Thursday, January 23, 2014

From Aphrodite to Athena: Wonder Woman & Her Sword

As time passes, long-running characters have to evolve in order to remain fresh and relevant. Characters like Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and most comic book superheroes have lasted as long as they have, and remained pop cultural icons, exactly because they've evolved over time.

But a frequent issue when reinventing or adapting a long-running character is finding the balance between innovation and staying true to who/what the character is. Change and innovation is essential, but if one goes too far, or strays too much from the source, you run the risk of...well...


This was a major sticking point in Man of Steel. People that liked it felt it was a necessary and needed re-imagining of the character. Others felt it went too far and betrayed many of the core principles of Superman.
A more extreme example would be Rob Zombie's Halloween films, which changed Michael Myers from a silent, unknowable embodiment of pure evil to a grunting, white-trash brute with mommy issues.
J.J. Abrams's Star Trek movies, the recent Sherlock Holmes films...the list goes on.

Often times, when debating the matter, people look to the original creator(s), and what he/she/they intended for the character and/or story. Because one thing most people seem to agree on is if the re-imagining or adaptation can at least stay true to the spirit or principles of that original intention, then maybe you're okay.

Perhaps the Joker didn't fall into toxic waste in The Dark Knight, and his clown face was merely scars and make-up. But Heath Ledger captured the essence of the character—the nihilistic, "life is a cruel joke, and I'm going to show everyone what a cruel joke it is" core of the Joker.
That's what mattered (for most people, anyway).

So let's have a look at William Moulton Marston and Wonder Woman.

Obviously, Marston's intention with Wonder Woman was to create an empowered female character that was every bit as strong as any other male superhero. That in itself puts him and Wonder Woman pretty far ahead of their time, which is notable, but his goals actually aimed even higher:

"Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don't want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman."

The critical thing that sticks out to me is the ambition to create a strong female character that wasn't just ostensibly a male character. People like to joke Wonder Woman is just "Superman with boobs," but despite their obvious similarities, Marston never intended Diana to just be a female Superman. He wanted her to be strong and powerful, but still very much a woman defined by her femininity.
Now granted, Marston's definition of femininity might be out-dated by today's standards, but the principle is still sound, and in my opinion, why Wonder Woman is still relevant even today.

Marston also took the classic Greek myths and subverted them, changing the Amazons—originally man-hating savages—into a utopian and peaceful society people should aspire to be like. Unlike most superheroes that solved all their problems by punching them in the face, Wonder Woman was supposed to be someone that strove to fight bad guys without violence and change the world for the better.
This subversion was further emphasized by the characterizing of Hercules as a chauvinistic douche-nozzle.

Unlike certain creators I could name, I believe these principles are what really matter when looking back on what Marston originally intended with Wonder Woman—not the bondage thing.
Yeah, Marston's beliefs on female empowerment were linked to his bondage fetish—which is...eccentric, at the very least—but I argue his ambition Wonder Woman should be a strong, empowered woman without giving up her femininity and a subversion of the cliched depiction of Amazons and "warrior women" is FAR more relevant and important.

So, in the 70+ years of Wonder Woman's history, through the various reboots, reinventions, re-imaginings, and adaptations, have we stayed true to that original and critical vision?

Let's explore that, shall we...

I've always been interested in Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. The thought-process behind it intrigued me, and more pertinent, I've always enjoyed the various ways it can be reinterpreted and subverted. Anyone that actually advocates the Hero's Journey as a storytelling device will always tell you it's not a strict formula to be followed to the letter. It's something that should be played with and re-imagined.

As such, I've also been intrigued by the notion there might be an Anti-Hero's Journey, Villain's Journey, and a Heroine's Journey. And in studying these possibilities, I came across this book: The Heroine's Journey, by Maureen Murdock.
Turned out it had little to do with storytelling or fiction—rather, it was mainly a study of women's psychology, but all the same, I gave it a read.

At the risk of misrepresenting the text and its intention...
The Heroine's Journey deals very heavily with how women, in their effort to find "success" in a masculine world, can reject or abandon their femininity, and how this can lead to dissatisfaction and/or sense of alienation. It then goes on to explore how women can reconcile their lost femininity with masculinity and achieve a kind of spiritual wholeness.
FYI, this is a huge simplification of the ideas presented in the book.

An immediate question to be raised is how we define "feminine" and "masculine," and what it means to reject one and/or embrace the other in the name of "success." Is the notion of there being certain things/concepts that are inherently "feminine" or "masculine" even relevant? That in itself is huge debate, and these can be very murky terms that hold different meaning for different people, and the book acknowledges this.

For the record, not being a woman myself, I have no horse in this race. How women want to define their success in relation to the terms of "feminine" and "masculine"......ladies, that's up to you to decide. As an outside observer, I simply see it as interesting food for thought.

Anyway, while reading the book, I frequently found myself thinking of it and its proposed "Heroine's Journey" in regard to various female characters I like.
Wonder Woman, in particular, and sure enough, I felt there were interesting parallels between Diana's development over the years and said Heroine's Journey—not just within the context, but also in terms of how writers and editors have portrayed her over the years.

I don't really want to delve into it too deeply, because honestly I think the subject can warrant its own blog post by itself (which maybe I'll get to, someday).
But the beginning stage of the Heroine's Journey, as suggested by Maureen Murdock, involves what she calls a "Separation From the Feminine," wherein the heroine initially separates herself from her femininity (usually in the form of her mother) to find success in a patriarchal world. Right off the bat, I find myself thinking of Diana entering the Contest and leaving Themyscira against her mother's wishes to become Wonder Woman in the world of men.

Skipping ahead a bit, there are a few pages that explore the symbolic meaning of certain Greek goddesses—specifically, Athena (goddess of wisdom & war):

"Athena sprang from Zeus's head as a full-grown woman, wearing flashing armor, holding a sharp spear in one hand and emitting a mighty war cry. Following this dramatic birth Athena associated herself with Zeus, acknowledging him as her sole parent. The goddess never acknowledged Metis, her mother. In fact, Athena seemed ignorant of the fact that she had a mother. 
[...]
"An 'Athena woman' is a father's daughter; she depreciates her own mother and identifies with her father. She is bright and ambitious and gets things done. She has little value for emotional relationship; she lacks empathy and compassion for vulnerability."

This passage really stood out to me in regard to Wonder Woman, because when she was first created, Marston had the Amazons' primary matron goddess be Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty. Their worshiping her, above all, was heavily tied into their beliefs in love, peace, and tolerance (again, subverting the old myths where the Amazons worshiped Ares). Wonder Woman's mission was an extension of that, being all about diplomacy and making the world a better place without violence.

As time passed though, primarily after Crisis of Infinite Earths, Wonder Woman and the Amazons' main matron changed. Aphrodite shuffled off to the side, and gradually the goddess they worshiped above all was depicted as Athena.

On paper, this seems an obvious thing. In a post-feminism world, one would expect Wonder Woman—superhero, crime-fighter, empowered female—to favor the "goddess of wisdom" more than the "goddess of love."
And that's not a bad thing, by any means. After all, we'd like our superhero protagonist to be "bright, ambitious, and get things done," wouldn't we?

But it just so happens that, ever since, we've also seen Wonder Woman less and less interested in the whole peace & tolerance thing. More emphasis has been placed on she being a "warrior" above all—which writers at DC apparently decided means charging into battle armed with a sword. The Amazons have also progressively become less utopian, and more violent and xenophobic.
Wonder Woman herself has become colder. We, the readers, are still told she's this paragon of warmth and love, but more often than not, she portrayed as overzealous, aloof, and distant (the "Diana isn't human and doesn't understand humans" nonsense I've banged on about more than once).

I find most tend to justify this by saying Wonder Woman as the peaceful diplomat that only fights as a last resort simply isn't interesting and won't sell. Because superhero comics are all about fighting, and they appeal to a male demographic that only wants to see action and violence. 
Essentially, making Wonder Woman more and more of a "warrior" is meant to make her more appealing to male audiences.

Now, I think about this—and the comparison between Aphrodite and Athena—and I can't help but wonder if it's a coincidence that, in the ongoing effort to make the character "acceptable" for adolescent boys (and old men with the mentality of adolescent boys), DC has all but jettisoned any notion of Wonder Woman being a kind, nurturing figure (i.e. abandoning her femininity) and run full-steam into making her a hardcore, bloodthirsty, (masculine) "warrior" bitch.

I'll grant, it's likely an unintended coincidence. This type of thing is exactly why I prefer not to delve into sub-text. I'd rather not presume to be able to see into the subconscious thoughts of writers, artists, and the like. And, again, this line of thinking leads into murky territory of defining what "feminine" and "masculine" truly mean.

So maybe I'm reading into it more than I should...but then I notice how, in the Nu52, we've reached a point where Wonder Woman not only has an actual father—conveniently enough: Zeus, not unlike Athena—but more importantly, now has a phallic symbol at her side at all times:



If I may stop for a brief tangent...
Personally, I never like to play the "sword / knife / gun / any weapon = phallic symbol" card. It's one thing if that is the intended symbolism—but more often than not, I feel people throw that around regardless of intention. Plenty of great female characters wield swords in fiction, and it doesn't make them any less. 

And honestly, you'd be hard-pressed to find an effective combat weapon that can't be interpreted as a phallus. I've seriously thought long and hard about that, and the only weapons I've been able to come up with are steel fans, chakram rings, or a bear-trap.
All of which are pretty cool—and as awesome the idea of Wonder Woman bashing bad guys over the head with a big metal bear-trap, à la El Kabong might be....

Anyway, although I don't like playing the "sword = phallus" card—and yes, it's most likely just a juvenile, "Wonder Woman having a sword makes her bad ass!" mentality—when weighing it against the apparent ongoing efforts to make her "okay" for little boys (and old men that think like little boys), it's something that, having thought of it, I can't not think of it.
It's getting to the point, for me, where every time I see Wonder Woman carrying a sword for no reason, a snarky, dismissive little voice in my head starts shouting (and this is crude): "Is Wonder Woman 'okay' for the little boys yet, now that she has a cock strapped to her thigh..?"

I'm sorry, but between the whole Athena thing, Wonder Woman becoming more violent & aggressive, Zeus, and now carrying a sword everywhere....the potential for sub-text just piles up. Sooner or later, a pattern emerges.

I am not opposed to Diana busting out a sword when it's necessary. Unlike the shield she's frequently depicted wielding, I'm okay with Wonder Woman using a sword from time to time. But the key thing is, I think she should only break out the sword (or axe or spear or whatever) when serious shit is going down. If you see Wonder Woman rocking a sword, it should mean a portal to Hell has busted open and/or legions of evil are spewing out.
She should not be using it to stop muggers or buy ice cream.

Otherwise, her primary, trademark weapons are the Lasso of Truth, unbreakable bracelets, and her tiara. They are part of what makes her iconic and unique.

Even if you don't buy the "they're making Wonder Woman masculine" line of thinking, by downplaying or outright robbing her of things like the Lasso (& replacing it with a sword) and ignoring the bracelets (& having her rely on an actual shield), all they're doing is reducing her to another bland, generic "warrior woman" cliche—something she was never meant to be in the first place.
Not to mention, Diana relying so much on a lethal instrument really clashes with her supposed, "I'm here to spread peace and tolerance" thing. Just strikes me as writers & artists only creating problems & contradictions in the character, rather than resolving them.

So to take it back to Marston and what he originally intended......yeah, I think they've kind of strayed.
As said, he wanted Wonder Woman to be a strong, empowering female figure without giving up her femininity. She was supposed to strive for peace and only view violence as a last resort.
And sub-text or not, they've kind of thrown a lot of that out the window. 

Wonder Woman is supposed to be a subversion of the "angry Amazon warrior bitch." Her mother and sisters were supposed to be a subversion of the stereotypical portrayal of Amazons.
I wonder if the people that couldn't/can't accept the notion that Wonder Woman's Amazons didn't hate men watched the Shrek movies and kept saying, "Wait, wait, wait...why is the ogre the hero? That doesn't make sense. Ogres are supposed to be bad guys."

That's the point of subversion. Ignoring or disregarding that subversion defeats the whole purpose, and all you're left is, frankly, just another dime-a-dozen character & story.

So even if DC's efforts to make Wonder Woman "acceptable" doesn't include making her more masculine and isn't flying in the face of everything William Moulton Marston envisioned for the character....they're still making her very typical.

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