Friday, 22 May 2009

Wondering ...

For whatever reason, conversation with several blog contacts has lately been skating around the topic of superheroines, of which some particular points just crystallised in The Growlery's Superhero(in)es wot I have(n't) known:

my adult gut responses are three. First is an aversion to the whole superhero concept (this has been discussed before and I won't belabour the benevolent dictator, might is right point here). Second comes a dislike for gender differentiation of nouns which ought to be gender neutral (actor/actress, hero/heroine), suggesting that the male is the norm and the female a special case). Third, related to the second, is the fact that Superwoman's lack of evolutionary survival compared to Super Girl illustrates another patriarchal use of language (for men, after puberty, "boy" is generally a belittling term; women are widely referred to by the juvenile "girl" for much of their lives).

Yep. A recent exposition of the first point was by Alan Moore - see Legendary Comics Writer Alan Moore on Superheroes, The League, and Making Magic at Wired - who isn't the first to see the whole superhero concept as a reflection of the politico-military stance of the USA, where the genre had its greatest success. Earlier critics, Matthew Wolf-Meyer 1 and Jason Dittmer 2, have argued that superhero stories foster the idea of maintenance of the status quo by a powerful elite.

And then there's the general stereotypical bias; as Felix says, it's significant that the direct counterpart of Superman is the juvenilized Supergirl, not Superwoman. It's also interesting to compare the publication histories of Supergirl and Superwoman. You find the former is a popular character of more or less stable appearance and persona; while the latter has been through a variety of identity tweaks, suggesting that the concept of a mature "super" woman didn't sit comfortably with comic creators and/or readers.

Counter to this, however, is the interesting story of Wonder Woman, well documented elsewhere but worth briefly re-telling. In 1940, a Family Circle interview appeared, "Don't Laugh at the Comics", in which the psychologist William Moulton Marston expounded his views on the educational possibilities of comics. On the strength of this, Marston was head-hunted by All-American Publications (later part of DC Comics), who gave him the go-ahead to develop the then radical concept of a female superhero, working name Suprema, who made her debut as Wonder Woman in 1941 and has been continuously in print ever since.

At one level, Wonder Woman's creation fits into trends of the time. In World War II, the USA government was campaigning to mobilise female labour through propaganda involving strong female characters such as Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter and J. Howard Miller's We Can Do It! lady. Wonder Woman, whatever her mythological trappings, was in many ways in the same vein (for instance, her costume was based on the US flag and eagle, and she began her career fighting Axis enemies). However, Marston's precise intentions are difficult to fathom. Marston was a definite original, whose life and career has many unusual facets. As a psychologist, he had devised "DISC theory", a psychological classification system (DISC = Dominance , Influence, Steadiness, Conscientiousness) and, with his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, a blood pressure lie detection test. He wrote a number of books, some outside his field of work including F.F. Proctor, vaudeville pioneer and Venus with us; a tale of the Caesar (aka The Private Life of Julius Caesar). In personal life he was proto-feminist and (I'm not sure if this is a contradiction or not) lived in an amicable polyamorous relationship with his wife and his ex-student Olive Byrne, both of whom appear to have facets that inspired Wonder Woman (for instance, Byrne's wearing of heavy bracelets). See Who was Wonder Woman? (Marguerite Lamb, Bostonia, Fall 2001).

The complication was that Wonder Woman appeared to have a somewhat strange agenda. Whatever the mission statement

Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don't want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.
- William Moulton Marson, in The American Scholar, 1943

it was a matter of observation that the series, while Marston was involved, had a fixation with bondage, and with overt games of dominance and submission played by the Amazon-like characters in the all-female society from which Wonder Woman hailed (see El blog Ausente). As the Bostonia article says, Marston seemed to have a "competing fascination with female submission and female strength". Quite what he was trying to express isn't made much clearer by the interview Our Women Are Our Future (Olive Richard, Family Circle, August 14, 1942 - an insider job, as Olive Richard is Olive Byrne). He seems to swing between pro-feminism, pro fem-dom, and complete flakery

"In all seriousness," he continued, "I regard that as the greatest-no, even more-as the only hope for permanent peace. And as a psychologist I'm convinced that the ever-increasing counterparts of Wonder Woman in real life will lead the way. More power to them! Let them keep their Amazon chain bands polished. And their magic lassos limbered up! Women are nature-endowed soldiers of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, and theirs is the only conquering army to which men will permanently submit-not only without resentment or resistance or secret desires for revenge, but also with positive willingness and joy!"

No wonder critics are still puzzling over the subtexts, even to the point of speculating if the original Wonder Woman was lesbian - see Wonder Woman: lesbian or dyke?, Trian Robbins - which would explain the non-consummation of her non-relationship with Major Steve Trevor. This interpretation had been made in the 1950s, on largely reactionary and sexist grounds, in Frederick Wertham's moral panic book about the influence of comics, Seduction of the Innocent); but even non-hostile commentators can scarcely ignore that the strip presented unconventional gender relationships, apparently to a purpose. The Wonder Woman phenomenon is extensively discussed in Doing science + culture (Roddey Reid, Sharon Traweek, Routledge, 2000, ISBN 0415921120); see the section Wonder Woman and Her Disciplinary Powers: The Queer Intersection of Scientific Authority and Mass Culture by Molly Rhodes:

Wonder Woman emerged within a surprising national network of academic intellectuals, reform ideologies, science, and mass culture, a network focused not on what kind of cultural objects would further a short-term national war effort, but on the long-term resolution of national social ills through new forms of cultural literacy.

Wonder Woman had a brief appearance in newspapers, but

Unlike comic book audiences, who lapped it all up, newspaper readers never found these psychological intricacies particularly compelling. In August 1945 the Wonder Woman strip was unceremoniously dumped by the syndicate.
- 100 Years of American Comics, Maurice Horn, Gramercy Books, 1996

Wonder Woman has been through various incarnations. After Marston was out of the picture (he died in 1947) the fetishy elements were toned down, as eventually were WW's powers. Originally comparable to Superman, she was downgraded to a secret agent in the 1960s, but as told at Dance of the Puppets she got her powers back after a campaign by Gloria Steinem, who hailed her as a feminist icon. I admit I'm of an age to have first encountered the character through the campy TV series starring Lynda Carter, who made Wonder Woman thoroughly wholesome but distinctly lightweight. A number of more recent artists have drawn the character for comics and graphic novels. Some went down the standard superhero route and gave her body-builder musculature; but my favourite interpretation is that of Alex Ross, who works in a hyperrealistic style in watercolour gouache (see the example, left). His Wonder Woman in Spirit of Truth, modelled on his friend Rhonda Hampton, is both stylistically accomplished (see examples at the Alex Ross official site) - a million miles from the oddly naive 1940s comics - and, I think, highly successful in portraying her as a strong mature woman, neither juvenilized nor masculinized, in line with the original concept of the character.

1. The World Ozymandias Made: Utopias in the Superhero Comic, Subculture, and the Conservation of Difference, The Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 36 Issue 3, pp. 497-517.
2. The Tyranny of the Serial: Popular Geopolitics, the Nation, and Comic Book Discourse, Antipode, Volume 39 Issue 2, pp. 247-268.

- Ray

1 comment: