Sadly Un-Wonderful

October 28th, 2008 by | Tags: ,

I have finally accepted that, although I can enjoy the Wonder Woman comic, I have no interest in Wonder Woman as a character. It feels like I should block myself from every feminist site on the internet, burn my copy of Backlash and turn in my ovaries. I’m also probably not allowed to sing anything by Helen Reddy.

Luckily, I’m a comics fan, so I can decide that the problem is with a fictional character, not with me. So let me tell you the problem with Wonder Woman.

Well, to begin with she’s absolutely wrong for a superhero comics character. At base, superhero comics are power fantasies. There’s nothing wrong with that. Many deep and moving stories are told using fantasies that appeal to people’s emotions and desires. The problem is that while Batman is about gritty violence solving everything, and Superman is about the wonders of science fiction paired with the thrill of invincibility, Wonder Woman is about compromise, compassion, diplomacy, and strict fairness. This is admirable, of course, but it doesn’t get the blood pumping. You want to be with Batman as he kicks out the teeth of a one-dimensional, low-life rapist. You want to be with Superman as he hurtles around the globe, fighting aliens and stopping volcanoes. You don’t want to be with Wonder Woman, filling your heart with charity and forgiveness towards someone who has wronged you. You just . . . don’t.

Moreover, Wonder Woman makes no sense as a character. Her background and her personality do not match up. She’s a skilled ambassador, drawing on the skill and diplomacy learned in a nation so xenophobic that it hides its location and will have nothing to do with the outside world. She believes in love and compassion as the product of a society that is only a hair less martial than ancient Sparta. She believes in equality because she learned it in her own society, which hates men so much that it forbids them to set foot on its shores. There is no way that the current Wonder Woman is a product of such a society.

So. Completely disregarding everything I said a few entries ago about the pain and heartbreak of having your favorite character change, here are a few ways I would remake Wonder Woman.

The Weirdo: It’s clear that the rest of the residents of Themyscira not only are forbidden from visiting the outside world, they have no interest in it. And while Wonder Woman is more interested in the outside world, she’s also alien to it. Imagine a member of nobility visiting from a world where not only royalty, but female supremacy was taken for granted. Diana would visit the outside world and just not understand why a six-foot-something woman, covered with muscles, wearing a bathing suit to formal events (In ancient Sparta, girls would exercise in the nude. It was considered a way to promote modesty. You tell me how. Better yet, have Diana come of with a way to explain how. After she wanders around nude at the gym.), used to commanding armies, not even considering children, might be an object of hatred, ridicule, pity, or humor. She would go to the White House and start negotiating terms with the First Lady. She would assume that street hecklers wanted conversation. Or she might attack them. She wouldn’t be on the same wavelength as the rest of our world.

Then she would go back to Themyscira and a group of people who believed that the outside world was populated by a bunch of inferior beings with the lifespans of insects, and who thought that Diana becoming romantically attached to one of those small, weak, hairy, flat-chested things called ‘men’ was the kinkiest thing they’d ever heard of. Much is made of Superman being isolated, but he grew up among ordinary people and can pass for human. Diana grew up in an alien society, and would stand out a great deal more than Clark Kent. Her isolation and inability to comprehend social norms should be more obvious.

The Avenger: Once again, Diana comes from a world of females. For her, that a woman should lead a nation, an army, or a household goes without saying. To enter into a world in which female power is controversial, absent, or forbidden would make her blood boil. As an outsider, she would have a fresh take on what we see and the normal social order. However, there would always be a doubt about her views. Remember, she doesn’t come from and egalitarian society, she comes from a nation grounded in the idea of female supremacy. The reader, the other characters, or Diana would always have to wonder if her views were about a recognition of the position of women in society, or if they were more about female dominance. There is a wonderful tension that springs up when a character is allowed to be fundamentally wrong in their positions on morality and social order. Making Diana fallible when it comes to social issues would go a long way to improving her character.

The Explorer of the Brave New World: Ancient Greek tales were always about how little people had control of their world. Fate could not be eluded. The more people tried to cheat it, the more they played into its hands. All people were puppets. Somewhat paradoxically, in Ancient Greece a strict code of behavior mattered more than anything else. There was no exceptions for people who didn’t understand what they were doing or didn’t mean for something to turn out the way it did. What happened, happened and people had to take responsibility for results, not just their actions.

In modern times, people are considered to have a great deal more control over their station and fate. We have many stories about people who, through hard work, moral righteousness, cleverness, talent, or even deviousness, change their world. We also have a more nuanced view of responsibility and blame, though everyone draws the line in a different place.

Diana would be caught between, thrilled by the freedom and power accorded to people in the modern world but scandalized by extraordinary leniency of some, or pettiness and dishonor of others. She could be the world’s most free-spirit or its stodgiest stick-in-the-mud, depending on the situation.

I’m not exactly sure why I don’t care for Wonder Woman as she’s presented in comics right now. There just seems to be something bloodless and sanitized about her, when she has the potential to have such passion and power. It seems a waste.

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11 comments to “Sadly Un-Wonderful”

  1. Those are some interesting points.

  2. This was good!

  3. Well-said.

    Wonder Woman is a character I care about but not one that I’ve been inspired to follow most times. I dug some of the Byrne years. I’ve been somewhat enthusiastic about the recent focus on the character, but much like Supergirl and the Flash, I believe Wonder Woman has suffered from DC’s poor reboots on top of reboots. They need to settle on a good concept for the character, give the creators room to fully develop it, and stay the hell out of the way.

    Even if they get it right after the third or fourth try, it’s almost not a good thing because by then they’ve worn out their welcome.

    Wonder Woman as a warrior interested me greatly, but I now realize it was a more palatable on an alternate version of Wonder Woman – like Kingdom Come’s WW. Either that or they’d have to go a long way toward fully and truly developing her character in a way that bridges the gap between the compassionate, understanding (and somewhat gender-stereotyped) Diana that people expect and the war-like version they want us to accept.

    Anyway, the difficulties and inconsistencies you’ve described are on-point… and unfortunate.

  4. Actually you’re dealing with some stereotypes that are outdated or wrong.

    1. Men are allowed on Paradise Island. They’ve had superheroes, a group of tourists/ambassadors and Wonder Woman brought her current boyfriend their recently.

    2. Diana wouldn’t automatically assume a woman’s in charge. She knows history, she worships a pantheon topped by a male god and she always leaves home thanks to someone else who could brief her.

    3. Amazons occasionally leave Paradise Island. At least the native ones do. Otherwise there’s a big chunk who aren’t from there. They actually like men less than the natives do.

    4.Their location is hidden by their gods. It’s on top of a demon dimension they’ve been charged to guard as punishment. Yes, punishment. THey were enslaved by Hercules and an army under his command. When they were freed, by the gods, they were told to jsut leave. Instead they slaughtered a big chunk of it. They were then banished to Paradise Island. So they know women can fuck up.

  5. @West: Yeah, there’s definitely been some ‘too many cooks spoiling the pot’ going on. There are only so many reboots a character can take. The problem is, you don’t want to be stuck in a problematic concept, so you change and change and change until the character stays almost permanently up in the air.

    What I want is a *hard* reboot. Most of the reboots they’ve done so far have been changes to the character (taking away and giving powers, making her a law-enforcement agent, an ambassador, an activist, a normal human woman) all in continuity, making the character seem a little scattered. I want her to come wandering out of nowhere during the next big event, announcing who she is, with none of the characters having ever heard of her. Wipe the slate clean.

    @Jason: That depends on what continuity you’re following.

    1. Nemesis was allowed on the island, but in a story detailing Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s past, Arthur wasn’t allowed to set foot on Themyscira, so their conversations took place with him standing a yards out to sea and Diana standing on land. In the Justice League Animated Series Diana was banished for bringing men onto the island even though it saved the Amazons.

    2. Well, right now she worships Kane Milohai, because none of the other gods would give her the means to save her mother. And although the Amazons worship all the Greek gods in some issues, they seem very Athena-focused in others, which is part of why Granny Goodness was able to pull the stuff she did.

    3 and 4. Well, again this all depends on the continuity you follow. Themyscira’s policies and history seem to observe the same rules as the Speed Force – they vary from story to story.

    Honestly, even if continuity was consistent and backed that kind of character up, she would still be uninteresting to me. The other possibilities seem, to me, to be more dramatic, more interesting, and lead to a more arresting and varied character. Obviously, this is just my opinion, but I still would love a hard reboot of the Wonder Woman character to make her a little more exciting.

  6. Where it gets sticky: A hard reboot was done in the 1980’s. (Though since they kept the same basic concept & name, not everyone realizes that now.) But then the very same writer made the point of having premises evolve. So the current version of the Amazons were isolationist at one time, but are no longer. If you follow Byrne’s continuity, the Amazons used to bury their dead until recently, but now cremate. Rucka reshuffled the Pantheon into something or other with Athena in charge. Hermes was killed in the Pérez run, then brought back from the land of the dead in the Rucka run.

    So you can’t say, “This is who she is,” based on one story, because she supposedly keeps evolving.

    On top of that, there are more radical reinterpretations. Diana’s gained greater superstrength & a magical transformation. Some writers insist she’s actually a golem. Cassie was a kid given superstrength by Zeus; then a demigoddess; now she’s a goddess.

  7. I’m really sympathetic to the view of Wonder Woman as just a bad character who relies mainly on inertia to keep getting published.

    If you really put her origins and early publishing history under a microscope, it’s hard to leave without the impression of a gender-inverted Superman borne as a femdom fantasy and later co-opted into a feminist superhero symbol for lack of any better candidates.

    In many ways she’s a costume in search of personality and purpose.

  8. I don’t agree with you for the most part, but I will concede there is an ongoing issue with the fact that not enough people can agree on what Diana is. I think that’s because she is essentially more complex than either Superman or Batman (both of whom are great characters) and because she is an avatar for feminism, which is not very well understood by many either. As a fan, the simple truth is that you have to be selective about what you consider to be continuity, because there has been a lot of bad writing and very poor editorial mandates (Amazon’s Attack?).

    The source material (Greek Myth/Ancient Greece) is also something that is very open to misunderstanding and interpretation and even historical revision.

    In the end, as someone who does like and see something in the character, I’m going to be a bit touchy about the idea of changing her completely to make her into something people who do not like her, can like; there are plenty of other female superheros. The only motive to do so is branding, and imho that is no good reason especially when I think she has such a strong, positive message to convey to readers about society. I would welcome some greater clarity, but the problem is that it isn’t there at the editorial level. Diana is as much a femdom fantasy as Batman is a sexually repressed gay man: people seem to have no difficulty looking past some of the appalling comics in Superman’s history, why are they so hung up on Wonderwoman’s?

    I don’t think that superhero comics should only aspire to be escapist either: there’s always an element of that, but the best tend to go beyond it. I don’t agree with your summaries of what Batman and Superman are about, at all, but I appreciate it’s one way of reading them and I see no problem if you enjoy taking that from the medium.

    To explain what I see in Wonder Woman: I find her to be a far more realistically adult and complex cipher than either Superman or Batman, at least as realised in the hands of a writer like Gail.

    She refuses to spell out what people should know and shows them instead, by example. She does not preach or follow an abstract code, she teaches responsibility, requires us to understand others.

    The point is I, and others, just *do* want to be Wonderwoman. I wish I could build bridges between, fiercely protect and be a better example to others because at heart people are not one dimensional. I am sick of seeing real world politics treat others as if they were. For all there is pleasure and interest and even insight to be drawn from the characters of Superman and Batman, you only have to read the Dark Knight to understand the hollowness of the idealism and cynicism they represent. Responsibility and understanding are things we should all aspire to.

  9. “Wonder Woman as a warrior interested me greatly, but I now realize it was a more palatable on an alternate version of Wonder Woman – like Kingdom Come’s WW. Either that or they’d have to go a long way toward fully and truly developing her character in a way that bridges the gap between the compassionate, understanding (and somewhat gender-stereotyped) Diana that people expect and the war-like version they want us to accept.”

    I’m just going to add: no one needs those qualities more than a warrior. She is not war like (except perhaps in KK which has an appalling portrayal of her imho) she fights with reason and is the stronger and more resolute for the fact. She, to paraphrase Gail Simone, is who you call if you want to end a war, never start it.

  10. I’ve always been partial to superheroines, but Wonder Woman is one I never really could relate to. I remember that when I read the title during Byrne’s run, I found that for me she soon was upstaged by Cassie Sandsmark, the new Wonder Girl. And when an “iconic” character becomes upstaged by a derivative one (and one, who in her civilian ID was not terribly original (remember, John Byrne had co-created Kitty Pryde years before Cassie, so he was no slouch in the spunky-young-girl department)), that is not a good sign.

    And apart from the contradictions inherent in the whole Wonder Woman/Paradise Island set-up that Esther Inglis-Arkell touched on back in October last year, one thing that annoys me more than a little is that the story was not built on the Greek myths and accounts themselves, but it would be more correct to describe it as a near-idyllic utopia with Graeco-Roman trappings (while the Greeks thought of the Amazons as a real (non-Greek!) people from the wilds of Central Asia that existed either in their present or had existed in their past). The backstory of Wonder Woman’s Amazons is a bowdlerized version of the source material, from which nearly all dark and realistic elements were carefully expurgated. Actually, I think it would be interesting to see an Elseworlds story where the Amazons are more as in the myths and where Diana (then the result of either a one-night stand or the daughter of a male slave) asks her mother uncomfortable questions about the fate of her brother(s)…

  11. Wonderful post. I get exactly what you’re saying. In fact, I posted something very similar a few months ago. The response was mixed, but I still completely agree that Wonder Woman is an icon, not a character. Although I think she could be.

    I though the Justice League animated series explored the notion of Wonder Woman in a more interesting and thoughtful. They even dared to have an episode where a rogue Amazon tries to kill all the men in the world, and Wonder Woman is not nearly as repelled by this idea as she should be. In the end, it was an exploration of sexism, subtle and entertaining, that was worth thinking about.