Where do you get your ideas?

People often ask writers where we get our ideas.

I suppose some people might know, but I don’t. As Emma Donoghue once said,  it’s like asking how you got a cold.

Sometimes, of course, I hear a story or a snippet from history that makes my arms go all goosepimply and I scribble it down or bookmark the page and stash it away for later.

But this morning, for example, I woke up with a sentence in my mind.

‘You can’t hide out forever.’

By the time I had showered and made the coffee, I had the first few moments of a new story in my head.

I know from bitter experience that if I don’t write it down immediately, it might be gone by lunch-time. If I have to rush off to my day job, go to meetings, return emails, and write things that are not anything to do with stories, then it vanishes.

So I sat over breakfast and typed it all out.

A few months ago, I was asked to write an adventure story for Clandestine Press’s new And Then anthology. So I wrote ‘Boots and the Bushranger’, a ripping yarn about two young women who become outlaws in the wild days of Victoria’s Gold Rush. (You can pre-order the anthology here, right now, for a limited time, and you probably should because it is going to be awesome.)

I fell a bit in love, I admit, with the two characters, with researching the world of the goldfields, and with a whole lot of other story ideas that emerged through the research. I’ve always loved that country around Castlemaine. And I’ve long wanted to try my hand at historical crime fiction.

Image of rocks on Mt Alexander

The spot where I imagined Boots and the Bushranger made their last stand.

So I developed a vague plan – let’s call it a fancy – to write more stories about them, more short crime stories like those of the late nineteenth century, many of which were about feisty and smart young women. Although the stories from that era we know now are more likely to be about a certain middle-aged, eccentric chap, at the time, Sherlock Holmes had fierce rivals such as Hilda Wade and Miss Cayley  (you can read an article I wrote about them and other plucky girls in the Australian Journal of Crime Fiction).

And I like the genre – the sketching of character, the continuing and rich world, the short episodic stories that each tell a tale but also build up our sense of character and place, the odd couple of detective and chronicler – but, being me, I want to subvert it.

So this morning, Boots and her bushranger popped back into my head, unannounced, because after all, you can’t hide out forever.
It might not go anywhere. It might not even end up in the story I eventually write.

But it’s a start.

1858 etching of gold mining

The Goldfields – Old Post Office Hill, 1858

Write like a girl

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which historical fiction is gendered. I’ll need to write something longer on this but in the meantime, a few thoughts and questions:

  • We know that there are huge and apparently distinct markets for historical fiction aimed at men (eg military, nautical, crime) and women (eg … oh look, I could list the sub-genres, but it’s basically any novel with a woman in it).
  • But we also know from research about childhood reading that girls and young women read books marketed to boys, while boys tend not to read books marketed at girls and young women. (Yeah, I know, not all boys. But it’s a thing. There’s science. What we do about that and how we talk about it is a different topic.)
  • Assumptions about the historical fiction marketed to (and perhaps written for) women affects our reading. I am a woman who writes books with female protagonists. So, I am asked, where is the romance? * Readers enter a book with a gendered idea of what they will find there.
  • A book with a woman on the cover apparently can’t be literary fiction set in the past. It must be some other sub-genre that fits under the grouping of ‘women’s writing.’
  • This is also partly about attitudes to the genre. Historical fiction is a sprawling territory, from the formulaic to the experimental, with dozens of sub-genres and boundary-slipping soft edges. Lots of people see it as only one thing, which it hasn’t been for at least a hundred years.

Book cover of Regency Buck

I could bang on about gendered marketing and no doubt I will at some point, but what I wonder right now is: how much is marketing (including book design and packaging), how much is literary tradition or genre definition, and how much is imagined – and by whom? Writers, readers, publishers, PR and marketing people, reviewers?

What impact does all this have on the books we write and the way we read?

Do some authors write specifically for a gendered market – and succeed wildly? (That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is YES.) And what does that mean for expectations of the genre more broadly?

What does it say about the development and the future of the genre in all its forms?

I’ve said before that all my books are acts of subversion disguised as historical fiction and now I’m becoming even more interested in subverting the genre and the expectations around it. Career-limiting move, I expect. But what fun.

Book cover of Hornblower

And now, for your reading pleasure, some thought-provoking insight and information from others.

Jerome de Groot’s The Historical Novel both attempts to address some of these issues, but then also includes chapters on books for women and books for men, and accepts the marketing definitions – so books for women are mostly romance, for example, (including Tudor books) without any consideration of historical crime or fantasy or fiction based on a proto-feminist protagonist outside the marriage plot. I find that troubling (a bit like his hilarious suggestion that The Resurrectionist is the first novel by an Australian to be concerned with histories other than our own). But he does write:

Historical novels by women and for women, then, whether romance or more literary, have often been dismissed by literary critics and marginalised by standard accounts, but there is a weight of argument that suggests this is an error: ‘historical fiction has been one of the major forms of women’s reading and writing in the second half of the twentieth century’ (Alison Light, 1989: 60) […] women writers have used the historical novel to express multiple, complex identities and used them as sites of possibility and potential.

In that influential article by Alison Light to which he refers, ‘Young Bess’: Historical Novels and Growing Up,’ she argues:

At best popular historical novels may have helped open up a space within which different groups of women have started to perceive how marginal their needs and concerns have usually been taken to be. They offer a number of new perspectives on the past, which sit less easily alongside text-book history.

And finally, Mary Tod’s annual historical fiction survey found the following (last year):

Within historical fiction, what type of story appeals to you?

Top three for men: fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events 74%; adventure 66%, stories with a military, naval angle 51%

Top three for women: fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events 71%; romance 44%; the life of a significant historical figure 40%. For women, two other reasons come close to the 40% figure suggesting that preferences are more varied.

Sources:

Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel, Routledge, Milton Park, 2010, p 67.

Alison Light, ‘Young Bess’: Historical Novels and Growing Up’, Feminist Review, 1989, Vol.33 (1), p 57.

* Sometimes there is romance in my books, sometimes not. Sometimes there is love, rather than the lead-up to love (romance plot). Sometimes there is the opposite. Sometimes it may not be what you expect.

The history in historical fiction

I recently chaired a debate between historical novelists and historians at the conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia‘What can historical novelists and historians learn from each other?

Our thoughtful and entertaining panellists were Jesse Blackadder, Gillian Polack, Rachel Le Rossignol, and Deborah Challinor.

It was great fun, but of course being in the chair meant I couldn’t answer any of my own questions.

But it’s my blog and I’ll rant if I want to.

So here begins a series of posts on thoughts about the intersections of history writing and historical fiction: arising in part from the conference debate, tracing the questions I posed (and also many that I didn’t get to ask), but also bubbling up from my own reading.  And some tips for writers of historical fiction on how to act on some of the issues raised.

Image of Balmain town hall

The HNSA conference in action: Balmain Town Hall. (Photo via HNSA facebook group)

So… this is where we began the other night:

Without history writing, without libraries and other collections, archaeologists, without the ancient recorders of events and daily life, what we novelists write would be fantasy. On the other hand, we know that fiction works as a gateway drug to history writing and research for both readers and writers. But how alike are these two forms – these two disciplines?

And what techniques, skills, tools and models might they share?

Of course the work of history is diverse, and practice and approaches change dramatically over time. But if historical imagination operates in both history writing and historical fiction, does it work differently – does it feel different to the writer as well as the reader? Does narration work differently? Does interpretation?

Does the history we present look different?

Those are some of the questions I’ll cover in the next few posts.

A proposition

If history writing and historical fiction are about  “understanding what it means to be human” (Carl Degler, 1980), are they part of the same project? Practitioners of both forms seek out  stories from the past, engage with them creatively, sort and interrogate them, pull them into some kind of narrative shape and interpret them for readers.

That seems so obvious, but the ongoing conversation between historians and historical novelists has been rather testy at times.  There is misunderstanding on both sides (if indeed they are ‘sides’) about the commonalities, purposes and practice of both disciplines.

You will often see, for example, historians portrayed in fiction as rigid, data-obsessed researchers (the same might be said of many fictional portrayals of librarians – and academics). They are gatekeepers guarding facts, keeping novelists and readers in the dark about what really happened.

And yet writers of historical fiction depend on writers of history texts – creators of secondary sources – for the information they use to build their imagined worlds; worlds that are, according to Jerome de Groot, “manifestly false but historically detailed.”

What’s going on here? Let’s try to clear the air.

It ought to be clear to us all that the writing of history is a creative process, just like the writing of fiction. It has been since the days of Herodotus. Equally, we can all recognise the depth of research that goes into many works of fiction. So we have a great deal in common. But our approaches may be different – of which more in a later post.

There is, as Gillian Polack pointed out during the debate and in her own writing, an idea of history and historians based on nineteenth century concepts of not just the historian figure but also what the field of history is, does and means. The discipline – the work of interrogating and engaging with the meaning of history, even our understanding of what that word means – changed radically during the twentieth century, and continues to change. But many people haven’t noticed.

I agree with Gillian that historical novelists tend to see ‘history’ in its nineteenth century guise – that thing we all fell in love with in school or in early historical novels – and our responses to the corpus of history writing are seen through this lens. That means we also run the risk of seeing even primary sources and the research process itself from this limited viewpoint. Without an understanding of historiography, of approaches to the work of history, we run the risk of relying on outdated concepts and disproved theories.

Here’s a simple but striking example, discussed by Gillian in one of her articles: Historicising the Historical Novel: How Fiction Writers Talk About The Middle Ages. As a medievalist as well as a writer of fiction, she can see how many novelists view the Middle Ages through the lens of nineteenth century British and French medievalism – that gorgeous romanticised William Morris tapestry version that projected Victorian values onto a certain version of ‘the past’, and influenced many generations of historical novelists. It is, as Deborah Challinor memorably pointed out in the debate, the past without the pus – without a realistic view of life for real people.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I often sound off about the myth of authenticity: this idea that fiction can somehow capture the actual experience and voice of people in the past. It’s nonsense. Or rather, it’s not authenticity, but an expected form of the genre, perfected by Walter Scott and others.

What writers create and readers have come to expect is the medievalist view of the world (even of eras that are not medieval) – it has nothing to do with authenticity, and may indeed have little to do with actual history.

If that’s what you’re writing, all well and good. Recognise it for what it is – medievalist fiction. That’s a thing. But it doesn’t need to run the risk of being incorrect or based on out-of-date data.

What next?

So what can we learn and do?

Keep up to date with new thinking and writing about the theory of history. I find it fascinating: you might not.

At the very least, read current research about the era on which you write, explore new data and interpretations. (I’ll post later about research methods and historical thinking.)

Write with clear(er) eyes about our subjects. We can enrich our world-building and characterisation with recent findings, and our own work with primary sources will be enlivened and informed by the latest analysis by experts in the field – and in other fields. I follow archaeologists and anthropologists as well as historians, for example, and read updates and debates everywhere I can, from Twitter to  specialist history societies, from academic or professional journals (available free and online through your nearest state or national library) to popular media such as the BBC’s History magazine or Inside History.

History and fiction are a tag team, sometimes taking turns, sometimes working in tandem, to deepen our understanding and imagination – Tom Griffiths, ‘History and the Creative Imagination’,  History Australia, 6: 3, 2009.

Some reading suggestions

If you really want to get your teeth into some of these issues, try these:

Is History Fiction? Ann Curthoys and John Docker, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2006.

Re-thinking History, Keith Jenkins, Routledge Classics, London, 2003 (first published 1991)

The Historical Novel, Jerome de Groot, Routledge, London, 2009

The Fiction of Narrative (Essays), Hayden White, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2010.

You might be able to access the journal Rethinking History through your library.

And here’s a list of Gillian Polack’s publications.

To be continued…

James Dean was here

A million years ago, I worked in the housing sector, managing services for homeless young people and working on policy and advocacy. One thing I learned very quickly was that young people hated being called ‘kids’ or ‘teens’ – we are people, who happen to be young. Anything else was patronising. Nobody used the term ‘youths’ because it’s so ugly, and it’s like a police descriptor: “two youths were apprehended this morning…”  In policy, in talking to government, in working with young people, we always said ‘young people.’

Now, I know things have changed, the word ‘teen’ has become much more widespread with the globalisation of US language usage, and young people around 13 in particular don’t mind being called ‘teenagers’ because they’ve aspired to be just that for several years. Then they aspire to be young adults and then adults. ‘Teens,’ not so much. It feels like a marketing term, and this is especially true in publishing for children and young adults. The age range of teens is much more limited than the age range of young adults, too, and there’s a fair bit of slippage between the concepts.

So now we have all these debates in the industry and even in the mainstream media about teen and young adult (YA) fiction: what it is, who it’s for, what it’s doing (or not doing) to its readers. Is it too dark? Does it help young people come to terms with the world? Should adults be ashamed of reading it? Or should they embrace its possibilities? Are books for children or young adults less worthy as literature, or as recreational reading? Or a glorious new form invented by [insert current best-seller name here]?

I’d like to take two steps back.

First, let’s clarify that a lot of the debate is around realist fiction, usually set in cities – it’s called ‘contemporary’ in the trade, sometimes ‘urban contemporary.’ When pundits ask whether YA is too dark or morbid, that’s usually what they mean. They don’t really mean the rest of the world of YA, which is actually a lot of books – fantasy, romance, adventures of different sorts, and even historical fiction. They mean realist books with violence or drugs or sex or swearing – maybe death – or all of the above.

It’s not that you don’t get those things in genre fiction, because of course you do, just that in urban contemporary they are often problematised, either by the author (it’s a book about a teen being homeless or dealing with grief or racism or coming out or  self-esteem), or by the commentary on the book. It is written, in one sense, in acknowledgement of issues faced by young people, to tell their stories, which are our stories too, and some of these books are the most beautifully written, engaging, and moving stories you could ever read.

So that’s what many people think YA is, that’s what many people in libraries and the industry think YA is, and indeed that’s what many readers love to read.

(We go through phases when it’s all about a specific genre because some book or film is on the wider public radar, for example dystopian or paranormal fiction, but the issues that inflame debate are often dealt with in quite a realist manner, albeit set in a built world, as in Hunger Games.)

I think it’s also clear that, for a young person, getting your hands on the right book at the right time can change your life. If you believe you are the only queer person in the world, or the only person being beaten or abused, or hating school and everyone in it, or feeling like shit, then reading about similar experiences – feeling that in-depth, close connection you can feel with a character in long-form fiction – can sometimes even save your life. We know that. Readers tell us that.

And that’s the other step back I want to take.

That whole James Dean/Montgomery Clift troubled teen thing is partly true – we’ve all lived it – and partly a social and cultural construct of Western society in the twentieth century. YA fiction arose after the development of that trope.

Image of film poster

Those of us who write historical fiction have to deal with this tension all the time, or at least we should. When you’re writing about a time before there was such a thing as ‘teenagers’*, how do you capture the timeless clash of generations, the age-old process of finding your way in the world, without referencing the teenager concept? What do you do when writing out of a specific cultural context, perhaps where the relationship between generations is completely different? How do you enact it within the traditions of fantasy?

Can I suggest that the idea that all YA literature is teen lit, that all books are about that problematised cultural identity, underlies the commentary about the books themselves?

I worry that talking about readers of a certain age range as teens slots them into a category – a constructed social category as much as a market segment – that says to them you are like this, you need to read these books. Maybe that’s why we sometimes see a disconnect between the books that are bought for young people and the books they buy for themselves.

People who happen to be young, like everyone else, want books of all sorts, about all kinds of things, at different times. They ask for books that offer hope. They ask for books that provide context for the task of coming into adulthood, of understanding the way the world works, of explaining the inexplicable or creating the utterly fantastical. Sometimes they just want a good laugh or a bit of a day-dream.

And don’t we all?

But there’s something about the trope of the troubled teen and the language we use around it that, in turn, troubles me. I can’t quite put my finger on it yet, but it feels like the term teen categorises both people and books in ways that may not be entirely helpful. And that’s weird, because everyone I know in the field cares passionately about young people who read – or don’t read – and the stories that are written for them, and would never in a million years want to be part of a process that was unhelpful. If it exists, it has grown organically, culturally, perhaps without us seeing it.

This isn’t about the stories themselves, you understand, but about all the stuff around the stories – the discourse and the marketing and the language.

It’s not so much about all those newspaper articles. I don’t expect someone who hardly reads any YA and is writing a one-off feature to understand the complexity involved. I also know, as a journalist, that often you have to write a story on a topic on which you need to become an “expert” in a week and you only ever skim the surface. That’s all it is and it shouldn’t pretend to be anything else. And that YA is just one of those things on which everyone feels like an expert, because they were once young and read books. Whatever. So I have a new policy of not reading dumb-ass articles.

(It’s like race-walking. I know that sounds odd, but I grew up in a family of race-walkers, have spent more hours by the track than I’ve spent almost anywhere else, and every four years when the Olympic Games roll around, I have to listen to whole lot of people who haven’t seen a race since the last Games and only ever watch the highlights hotly debating whether or not some competitor should be disqualified.)

Mind you, I do get cranky when I read articles that are also based on nothing, because it tells me they have no idea of the technical requirements of writing for certain age groups and haven’t bothered to do any research or read many other authors in the field. (There’s a terrific summary here, with bonus bingo card.)

Famously, Caitlin Moran’s recent statement ** that there are no strong female characters in YA, led to the depressing situation of seeing a whole lot of people whose work I adore hopping into one another on Twitter.

So let’s just acknowledge that there’s a lot of thoughtfulness, as well as a bit of crap, written about YA at present.

What I wonder is if people who think about – worry about – and debate these issues need to reconsider a few concepts. This is a question, not an answer. Other wiser people may already have those answers.

Maybe we do mean teen fiction when we discuss contemporary YA – and maybe we need a better term. What if it limits perceptions of the books? Or does it need to be reclaimed?

What if calling our readers teens doesn’t empower them after all? Is it a term applied to them, or something they claim for themselves?

I don’t know. What do you think? What terms do you use, and how do you define them? Does it matter?

Does that troubled teen trope still influence the way we or others perceive YA fiction now?

Teenage_mafie

* From the Online Etymology Dictionary:
teen (n.) “teen-aged person,” 1818 (but rare before 20c.), from -teen. As an adjective meaning “of or for teen-agers,”  from 1947.
teens (n.) 1670s (plural), “teen-age years of a person,” formed from -teen taken as a separate word. As “decade of years comprising numbers ending in -teen,” from 1889.
teenager (n.) also teen ager, teen-ager; 1922, derived noun from teenage (q.v.). The earlier word for this was teener, attested in American English from 1894, and teen had been used as a noun to mean “teen-aged person” in 1818, though this was not common before 20c.
teenage (adj.) also teen age, teen-age; 1911, from teen + age (n.). Originally in reference to Sunday School classes. Teen-aged (adj.) is from 1922.

** Later: In retrospect, I think she meant working-class young women. While there are quite a few, we could always do with more.

And then you get wrinkles in time

“The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline. In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not only outside time, he is outside himself. He has thrown himself completely into whatever it is that he is doing. A child playing a game, building a sand castle, painting a picture, is completely in what he is doing. His self-consciousness is gone; his consciousness is wholly focused outside himself.

“When we are self-conscious, we cannot be wholly aware; we must throw ourselves out first. This throwing ourselves away is the act of creativity. So, when we wholly concentrate, like a child in play, or an artist at work, then we share in the act of creating. We not only escape time, we also escape our self-conscious selves.
“A writer may be self-conscious about his work before and after but not during the writing. If I am self-conscious during the actual writing of a scene, then it ends up in the round file.”
~ Madeline L’Engle

Mixing metaphors

Reading some nice posts over on the AFTRS blog about genre films and television: 

Karen Pearlman argues that “Genre is Necessarily Metaphoric“, including a claim that:

The purpose of Australian feature film production, I propose, is not to tell our own stories.  The purpose of our feature film industry is to make our myths.

and follows it up with Genre is not a Dirty Word“, which surveys classic genre films and argues:

…when we say Genre is not a dirty word we are not saying “sell out”, we are saying pay attention to audience expectations, create them and fulfill them.  We are saying pay attention to the history and techniques of cinema.  We are saying make stories that are bigger than yourself.  And finally, we are saying: consider the role of myth in storytelling and what stories are for.  

It doesn’t seem to be an argument against realism as such, but rather a vindication of the use of myth and metaphor in film, and especially of genre film – and television. We hear the same discussions about genre writing in print. Attack, dismissal and defence.

I wonder whether genre writing has a much healthier future on TV than in film in spite of all the death knells. It certainly seems rosy at present. Period drama, space, procedurals, westerns, even musicals are thriving.
Never mind all the vampires.

Go girl

Love this rant from Rachel over at Forever Young Adult:

Important Literary Journals and Established Intellectual News Sources say I should be ashamed of my reading habits. I’m the reason the publishing world is in such a state, me and my crummy stupid YA books, and it has nothing to do with shitty, self-important authors who are working out their issues in their “plots” rather than with a therapist, because the book isn’t actually a book – it’s the author dealing with the fact that he (and Important Adult Literary authors are almost always men) didn’t win the box car derby when he was nine, and that pain has haunted him for his entire life!

What she said.

And also:
Why the pages and pages of review inches and breathless feature articles for books only ever read to the end by twelve geeks, and virtually none allocated to books read endlessly and adored by thousands of young people?

Anything that smacks of self-importance never even gets opened in this house. So authors, choose your covers and promo blurbs very carefully. Because sometimes we do judge a book by its cover.

Martin Amis has a lot to answer for.

Superheroes

I’ve been watching Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. Pretty much non-stop. For weeks.

Missed it completely when it was actually on TV. Couldn’t have cared less. Didn’t watch Xena. I grew up with The Bionic Woman, Princess Leia, and the original Charlie’s Angels; and nobody, I figured, could measure up to Lynda Carter in her red undies in the superhero stakes. So the 90s superhero phase completely passed me by. Never even saw The Matrix on the big screen (something I deeply regret).

Also, while I quite like action thrillers, I’m not very good at watching scary things, so I’ve never seen Alien.

But since then, you see, there are children – then teenagers – who really want to watch Spiderman or X-Men over and over and you get sucked in and the next thing you know, you’re begging your niece for Buffy DVDs. All seven series.

Now I remember what’s so super about superheroes.

My pirate books were, in fact, anti-superhero. I’d read so many frustrating kids’ books where the protagonist – especially if she was a girl – only escaped the usual near-death experiences due to her amazing and often unsuspected superpowers.

Superpowers suck, I decided. My books will NEVER feature superpowers. In fact, I think I constructed some sort of thesis along the lines of superpowers undermining feminism because … well, I don’t remember the rest and that’s probably just as well ’cause it’s bollocks.

I am, however, still quite happy to argue that many authors let themselves and their characters or plots off the hook with the use of superpowers or paranormal activity. It can be lazy, distracting, pointless. It can be just plain stupid. Read I, Coriander? I rest my case. I’ve mellowed, and am again quite happy to be completely immersed in a well-constructed world of superheroes, so long as that world has its own creative and mythological logic – and not just powers splashed about like fairy dust.

At any rate, Lily Swann, in the Swashbuckler trilogy, quite specifically has only one power that her fellow pirates consider to be extraordinary. She can read. Oh, and she can fence. Both quite remarkable for an ordinary girl in 1798.

She follows the Joseph Campbell-style Quest, as do all heroes, and as many Jungian archetypes a person can muster – they come out of the mythical woodwork while you’re not watching, I swear.

Of course, she is incredibly brave. That goes without saying.
She’s consciously a hero without superpowers, as is Isabella in Act of Faith (out next year) – unless you count education as a superpower which, until recently in the western world, it was. They save themselves and others, including men; they overthrow great powers almost single-handedly; and they – I hope – get all the good lines.

But then, so does Buffy.
Brilliant lines in some pearl-like scripts – scripts so good that I have twice stood and applauded, literally, at the end of episodes – although one of those episodes had no dialogue at all.
For example:

Xander: I’ve been through more battles with Buffy than you all can ever imagine. She stopped everything that’s ever come up against her. She’s laid down her life – literally – to protect the people around her. This girl has died *two* times, and she’s still standing. You’re scared, that’s smart. You got questions, you should. But you doubt her motives, you think Buffy’s all about the kill, then you take the little bus to battle. I’ve seen her heart – and this time not literally – and I’m telling you right now she cares more about your lives than you will ever know. You gotta trust her. She’s earned it.
Faith: Damn, B. I never knew you were *that* cool.
Buffy: Well, you always were a little slow.

It’s hilarious and moving and strong and beautifully written (especially the later series) and scares the shit out of me on a regular basis.

Drusilla: [as The First] Do you know why you’re alive?
Spike: Never figured you for existential thought, luv. I mean, you hated Paris.

Jennifer K Stiller argues in Ink-stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors that the quests of female superheroes are different to those of their male counterparts. Their attributes – and challenges – include compassion, leadership, friendship, family, love, community, and the potential loneliness of those who wield great power. Above all, their stories are about redemption. They usually operate in ways that are not found amongst the Justice League of America or even the X-Men.

The rules about vampire slayers, says Buffy as yet another apocalypse draws near, were made up by a bunch of men, thousands of years ago. Her friend Willow (who happens to be one of the best-loved queer characters on TV – ever) is more powerful than all those men combined. Together they create an army which conquers not only the great evil, but also Buffy’s loneliness, Willow’s insecurity, Faith’s alienation, and the gang’s paralysing fear.

Harry Potter can’t survive without Hermione Granger. Superman’s greatest hero is Lois Lane. It’s Sarah Connor (and her astonishing arms) who terminates the Terminator. Drew Barrymore’s version of Charlie’s Angels kicks ass only when the team is in synch.

There are exceptions – lame chicks who still have to get saved by someone else (I’m looking at you, Gwyneth Paltrow), or whose main aim in life is to look hot in latex in movies aimed at a male audience, rather than inspiring young women (and men) to think differently about female protagonists. In recent years, many of the female superheroes in comics seem to have had breast implants and a ticket to Sleaze Ball 1998. And don’t start me on Twilight.

Perhaps it’s a pendulum that swings back and forth, much like attitudes to feminism. Boringly.

So who knows? Maybe I might have to create someone with superpowers. Some day.

In the meantime, I can’t wait to see what Joss Whedon does with Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers.

And most importantly – what will she wear?