In the beginning – well, 1941, actually – Wonder Woman was unleashed on the world of men. Although her original adventures were set during the time of World War II, her movie debut was shifted to World War I, but this is beside the point I want to make first. Her initial presentation during the Golden Age of Comics was a nuanced contradiction between feminism…
… sexist stereotypes…
… and worse.
The approaches and themes used in her portrayal made at least the pretense of an effort at being mature…
… or lapsed into the juvenile.
This variety and disparity of treatments has continued through various incarnations. What I’m trying to say is that from this beginning concept and simple artwork grew an iconic image that grew larger and more nuanced than even her creators, William Moulton Marston (writer) and H. G. Peter (artist), envisioned. Once in print, she escaped their mental bounds and entered into the synergistic collective of her readership. Individuals interacted with this character until, today, she has come to represent different things to different people.
For this reason, any adaptation of the comic to the silver screen would be likely to generate both praise and criticism. Gal Godot looks the part. She doesn’t. The movie is an original breath of fresh air for the superhero genre. It isn’t. The CGI is appropriate for the plot. It’s over the top. It’s kind of hard to blame us for our conflicting expectations of the first movie about Wonder Woman. After all, so many of us think of her as ours.
Whether you approve or not, this cinematic effort is considered socially significant because it is the first major movie of this genre where the main character is female (I’m not going to count previous efforts such as Elektra). The DCEU of Warner Brothers beat Disney Marvel to the punch on that one, and I suppose it’s only right from an historical perspective.
The “battle” over this representation will continue next week…
So you’ve no doubt heard the criticism that Gal Gadot doesn’t look like Wonder Woman. Okay, let’s get something out in the open before going any further. As a general rule, the DC cinematic universe has made some questionable choices as to the visual appearance of its characters. Many of them strike me as a cross between oversized plastic toys and clothing models despite the enlistment of some good actors to play them. Marvel Studios, on the other hand, knows their product as well as their demographic, and they usually get their visuals right. Let me add that these are my impressions as a viewer and that I don’t mean to be critical in a negative way. I just think DC can do better than they’ve done so far.
Having said this, I don’t think Gal Gadot is a bad choice to play Wonder Woman. She has been criticized as being a former model with too delicate an appearance, but she was in the Israeli military. During her term of service, she completed a rigorous course of physical training, evidently in impressive fashion. On that count, let’s not be too quick to judge on the basis of appearance. Let’s see how the movie turns out.
So, in response to the statement that Gal Gadot doesn’t look like Wonder Woman, I must ask an obvious question. What does Wonder Woman look like? I’m trying to limit my pictures to faces as much as I can. Here’s her original conception (enlarged from the first cover, even) by H. G. Peter:
Her likeness was allegedly based on that of Olive Byrne, the mistress of Wonder Woman creator William Molton Marston…
… but she could just as easily be said to resemble Jane Russell (top) or Rosalind Russell (bottom), who were actresses from that era.
If you look at enough panels of the original issues, I think you will notice that Wonder Woman’s physique was far less muscular than in modern portrayals.
Here’s a panel by George Perez…
… one by Adam Hughes…
… and one , if your mind is not sufficiently stretched by now, by Darwyn Cooke:
Does Linda Carter look like Wonder Woman, or (perhaps more appropriately) do we think of Wonder Woman as looking like Linda Carter?
Was Alex Ross thus influenced? Well, yes. He admitted as much, but even he has portrayed this character with slight variations.
So does Gal Gadot look like Wonder Woman? Well, I’m beginning to think that Wonder Woman doesn’t look like Wonder Woman. Provided this more recent actress is given a decent script, I’m willing to leave a little room for creative adaptation.
For those whose ire might have been raised by last week’s post, please keep in mind that I am posing questions to stimulate thought and that I have settled on few, if any, answers to which I would care to commit. The questions I am raising have occurred to me in the course of observing the society and culture in which I live. I was noting an apparent increase in the acceptance of the goddess mentality since the 1960s. I am not referring to the appropriation of “goddess” as a term to deal with contemporary women’s issues. That is a matter of artistic and literary taste, and it can be quite clever. It also affords opportunity for the redefinition of the term.
I am referring to more overt examples from the world of fantasy. I have read that strong female characters in literature, comics, and movies can be empowering to girls and young women (not to mention their elders), so please allow me to repeat some questions and pose some more. Are women being let down by a version of feminism that isolates them from older societal protections, thus making them more vulnerable to male exploitation? Is the offering of such protections in itself demeaning or degrading? Is the adoption of exaggerated role models from fantasy also degrading in that it could represent weakness in real life? Since some protections can be used to restrict the freedom of women, and since I have advocated the use of fantasy as a perspective from which to address reality more effectively, I have no definitive answers to these questions. As with so many things, the efficacy of fantasy depends on how it is used.
One trend that has caused me some concern is the extolling of a feminine superhero ( in essence, a type of goddess or demigoddess) as “bad ass.” After all, what’s wrong with a female character who can kick a substantial amount of masculine derriere? Strictly for purposes of entertainment, I see nothing inherently wrong with this if it is done tastefully. When such imagery is employed as a sense of empowerment, however, things can get a bit more dicey. Perhaps whether or not this is healthy is a matter of degree.
Oh, well. I’ve basically exhausted my self-imposed quota for words this week. I think I can wrap this up with one more post. Typical male attitude, huh?
It occurred to me that it might be interesting to compare feminist superheroes who also have some kind of connection to mythology. In saying this, I would like to emphasize that qualitative comparison need not equate to a ranking system. We are free to choose different favorites, and I think I have betrayed some of my preferences already. This post , then, is a kind of summary.
I made a lot of negative noise about Wonder Woman, and I really did little to nuance my statements. This was a deliberate attempt to stimulate discussion. What I must say now is that the validity of promoting or denouncing Wonder Woman as a feminist icon depends on which Wonder Woman you are talking about. My complaints centered mostly on certain aspects of her Golden Age portrayal by William Moulton Marston and H. G. Peter.
Others have criticized her apparent domestication (i.e. adherence to more traditional female roles) in the Silver Age.
More recent portrayals have often shown her as angrier and darker and have given her a more unreasonable body image.
It should be noted that most of these representations are neither purely good nor purely bad. Critics can’t even reach a consensus on what good and bad actually are. Certain aspects of overall emphasis are what have drawn fire from different camps in different periods. In terms of her feminist record, this is a character with a checkered past. She even did a stint for a few years under the influence of Gloria Steinem. Like her or not, she is one of the most iconic images in comics.
Then, of course, there is her portrayal by Alex Ross and Mark Waid in Kingdom Come. I found nothing personally objectionable in this version, and I will write more about this next week. Of course, what satisfies me, might not satisfy someone else.
I have already intimated that Winged Victory and Cleopatra from the Astro City series by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson strike me as more reasonable feminist characters, and I appreciate the balance and maturity of their portrayals.
Two weeks ago, I cited Nausicaa from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki as another good example. Although she has her weaknesses, she is compassionate and gentle, and she has a spiritual connection to nature and the supernatural. She is also a capable warrior as well as an expert pilot.
So now that you’ve seen four of them side by side, so to speak, do you have a favorite?
The panels I have selected for this post come from Wonder Woman stories written by William Moulton Marston and drawn by H. G. Peter, and they disturbed me for a number of reasons. These were (and some more contemporary cartoons are) drawn so as to make harmful or destructive practices seem innocuous. Take, for example, the following illustration:
This is from an issue in which Wonder Woman visits an imaginary place called Grown-Down Land. Here, you can see that she is bent over the knees of an over-sized child who is spanking her with a hairbrush. Her wrists are bound. A small crowd of infants smiles and applauds in approval (due to image quality, I have shown only a portion of the original page), thus adding public humiliation to the debasement. Perhaps worst of all, Wonder Woman winks at the reader to indicate that she is playing along with and possibly even enjoying the mistreatment. Her high-heeled boots are cocked playfully in the air. The implication is that women like this sort of thing. Admittedly, it’s a rather mild representation, but I wonder how imagery like this feeds into the “no means yes” mentality.
In this next panel, she is shown in a submissive posture while further acting out her part in the game to the delight of her infant audience. This is an all-too-common, pornographic device, and the accompanying words are in the clichéd language of a juvenile, male fantasy. Keep in mind that the author was a Harvard-educated, grown man (a psychologist with a Ph. D.). I find this panel demeaning not only to women but to children as well (especially in light of society’s problems with childhood sexual abuse). The behavior pictured is explained in the context of the story as something that should be encouraged rather than grown out of. It also bothers me that such a relative few of those who have commented on these same images have had much of anything disapproving to say about them.
This last series of excerpts is from a different story and is similarly disturbing despite being dressed up as an adapted re-telling of stories from Greek mythology (not that the ancient Greeks were exactly clean-minded in such matters). Nothing more need be said about these and the previous drawings except that they might be regarded as the product of an outwardly restrained society overly fascinated by sex.
So you might think this mild or even comical given today’s cultural climate. After all, the genie is out of the bottle, and there are far more graphic portrayals of sex and rape in current comics. But at least these are painfully, often grotesquely, obvious. They pose a danger of their own by mixing the raising of awareness with sensational entertainment. And there is worse material out there – MUCH worse – that lacks any semblance of social conscience. It might be helpful to remember what I said about outward restraint. Many of the former restraints of our culture are gone, and this feeds into a problem which I discuss in a later paragraph. But the subtle can be just as devastating because it does not self-identify. The line might not seem as appalling when crossed.
These themes of spanking, bondage, and discipline are pervasive in the early issues of Wonder Woman. The images are of women being forcefully controlled, and in some cases, they benefit from this and are ultimately grateful. Wonder Woman herself is often tied up either playfully or by criminals.
What do portrayals of women voluntarily participating in and enjoying games of abuse and disrespect say about the negative acculturation of boys when it comes to their attitudes about women? How has such thinking contributed to the so-called rape culture and the ongoing epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses? I should note here that different studies suggest that roughly 10% of college males have anonymously admitted to behaviors which satisfy the legal definition of sexual assault but that approximately four out of five of these offenders think they have done nothing illegal. Notice that the “games” depicted above are represented by the tone of the drawings as being safe, “character-building” fun – something along the lines of “teaching her a lesson.”
Trying to redeem salacious imagery with contrived plot lines and occasional and stereotypical feminist statements is weak and at least somewhat insincere. Should we believe that empowered playthings are truly empowered? What do you think? Was Marston a champion for women’s liberation (in accordance with what he claimed was his motivation for creating Wonder Woman), or was he yet another behavioral scientist with sexual fetishes?
p. s. The portrayal below by Alex Ross takes a much more dignified view of a character whom I think has been largely wasted in comparison to her mythic potential. Some still choose to claim her as a feminist icon, but most of the portrayals I have seen are over-sexualized as compared with Winged Victory in the Astro City series by Kurt Busiek.
Wonder Woman is the brainchild of William Moulton Marston and was first drawn by H. G. Peter. Marston, also credited by some with inventing the polygraph, was an educational consultant for one of the companies that eventually merged to form DC Comics. Following a suggestion from his wife, Elizabeth Marston, he created one of the earliest and perhaps the most prominent of female superheroes. It is possible that his character’s personality was based on that of his wife and that her appearance was based on that of Olive Byrne, a third member of their household and a participant in their polyamorous relationship. Both Elizabeth and Olive bore children sired by William though this information was kept from the public.
“Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” – William Marston
Given his domestic situation and what some have described as a favorable view toward games of bondage and submission (which crept its way into early issues), I would have to say that the above quote makes a questionable claim.
The above images are tame by current standards but still problematic. Incidentally, Wonder Woman’s image was cleaned up after Marston died in 1947, and sales dropped noticeably, which says a lot about popular culture then as well as now. I personally don’t like the image of the empowered (or super-powered) plaything, and I question the validity of feminist heroes as written and drawn by men for a male audience. This is a swindling form of feminism at best.
I know I’m late to the party. Numerous books and articles have already been written about this subject in reference to this particular character. Next week, however, I will discuss this topic further.