For all I’ve written about Wonder Woman so far, one thing I’ve tried to avoid is delving far into sub-text. I find sub-text does tend to be a large factor when discussing Wonder Woman, because there is a great deal of symbolic and iconic value in her character. Critique of her portrayal, presentation, and role in stories often leads to discussion of feminism, sexism, and a variety of other “isms.” And those discussions can get very heated.
But my main reason for not indulging potential sub-text is actually very practical. More often than not, when people get into debate about sub-text and the meaning of a work—intentional of the creator or not—they lose track or ignore some very basic, fundamental things.
For instance, the recent controversy regarding the retcon of the Amazons in Wonder Woman. One of the big changes of DC’s Nu52 reboot is that the Amazons of Themyscira are now closer to what they were in the original Greek myths. Specifically, it was revealed the Amazons have been periodically kidnapping men, and raping and enslaving them throughout time.
As would be expected, this caused a great deal of outcry. Much discussion focused on whether it’s right for the Amazons to be changed into, essentially, the exact opposite of what they were originally intended to be by Wonder Woman's creators; whether it was a necessary change to make Wonder Woman relevant for modern audiences; and where it’s okay to reinterpret the myths and where it’s not.
But the most heated discussion was on the misogynistic implications of changing the Amazons from a utopian and peaceful society to, well, marauding rapists. These discussions often branched out into debate over feminism, what feminism really is, the value of it, the history of sexism in superhero comics, and whether the whole thing is even that big a deal at all.
And while I don’t deny the value of such discussion, I can’t help but notice that people get so caught up in debating the sub-text, they overlook a very basic, but critical thing:
This change to the Amazons has pretty much botched Wonder Woman’s backstory and, as a result, thrown her motivation up in the air.
As I explained in What a Wonder Woman Wants, a great deal of Diana’s motivation—her drive to protect because she believes mankind, women and men, are fundamentally good and decent—is based on her upbringing in a society devoted to peace and tolerance. Further, it was the meeting of Steve Trevor, a man, that directly led to her becoming Wonder Woman.
So if the Amazons hate men, and enslave and rape them, and this is the upbringing Diana was raised in…why did she become Wonder Woman at all? Why does she continue to be Wonder Woman?
If the Amazons are the savage rapists and slavers they’ve been turned into, where did Diana’s generosity and compassion come from? Where did she develop her drive to protect all people? Hell, why wasn’t Steve Trevor immediately murdered upon landing in Themyscira? Or are we to believe the Amazons have been maintaining some kind of façade of tolerance and Diana’s been too stupid to notice? Why would they even need a façade if they’ve been living in isolation?
The only explanation would be the Amazons are, not only loathsome and despicable creatures, but lying hypocrites as well, and Diana never noticed...and I'm going to come back to this.
So either Wonder Woman is a complete idiot and the product of lies, hypocrisy, and hatred—or her entire backstory has been upheaved. And if it has—this is critical—she apparently has not changed in the slightest. At least in no way we’ve been made aware of. She’s apparently the same character she’s always been despite her backstory being retconned into the opposite of what it was.
Forget politics. Forget feminism, misogyny, and all that. That’s just bad writing.
We now have no frame of reference. No sense of who Wonder Woman is, what she wants, or why she wants it. Further, we've no reason to care. And therefore, how can we be expected to like her, root for her, or relate to her?
For all the glowing reviews I’ve seen of Wonder Woman now,
they all say pretty much the same thing. The stuff with the gods is
great, the reinterpretations of the myths are great...but Wonder Woman
herself is incidental. She is the least interesting and least developed
part of her own book.
And of course she is. Diana’s lost her
backstory and, thus, her motivation is now void—and the only noticeable
ramification of it is…minor angst.
That’d be like if in Superman: Red Son, absolutely nothing about Superman's character changed. If, despite landing in Soviet Russia instead of Kansas, he was in no way different from the Superman we know. What that suggests is backstory is meaningless and the character is a static cypher that will remain constant regardless of the circumstances of their upbringing or experiences.
And you know, as long as I’m on the subject, honestly a story exploring what Wonder Woman would be if the Amazons were like they are in the original myths could make for an interesting Elseworlds kind of story like Red Son. But they’d have to follow through on it and acknowledge the change in the Amazons should have far-reaching and deep ramifications on who Diana is, what she wants, and how she deals with situations.
Or hasn’t she changed? It’s been noted Wonder Woman now is more prone to violence and tends to use her sword more these days than her Lasso. Is "Wonder Woman the Saiyan" just who she is now, and I should accept she's a completely different character?
Was she sent from Themyscira with some agenda to prove female superiority? Did she therefore have to “learn a lesson” about how men aren’t so bad and that's why she's a hero? But wouldn't that put her at odds with the Amazons—or were they at odds since, from what I can tell, the Amazons now apparently never liked Diana that much and would openly mock her with nicknames like, "Clay"?
I don't fucking know!
But okay—devil's advocate, let’s say for the sake of argument that is the situation. Again, let’s ignore the potential feminist vs. sexist implications and first consider some very practical issues there. For one, just how trite that is. How many times have we seen the, “angry feminist that needs to learn men aren’t so bad after all” cliché? Must it be injected into Wonder Woman, where she shouldn’t be that kind of character to begin with?
But more relevant, think about this: consider the kind of character Wonder Woman is. She exists in the same vein as characters like Superman, Spider-Man, Luke Skywalker, or Indiana Jones. These are inspiring, uplifting, old-fashioned, heroic figures in a very wish-fulfillment sense. Meaning, the moment they appear on the page or the screen, we should immediately be on their side. We should like them and be rooting for them.
As such, imagine they finally make a Wonder Woman movie and the first words out of her mouth when she appears on screen are, “I hate men. They are disgusting.”
You’ve already turned off most of your audience. And it has nothing to do with sexism. It’s because most people can recognize the trite, hackneyed message they’re in for. But more important, it doesn’t matter if she eventually “learns her lesson,” the audience wants to root for Wonder Woman the moment she appears.
It’s not that she can’t be flawed or undergo a character arc, it’s just no one wants to see their paragon of heroism portrayed as a bigot.
Imagine if they made a new Superman movie where he spends the first half of the film saying, “These lowly humans. They are beneath me,” and by the end, Lois has to convince him humans are actually good and worth protecting.
How well do you see that going over?
If all goes back to the relatable issue. No one relates to a bigot. No one wants to relate to a bigot. Wonder Woman, Superman—they are not the characters of Monster’s Ball or American History X where we are watching damaged or severely flawed characters undergoing this arc about tolerance. There's a time, place, and context for that.
Yes, Wonder Woman should have flaws. Yes, she should have character arcs. And yes, she should learn and grow stronger & wiser from her experiences. But she should also represent the best of who we are.
And for that matter, there's nothing necessarily wrong with presenting the Amazons as less-than perfect. They don't have to be, nor should they be, portrayed as flawless, perfect, and infallible.
But turning them into the absolute worst of humanity...that's not "deconstructing" Wonder Woman's origin. That's taking a hot, steaming piss all over everything she's supposed to be and represent.
And on that note, I want to take it back to what I suggested earlier—the prospect that this change to the Amazons is not a massive, backstory-altering retcon. Rather, the Amazons are still outwardly the same peace & tolerance people they've always been, and this raping & enslaving men thing was just a dirty little secret they kept hidden.
For one thing, what makes this especially appalling is the fact that the Amazons of the DC universe themselves were victims of rape. I glossed over that bit in the post about Wonder Woman's backstory, but yeah. The Amazons, including Hippolyta, were deceived and conquered by Hercules and his men, and subsequently raped, and that was the final straw that led to their living in isolation on Themyscira.
So what this revelation or retcon or whatever you want to call it does is a little more than add some nuance and ambiguity to the Amazons. It unveils them as savage hypocrites of the lowest and most despicable order. And therefore by extension, reduces everything Wonder Woman—a symbol of empowerment, spirit of truth, and paragon of heroism—fights for and believes in to, in a word, bullshit.
I'm just going to come out and say it: that's akin to revealing Uncle Ben, from Spider-Man, was secretly a pedophile.
And what I find most damning of all about this—further, this entire clichéd concept, the "reveal horrible revelation about the hero's past that invalidates their entire motivation and makes them question why they are heroes"—is that we all already know the story before it's even finished.
Diana finds out about the Amazons...she's shocked and disgusted and questions everything about herself...then after some angst and brooding, she finally realizes it doesn't matter who the Amazons really are, and she won't let that define who she is, and we're then supposed to think this reinforces what a great hero Wonder Woman is because blah, blah, blah, blah...I can write this goddamn story in my sleep.
I'm not the type of guy who advocates sacred cows and says there are some stories that can't be told or some things that can't be touched. But I do advocate the saying, "Just because you can, doesn't necessarily mean you should."
As such, I think maybe there are some things that are fine left as they are. I don't need Uncle Ben to be revealed as a pedophile. I don't need Ma & Pa Kent retconned into crystal meth dealers. Some things don't need to be tinkered with...as I'm sure any Star Wars fan can testify.
Especially when the result of the tinkering is a message I already should've fucking known.
What?! You mean Wonder Woman is...a hero who fights for what's right?! NO! I so needed the Amazons to be turned into rapists to know that. So much better fiddling with her past and backstory than actually confronting her with new threats and new challenges from, I don't know, her non-existent rogues gallery.
But what am I saying..? Rogues galleries are for superheroes. And Wonder Woman isn't a superhero comic.
"It's a horror book."