The Revolution Won’t Be Saved By Wonder Woman — And That’s Okay

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Impact matters as much if not more than the expectations we bring to popular art.

T o be superheroic is to be superhuman, able to do the things we mere mortals can’t. Stop bullets, fly on our power, use meat vision. But it seems there’s one impossible burden even Wonder Woman can’t bear: the expectations of others, especially feminists, that a superheroine must perfectly embody The Revolution — lest she be nothing more than placating soma.

In the wake of Wonder Woman’s release, we were treated to a revival of just this kind of non-critique. Slate’s Christina Cauterucci wrote brief, mildly condescending thoughts about the new blockbuster film. “To me,” she writes, “whatever chance Wonder Woman had of being some kind of feminist antidote to the overabundance of superhero movies made by and for bros was blown by its prevailing occupation with the titular heroine’s sex appeal.” After pointing out numerous instances where the, indeed tired, trope of men ogling over and making lewd remarks about Wonder Woman plays out onscreen, she concludes by saying the following:

“Perhaps I, a person who writes about gender and feminism every day and hasn’t seen enough superhero stuff to be impressed by the mere existence of a female protagonist, am the wrong audience for this film. Perhaps I was too distracted by the figure-skater dress Diana wears for most of the film, sculpted with tiny bumps for her apparently ever-erect nipples, to applaud the heavy-handed lines (‘What I do is not up to you!’) that gesture toward female empowerment.”

Perhaps I, a woman who writes about gender and feminism every day and also hasn’t seen lots of superhero stuff, can provide a different take that doesn’t spit on the intellect of every person who was moved by the film, and in the process, help us sharpen our criticism to a point of usefulness — a place where we can talk more about impact than expectation.

Wonder Woman is a stand-in for so many women in some position of vulnerable visibility who feel unfairly scrutinized for their ideological imperfections; she, and her at times tortured relationship with the women’s movement that adopted her as a mascot, provide a helpful case study for understanding the consequences of the demands we place on each other.

We’ve been here before too many times.

The striking 1972 cover of Ms. Magazine’s inaugural issue, showing a colossal Wonder Woman striding across the landscape under a “Wonder Woman For President!” banner, still stirs the spirit. For Gloria Steinem and the other early editors of the magazine, the Wonder Woman of their 1940s childhoods, the Nazi-punching daughter of Themyscira who became an icon for young girls in the age of Rosie the Riveter, was the perfect symbol for the-then dawning Second Wave of feminism. Women’s Lib incarnate. Though, of course, Steinem wanted to airbrush away the bondage themes.

Ms. Magazine’s iconic Wonder Woman cover

Less well known, however, is the controversy that bubbled around Wonder Woman at that time.

In 1947, William Moulton Marston — the polyamorous, kinky, feminist-ish creator of Wonder Woman — passed away, and the once subversive comic went into a kind of conservative receivership for the next 20 years, under the direction of relentless misogynist Robert Kanigher. This era saw Wonder Woman become as much a damsel in distress as a superheroine, obsessed with marriage and domesticity.

A reboot was attempted in the late 1960s that saw her as an everywoman, without superpowers, but extremely good at karate and damned as hell dapper in white bellbottoms.

These were the so-called “Diana Prince” years, named for her secret identity. It culminated in a 1972 six-comic “Women’s Lib” series authored by legendary sci-fi author Samuel R. Delany, whose work was already controversial at the time for its protagonists of color and representation of gay themes. His take on Wonder Woman promised to be interesting. Delany, gay, black, and feminist-minded himself, would bring his unapologetic perspective to a character who’d been languishing after being cut off from her political roots. The series would have a different chauvinist villain each week, culminating with Wonder Woman saving a (pre Roe v. Wade!) abortion clinic, run by women, from an attack by extremists.

It never happened. Only one issue, Volume I, #203 “The Grandee Caper,” was ever published.

The reason had much to do with DC’s discomfort with Delany’s storyline, of course, but the company still wanted to profit from Women’s Lib and got an unexpected assist from none other than Gloria Steinem. At around the same time, Steinem was in constant communication with DC, the comics company that publishes Wonder Woman, securing deals for special Wonder Women comics to appear in Ms. Magazine, as well as the iconic cover. She asseverated there, and publicly, that the “Diana Prince” everywoman Wonder Woman was disempowering because she lacked superpowers and her classic costume. This was the fig leaf DC used to justify killing Delany’s six-issue series.

As CUNY scholar Ann Matsuuchi put it in a paper analyzing the episode, “Steinem’s attempts to ‘save’ Wonder Woman inadvertently ended a radical story arc far more politically relevant than the image of a woman in a stars-and-stripes costume.“

It’s unlikely that Steinem even saw issue 203, and her feminist critique of the “powerless” Wonder Woman was just a happy excuse, so far as DC was concerned, to spike a comic that was already making them nervous. But the incident does illustrate how easily such content-free criticisms can be used to undermine genuinely subversive work.

Redstockings’ attack on Gloria Steinem and Wonder Woman (Credit: Jill Lepore’s ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’)

Steinem herself would soon be the subject of similarly misguided criticism as her identification with the classic Wonder Woman came back to haunt her. Jill Lepore, in her excellent The Secret History of Wonder Woman, recounts how the radical feminist Redstockings attacked both Steinem and her favorite superheroine as patriarchal capitalist sellouts. A few months before the famous Linda Carter-fronted Wonder Woman TV show went to air, the Redstockings held a press conference. As Lepore recounts, they sought to prove “(1) that Gloria Steinem was a CIA agent; (2) that Ms. was both a capitalist manifesto and part of a CIA strategy to destroy the women’s movement; and (3) that Wonder Woman was a symbol of the ruination of feminism.”

It’s true Steinem had a connection to the CIA, though the significance of her involvement has been greatly exaggerated. Everything else in the Redstockings document — that Steinem was colluding with the CIA and Warner Brothers to destroy feminism through the forthcoming TV show — was pure fiction.

Notably, however, the Redstockings would go on to lambast Wonder Woman herself as “individualist” and reflective of the “anti-people attitude of the liberal feminists and the matriarchists who look to supernatural heroines and models while ignoring or denigrating the achievements and struggles of down-to-earth women.”

And so it goes.

I think my breath caught when I saw that slow motion shot of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman going over the top of that trench. It was not only the first time we see her in her iconic costume, but it was an act conducted over the loud objections of every man around her — and, it seems, against the initial objections of studio executives who wanted to cut the scene entirely.

By itself, that should give some indication of how difficult it was to get this flawed, cryptically feminist story onto the big screen. But what’s there is most certainly being read the right way. From a now famous photo of a little girl dressed as Wonder Woman looking up at her role model, to this heartwarming list of children’s reactions to the film given to its director Patty Jenkins, it’s clear that the film is doing its job of inspiring women young and old.

As an academic I could pick countless holes in the film, and yet that schoolgirl who asked her teacher if she could come to school dressed as Wonder Woman because she “wanted to be ready if I need to save the world” will rightly outshine my words a thousandfold.

That impact matters as much if not more than the ideologically freighted expectations we bring to popular art.

But artistic criticism is important. How do we do it as feminists without asking too much and repeating the embarrassing spectacles of the 1970s? How do we thread the needle between point-scoring and apathy? As is so often the case, an intersectional approach reveals all that’s missing from the conversation. Robert Jones Jr. (aka SonOfBaldwin) sat down for a lengthy, nuanced dialogue with writer and critic Valerie Complex about the film recently, documenting it on Medium. Their patient analysis of the film demonstrates far better than I could why the posturing-feminist-disappointment of takes like Cauterucci’s are so wanting.

How do we thread the needle between point-scoring and apathy?

Perhaps they, like me, were able to approach it with a clearer gaze because as people of color we don’t expect or hope for the Revolution to look like a white woman anyway. Their analysis showed what was missing from both the ’70s feminist dialogue and the current one: race. It’s worth your time to consider.

In one example, Jones looks at a prominent scene where one of the black Amazons is shown as being all but impervious to pain:

“Of the two other black Amazons I remember seeing, one was portrayed as though she were a ‘brute.’ Another Amazon strikes her on her back very hard with a stick and this Amazon, who I think was named Artemis, is unfazed, bringing us back to the white supremacist stereotypes about black women’s lack of femininity and womanhood, the hypermasculinization of black women, the inability of black women (or black people in general) to feel pain or be considered dainty, demure, or vulnerable, and, therefore, worthwhile targets of abuse.”

There is, similarly, much to be discussed in terms of the film’s casting of Gal Gadot, a Zionist and former IDF soldier.

Meanwhile, Cauterucci’s critique fixates on things that are less obvious to the point of distortion, such as bizarrely trying to argue that Wonder Woman is too naive to sexually consent to Steve Trevor, despite the film making clear that the superheroine knows whereof she speaks on sexual matters — she talks about reading a 12-volume treatise on the matter for goodness sake. Instead of wasting their time handing out ideological speeding tickets of this variety, Jones and Complex look at what the film is actually saying, both good and bad, about race, sex, and gender. They show how to do critique of this nature well, without condescending to those who both liked and needed this portrayal of Wonder Woman.

It is a misguided, yearning love that leads us as feminists to judge other women so harshly; the slightest feminist aspiration immediately draws thousands of scrutinizing eyes eager to find all the flaws that make something or someone un-feminist, with an intensity rarely applied to a similarly situated man. Social media and the merciless deadlines of the online news cycle intensify this, with hot takes proliferating faster than the speed of thought.

Of course, we can and should expect more from something that claims liberatory intent, especially if it’s also trying to sell us something. But this asymmetrical scrutiny also derives, I think, from the urgent need shared by so many of us to see something or someone we can unproblematically believe in. Surrounded by so much chaos, ugliness, and destruction, can’t we have just one nice thing? That impulse leads both to over-the-top feminist critique that reads into a text things that simply aren’t there, and to abstention from feminist critique in its entirety, for fear of spoiling our pleasures.

There is, after all, a strain of white feminism that will brook no serious critique of the film, especially if it’s of the variety offered by Complex and Jones because it wants the straightforward heroine, unstained by humanity; such a vision gets especially nervous around points where their heroine proves to be racist (see also: their approach to Hillary Clinton). And then there’s another genre of feminism that, in its bitter disappointment at those very same flaws, dials up the loathing to 11 to revenge itself upon that which has so clearly failed us (see also: their approach to Hillary Clinton). Each time, she is judged against the shibboleth of our expectations, an amorphous hulk that scarcely resembles a woman. Each time, we are all made to nervously wring our hands and ask, “will she save feminism?” as if that is in the gift of any one person or any one work of art (much less a bloody Hollywood blockbuster).

At the sight of a woman, real or fictional, who promises or even implies liberation, we either throw ourselves upon her mercy or cast her out as a witch with no room for error — either on her part or ours.

It is a misguided, yearning love that leads us as feminists to judge other women so harshly.

But we are all, in the end, fatally human. Even our art, even that which transcends the fetters of mortality itself, is flawed. That should be embraced. Delany’s abortive Wonder Woman comic featured a panel that was roundly criticized by feminists. It showed Diana Prince trying to distance herself from the women’s lib protests she saw, saying “I’m not a joiner… In most cases I don’t even like women!” They ignored how this was meant to set up a sequence where her friend, a social worker, excoriated Wonder Woman for her position. The comics were supposed to show how she grew, believably, into a feminist and helped her fellow woman.

In this series, after all, she was desperately trying to make scratch so she could keep a roof over her head, while politics intruded all around her until she could no longer remain detached.

She was like us. And who among us, really, is perfect?

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