Recovering the radical promise of the superhero genre : transformation, representation, worldmaking

Kirkpatrick, Ellen (2017) Recovering the radical promise of the superhero genre : transformation, representation, worldmaking. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This thesis responds to a question: if the Western mainstream superhero genre is so radical then why does it feel so reactionary in practice? The framing of this distinctive question points to the genre's ideologically unstable and contradictory meaningscape. Genre meaning is polysemous and shaped by official and unofficial meaning-makers, and yet, it routinely falls into duality. The genre tells, and facilitates, an astonishingly seamless tale of opposing ideologies. But, how? This thesis, innovatively maps this untheorised ideological divergence through three fronts: transformation, representation, and worldmaking. It is sited outside the conventional parameters of genre discourse and knowledge production. It makes several contributions to knowledge, as indicated below, and introduces some new terms and tools. It demonstrates, for instance, the value in reconceoptialising the concept of escape as 'e-scape' and worldmaking as 'world-un/making'. It asserts that genre meaning (and our perception of transformation) is shaped by a nexus of divergent forces: concept (how we think about it), representation (how we show/see it), and practice (how we do it). It draws the idea of 'promise' from Haraway (1992) and Cohen (2012) and institutes the idea that superheroes, as well as monsters, possess 'promise' (radical or otherwise). It reveals superheroic transformation as an omnipresent source of radicalism. It goes on to identify and theorise a disconnect between the (radical) concept of a superhero and its mainstream representation (conservative). It asserts that even though portraying transforming figures, superhero representation stays firmly within hegemonic lines, and it concludes that the radicalism of transformation, and superheroes, is lost in the telling. But it does not stop there; to do so would be to mark an area of the genre's meaning-map, 'Here Be Monsters'. Fans and audiences, particularly minority fans, are the final, critical, worldmaking element of this thesis. Whilst the genre talks about fantastic transformations, transgressive minority superhero fans perform them. This thesis illuminates continuing minority engagement with a beloved, but exclusionary and often hostile, genre. It reconceptualises this transgressive mode of textual engagement as a form of textual escapology, or 'texcapology'; a practice that not only keeps the genre 'alive' for excluded audiences and fans, but aids the recovery of the genre's lost radical promise. Theorising the genre's multivocal meaningscape allows the assertion that genre meaning is promissory rather than binary. This thesis asserts that genre meaning is a case of 'both/and' (radical and conservative) rather than 'either/or'. It concludes that the genre's unstable and contradictory meaningscape is itself a site of radical promise.

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