Central Penn College - Central Penn's Pop Culture Professor

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October 1, 2018 Central Penn's Pop Culture Professor

What do the Dowager Countess (from Downton Abbey), Jessica Jones and Supergirl have in common? They’ve all been the subject of articles written by Dr. Melissa Wehler, the dean of Humanities and Sciences at Central Penn College.

Dubbed the “Pop Culture Professor” by some of her colleagues, Wehler has been in the midst of a mini-publishing boom recently. Her article––“'We are Allies, My Dear': Defining British and American National Identity in Downton Abbey”–– was featured in Exploring Downton Abbey: Critical Essays.

A second article, “The Haunted Hero: The Performance of Trauma in Jessica Jones,” was recently published in the essay collection, Jessica Jones, Scarred Superhero.

A third one on Supergirl will be published later this year.

“During the past few years, there has been an explosion of strong female characters appearing in pop culture, especially on television,” says Wehler. “I’m drawn to such characters and am inspired to write about them as well.”

The St. Marys, Pa., native earned a bachelor’s in English and cultural anthropology from Penn State University, a master’s in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon University, and a doctorate in English from Duquesne University.

A New Era for Empowered Female Characters

“Strong female characters are moving from the perimeter of the narrative to the center of their own stories,” Wehler says. “They’re no longer male-dependent. They have their own motivations and agency.”

She cites Merida in Brave and Elsa from Frozen––lead characters from two recent Walt Disney animated movies––as examples of self-driven, multi-dimensional female characters who aren’t sidekicks or love-sick heroines. “Hollywood is starting to get the message, but we still have a long way to go both in front of the camera and also behind it,” says Wehler, who joined Central Penn College as an English professor in 2012.

She’s optimistic about the number of changes she’s seeing, especially in the world of television, which now includes streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.

“Jessica Jones is such a compelling protagonist,” says Wehler, speaking of the title character of the hit Netflix series. “She has super powers, but she failed as a superhero. Can she find a way, despite her flaws, to realize her true potential? That’s a powerful story arc.” In her recently published essay, Wehler delves into Jones’ trauma as a source of her downfall but also potentially her redemption.

The Millennial Difference

For spurring many positive changes in the current media environment, Wehler credits millennials. “This younger generation is saying enough with the status quo! They’re forcing Hollywood to change movies because scripts can’t pass the Bechdel test,” says Wehler, referring to a method––created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel––that evaluates fictional works based on whether at least two named female characters have a conversation about something other than a man. 

“It’s surprising how many movies, including one of my all-time favorites, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, can’t pass this rather simple test,” she says.

Superhero Stories

Wehler is excited about the upcoming Captain Marvel movie that features Brie Larson as the lead character. “We need more female superheroes with their own movies, and I’m looking forward to Captain Marvel, but I also want to see Storm, Jean Grey and Supergirl all get their own films,” she says.

As a co-editor of a forthcoming essay collection on Supergirl, Wehler is doing her part to shine a light on overlooked and under-regarded female superheroes. Her article “The Super ‘It’ Girl: A New Brand for a Classic Icon” will also appear in the book.

“Girls and women need to see themselves represented in pop culture… and in all genres and formats. This is happening with a lot more frequency now, but much work still needs to be done,” she says.

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