Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Allegory and the Amazon

I complain a lot about the the portrayal of the gods in Wonder Woman, and while the "Rise of the Olympian" storyline by Gail Simone has some openings for discussion and possibly complaint (I'm not sure how the Hawaiian culture views death for their gods, myself I'm generally against killing off gods but maybe Hawaii is like Scandanavia and gods die cyclically) she did one big thing right:

She used Zeus as her big antagonist, and she kept him in character.

I've blogged this before, but I was incredibly disappointed and pissed off by how Perez handled the Zeus-Hera relationship. He's always been a trickster when it came to sleeping around, and she's always been reactive and quick to blame the woman involved. In the Perez run, Zeus just comes down to Themiscyra AS HIMSELF and asks Diana for a roll in the hay, and when she refuses he makes her fight a whole bunch of monsters. Hera goes to her room and cries until Athena and Co talk her into standing up to him. (Oh, and if I recall correctly this mess leads to going to the center of Paradise Island where rapist Heracles is holding up the Island as penance, and Diana's gotta help him out and Hippolyta forgives him and suddenly he's a nice guy because even Perez after MAKING a rapist Heracles portrayal can't stand to have Heracles be a bad guy.)

Anyway, it fucks up the Zeus and Hera relationship in a way that strips Zeus of his trickster aspect (which is actually vital to his realm of patriarchal power, because this entire marriage is representative of how institutionalized sexism in the way women are raised and related to deceives women into supporting the patriarchal order against other women) and Hera of her personality. This is done in order to set up something that could be EASILY set up with having them act in character: Zeus just nods at the refusal, then comes back to annoy Diana in some sort of animal disguise. Hera catches him, blames Diana, orders her to fight monsters and Zeus and Hera have a giant fight on Olympus that leads to the goddesses offering their support to Hera when she stands against Zeus's violence, and convincing her to take back her rage at Diana (who by now has gotten to the climax of her quest because this sort of thing takes a while even when you have Hermes on your side), because really the whole thing is Zeus' fault.

That "Challenge of the Gods" storyline was also, I believe, where they established Pan was killed for the Millenium crossover, and it had a lot of brooding Hermes. Damn, the more I think back on it, the more I hate Perez's run.

I'm digressing again. Sorry. (I just really hate how Perez handled the gods.) So Gail Simone decides to use Zeus as a bad guy in "Rise of the Olympian" and the subsequent storyline. To this end, she has him decide that he's going to reward the Amazons and Diana by creating a race of equal men to replace them. That way they can retire, marry, and have lots of babies. Because that is seriously what Zeus thinks all women aspire to. He makes them in much the same way, animating clay using the souls of deceased warriors, with one exception. In a scene that occupies a strange gray area between a duel and a mugging, he kills a deity from another pantheon (who is the father of Pele, who is described as the goddess of violence when this particular shit hits the fan) and uses the heart to create Diana's equal: Achilles.

This is the aspect of her run I'm having trouble getting over. Surely a god can survive without a heart, but later Pele is very upset he's dead. And Simone never brought the guy back! Still, it's vital for how Achilles turned out and it does not seem, what with the stakes they had, like something Zeus would sweat over. It's got really good symbolism, because we have misguided Power embarking on needless destruction (of someone who seems to represent pure goodness and creation) and all the rationalization involved, with both the good and the bad results played out in the next couple storylines.

We also have an old white god killing a Pacific Island god and using his heart to make a blonde white dude. Which is in that area of horrible racial implications and colonization symbolism that I'm not really qualified to examine. This is brilliant or problematic, or both. The text certainly underlines that it is a horribly wrong thing, and the consequences of this action are visited on Diana rather than Zeus. I'm still against killing gods, but I'd say this is a correct portrayal of Zeus as a bad guy. He doesn't murder other gods much in classical stories, because gods don't die in those stories, but he does a lot of casting gods into Tartarus and gods trade body parts like MRE components.

What I find so incredible and compelling about this story is that throughout the whole thing Zeus is attempting to be benevolent, and missing the point completely. This is perfectly in character with the old time Zeus who considered himself the father and patron of all heroes, and it really supports his role as the personification of power and male-dominated establishment. He's convinced himself that acting in a sexist way is doing women a favor, much like chivalrous sexists do. When Diana and the Amazons react badly to this, he gets angry that his gift is unappreciated and out comes the pushiness.

Right about now Perez fans are asking how this is different from what Perez wrote. Well, back then he was dealing with Diana as a love interest and acting as the philandering husband. His relationship with Hera changes everything there. It activates the Trickster aspect, because 1) he does want to avoid a fight with her, and b) he doesn't want to ever piss her off to the point that she'll leave again. (There's a story where she does and he stages a fake wedding to attract her back. When she goes to the ceremony out of curiosity, she sees he's marrying a lifeless statue of her and is humored back into the relationship.) Perez wrote Zeus as the personification of patriarchal power in a way that minimized Hera's influence in the pantheon.

Simone wrote a story where Zeus approaches Diana as a hero, but a female one that he thinks will want to retire and have lots of babies. She weaves sexism into the assumption in a way that avoids contorting Hera's relationship with Zeus (by having Zeus perform an action that won't piss off his wife) and shows that Zeus does see Diana as a valued hero rather than just a potential fucktoy. She tells a tale about how a powerful sexist man can acknowledge an individual woman's accomplishments and claim to value femininity while still screwing over women with his assumptions.

She also tells the reconciliation story between men and women with Achilles, who is actually a pretty damned noble guy at heart from the beginning. He gets his position as the leader through Zeus's sexism, but eventually this gets reconciled and they all team up in the end. I actually really miss Achilles, he was a really good male counterpart for Diana. Fucking reboot.

Still, the real topper to all this divine symbolism is Diana standing up to Zeus, punching Patriarchal Power directly in the face. Funny thing about that essay, I really hate when the gods are made petty and bad for no good reason other than the writer wants to make Diana better than them. (And it happens all the time, see Perez and even Rucka's self-hating Athena.) Thing is, Simone did some great staging here when she picked just which gods Diana would tell off. Ares is the personification of needless violent conflict and Zeus is the personification of patriarchal power so it makes SENSE that Wonder Woman would conflict with them. They represent the exact energies that she is created to combat. She reveres Wisdom (Athena), Motherhood (Demeter), Sisterhood (Artemis), Inner Peace/Truth (Hestia), Diplomacy (Hermes), and Love (Aphrodite), but she rejects War (Ares) and she has some serious problems with Power (Zeus) from time to time. I think if Simone's run had gone on without a time fuckup, we'd have seen some very interesting things come from pledging herself to the Violence of Nature (Pele).


  1. Wait...a brooding Hermes? That's...that's just wrong. I haven't read that many of the old Perez Wonder Women books, since I prefer Rucka, and now I'm just as glad.

    I rather liked Simone's version of the Greek Gods, although it does seem as though poor Hera always seems to get the short end of the stick. But Zeus seemed pretty true to his origins. I wish that Gail was still writing it...then we wouldn't have this...stuff that we have now.

  2. Off topic, but I followed a random link to this blog and have spent hours now going back through the backlog...amazing, just amazing. Witty, in the senses both of intelligent and funny.

    Aside from the valuable and welcome feminist viewpoint on a medium which, to state it mildly, doesn't welcome it, it's a startling refreshment to encounter a writer able to express what it's like to respect the Gods and what they stand for, without being...y'know...all woo-ee-oo-wee about it.

    Makes me wish I had a pertinent comment for this current post, but not having read the works in question, I really don't (it's been a long time since I could be persuaded to purchase a newly-released comic, when I can keep up on current developments by following Sims, MightyGodKing, and folks they link to, then pick up any trades that still look good when that crew are done with them).

    So in lieu of a genuinely relevant comment, I'll simply observe that the right-hand side of the forest background, viewed in peripheral vision as I read, keeps seeming to be a picture of the Hulk until I look directly at it. Which is just a bonus really.

    Please keep up the good work; I look forward both to reading your insights, and to the hope of eventually having something worthwhile to say in response.