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Girls Who Bite Back: Witches, Mutants, Slayers and Freaks, edited by Emily Pohl-Weary, Sumach Press, 2004, 358 pp.

On the back cover of this interesting new collection, Girls Who Bite Back sets out its agenda: "Taking on the bombshell spies, slayers, witches, and assassins who are fighting their way into movies and television shows everywhere, Girls Who Bite Back examines what these new role models for young women are really about." This is an ambitious plan, and due to a wealth of material and some skilful editing by Pohl-Weary, the collection examines and expands these role models through fiction, non-fiction, comics, and art.

Pohl-Weary kicks everything off with an introduction, "The Mutant Generation: Shaping Stronger and Wiser Superheroines." This is a mix of personal reminiscences and some sharp cultural observations. It's a harder style to pull off than it appears to be, and it sets the tone for the rest of the pieces in the collection.

The best two short stories in this collection are "Stinky Girl" by Hiromi Goto and "The Smile on the Face" by Nalo Hopkinson. "Stinky Girl" is told in the first person by a woman who is actually 33, but who lives at home in a trailer with her mother. Most of the time, Stinky Girl is telling us all of the awful things about her life, such as a profanity-spewing mother, the ghostly head of her dead father, her strange personal odour, and so forth. What makes the story interesting is Stinky Girl's oddly formal style of narrating. The slightly elevated or proper diction reminds me of nothing so much as Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, but Goto puts it to much different use here. Mostly this is because "Stinky Girl" has a wonderful and gracious ending.

"The Smile on the Face" by Nalo Hopkinson is about a young teen named Gilla. The story gets off to a rocky start; I was a bit disoriented at first because of my first impression of Gilla as much younger than she turns out to be. Hopkinson quickly gets past this and throws Gilla into the brutal world of teen relationships at a party. She is teased for a few different things, but she has a secret and this secret might be a way of gaining some self-confidence and striking back at her tormentors.

I also enjoyed Mariko Tamaki's "Diary of a Broom Girl" (whose main character is trying to get a coworker to stop calling her Broom Girl) and Kij Johnson's "Myth Girls" (about a strange post-apocalyptic setting and a young girl who wants to have responsibility for herself).

Girls Who Bite Back also has fiction by Rose Bianchini, Daniel Heath Justice, A.M. Dellamonica, Sherwin Tjia, Emily Pohl-Weary, Judy MacDonald, Zoe Whittall, and Larissa Lai.

After a heavy dose of non-fiction related to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was quite happy to come across "Suffragettes, Vigilantes and Superheroes: One Girl's Guide to Chicks in Comics" by Elizabeth Walker and "Cinematic Superbabes are Breakin' My Heart: It's Hard to Go All the Way With the New Breed of Lady Killers When They Just Won't Let Go of That Man" by Lisa Rundle. Walker's piece is a relatively straightforward survey of women and comics, either female creators or female characters. It's a short article on a topic that has taken up volumes elsewhere (Walker mentions Trina Robbins, who happens to provide a blurb for the back cover of this edition), but I appreciated the conciseness and tone of the information. Rundle writes more generally about female protagonists and the ways in which stereotypes linger, as well as the problematic way corporate interest co-opt or otherwise use these impulses.

Girls Who Bite Back also has non-fiction by Nikki Stafford, Candra K. Gill, Carly Stasko, Nancy Gobatto, Sophie Levy, Sandra Kasturi, Catherine Stinson, and Esther Vincent. These pieces range from academic looks at race in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to personal reminiscences about girlhood and culture.

The collection has its fair share of comics and art, most quite short or consisting of a few selected paintings. Most of these entries focus on female characters, such as "The Parkdale 3" by Matthew Blackett and Meagan Crump or "Crisis Girl in Spring Rolls!" by Marc Ngui and Magda Wojtyra. My favourite was probably either "Slumpyheroes" by Sherwin Tjia, which portrays some famous female protagonists, such as Agent Scully or Wonder Woman, as women with non-supermodel proportions, or "Karate Girls" by Eliza Griffiths, which features different women who might not be otherwise considered as typical karate practitioners. The book also includes art or comics by Sonja Ahlers, Paola Poletta, Lisa Smolkin, Willow Dawson, Sheila Butler, and Shary Boyle (who also provided the excellent cover art for the book).

Girls Who Bite Back has a number of unclassifiable items. "Report on Five Case Studies of Female With Enhanced Characteristics: Molecular Basis and Treatment Strategies" by S.P. Bustos presents itself as a medical document from the future or an alternate reality. "Madame Mouth's Little Get-Together: Female Video-Game Entities Talk Life, Love and Bloodshed" by Carma Livingstone is a collection of emails and stat sheets for a number of female videogame characters who have become friends. "The Danger Room Girls" by Sherwin Tjia is a chatroom transcript and "Bond, Jane Bond" by Halli Villegas mixes non-fiction with a proposed script for a female version of 007. Each of these pieces is fiction in some way, but presents itself differently than the straightforward fiction of the short stories.

The unclassifiable category is a good way to conclude a review of Girls Who Bite Back. This collection is a strange, intriguing and observant mix of creative and analytical impulses. I can imagine that this wasn't an easy collection to put together, especially balancing all of the disparate parts. Quite an accomplishment. I was also pleased to close the book with the feeling that, apart from a few pieces pointing out past or current inequalities, the hardest work in any of the categories went into creating (or highlighting) new role models, superheroine or otherwise. Yes, the book still functions as a corrective but it also gets busy doing its own thing in each instance.

Last modified: June 2, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (

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