Among other things, feminism taught me how to play guitar. As a young white whelp who had never had to know any better, I was unexpectedly drawn to the menace and message of the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s. Although I arrived a little late to the party, Sleater-Kinney’s breakout Call the Doctor was one of the first albums that I ever purchased from a store where tattoos were mandatory business attire. From there it was all back catalogues of Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Boss Hog, to say nothing of bands whose names began with other letters of the alphabet. I never got all that good at guitar, but I certainly adopted all of the crass creativity and critical awareness that would first inform my politics and then my pedagogy. And which would also somewhat understandably inform the way that I came to regard female characters in mainstream comics, whom I felt were being artistically abused by their unrealistic proportions and seemingly undue salaciousness. (If you need some visual reference here, the new blog Escher Girls is committed to interrogating some of the most extreme skimpiness and impossible elasticity of female figure drawing in modern comics.)
Until a few years ago, this is why I thought I was being a good feminist by not reading Power Girl, the eponymous title of a DC Comics character whose most famous feature is the “boob window” on her costume. Yes, “boob window.” This is pretty much the accepted nomenclature for the oval absence that reveals her swelling cleavage through an otherwise skintight white spandex leotard. (A study of the history of her costume can be read here.) Whereas Superman’s chest was emblazoned with an “S” that proudly signified his Kryptonian family’s crest and Batman’s bat symbol signified, well, a bat, Power Girl’s permanent wardrobe malfunction seemed to literally embody the very worst of comics, which – despite my actual enjoyment of the medium and its newly warmed welcome at the fringes of academic interest – continued to endorse an anatomical ignorance of women’s bodies. This is even taking into account that, yes, we are talking about drawings of fictional women who are super-powered. Still, it seemed excessive. And so, as a devotee of Kathleen Hanna’s dictum of “revolution, girl style,” Power Girl was the last thing that I was supposed to want to look at.
I had arrived at this conclusion without ever having read a single issue of Power Girl in the first place, of course, which itself affirms the sad fact that I hadn’t learned anything from my deafeningly socially conscious music collection after all. To jump to a judgment based solely on bra size is perhaps as bad as just saying that all female superheroes suck – a prototypical fanboy sophistry (which I have literally heard actual human males say on more than one occasion). Because of course they don’t suck. It turns out, in fact, that Power Girl is pretty awesome. Despite a basically byzantine character biography and continuity within the shared DC Comics universe that dates back to her first appearance in 1976, Power Girl remained a member of the Justice Society of America (which is like the Justice League’s B-team – a mix of old-timers and ingénues) and was given her own ongoing title in 2009 with writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and artist Amanda Conner. This series defied all that was static about mainstream comics by actually being fun to read. Whereas Superman could never deviate too far from his role as the world’s biggest boy scout and the brooding grittiness of Batman made him seem like kind of a bummer to be around, Power Girl was as punchy and powerful as she was annoyed with having to keep doing this shit. Saving the world and whatnot. Which, when you think about it, seems not only like a lot of hard work, but also a real impediment to ever making plans. Yes, Power Girl was still saddled with a boob window, but whatever was supposed to be sexy or titillating about the character was met with a sense of humor that juxtaposed brains with brawn (and breasts). As she balanced super heroism with the day-to-day business of running a major tech company as her secret identity Karen Starr – to say nothing of the demands of pet ownership – Power Girl became a character whose costume became less important than simply rooting for her to have an evening where she could throw on some sweatpants and do nothing like the rest of us.
Amanda Conner’s figure work is easily eclipsed by her attention to facial expressions, and as Power Girl vacillated between the joy of actually hitting space monsters and the mind-numbing tedium of constantly being hit on, Conner’s cartooning navigates the minute muscular differences between smirks and scowls. Despite her overt curves, Power Girl became a character whose character was literally written on her face. Traditional supervillains notwithstanding, Power Girl was also constantly besieged by the misguided and awkward advances of the various men and boys with whom she came into contact – ironically mirroring those male readers, I’d argue, who fail the “I’m up here” test of looking women in the eyes.
The series was therefore at its funniest and most subversive (and frankly maybe even a little feminist) when Power Girl was fighting both as a superhero and as a woman; the threat of inopportune and unwanted male attention became as persistent and tough to tackle as anything else.
One assignment that has become a staple of my first-year writing course is a reflective essay about why your favorite song is your favorite song. This is the first major essay that we write, in fact, followed by more research-driven essays about music and its social, historical, and aesthetic role in our culture. My own personal favorite song is “Little League” by Cap’n Jazz, a young batch of super-smart goofballs from Chicago in the early 1990s. They may have done a reunion tour or something since then, but that’s not the kind of thing I tend to feel comfortable encouraging. Either way, and nostalgia or no, this song is one that I really still love.
But where’s the humor in all of this, you ask? For some reason – and this happens every time – most of my students straight up erupt into laughter when I play “Little League” for them in class. Something about this song is funny to them, but it is not a funny song. It might be the howling. Or maybe the fact that this song doesn’t sound at all like the way that I look. So over the last few years, I have developed the following short essay as a way of writing with them and sharing my own work and seeking out the reasons why my favorite song is, well, my favorite song. I have my reasons.
Being Nerdy Loudly
I didn’t learn shit in science class, but I remember that centripetal force draws things into the center – like the “petals” of a flower or some other pneumonic device – and centrifugal force goes the other way. I guess, therefore, that in my own life, I tend to move centrifugally: outward from the center, haunting the fringes of wherever I end up, and stopping only when there is finally a wall.
This is also how I played sports. As a once-aspiring hall-of-fame baseball player, I began little league on the first day at first base, and slowly made my way around the infield – seeking out less important positions – until the only place I could be trusted to stand was in deep right field, where no one was yet strong enough to hit the ball.
This is also how I listened to music. I went to my first punk show a few years after my retirement from future professional athletics, and I hit the mosh pit immediately – only to learn that the pit hit back. Within minutes, I was standing with a cool, cerebral distance in the back of the club, where I’ve remained a gargoyle for the last seventeen years. I’m the same at parties, too, and I can describe most of the artwork on my friends’ walls with a depressing attention to detail.
Which is why, when it comes to music, I’ve always preferred the awkward to the anthem. I mean, I’m not the fist-pumping-est guy in the world. Basically I am the “you” who gets rocked in “We will, we will rock you.” It also goes without saying that I’m not much of a dancer. I dance the way that babies eat: it’s messy, it’s kind of gross if you actually watch it, and something usually gets knocked over.
And so when I first heard the song “Little League” by Cap’n Jazz through the tinny, tiny speakers of a thrift-store record player in a stranger’s basement, I heard myself dance, play baseball, and grow up all at the same time. It’s a really messy song – almost embarrassingly messy – as though the band had never played it before. The verses sound like someone is mugging a group of maladjusted choir-boys in a room where different stereos are tuned to different songs – none of them hits. The chorus… well, I’m not totally sure that there is a chorus. The lyrics are really kind of brilliant, but you’ll never hear them. The vocal delivery is as earnest and clumsy as finally telling a girl that you “like” her in junior high, but at maximum volume. There is also a lot of yelling.
By the end, there’s nothing to sing along to, nothing identifiably rhythmic to dance to, and if you really wanted to pump your fist in the air, you’d have to do it randomly.
It’s like my national anthem.
This song is my answer to age, really, because it always sounds young to me – again, like it is being played for the first time each time. And you can hear the band grow up as well; the song somehow already embodies their own short career. It starts small, gets loud, and then basically kind of falls apart. And so you can literally hear the band emerge from their modest, awkward beginnings (in 1993) to their glorious, awkward brilliance (in 1994) to their tragic, awkward demise (in 1995).
Whenever I play the song, as loudly as I can in my small car or apartment, I feel as though I am hitting back at the same world that I am also hiding from, and that it’s okay if I’m not totally cool. No one will probably notice anyway.