Valerie Estelle Frankel is an award-winning author (Dream Realm Award, Indie Excellence Award, and USA Book News National Best Book Award) who has written over 80 books. Typically dealing with popular culture, some of her most popular books are Who Tells Your Story: History, Pop Culture, and Hidden Meanings in the Musical Phenomenon Hamilton, Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to Names and Symbols in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and History, Homages and the Highlands: An Outlander Guide. Her latest book is Wonder Women and Bad Girls: Superheroine and Supervillainess Archetypes in Popular Media. Wanting to learn more about her career, her latest book, and feminism in popular media, I was able to interview Valerie Estelle Frankel for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what pop culture franchises were you a fan of? Are there any that still make you feel young?
Valerie Estelle Frankel: I went for princesses, not superheroines. Fairytales and Disney were huge. I also enjoyed eighties cartoons and toys – She-Ra, Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, and so on. All those are like a return to childhood, though My Little Ponies are a bit too juvenile. I also really got into Star Trek: The Next Generation.
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?
Frankel: For one, lots of stories are more complex. Doctor Who needs a flowchart as he (now she) keeps messing with canon. More science fiction shows have heavy arcs instead of returning to the adventure of the week. Now Netflix shows can condense the plots even further. At the same time, the big fandoms like Harry Potter use the internet to discuss and have meetups, leading to more analysis and activity. Conventions with scholarly talks and panels are bigger too.
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?
Frankel: Well, I would ask the student what he or she planned to do with the degree—writing a few academic books likely won’t support you. Teaching Harry Potter or Buffy is fun, but everyone wants that gig. As for writing the books, that’s working out better. For example, Doctor Who fans tend to want them all, and each year, there’s more material to write about. Being the first to cover a subject or writing on a less-popular angle can be great.
Yanes: Your recent book is Wonder Women and Bad Girls: Superheroine and Supervillainess Archetypes in Popular Media. What was the inspiration behind this book?
Frankel: It’s something of a spinoff from my Superheroines and the Epic Journey, which looks at the classic heroine’s journey through superheroine stories. This second book considers the archetypes and how superheroine stories are told through the seductress, warrior woman, etc. There are some fascinating angles.
Yanes: You discuss fourth wave feminism in many of your books. For people new to this idea, what are some popular examples of this in fiction?
Frankel: We’re in the midst of it now. Basically, first eave was the right to vote, second wave was the emancipation of the sixties, and third wave was girl power—blonde less-threatening princess types like the Powerpuff Girls, Clueless, or Buffy who often prioritize romance. All those 90’s Disneys where the princess quests to get married and the male hero does much of the action qualify. Now, we’re telling new kinds of stories, about unapologetic, fully dressed women, often minorities, who practice intersectionality to help their friends and get real equality along with empowering others. Think Shuri, Batwoman, Marvel’s Runaways, Jessica Jones, new She-Ra, Furiosa, Captain Marvel, Valkyrie, Moana, Elsa, the latest Star Wars, Doctor Who, and Star Trek women.
Yanes: Bringing a critical eye to popular culture often forces us to look at beloved properties and realize how problematic they are. While researching Wonder Women and Bad Girls, what were some characters or properties you struggled with?
Frankel: I think the most disturbing revelation was how wimpy superheroines were in the nineties—after strong ones like Storm showed up in the seventies, there was a backlash and Wonder Woman did less crime fighting and more bursting out of her leotard in all directions. The Killing Joke and fridging (killing superheroines to hurt the heroes) happened around then too.
Yanes: While working on this book, who are some female characters you came across who you think should be more popular than they currently are?
Frankel: America Chavez! She’s a recent Marvel heroine who kicks holes in dimensions and is amazing. She shows up on the cartoon Marvel Rising but would be delightful on film. Along with her pals Pakistani Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, Ironheart, and Ghost Spider. It’s a wonderful group. Further, there have been campaigns for some time to get Martha Washington her own film. She’s a soldier in dystopian Chicago who may be the most powerful woman in comics.
Yanes: When people finish reading Wonder Women and Bad Girls, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Frankel: That strong heroines didn’t start recently. In the forties, they flew fighter planes and battled Nazis…some were even women of color. There have been waves of strong and weak heroines, with many ways from kids to elderly women to depict delightful characters with real power.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that fans can look forward to?
Frankel: I’ve always got many projects in the hopper. I’m doing a book on The Villain’s Journey and an entire series on Jewish science fiction and fantasy. Meanwhile, as shown by my recent books on The Mandalorian, Hamilton, Captain Marvel, She-Ra, and The Hunger Games prequel, when something comes along that I can see cool symbols and messages in, I write a quick book showing all the deeper meanings for fans. So next week, who knows…