Wednesday, February 23, 2011

This is not an effective way to recapture the Golden Age appeal of Wonder Woman

Dustin Nguyen's Generation Lost #22 variant:

I'm not particularly angered by this. Don't get me wrong, I don't like it, but I'm long past outrage in this category. There's a long tradition of covers where Diana or another character is tied up with the lasso, that's just the nature of a story where the main character uses a lasso as a weapon.

And, of course, there's the infamous "bondage theme".

Honestly, I hate to address the "bondage theme" because the Internet and the Comics Industry have the same weakness here. A lot of people out there don't understand nuance and complexity. A lot of people out there don't understand that sexuality was simply an element of the Golden Age Wonder Woman, and that her appeal and her effect went far beyond crackshit pop Freudian analysis. A lot of people don't understand that yes, this character was intended for little girls, and that the bondage play elements had symbolism beyond the puerile ideal that everything that with a wink or a nod indicates that sex is the foundation.

So I'm going in here today, and possibly in the next few posts, and I'm going to say flat out that acknowledging a sexual element does not mean the same as reducing everything to sex, that acknowledging sexuality in a female character does not mean that the character is intended solely for the male gaze, and that if you respond to any of my posts with anything along the lines of "hruh, hruh, bondage means she's there to get tied up" couched in pseudointellectualism I'm going to save myself the time and right now call you a shallow, posturing idiot and unworthy of my time. That will be why you don't get a response from me.

Now that that's out of the way, yes there was tying up of people and all sorts of giggly subtext in Wonder Woman. Yes, there was a sexual element--her freaking patroness is Aphrodite--and it was part of the fun. And yes, I think it is absolutely absurd that a follower of Aphrodite who started out with such a bright and playful subtext back in the 40s is consigned to Eternal Virginity in the modern era.

Here's the thing, much as we see Diana in perilous situations where she gets tied up, if you wait a couple panels she always ALWAYS breaks free. It was a not-so-subtle commentary on women in society, how they allow themselves to be restrained and restricted by men. Wonder Woman breaking free of her enemies was symbolic of women finding their strength and breaking free of patriarchal rule. Every misstep, every capture, every humiliating and titillating position was to reinforce that, which is why it always ended with her breaking free before she or her friends got hurt.

And every time I see some moron argue that bondage covers are a tradition and were just there as a sneaky-sexy to sell a female character, I want to scream at everyone: THE BONDAGE IS A GIANT METAPHOR FOR WOMEN'S RIGHTS, YOU GAPING SIMPLISTIC MORONS. IT IS NOT JUST THERE FOR YOU TO WANK OFF ON.

That is, of course, not to say that you can't wank off on it... That's your business and yes, there is an element of sexuality to be found in many stories (about everything, not just Wonder Woman and not just superheroes). I'm saying if you do, keep it to yourself and don't insist that we all see that as the end-all-be-all to it, or that greater themes should be sacrificed in the service of sexualization. Fetish material is not the foundation, the point, or all there is to Wonder Woman.

In the DCWKA thread, someone said that cover looked like something Marston would've submitted, and while I initially agreed I'm going have to take that back. It looks considerably more humiliating and mean-spirited than anything from the Golden Age. Danger and restraint in a Marston story served to set up the triumph at the end and there was a hint of that optimism in the Peters art.

Of course, I may just look unkindly upon it because there are other elements to the stories and covers of the Golden Age that we'd be guaranteed if we saw Wonder Woman tied up with her own lasso. Elements that would drive home the true theme. We'd have Diana breaking free of the trap, through her own wits and strength. We'd have a group of women who are oppressed by the villain, and we would know that Diana would inspire them to join forces and overtake the villain. And we'd have the main male character in the story trapped and humiliated right along with her, to show that men are oppressed by the same worldview that constrains women. (Key point here: He doesn't free her, she frees him.)

As Generation Lost is a Judd Winick story, I expect to see none of that in this book. And there's no power and joy in this image of Diana here.

Really, that's one thing that seems to have been cut from Wonder Woman covers and appearances all around. Power and joy. She's supposed to be a woman in charge of her life who loves the universe and everyone in it. Even bound up with her own weapon, she's supposed to carry that effect. Seems everyone remembers they can tie her up, but few remember that in the end she's supposed to take control. She's supposed to win in the end. (Also, she's supposed to be the Dom.) Thing is, lately in the writing she often doesn't win in the end. This has gotten so pervasive that nowadays we don't really trust a Wonder Woman story to be uplifting, and we certainly don't trust the covers to carry any message other than "this is hot".


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Ah, Winick. Right now, I'm still so pissed off at his interview with CBR that I'm barely coherent. So yeah, I'm sure that it's NOT going to be particularly empowering for women.

  3. Just saying to be saying, Never did get the appeal of people getting hot and bothered over women (and sometimes men) tied up or otherwise helpless. Kinda gives me the creeps, but I admit to liking hentai, so it's the pot calling the kettle wrong, just sigh and move on.

    Anyways, on topic at hand, so to clarify-it's not so much the cover as in WW's current direction in the comics. That the cover is somewhat represent of how she is getting treated in the comics?

  4. I do miss the days when reading Wonder Woman was an uplifting experience. I think the plots in which she does not win are intended to add an element of realism to the story, but I don't think it's working well. It just comes across as new sexism for me.

  5. Hi. Long time listener...

    Speaking personally, I have -absolutely no idea- what to make of the long tradition of bondage in Wonder Woman.

    I understand that, yes, the bondage was the symbol of female oppression. And a very good one.

    But. Then again:

    I know that's a humor post and pretty decontextualised but still... the roots of kink and strangeness seem fairly inbuilt into Wonder Woman from the beginning. I just link to that because it's a useful roundup.

    But it's such a sore thumb stickout for Wonder Woman. I think we have to acknowledge there was something odd and interesting at the beginning. We know about the fascinating circumstances of her creator, as well.

    But is it worth keeping as an element in Wonder Woman comics?

    I mean, no one ever really talks about Superman's sexuality. No one ever crouches their pitches to Batman purely in terms of "we have to decide once and for all... Has Robin got his end away? It's vital for his characterisation."

    And no one ever really wonders even about Power Girl in terms of full sexual identity except commenting on her breasts. No one gives interviews with Ms. Marvel discussing her sex life and possible sexuality. No one predicates a Scarlet Witch mini on her bedroom antics.

    Even Morrison, who I also am dying to see write her, gets lured into talking about her in terms of sex. (But to be fair, he was lured by Clive Barker, a cheerfully pervy chap. The only interview I could find where he discusses WW so. But I could be wrong.)

    I understand why she get a lot of this attention but I'm not sure how useful it is.

    Times have changed and WW exists in a culture where we can and do see a lot of stuff through a sexual and politicised lens. And as the only really prominent woman superhero, perhaps it's appropriate to hang a lot of stuff on her.

    But she seems so singled out. But then again, no other character has such a charged Golden Age legacy.

    I'm genuinely confused by the whole thing.

    I'm curious about how you think sexual politics and potentially eroticised images should be handled? Acknowledge the Golden Age weirdness and issues? Or just move on? Or something else?



  6. Hey,
    Not sure what you are beating up on Winick for. I searched your site and see that you REALLY don't like him because of his portrayal of women. But I have to say, as a woman, who's read his stuff for awhile, it feels to me like you are trying to hard NOT to like his stuff.
    He does strong female heroes and weak female heroes. some are flawed, but MOST of his characters are flawed. men and women. I just think he's one of the good guys. And beating up on the good guys isn't time well spent.
    But specific to THIS cover and this comic-- yes, the WW bondage thing is totally fucked up. But from what I hear about comics and covers, the writers don't always have input. Hell, the script might not even be done when they did this.
    It's just my 2 cents. I think he does fine work.

  7. This cover is true to the Golden Age Wonder Woman in ANOTHER fashion: Check out the girth of the lasso where Giant Batman's holding it. Now observe the lasso's girth where it's binding Diana. Much like many Wonder Woman covers during the Golden Age, the size proportions are ALL SCREWED UP.

  8. Considering that Winick is the guy who had Max Lord refer to Batman being a magnet for trouble by saying he was like "a naked broad walking into a room full of rapists", your fears might be well-founded, Ragnell.

  9. "Considering that Winick is the guy who had Max Lord refer to Batman being a magnet for trouble by saying he was like "a naked broad walking into a room full of rapists", your fears might be well-founded, Ragnell."

    Having a character say something offensive doesn't mean that those are the sentiments of the author. It's SUCH an old gripe. Racist characters don't mean racist authors. Misogynistic characters don't mean misogynistic authors.

  10. Anon, I wasn't trying to say Winick held the same attitudes as Max in the scene I referenced, but that he is too quick to throw around tasteless scenes like that for the sake of shock value, and therefore he probably should not be relied upon to portray the bondage factor in a mature, restrained fashion.

  11. And I don't think there will be any bondage in the actual comic. It's a cover. And they are done months ahead of the books.

  12. Bondage wasn't sexual in Marston's stories so much as it was part of his idea that the ideal state of being was 'loving submission' to another person. (It also does a good job of serving as a plot element which allows for serious consequences of failure that don't involve death or gruesome injury, neither of which would have been appropriate. If someone loses a fight, they end up tied up; it thus forms an obstacle instead of a 'render useless' condition. Useful for stories.)

    Marston's work heavily centers around the idea that male dominance of society through violence and illegitimate authority which it backs is BAD. IE, forcing people into submission.

    At the same time, people can't handle total freedom and run wild, tending to result in the above when they do not submit to an authority.

    Bondage can be good or bad in Marston; Wonder Woman's lasso, after all, ties people up and forces them to tell the truth. But this is okay because WW has legitimate authority and uses it to reform some of her villains and to overthrow illegitimate authorities (sometimes men and sometimes women who have succumbed to corruption.)

    Bondage is bad when it's used with masculine force to enslave people. And thus WW and her allies then overcome it.

    A major reason why post-Marston WW often has flailed about has been inability to construct a replacement for the ethical theory which created the tropes and typical stories, but which only Marston himself endorsed among WW creators. Thus, the heavy post-Marston drift.

    Things like bondage, out of the original context, tend to end up titilating because we don't usually tie it to other contexts.

  13. How is this cover any different from say, covers of the Fantastic Four with Puppet Master holding miniatures of the FF. Oh wait, no problem with that, as long as Invisible Girl isn't one of them, right?

    You are truely an idiot.

  14. John Biles -- I loved his symbolism, though. I can't help but notice how Steve always carried a gun, which didn't really get him very far and usually got taken from him but Diana's lasso which could be used to tie her up was still the most effective weapon in the series.

    I do think another part of the problem is how people skim rather than read old stories. Like Christen says above, there's received wisdom that Marston was the pervert when there was a lot of strange stuff across the board in old superhero comics. (I suspect his willingness to tie up, strip, and gag Steve might factor into this at least as much as the sorority hazing by the Holliday girls.)

    But your point about how Marston's philosophy was deeply entrenched in the story ties directly into why I think writers get rid of Steve so readily, but that's a whole other post.

  15. John, that's a really interesting point.

    Do you think the bondage imagery can ever be reclaimed from sexy issues of power and dominance?


  16. Everyone addressed the bondage issue, so I don't need to. I never thought it as sexual, myself. Not in the Golden Age context. I'll go with the first commenter in "accept the Golden Age oddness and move on."

    However, I'd much rather play with your final point about modern Diana being so joyless. That may be the greatest issue with modern comics: the death of joy and fantasy. Honestly, when was the last time you picked up a modern comic, and left happy?

    Instead, both DC and Marvel now engage in reality-based storytelling. Reality is depressing enough, as comics are supposed to be a form of escapism. We read them for the fantastic elements, fight good and evil, the things we wish or can't do in our mundane lives. Then again, it is the by-product of the Dark Age or Dork Age, and here we are.

    The closest are the Marvel Adventures types, and even that is downplayed by the creators. They say comics aren't for kids, and that may be part of the problem.

    Granted, I don't want Diana or anyone to be cheerful for the sake of it, but they shouldn't be miserable, either.