Modern Myths: Female Heroes Confront Their Past

As an avid devourer of pop culture, I occasionally like to pry myself back and take a critical look at what it is I am so rabidly consuming. Fitting this desire to a tee is Kathleen McConnell’s latest book, a handy guide that analyzes some of the major female characters to grace televisions and theatres in the past decade. Her book Pain, Porn and Complicity: Women Heroes from Pygmalion to Twilight compares current media to much older stories. While not all of her essays are entirely successful, the book is an enjoyable and informative read that questions the narratives surrounding female protagonists and how these characters both sit comfortably inside archetypes and break through them.

McConnell analyzes modern day films and television shows such as Catwoman, Buffy, Dark Angel and Twilight, demonstrating how each one is simply a continuation and, at times, a breakaway from tales of times long past. Although there are many texts McConnell compares these works to, the most reoccurring is Pygmalion’s myth in which a sculptor falls in love with a statue he has created. In the myth, the goddess Aphrodite gives life to the statue who ends up marrying her creator and bearing him a son. Other texts used as a base for her arguments are Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and the works of Freud. This diverse array of stories provides a means to read current day media in a whole new light.

Pain, Porn and Complicity is an engaging and easy-to-grasp look at some of our most popular stories. The overall structure of the book is fairly interesting. While some chapters are merely straightforward essays, others drift into more creative formats. Her essay on Twilight, for instance, is split into the provocative themes of “Pain,” “Porn” and “Complicity.” Breaking away even further, her analysis of Catwoman is done in the form of a poem, using the shapes of the prose to convey her argument more effectively. If anything, McConnell deserves points for the originality and playful spirit of her work. She even comes up with whole new reasons to be crept out by Twilight, a subject that I thought was thoroughly mined of its disturbing elements, by providing a Freudian reading.

Although I had a great deal of fun reading this book, I think the subjects of some essays did not always mesh with book’s greater argument. There are a few in here that stick out like sore thumbs. First off, her analysis of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, while enjoyable and enlightening to read, did not seem to match up well with the greater theme of female heroes. Although it is arguably the best fit for comparison to the Pygmalion myth (this is clearly why the film was chosen), it does not have a prominent female lead like in all the other texts analyzed. Indeed, the main character is a small robot boy.

Also, while McConnell’s arguments are generally sound, I just couldn’t get on board with her Buffy essay which dissected the public outcry regarding the cancellation of Buffy in the wake of the Columbine shooting. What started out as an intriguing subject quickly dissolved into an essay that was incredibly scattered and hard to follow. It is one of the only essays that attempts to compare a fictional setting to a real life event, and it is not entirely successful. The convoluted essay runs long and is ripe with forced arguments that felt like McConnell was trying to jam a round peg in a square hole.

Despite the occasional bump in the road, Pain, Porn and Complicity provides an entertaining and discerning perspective into some of the most popular female characters in recent memory.