Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Diana as a Feminist Hero

I've said before that a superhero's costume is as important as their origin story and sets the tone for the whole series/run/storyline at hand. Many agree with this standing, as said here, the face of the hero doesn't matter as much as the clothes because "the costume becomes their identity." (WonderWomanForDC.com) This is the heart of why so many fanboys pitch a fit whenever, say, Bats' (er, Batman's) costume is a shade of black different. Wonder Woman hasn't been immune to such controversy in the past. In fact, it's even going on right now as a new television series about her is being developed and filmed. But what about changes to her costumes in her comic book incarnations? And what does this do to alter or effect the thoughts of those who see her as a feminist icon?

The most recent example is when J. Michael Straczynki changed her costume in 2010, in order to "toughen her up and give her a modern sensibility." (Knox) Many were up-in-arms (prior to it being changed back to the original), questioning the change and even wondering why feminist didn't see the change as a point in their favor. Beyond furthering the idea that all feminists see sexuality as inherently bad, it flat out misses the point. As Shelby Knox says, "Diana Prince was sexy not because of her bare legs and cleavage, but because her personhood wasn't defined by them and her powers not derived from fashioning herself for the male gaze." (Knox) It seems to give in to the notion that a women can't be powerful and sexy at once, despite having the best of intentions. As someone who consumes or is around a lot of "geek culture", such as comics and video games, I see a lot of unrealistic images of women presented within that subculture. Many are made with the sole intention of being sexually attractive and just eye-candy. Wonder Woman isn't one of them. Covering her up does nothing to change the new characters that are constantly made in skimpy outfits and with inhuman proportions. Again, the intentions are good, but the target was incorrect.

Another part of her mythology that is often misunderstood or oversimplified is the element of bondage. As I said before, many people play up the sexual aspect of this, which Marston didn't shy away from or ignore. However, the point and the purpose of it is much deeper than that. As can be seen in the origins of Marston's Amazons, the reason they wear the bracelets is as a constant reminder of the enslavement they endured at the hands of men. This, along with Wonder Woman losing her powers if bound by a man, is meant to symbolize oppression by patriarchy; "The ropes and chains are symbols of patriarchy and the drama us her ability to break the shackles of male domination they symbolize." (Crawford)

Changes to Wonder Woman's origin story have bothered fans and feminists alike. The most notable change being in 1968, when her origin story received a massive ouverhaul. She lost her superpowers, bracelets, plane, Amazonian history, and Lasso of Truth. In their place, she became human, began a clothing boutique, and gained a martial arts mentor, I Ching. Some saw this change as a good thing, because it made her powers more realistic and therefore attainable. That fact that she was taught by a man just reflected the real world, especially in regard to the male-dominated world of martial arts. As a letter sent to Ms magazine in September 1972 states, the other storyline seems to imply that "women are better off relying on luck or magic instead of seeking real training from a competant, albeit male instructor." (Plubell) Whereas the 1968 version shows that all women have the potential to become just like Diana.

Though this is quite an understandable and sound argument, there were still many people who were staunchly against the changes, including notable feminist Gloria Steinem. Many likened the Wonder Woman of this period to "a female James Bond, but without his sexual exploits. The double standard applied even to her." (Edgar) They felt that stripping her of her mythical background and increasing her aggression and violence showed that she was in the hands of people who didn't understand her as Marston had made her or intended her to be. The antithesis of all the male-lead violence in the comic book medium that would be a role model for young girls, saying, "Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power... Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman." (Crawford) And if Superman certainly wasn't a normal human being, why should Diana be? In the eyes of a great many, she shouldn't be and eventually her non-mythical center storyline was scrapped in order to reboot the mythical origins she began with. Though, as I've shown earlier, reinstating the mythical background doesn't necessarily mean a complete return to the ideals of Marston, as the 1987 origin was incredibly violent. It makes one wonder if and how his vision of her will ever return, but only time will tell.

Time will also tell if Wonder Woman will ever get the massive respect she deserves and that her equals, Batman and Superman, already receive. The sad truth is that no matter how many feminist hold her up there are even more people who dismiss her. "She's just a girl." They don't give her a second glance because her invisible plane or slightly cheesy TV show, but they don't realize just how much they're missing out on. Unlike so many female comic book characters, she wasn't made to be just eye-candy or the girlfriend. She was made to show girls what they could be and what they were and show both boys and girls the power that lies within all women. That just like the suffragettes before her, one need not resort to violence or evil to produce change, that persistance, logic, and love were some of the greatest weapons of all.

Wonder Woman's Cultural Impact

With seventy years worth of comic continuity, Wonder Woman has obviously been an enduring figure in the comic book world. But what about other media and the culture at large? Though some media may not give her the same respect as her cohorts, Batman and Superman, that doesn't diminish the presence that she has had in culture throughout her seven decades.

While a live action film has yet to be made for the princess, in 2009 an animated film was made; with Keri Russell providing her voice. However, this wasn't the first animated appearance for Wonder Woman. That goes to a 1972 episode of The Brady Kids. Yes, those Brady kids. Then from 1973 to 1986 she was a character in the cartoon Super Friends, which was based on Justice League of America. It was so popular is led to another comic book series and many spoofs. Over a decade later another cartoon based on Justice League of America was made. Justice League (later renamed Justice League Unlimited) aired from 2001 to 2004. Both Super Friends and Justive League Unlimited employed much of the DC Comics arsenal, like Superman, Batman and Aquaman; though in the later show, Wonder Woman's origin was changed slightly, with some of the characters referring to her as "rookie."

These cartoons aren't Wonder Woman's only forays into television. For three seasons from 1975 to 1979, she was title character in the Wonder Woman series (later renamed The New Adventures of Wonder Woman.) The series starred Lynda Carter in the lead role, which became what she was best known for. Not only did it almost define Lynda Carter's career, but her involvement also helped shape the image many had of Wonder Woman in their minds. Carter herself was a huge fan of the character, so she insisted that she be "played for real" (WonderWomanForDC.com) and did her own stunts in the show's first season. To Carter, the character was an important example of feminism and virtue.

The series is also a very early example of bondage-related themes coming into pop culture. However, when most talk about or mention it, they play up the sexual conotations and ignore the implications of it within the story and it's themes (which I will get back to later) and that Marston saw it as a noble practice. He once said, "The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound... Only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society." (Wikipedia)

Besides mainstream pop culture, Wonder Woman has made her way into other art forms. For instance, the essay/article, "Body Swapping, Empowerment, and Empathy", explains the reasons why Linda Stein included Diana's text and image in her 2009 armor sculputures. The scupltures are a comment on gender constructions in regard to people's bodies and how they are "material of cultural reproduction, produce the tangible body." (Thompson) She used Wonder Woman because she can "reflect nothing less than the confusion, fear, and constant reformation of American ideals about American women." (Thompson)

Like many people, I have my own memories of Wonder Woman within my frame of reference. My earliest one being the theme song playing in a scene in the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. The most recent being two episodes of The Big Bang Theory; one in which the characters all dress up as the Justice League with Penny as the group's Diana and another when the four main boys all dressed as Wonder Woman. Another Wonder Woman reference that has always stuck with me was in the film Spiceworld starring the Spice Girls. The film included a scene where they each dressed as many female cultural icons, icluding Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O., Charlie's Angels and Twiggy, with Geri Halliwell dressing as Wonder Woman, among others.

As embarassing as some may think that reference to be, I bring it up to make a point. That Wonder Woman's costume is so ubiquitous that even those who know nothing about superheroes, comics or her specific history, know her costume. And as I said before, like an origin story, the costume is part of what define the comic superhero.

The costume is so embedded in our cultural DNA, that it was used for a Playboy photo "story" of sorts in February 2008 with Tiffany Fallon. As one might expect, using the WW iconography is such a way upset a great many people. Including AfterEllen contributor, Dorothy Snarker, who said, "If you’re going to objectify, just objectify. We all know the game. Don’t frame it in the guise of some faux empowerment lexicon that you think will make the sexualization more sophisticated and therefore more acceptable." (Snarker)

As one can probably tell, the costume is a source of a lot of emotion and not just for fanboys. At times, it is at the crux of feminist thought about Wonder Woman and not always for the reasons one might immediately think (as indicated by the AfterEllen blog entry.) That (along with the sometimes at odds feminist ideas about Diana) is the topic of the next entry.

The Beginnings of the Myth

If there us one thing I've learned about comic superheroes it is that they are defined by two things: their costume and their origin story. the slightest tweeak to either sending fans into a tizzy (at best) and an all-out screaming uproar (at worst). Now, I'll get to the question of her costume later, but first I want to talk about Wonder Woman's origin. Like every other superhero, the origins of Diana set the tone for every comic that follows in that series or run. They can make or break a particular run or storyline and don't always line up with what the creator originally had in mind for that character.

William Moulton Marston's origin for Wonder Woman acts a very condensed version of his theories on gender and the urges of men and women. It starts with Wonder Woman returning an injured Captain Steve Trevor to America after his brief time recuporating on Paradise Isle. Wonder Woman leaves behind scrolls that recount the beginnings of the world and the Amazons, which were born out of the fued between Ares, god of war, and Aphrodite, goddess of love. A perfect allegory of his idea that men can only be forceful and aggressive, while women are capable of both force and love.

After a long time of women being enslaved and seen as worthless by Ares' men, Aphrodite then moulds the Amazons out of clay and makes them a perfect race of women. Later, after betrayal from Hercules (who tried to enslave them) she leads them to Paradise Isle, where no man may ever set foot. And to always remind them of what they were put through and why they were made, all Amazons must wear bracelets that resemble the shackles they were once threatened with.

Aphrodite also taught the Amazon queen, Hippolyte how to mould life. Hippolyte then moulded Diana, who Aphrodite blessed and named after the goddess of the moon. As the child grew, her speed and strength were obvious to all. Diana was greatly loved by her mother, so when Steve Trevor's injured body needed to be returned to America and Diana offered to go, Hippolyte refused. But she no choice but to allow her to when Diana won a contest and proved to be the best that the Amazon had to offer Aphrodite as an ally for America in World War II.

Though it must be said, that for all the feminist overtones and thoughts that Marston had and filled his work with, there are moments that show even he was still a product of his time. It just goes to show that no matter how against the grain or radical one may be for their time, some parts of the culture, especially in regard to gender roles, get drilled into your head. But, I digress.

Over the last seventy years, Wonder Woman has had many other versions of the her origin story. One by Mark Waid and Adam Hughes can be read here. It's quite brief and mentions nothing of the beginnings of the Amazons or the rivalry between Ares and Aphrodite. It shows Hippolyte making Diana out of clay, but instead of this happening because of Aphrodite's teachings, it is due to command from the gods as a whole. Diana's gifts are also given from all the gods, not just the goddess of love.

Another take on Diana's origin was written in 1987 by Greg Potter. Not only does it preserve a lot of Marston's original analogy, but in some ways it's much more brutal. When the story starts the gods are trying to find ways to bring people back to them, because without mankind's faith in them they will cease to be. Artemis suggests a race of perfect women to teach mankind the error of their ways. This idea is immediately hated by Ares, who desires mankind to be mindful of no other god but him and give in to it's sometimes hateful nature.

However, Artemis and other gods and goddesses travel to Hades to revive souls of women that would make up the perfect race, called Amazons.

Initially the Amazons lived amongst the people, but Ares was able to spread lies about them, driving many to be suspicious of them and even hate them. This isn't the only way it differs from Marston's version. When barbaric Herceles comes into the story and eventually enslaves them, the city they live is destroyed, plundered and the Amazons raped. With this kind of brutal detail, it shouldn't come as much of a shock when, once free, the Amazons' revenge is quite bloody and brutal. A far cry from the rehabilitation method that Marston's Wonder Woman employed. Another difference is that Diana becomes the chosen one or Wonder Woman before Steve Trevor is introduced into the storyline. A tournament still takes place to decide that Diana is indeed the one, but here it is done for the vague reason of the "will of the gods."

The amount of different storylines for a given character can be at once the most intriguing and daunting aspect of the comic book world. Wonder Woman has been no stranger to all the different interpretations that writers can impose on a character. Sometimes these reinforce or expound on the creator's intention, sometimes they ignore it entirely, but all are important ways of getting to the root of who a character is, what makes them what they are and why they are important.

The same could also be said when that same character is taken out of her original medium and put into another, whether it's film or the public's consciousness on the whole.

The Man Behind the Amazon

Wonder Woman creator, William Moulton Marston was born on May 9, 1893 in Cliftondale Massachusettes. He earned his A.B. from Harvard in 1915 and a law degree in 1918. Then in 1921 received his Ph. D. in psychology. Though he is most famous for creating Wonder Woman and inventing the lie detector, he had many jobs and positions throughout his life. Marston was also author of several best-selling books on psychology and a contributor to magazines, such as Family Circle. He taught at various universities in the country, including American, Columbia and Tufts. He even spent a year as director of public services at Universal Studios in California in 1929. Also, it was from his tests of personality traits that the DISC is based on.

Marston also acted as an expert witness in many court cases, including the Frye Case in 1923. This case became the standard by which any scientific evidence or expert testimony was introduced to the court or seen as admissable. That standard being: "Just when a scientific principle or discovery crosses the line between the experiemental and the demonstrable stage is difficult to define. Somewhere in the twilight zone the evidential force of the principle must be recognized, and while courts will go a long way in admitting expert testimony deduced from a well-organized scientific principle or discovery, the thing from which the deduction is mafe must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which is belongs." (Moore) And since the lie detector has been a point of controversy and contention from its very inception, this ruling isn't surprising. Despite that, Marston always maintained that his machine could in fact detect lies. Once claiming that it was correct in 97 out 100 actual case studies.

Much of Marston's lie detector and psychological theory was heavily influenced and informed by his wife, Elizabeth Holloway. The two married in 1915 after his graduation from Harvard. The two eventually had two children, Pete and Olive Ann. Elizabeth's influence on his theories and work isn't the only thing that made their marriage different or controversial for their time. While teaching at Tufts in the late 1920s, Marston met Olive Byrne. She soon moved in and became partner to both Marston and Elizabeth. She also had two children with Marston, Byrne and Donn, who were both adopted by Marston and Elizabeth. The family was so happy and content, that even after Marston's death 1947 they didn't go their seperate ways.

In 1940, Marston was appointed educational consultant for Detective Comics, Inc. (or DC Comics) by M.C. Gaines. Marston was always a staunch defender of the comic book medium. Even writing an article entitled, "Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics." Saying, "I see no fault in fictionland piece in which the characters embody not only skill and strength, but qualities of maternal love, affection, and tenderness. All are essential to the normal child as is the breath of life itself." (Colgan) He felt the snobbery on the part of many was uncalled for as it was missing a few huge points; that pictures tell stories better, the comics were getting children to read and not taking advantage of one of the mediums so many children had gravitated to by filling it with constructive and substantial material was a huge loss and missed opportunity.

In particular, Marston felt that comics would be the perfect vehicle for his theories of a coming "age of 'American matriarchy' in which 'women would take over the rule of the country, politically and economically.'" (Gillespie) Marston's theory on gender was about as radical for his time as his homelife. He once wrote an article for Family Circle called, "Women can out-think men!" Marston believed in a kind of "feminist utopia," that would come as "political and economic equality became a reality women could and would use sexual enslavement to acheive domination over men, who would happily submit to their loving authority."

It is this kind of thinking and the fact that comic superhereos were almost exclusively male at the time, that led to the creation of Wonder Woman in 1941. The heroine first appearing in All-Star Comics and her creator taking on the pen-name Charles Moulton; a combination of his middle name and the middle name of DC head, M.C. Gaines. Marston's theory greatly influenced the character's behavior and even her equipment, her Lasso of Truth being an homage of sorts to his lie detector. He also adamant about the fact that Diana herself should never hurt or kill an enemy (with the exception of Nazis). It was his belief that women were superior because of their ability to "have love in addition to force" (Edgar) while men as whole only have force and aggression that brings evil. He determined that Wonder Woman be the exact opposite of the "bloodcurdling masculinity" that permeated comics and be a symbol of love and reform. Something he tried to established from her very first pages on.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The strength of Hercules, the wisdom of Athena, the speed of Mercury... the feminism of Diana

When given the task to choose a topic for my Women's Studies praxis project, at first I drew a blank. Then one day I sat in the library and thought. I wasn't sure where to start or where to take it. My first thought was the great suffragette, Alice Paul, but the thought didn't grab me, despite my admiration and respect for her. Then inspiration hit in the form of two words:

Wonder Woman.

From there the whole project seemingly fell into my lap. She's the perfect topic given her creator's feminist theories, all the critiques and misconceptions about her, and the powerful and influential figure/icon that she is in comic book and mainstream culture. With this blog, I hope to explore some of the many facets of Princess Diana, her history and how they can fit with a feminist/gender studies framework.

But I might be getting a bit ahead of myself. To really understand Wonder Woman you must first understand her creator, William Moulton Marston. With that in mind, in my next entry, the topic I will be covering will be Marston and his theories.

Works Cited

This entry will serve as the masterlist of every source I use in the course of this blog. I'm expecting some sources will be used in multiple entries, but most will be catagorized by the entry they are unique to.

Special thanks go to the wonderful people over at Comicunity, without their generousity I wouldn't have the actual Wonder Woman comics in my possession.

The Man Behind the Amazon
- Crawford, Phillip Charles. “The Legacy of Wonder Woman.” School Library Journal 53.3 (2007): pp30-31. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 May 2011.
- Colgan, Richard T. “Tickle Their Imagination.” Peabody Journal of Education 43.3 (1965): pp138-144. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 May 2011.
- Edgar, Joanna. “Wonder Woman Revisited.” Ms. July 1972: pp52-55. Print.
- Gillespie, Nick. "William Marston's Secret Identity." Reason 33.1 (2001): pp52-53. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 May 2011.
- Moore, Mark Harrison. The Polygraph and Lie Detection. Committee to Review the Scientific Evidence on the Polygraph (National Research Council (U.S.)), 2003. Wed. 3 May 2011. Here.

The Beginnings of the Myth
- Moulton, Charles, and William Moulton Marston. Wonder Woman. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Wonder Woman Publishing Company/DC Comics, 1942. Print.
- Potter, Greg, and George Perez. Wonder Woman. Illus. John Constanza. Ed. Karen Berger. Vol. 1. N.p.: DC Comics, 1987. Print.
- Waid, Mark. "The Origin of Wonder Woman." Comic strip. DC Universe. Warner Bros. Entertainment Company, n.d. Web. 10 May 2011. Here.

Wonder Woman's Cultural Impact
- “Hot and Happening Lynda Carter.” Wonder Woman for DC: Unofficial Fansite. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 May 2011. Here.
- Snarker, Dorothy. “Wonder Woman: Feminist icon, or just a painted lady?” AfterEllen.com. Logo Online, 18 Jan. 2008. Web. 10 May 2011. Here.
- Thompson, Margo Hobbs. “Body-swapping, Empowerment, and Empathy: Linda Stein’s Recent Sculpture - 2009.” Linda Stein. Caligraphy Studios, Inc., n.d. Web. 9 May 2011. Here.
- “William Moulton Marston.” Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 May 2011. Here.
- “Wonder Woman in Cartoons.” Wonder Woman for DC: Unofficial Fansite. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 May 2011. Here.

Diana as a Feminist Hero
- “Controversy on Costume.” Wonder Woman for DC: Unofficial Fansite. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 May 2011. Here.
- Crawford, Phillip Charles. “The Legacy of Wonder Woman.” School Library Journal 53.3 (2007): pp30-31. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 May 2011.
- Edgar, Joanna. “Wonder Woman Revisited.” Ms. July 1972: pp52-55. Print.
- Knox, Shelby. "Wonder Woman Makeover: Death of Feminist Icon?" AlterNet. N.p., 1 July 2010. Web. 9 May 2011. Here.
- Plubell, Philip. “’Joanne Edgar in ‘Wonder Woman Revisited’ (July, 1972) clearly believes...’” Letter. Ms Sept. 1972: pp5-6. Print.