Sunday, May 29, 2011

What does she see in that man?

First, an enjoyable diversion that hopefully won't be pulled anytime soon. Then on to the business of expressing a pretty complex opinion.

The biggest thing I see among fans that irks me is the insistence that Wonder Woman be paired with another costumed hero like Superman (in the letter columns and the freaking 90s Elseworlds) or Batman (since the cartoon series set them up a ratehr dedicated fandom has surfaced). Worse than the fans, this is a trend among writers, who gave her a crush on Clark in the 80s (this was their way of establishing she wasn't lesbian or asexual, I suppose, since the 80s reboot got rid of all the female characters she could have been paired up with as well as getting rid of Steve), a dozen alternate universe stories where she marries Clark in the 90s, and a relationship with Batman in 2000s JLA that is so important that it saves her from the Black Lantern in their company crossover (I will never let this go. Ever.) but is never mentioned in her or his book.

Now, a lot of us object to this based purely on franchise integrity. Wonder Woman dating Batman or Superman makes her into one of their supporting characters. It's not right, and she should be treated on equal terms with them but the writers, editors and most importantly the marketers clearly favor both men over her. Until we can replace Warner Bros execs with doppelgangers who love Wonder Woman boardroom fights over Superman and Wonder Woman or Batman and Wonder Woman will end with her getting the shaft.

But my objection to these two relationships and my insistence on bringing back Steve Trevor does go further than franchise integrity. It's all about character background, masculinity and femininity, and the underlying theme of Wonder Woman. Consider if you will, the classic origin story.

Despite some variation (particularly with Kanigher, but he seems to have soft-retconned the classic origin back in when he really got to writing), most writers stick to her saving a downed pilot. This is the first man she's ever seen. He's usually half-drowned and horribly injured from the crash. She cares for him and sees him at his most vulnerable. While he's helpless, sometimes delirious, and in the cases when she hides him (Martston, Kanigher's later retcon) completely dependent on her for survival. Even when he's lucid (Kanigher's first story, Conway), he's still defenseless and has no control over what happens to him. She has to rescue and protect him.

She notices early on that he's pretty attractive. Even as a complete wreck, waterlogged and injured he is absolutely gorgeous. That's the basis for the initial attraction, but with some writers there's a little bit more. Pre-Crisis Diana knew English somehow (magic TV or there's Amazons that were shipwrecked English-speakers or Hermes willed it--she also knew Caveman language in the Silver Age). In one of the Golden Age origin retellings (I can't find it right now), Steve's delirious and babbling about the war, how his people are fighting a great evil, and how he swears he sees an angel. In the Silver Age, the first version has him telling her he doesn't see the difference between an Amazon and an angel, and then ridiculously offer to fight off sharks while she gets away. Later he shows up leading a charity outing for underprivileged kids. Both cases, he says something while helpless that demonstrates he's brave and selfless, he admires her, and he's community minded.

She decides she's attracted to him based on him being beautiful. Sometimes she gets to factor in that he says nice things about her and cares for others above his own well-being despite being absolutely helpless. Not exactly a lot to go on but I'm sure you all do a background check and require them to accomplish three quests before you'll approach an attractive stranger in a bar.

Later on we see that he's the sort of guy who tells the villain it doesn't matter what they do to him, they'll never beat Wonder Woman. Other times we see he can be gentle and thoughtful and takes care of her emotionally. He's also brave and honest. He has some very attractive qualities that are present whether he's shooting out the lock on her prison door or he's lying in her arms recovering from a recent blow to the head. He's passively desirable. It's not things he does that interest her, it's inherent qualities that show through at his weakest moments whether they're superficial like his appearance or the truest expression of his courage like laughing in the face of a villain who has him completely in their power.

The updates on Steve Trevor through the years, the new interpretations by Kanigher, Conway, Thomas, and Mishkin for their respective eras, kept that he is a doer and a heroic character but still understood that Diana's attraction was based on his characteristics rather than his accomplishments. It meant more to her that he was the sort of person who would TRY to help her than the sort of person who COULD help her.

Somehow, though, people always ask why she likes him. They want him to have done something to deserve her. Or they consider the character a complete wash, and favor her with Superman or Batman, the only two men on the planet who can be said to have accomplished more than her. They want a super-powered love interest. The long-standing trend among anti-Steve fans who are still in favor of a male love interest is to get her a so-called "Real Man" because they don't get how a woman of her calibre could fall for someone who needed her help. This is one thing to see from fans, but to have writers try and establish this too, to have her go for the one guy who outpowers her or the badass normal, to write her as the female fighter who insists on a man who matches or defeats her betrays a misunderstanding of our culture and Diana as a character.

Wonder Woman was raised in a society of women, with no positive views of men until she met one herself. This is important because it tells us that she has no investment in or even concept of the Cult of Masculinity.

The Cult of Masculinity is a way of describing how society pushes this construct of what men need to be like. It is the thing that makes us value certain traits in men above others, and insist that men are worthless unless they are superhuman overachievers who never show a moment of weakness. It is the collection of traits that men are expected to embody in order to keep their place of superiority over women. It is, among other irritating things, the expectation that men have more important jobs and earn more money than their wives. It is, among other infuriating things, our cultural requirement that even if women are allowed to be heroes men must be bigger heroes.

Wonder Woman has no clue that men are supposed to be stronger, more active, more capable, better fighters, more famous, or make more money than she is. She has no idea what we would consider a worthy mate for her. (In fact, one of the great things in the Bronze Age is that the rest of the JLA doesn't quite understand why she's with him.) She doesn't know that she's supposed to be dating UP somehow, that she's supposed to go for someone who has more power or influence than she does. She doesn't realize that when she saw him drowning, exhausted, and near death she was supposed to conclude he was defective. She never figures out that every time he needs her to save him she's supposed to think less of him.

Diana doesn't see Steve the way we do, the way Black Canary does, the way Batman does, the way our society would see him. We see a man we have no use for because he dates a woman who is better at his job than he is. (Never mind how good he actually is at his job, we're blind to that.) She sees a person who is physically attractive that turns out to also be selfless, kind, brave, light-hearted and supportive. She sees someone who often needs her help, makes sure she gets the appropriate credit for that help, and lets her know how much he appreciates it. She sees a person who is a little thick-headed, sometimes kind of irritating but that will always be at her side and always ready with a smile or a word of encouragement when she needs it.


  1. First, this is a brilliant piece. It has really shifted my thinking regarding Steve Trevor.

    Second, I would suggest that Superman and Batman pairings are different. DC is highly unlikely to part Lois and Clark for long. Any storyline that pairs Diana and Clark is either going to occur outside continuity, or resolve itself quickly. As a result, those stories can be told without Wonder Women being at substantial risk of being absorbed into Superman's supporting cast. Batman, in contrast, has never had a steady love interest. The Bat-WW fans really do appear to want Diana subordinated to Bruce.

    Anyway, that is a minor quibble. It is really excellent work.

  2. As one of those who really liked Batman and Wonder Woman as a possible couple in the Justice League cartoon, I'll say that it works there...but not in the comics as they stand today. In the cartoon, you saw Wonder Woman first take interest in Batman not when he did something that was crazy and/or badass, but when she saw him trying to dig her out of the rubble to save her life. She didn't need him to do that, nor could he have managed to move what was on top of her...but he tried, damn it. And in the season finale of JLU, where they're trying to save the Flash, he's pulling on her arm for all he's worth, because he's NOT going to let Wally die! It didn't matter that he couldn't hope to help, he was going to try his hardest. And that lines up with one aspect of what you've said about Steve Trevor here, that of someone who can't really hope to match her, but won't dare let her down by standing by and saying he can't help.

    But in the comics, that doesn't match Batman very well. There is the fact that he never stops trying, but it's not presented as him being determined to save lives. It's more that he's just obsessive in general. Combined with his darker nature right now and his "plans within plans within plans" methodology, it's hard to see why Diana would have any interest in him, especially when many of his assets as Bruce Wayne would be pretty meaningless to her.

  3. This is one of the best explanations of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor, and why they WORK together that I've come across.

    Fabulous, dagnabit!

  4. Um, does Steve Trevor ever actually appear in the contemporary post crisis continuity?

  5. Great article. I've never been active in the Wonder Woman fandom and I've always wondered why Trevor got the shaft. Almost every superhero has a normal human as a significant other.

    Matthew - Yes, but he was older and wasn't involved with Diana. They hooked him up with Etta Candy.

  6. I love Diana and Steve because I think the relationship is cute and you described exactly why. Steve doesn't have to prove himself because he is inherently good inside even if he's flawed like anybody else. I can't stand Superman and Batman and anyone that champions them for Diana doesn't seam to get the implications of Wonder Woman being unequal to them. She feels like the replacement Robin to their "Trinity" then being of equal standing. Maybe I'm cynical.

  7. There's also the disturbing implication that there are fans who would like Wonder Woman to be paired with Superman or Batman BECAUSE it implies that she's unequal to them, and they would prefer that she be "reined in" in some fashion.

  8. I think at this point Steve Trevor is more Vicki Vale than Lois Lane. Only important when your doing the orgin or a year one story. It feels like the character has outgrew him, which makes sense because he was her first. Wonder Woman does need her own love interest but I don't think Steve Trevor is it.

  9. I fail to see your logic there, Anthony. Batman lost Vicki Vale, but that was early on and he had a much stronger love interest in Catwoman by the Bronze Age. He's got a character WITHIN his franchise to replace her that even though he's not always with her, writers always go back and put them together.

    Wonder Woman has no such character to replace Steve. Steve's been killed twice pre-Crisis, and both times writers eventually brought him back. (And he had evolved to match her.) The rare media adaptations of WW all use Steve as the love interest if they bother with one, with Batman you'll see Vicki there if it's an origin retelling AND the writer knows she exists.

    It took them 20 years after writing Steve out to come up with a replacement that worked as well as Nemesis, and a lot of people (myself included) would argue that Nemesis was more Steve-lite than himself in the book. If Diana has outgrown Steve, where is that growth manifesting?

    And really, the biggest reason to go back to Steve is his presence in the origin story. He's the one who benefit from her first act of heroism, and it was an act of MERCY. If there's one thing writers seem apt to lose track of with Diana, it's her merciful aspect. Having Steve around is a constant reminder that she's the sort of person who will rescue one of her people's traditional enemies if he's rendered helpless. And his reminds us that she can see beyond gender roles and expectations that are so dominant in our culture.

  10. The reason I feel that WW has outgrown Steve is because when I ask a civilian (people who don't read comics) about WW they mention the plane. The plane has a better shot at making a comeback than him. I was shocked at the amount of people who still think she uses the plane.

    I'm not saying the invisible plane outranks Steve. I am just saying that everyone I talked to about WW mentioned that and didn't mention Steve. If I was talking to them about Superman, Lois would be at the top of the list. If I was talking about Batman Catwoman would be mentioned.

    I just don't see anything being able to overcome DC's neglect.

  11. They probably can't name her mother either. The big thing is, they can't seem to create a new character with these traits from scratch. Everyone since has had some sort of edge on her that puts him in the "man" position (down to Trevor Barnes turning her down for the date first), but Steve Trevor doesn't. And it doesn't bother him. That's unthinkable to current writers, but it's the sort of character she needs to date if she's going to have a male love interest.

  12. Just to elaborate, she's a bigger name and the plane is more memorable, but he's the only character that suits her.

    And since he has those traits that complement her ingrained in him by Marston since his introduction and in his meeting with her, the writers who don't understand him still might be able to pick up on how he behaves when they research and try to revive him as a character. This guy has the best chance to actually work with Diana, because he was created for her and he is a very difficult character to recreate.

  13. Yeah, I guess your right.

  14. Anthony -- Yay! Ego points! I get another life!

  15. Pfft. Steve ISN'T a Vicki Vale. Every OTHER love interest Diana has had has been a Vicki Vale. Vicki was a fairly late (1948) tack-on to the Bat-Mythos. She was a blatant and out-of-place clone of Lois Lane, of marginal importance even at the time, and never really caught on.

    That Brave and the Bold clip is amazing -- I hadn't seen the whole thing before. They really capture Steve and Diana perfectly ... and is it just me ... or does Bruce seem ever so slightly ... jealous?

    You've listed many of Steve's virtues, but there's another that only sneaks in between the lines: Steve is a man of sufficient accomplishment and confidence that not only can he handle having a romance with a woman who is in every way his superior -- ultimately, he refuses to settle for anyone who isn't.

    Sure, there's a bit of arrogance in the idea that nobody short of a Wonder Woman is good enough for him -- but despite that, and despite being someone who in every other respect is the epitome of the ideals espoused by the Cult of Masculinity, he's transcended it.

    Steve Trevor, properly handled, is a character who is entirely capable of headlining a series of his own. He's a King Faraday, a Slam Bradley. Really, he's the sort of person who would adopt a costumed identity -- he just happens to have a more interesting Significant Other.

    (Fistfight between Steve and Ollie Queen? My money's not on Ollie, even in his prime.)

  16. YOS -- And I love when they take that into account. Steve Trevor is set up so that he's a normal hero from the day. If it was ANY comic other than Wonder Woman, he'd be the one who gets the origin but he sets off HER origin. Hell, he's usually on some mission when he crashes, fighting a spy or something. He actually dies for a panel in WW#1 back in the Golden Age. There's this thing like he's gone through the entire Heroic Cycle, to death, and come back again as a love interest. That's an incredible transformation and nobody really plays with it.

  17. While Steve Trevor (and Lois Lane) can and do work for creative reasons and nostalgic ones (although there have been at least five versions of Steve Trevor in four rebooted/retooled universes (Earth-1, Earth-2, post-Crisis, post-52), I DO wonder how many take into account the very conservative and (I'd suggest) very controversial idea that the person you fall in love with when you first see them (which, as noted, is not love, but something else entirely, rooted primarily in biological response) should be the one and only person you're ever with romantically and sexually...? Perhaps because I'm not a parent, it simply would never occur to me to encourage my daughter to stay with the boy she "fell in love with" at 18 or 20, especially in this day and age (which is not to say those relationships can't work, but I think they're rare, and not always wise). Considering Diana's role, particularly in the Marston era, as a promoter of some pretty progressive ideas about sex and gender, I'm always awed at some fans' "demands" to see Diana and Steve placed in the romantic box together, considering how conservative, non-progressive, and biologically/genetically unsound the very idea is. Whatever Steve's virtues, and I'm not saying that he doesn't have any (although I've never really responded to them in 35+ years of being a WW fan), I'm always a little... troubled? (that's probably too strong a word) by the need to make such a sexually trangsressive character like Diana so dutifully conservative by claiming there's only one man who could really stand by her side and love her (and be loved by her). It's so... limiting. And I so rarely think of Wonder Woman with such limits, when it comes to men, women, sex, and love...

    1. Is it that there's "only one man", or can this essay be read as an argument that Diana has a type, and Steve is it?

  18. An excellent essay. I don't recall ever seeing a better argument for the existence and continuing presence of Steve Trevor in Diana's life. Bravo on this well-written and well-thought out essay, Ragnell!

  19. These articles seem to also do a very good job explaining why Steve is ideal for Wonder Woman:!!!-Revelations-of-a-mysterious-boyfriend

  20. @Joanna Sandsmark
    "Well thought out", but not well researched. The other article links provide a better insight /analysis.