include a chapter on Xena as the last chapter in my book because I believe the show is doing some fascinating new things with toughness. I was particularly interested in Xena as a show that showed an unusually tough woman and did not constantly undercut her tough image by juxtaposing her with a far more muscular man (something that often happens in other television shows, moves, and books with tough lead women.) For anyone interested in exploring how the image of tough women has changed, Xena is a must-watch show.

[34] ERROR: (These next few are only relevant if you are a Xena-watcher, so skip them if you're not.)

[35] 11. Where would you rank Gabrielle on the "toughness" scale? Has Gabrielle's relative toughness changed as the character has evolved through four and a half seasons?

[36] No response.

[37] ERROR: 12. What was your opinion of the "Rift Arc" (Xena and Gabrielle battling against and torturing each other physically, psychologically, and emotionally, the "Gab Drag," and frequent strains of "I HATE you!" in the air) of the Third Season, and how do you think that impacted the audience's perception of Xena's and Gabrielle's "toughness?"

[38] No response.

[39] ERROR: 13. How would you rate these characters in terms of toughness: Ephiny, Callisto, Najara, Alti, Amarice, and the Amazons. (I would be interested too in your opinions of Joxer and Eli, though they are male characters.)

[40] No response.

[41] ERROR: 14. To what degree do you think pop culture, particularly television, is a reflection of the general populous' opinions? Do you believe pop culture's power is, primarily, in its ability to reinforce the prevalent ideologies, or in its ability to bring social change? (Or some combination of the two?)

[42] No response.

[43] ERROR: 15. A recurring theme in your book seems to be that while many people think of some of early tv and movies' Tough Girls as mere "T&A" exploitation, these characters DID have 'tough' aspects, though you grant that they were also very much products of their time. You also maintain that they paved the way for characters who were to come. How are Xena (the series) and its title character products of our time? Do you think history will judge the series in as bright a light as many of us do in the present, or will they reduce it to "that lesbian T&A (the costumes and casting choices certainly provide no shortage of 'eye candy') show from the late 90s?" (Though, perhaps, there is something 'progressive' and positive even in that seemingly derogatory appellation.)

[44] No response.

[45] ERROR: 16. Your book makes the argument that much of pop culture, while purporting to be very tolerant, dynamic, and even liberal in terms of the way it views gender roles, actually only affirms the "status quo" nature of conservative contemporary ideologies. Is this at all true of Xena? In what ways does it affirm the 'status quo?' In what ways Xena does transcend or challenge many contemporary, conservative ideologies?

[46] No response.

[47] ERROR: 17. On page 107 of your book, you suggest a kind of "feminist ideal" of toughness - where a character/person would take the best parts of femininity and masculinity and "[forge] them into a type of toughness that has not yet been seen." What are the best feminine toughness characteristics? Masculine? And what would you like to see this new type of toughness be like? Is this reflected at all in Xena or any of the current television series?

[48] No response, and this was the question I had MOST hoped she would elect to answer. This was the biggest disappointment of the "interview".

[49] ERROR: Thanks again. Please take your time answering, and don't feel that you have to respond to every question, or at significant length to ANY question. I just made a zillion notes in the margins of my copy of the book, and I tried to get in every major issue I thought of while reading. I also tried to get in stuff I thought might be of interest to Whoosh! readers.


NWSA Journal Review


Season 5 wants to hide

The author has several books available.

[50] After reading Tough Girls, formulating my own opinions, conducting the "interview", and further thinking Tough Girls matters through, my editor sent me an article, which is the second half of an essay published in the NWSA Journal entitled "Consumption, Commodity, and Culture." The article's author reviewed several books and came to many of the same conclusions I had regarding this one. I reprint the commentary relevant to Tough Girls here, also for your perusal and as study aid as you read the book itself. Forgive the absence of proper bibliographic form, but I found no author listed. The attribution and copyright information which were available follows the excerpt.

[51] In Part Two of the book, Chapters Five through Nine discuss women who have greater claim to toughness. Inness examines the roles that Jodie Foster and Gillian Anderson have played as tough women in film (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS)and television series (THE X-FILES). She finds their toughness to be still reduced, however, through their femininity and lesser roles in action in relation to male characters. Women portrayed in space odysseys are examined next, including BARBARELLA, as well as female leads in movies and television series such as ALIENS and STAR TREK, each of which are found to "pose no significant threat to the 'real' toughness of men" (119).

[52] Chapter Seven is a study of another set of tough women (the "post-apocalyptic Tough Girls" as Inness calls them): female leading characters in films such as THE TERMINATOR and THE BLOOD OF HEROES. These are challenges to traditional images of women, but their toughness is diminished still by an emphasis on their femininity and sex.

[53] Inness goes on to examine the "Tough Girls in comic books," including the likes of Storm, Elektra, and Martha Washington. While finding similar depreciation of these women's toughness as in other media, Inness sees possibilities of true toughness in Martha Washington.

[54] Finally, Inness finds a hero who is "really" tough. This is Xena: Warrior Princess. Xena is more than just another superhero. She seldom depends on anyone but herself, scorns men who ogle her in her rather revealing outfit, and does not care much for men her close companion is another woman.

[55] The Epilogue presents Inness' final thoughts on women's toughness, drawing from real-life women, such as those who participate in the Iditarod, as well as from fictional characters. She finds change and possibilities in the still conservative media's depictions of tough females.

[56] Tough Girls is a book that is likely to initiate much discussion because Inness does a good job of exposing the media's depictions of non- traditional women. The book would make a good text for those who are teaching graduate-level courses about women and media. I liked the fact that following Butler, Inness does seem to understand the distinction between gender and sex (22), although at one point, as she discusses the Janeway character from Star Trek, she seems to confuse them (103). I enjoyed Inness' attention to detail as she discussed the many aspects of the characters and issues related to toughness. All in all, she has given us some interesting perspectives to consider about contemporary womanhood, especially the effort to fight a masculine-dominated culture on its own terms.

[57] Yet, it is with Inness' definitions and treatment of toughness that I want to take an issue. It seems that she is too easily giving in to modern culture's masculine meanings of "tough". While at one point she does consider that persisting in one's beliefs and bearings despite all odds, obstacles, and perils, may be considered "tough"--a definition I would tend to agree with--she keeps slipping into thinking of "tough" as very much in the image of the tough male, one who can, without depending on anyone else, push--and often kick and hit--others and get his way. While it is important to recognize that such definitions of tough have been, and may still be, culturally dominant, Inness may already be giving up a possibly empowering alternative perspective and reinforcing the status quo. It may even be argued that by selecting the adjective "tough," as it applies to women, the author has inadvertently introduced a masculine bias into the analysis of women in the media. If tough is to be studied, however, I would suggest that we problematize the cultural construction of "tough," rather than focusing on the difficulties of its definition--as Inness seems to do--or its application to women. Getting hung up on a masculine definition of tough makes it impossible to define and articulate toughness from other perspectives.


Could it be Season 6 will be keener?

Interesting, no?

[58] Buying into a definition of tough that has been dominant tends also to limit the multiple alternatives that may be open to women to bring substance and meaning into their lives. From Inness' descriptions of Xena (the "tough" woman she seemed to favor most), I got the feeling that, as has happened to men who have tried to live up to culture's depictions of the masculine, women would have to lose their sexuality, sensuality, and humanity, by never seeking anyone's help or affections. If we make such toughness the "norm" for women to equal men, have we won the battle against the tyranny of the masculine, patriarchal culture, or have we given in to it?

[59] I do not want to minimize the impact of the discussions in Tough Girls, but I do want to alert readers to the dangers that stereotypical ways of approaching gender and social norms present for humanity's ability to construct lives of substance and meaning."

Copyright 1999 Responsive Database Services, Inc., Contemporary Women's Issues Copyright 1999 NWSA Journal NWSA Journal Summer 1999 SECTION: Vol. 11, No. 2; Pg. 181; ISSN: 1040-0656

For more information, please call the Indiana University Press Journals Department at 812-855-9449, fax us at 812-855- 8507, send e-mail to Journals@Indiana.Edu or visit our web site at www.indiana.edu/iupress/journals. Copyright 1999 NWSA Journal.


Conclusion

[60] Professor Inness' Tough Girls is an intriguing venture into the representation of women in popular culture and, more specifically, into societal ideas about "toughness" as it relates to women, and, to a lesser degree, men. There is much food for thought in its pages, whether you agree or disagree with Inness's contentions. It is my hope that this material will both spark the interest of potential readers, and serve as a springboard for their own philosophical pursuits and musings while reading.



Biography

Darise Error Darise Error
Darise Error is a vegetarian, tree-hugging, animal-loving, politically liberal, highly educated, highly opinionated, unmarried, childless female enigma to many of those within her decidedly more conservative and conventional social circles. She proceeds along her merry way in spite of the looks of confusion she often inspires. She does, however, wish to express her deep and abiding affection to those who never look at her with befuddlement and who love her for who she is.
Favorite episode: The first and second seasons in general, and specifically: HOOVES AND HARLOTS (10/110); REMEMBER NOTHING (26/202); FINS, FEMMES AND GEMS (64/318); and CRUSADER (76/408)
Favorite line: "And I only kill evil people. Why's she [Xena] better than me?" Najara to Gabrielle in CRUSADER (76/408); "Who's the father?" said Ares, and came the simple, wonderful response from Xena: "Gabrielle." SEEDS OF FAITH (99/509)
First episode seen: DESTINY (36/212)
Least favorite episode: Half of the third season, most of the fourth season (I'm still very bitter about Ephiny's death!), and I have found few episodes in the fifth season particularly inspiring thus far. I'm hanging in though, running on the fumes of the first and second seasons, hoping to be inspired again any minute.

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