When Chase de Saint-Felix, CAS/MA '13, needed a break from Kant, he turned to Wonder Woman.
Comics—Black Hammer, Pretty Deadly—were just supposed to provide a little mindless entertainment between mentally taxing grad school texts. Thing is, comics aren't so mindless. Ever the philosopher, de Saint-Felix began looking at them with a more critical eye.
"I was fascinated by the way comics play with gender dynamics. Everything is overly dramatic and done for show," says the College of Arts and Sciences adjunct. "In philosophy, we talk about thought experiments: people come up with the most grandiose, extreme scenarios to push our thinking to its limits. Comics do that all the time."
At the urging of Lauren Weis, director of AU's Women's,
Gender, and Sexuality Studies program, de Saint-Felix crafted a class inspired
by his love of—and intellectual fascination with—comic books. "She said,
'You're always talking about comic books.
Why not teach about comic books?'"
Traditional comic books have long been playgrounds of masculinity. De Saint-Felix's new five-week course explores the way in which feminist thinkers have used the genre's excesses to challenge patriarchy and narrow depictions of women as damsels in distress or tawdry temptresses.
The class kicks off with Frank Miller's Batman: Dark Knight Returns. "Widely considered one of the best comics of all-time," de Saint-Felix says, "it's also one of the most sexist things I've ever read. Miller hated the Batman who ran around in tights on TV. As Miller said, he wanted to 'give Batman his balls back.'"
De Saint-Felix juxtaposes Miller's work, which depicts Catwoman as a prostitute who's physically abused, with a Wonder Woman comic by Greg Rucka in which the heroine—tasked with protecting a young woman—goes head-to-head with Batman, sparking a discussion about feminist care ethics and political justice. Students also read Y: The Last Man, about a global plague that instantly kills every mammal possessing a Y chromosome, leaving women born into a patriarchal world without, well, patriarchs.
"There's a false assumption that pop culture is a nonacademic space. Hopefully, students will learn that the theories and debates from class don't need to stay there," de Saint-Felix says.