Emmie Mears has been searching for superwomen her entire life.
The Texas-born, Maryland-based author, whose debut novel The Masked Songbird debuts July 1st, spent her childhood wondering why the women in the dog-eared genre books she was devouring simply weren't performing the same heroic deeds as the men. Eventually she realized that the best way to find the stories she wanted to read was to write them herself. In The Masked Songbird, the sepia-toned life of meek Scots accountant Gwen Maule gets a steroidal injection of Marvel Technicolor when a casual swig of a mysterious liquid grants her superpowered healing, senses and strength. Pitched originally as "Bridget Jones meets Spider-Man," the story sees Gwen and her new abilities caught up in a sinister conspiracy tied to the looming referendum on Scottish independence. The book is the first of two parts, kicking off Mears' career in the wheelhouse she loves best.
With the explosion in popularity the superhero genre has seen since the beginning of the 21st Century, wondering where the superwomen are would seem to be a logical question. While bookshelves spill over with supernaturally-empowered female heroes, the big screen remains largely a man's world. With the taste of decade-old flops like Catwoman and Elektra lingering in their mouths, studio executives remain wary of woman-led genre films, even in the face of recent smash hits like Frozen, Maleficent and The Heat. Mears admits that the seed of The Masked Songbird was planted when she went to see 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man, and felt frustrated that a studio was rebooting a familiar (and somewhat burned-out) male superhero franchise rather than letting, say, Wonder Woman have her first shot. As she points out, much of this springs from the fact that the people with the ability to greenlight movies and TV shows are predominantly men, and that while audiences can vote with their dollars, the process of changing the old boys' club attitudes will be painfully slow. It doesn't matter how many Hunger Games or Divergents break box-office records; you'll still get the croaky dude chomping on his cigar in the boardroom opining that 'broads in capes don't sell tickets.'
The Masked Songbird boasts all the ingredients to become the kind of breakout hit that will make cigars drop from astonished mouths: plenty of heroic derring-do, a plot torn from breaking news, and most of all, an identifiable, likeable hero. Gwen Maule grabs you from the opening scene, in which she's being dressed down by her expensively-manicured boss for a minor mistake - shades of Office Space and TPS reports, only far more humiliating. According to Mears, Gwen "is a product of the global recession as well as a child of poverty. She has what I think is the under-represented mainstream millennial generation mindset of just sort of... plodding forward. While people like to call this generation entitled, I think for the vast majority of millennials, reaching adulthood at the zenith of global recession has put many on autopilot. Work, sleep, lather, rinse, repeat." What sets Gwen apart from the Bruce Waynes and the Clark Kents is how deeply she is engaged in the regular world, struggling to make ends meet. "Her journey," says Mears, "is recognizing the power she has always had to alter her circumstances and effect change in her own life and others. She is just a person with special abilities, learning how to use them in tandem with her pre-existing latent - very human - strengths."
The very human Emmie Mears has always had one foot planted in the superhero world, and that passion is transforming her into something of a thought leader for geeks. The website she started a little over a year ago, SearchingForSuperwomen.com, gets upwards of 30,000 hits a month with its regular posts from a dozen different contributors on books, movies, comics, conventions and fandom in general. "I think the appeal of the superhero genre is the ability to project yourself onto someone extraordinary," she says. "Even the gritty superheroes call back to human nature, to the desire to fit in or the need to prove oneself. I think that's one of the things that makes them so alluring. Fantasy as a whole provides us the ability to imagine ourselves away from this world in a different way -- to imagine better worlds, or scarier worlds, but worlds where extraordinary things happen. At the heart of all great fiction is humanity, though. That's where superheroes and fantasy in general shine brightest: telling human stories through a different lens."
Unfortunately, it isn't just the prototypical male studio executives who chafe at the idea of women playing in this rich and rewarding toy box. An ugly undercurrent courses beneath geek culture, as some male fans have taken to questioning the motivations of what they call "fake geek girls," harassing women who cosplay (for the uninitiated, that's the creation and wearing of outfits based on characters from fantasy, sci-fi and comics, usually at conventions) and generally making the life of a female geek one that must be lived on the defensive. Arguments about whether or not Han shot first can get nasty enough without bringing misogyny into the mix.
Never shy with her opinion, Mears is resigned to the notion that speaking out means preparing for an onslaught of sexism that simply won't be experienced by her male counterparts. What it doesn't mean is letting that potential response intimidate her into silence. What perpetuates the attitude, she says, is an ongoing lack of understanding of just how different life is for girls and women: "We have to operate from a point of view that every strange man is a potential threat. Have to. I cannot emphasize that enough. It's ingrained in us from childhood, and it's beyond stranger danger. Women are taught laundry lists of ways to stay safe that don't always succeed. Because if we let our guard down and treat strange men like they are safe by default and something DOES happen, we're ALWAYS going to get blamed for it by someone. It's a given. There is no if."
Though Gwen Maule might be able to dispense such threats with a well-placed roundhouse kick, in the real world, Mears is calling on the supermen to strap on their neon-colored tights. "When you exist in a space where women are not present and you see or hear men saying things that you know are wrong or disrespectful or toxic or shaming to women, SPEAK UP. The Internet is good proof that many men listen more to other men than they do to women. If I call a guy out on a rape joke, I get told to lighten up. If a man calls his friend out for making a rape joke and makes it abundantly clear that it's not cool, maybe that guy will think twice next time. We all know someone who has been assaulted or raped -- we just might not know it because people don't exactly wear it on their foreheads. And beyond that, women are people who should merit basic courtesy and respect by default, just like men. Ultimately, we have to create a space where the Elliot Rodgers of the world are challenged by the very people they think will accept their bullshit without question."
Following the release of The Masked Songbird and its sequel, Mears will be publishing A Geek Girl's Guide to Fandom, a nonfiction collection of articles and essays, and under development are works in both magical realism and epic fantasy - the latter inspired by her love of the tales of Robert Jordan and David Eddings. In the meantime, the search for superwomen continues - though, for Gwen Maule, her creator Emmie Mears, and geek girls the world over, the search need not go further than the nearest mirror.