Why no Wonder Woman outfit can really 'work'
|FEATURES - TV|
The roots of Wonder Woman make a sartorial make-over problematic...
Whatever NBC had unveiled for Adrianne Palicki's Wonder Woman costume, it could not possibly have worked. Whatever revisions they then made in response to fierce criticism were equally doomed. You can only amend a concept if that concept is clear, direct and unconflicted (which is why TV and movie execs prefer a four-word pitch to a three-page treatment), and the politics of Wonder Woman are ambiguous from their earliest roots.
The only way to really see that is to compare how much simpler the Superman mythos is by comparison: in an age where the effects of mass-immigration were themselves controversial, the Man Of Steel was an outsider integrated into and useful to his adopted society. Immensely strong and powerful, he was also fair, just and considerate; if he was dynamic, he was at least equally intelligent, hardworking and modest (in his assumed disguise). More than sixty years before the advent of 'geek chic', Clark Kent was among the earliest lodestones for the disenfranchised or seemingly powerless male, especially boys who were eager for adventure and acclaim in a society where the intrepidity of cosmopolitan woman (as represented by Lois Lane) was still overshadowed by male dominance. And, of course, among the hundreds of thousands of displaced workers in a culture just trying to recover from a dazzlingly destructive recession.
Superman bore the physique of the weightlifters that so fascinated 1930s society, in a direct attempt to visually explain his strength, and 'male ethics' were dominant even in workplaces where women were making an inroad, in a pretty harsh society fascinated with self-improvement, aggression and fatalism.
It was the diminution in importance of physical prowess that made the Superman legend more complex over the following decades, to a point now where the fundamental origins of the character are very hard to shoehorn into an obsessively post-modern culture - one which balances its continuing white (young) male bias with a fairly consistent demotion of the WASP male in advertising and culture in general.
But if Superman needs therapy now, at least he started out appropriate for and consistent to his environment. All the ambiguity came later; the neurosis of Superman is historical, not etymological. Unlike Wonder Woman, whose creator William Moulton Marston observed in 1942 that:
"If [boys] go crazy over Wonder Woman, it means they're longing for a beautiful, exciting girl who's stronger than they are. By their comics tastes ye shall know them! Tell me anybody's preference in story strips and I'll tell you his subconscious desires. These simple, highly imaginative picture stories satisfy longings that ordinary daily life thwarts and denies. Superman and the army of male comics characters who resemble him satisfy the simple desire to be stronger and more powerful than anybody else. Wonder Woman satisfies the subconscious, elaborately disguised desire of males to be mastered by a woman who loves them."
So Wonder Woman's creator himself understood well how clearly defined Superman was, and how his own character was conversely derived from a hidden and (at the time) taboo agenda. Marston is famed, besides creating Wonder Woman, for inventing a precursor to the modern polygraph, often associated as a real-life correlation to Wonder Woman's 'Lasso Of Truth'. But it's no mere practical conceit that Marston chose this particular device to deliver one of WW's most impressive 'superpowers'. Her power to compel confessions comes in the form of a rope - rather than a gun, a ray or a liquid - because it corresponded with Marston's own interests in being dominated and restricted by women. The writer and creator observed:
"The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound ... Only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society. ... Giving to others, being controlled by them, submitting to other people cannot possibly be enjoyable without a strong erotic element."
This is not to say that NBC's new Wonder Woman TV series has any duty to feel in itself restricted by the origins of the character, any more than the Lynda Carter incarnation needed to back in the 1970s. A thematically strong character can survive a great deal of reinvention, and one might note that Superman himself, along with Neo, Spider-Man and countless other characters, has drawn on and exploited the 'Christ' figure - and that Christ himself has been the subject of numerous and often controversial literary or screen re-inventions.
But before you can bend the rule, the rule has to be straight (which is the very definition of a rule), and so it's unsurprising that the figure, literally and figuratively, of Wonder Woman continues to be a kind of Rorschach test for viewers and readers. The meaning and appreciation of the character was confused and confusing not only in its origins, but in terms of who it was aimed at - and who it ended up appealing to.
One can take a lot of Marston quotes and piece together a number of intentions, but the two which immediately seem in conflict are a) his apparent ambition to awaken the secret 'submissive' in male readers, even in the context of a society which prized a dominant male aggression, and b) his avowedly more important agenda of empowering an American womanhood that he felt was not receiving adequate respect from male society:
"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."
It's a radical mission decades ahead of its time, and seemed strong enough feminist propaganda to have appealed to the likes of Gloria Steinem and her peers. Does it then matter that it issued from someone who was quite literally bound up in the fringe sexuality which helped to template Wonder Woman? Does truth itself ring true even from doubtful sources?
One issue with reinvention is that you cannot abandon all the iconography of the original template and still lay claim to a place in its heritage: Batman needs the ears and the cape, however realistically explained by Nolan and Co; Superman is stuck with the blue tights, even if Bryan Singer toned the red colour of his logo down to 'wine'; and Wonder Woman still needs to be tying men and women up with her golden lasso, and to occasionally (though waaay less often than in the original comics) get tied up herself. It's not unusual for material intended for kids to work at more adult levels, but the 'adult levels' at which the character of Wonder Woman works are eye-openingly different from most of her fictional colleagues. In the case of Wonder Woman, unlike the appropriation of The Wizard Of Oz by the lesbian community, outraged fans don't even have the common recourse of criticising those who make such connections as 'dirty-minded' or 'reaching' - because these are the very associations from which the character sprung in the mind of her creator, as various interviews with him make quite clear.
And this is the problem in finding the right costume for Wonder Woman - do you sanitise her S&M origins or embrace them?
Taking a step back, it's a problem which faces the conception and execution of many female superheroes; the iconography of the well-developed male body has, by this time, either been hijacked by (male) gay culture or made laughable by a kind of post-imperialist political correctness. Might is money now, not muscle, and a honed physique is perceived as a luxurious and even costly vanity. Even the iconic male body is made laughable and -despite population statistics that still keep it at about 50% - apparently redundant ('junk'). The female body instead remains 'political'. Dress a man in tight spandex and you have an instant gay icon; dress a woman in spandex and you have a flame war.
The problem with women dominating men, in the kind of psychosexual context in which Marston created the character of Wonder Woman, is that the 'submissive' is widely-known to be the one with the real 'power', and in the end Diana Prince was arguably therefore a construct catering to Marston's uncommon view of male-female relations. If she was born to appeal to her creator's libido, can she really fulfil any revised directives whilst wearing what he dressed her in?
It depends, as it always has done, on who you consider Wonder Woman is 'for'. Though rarely commenting on the correspondence of her admirers, Lynda Carter has often made reference to the numerous letters from young girls who felt inspired by her version of the character; and the comics themselves were popular in early decades with young girls, in spite of the frequent bondage imagery - which presumably flew over their heads, perhaps to Marston's annoyance. Presumably the new incarnation, if the show is any good, will provide further opportunities to create some kind of an identifiable female role-model for girls to admire. And perhaps it is even appropriate for this period in time, moreso than it was in the 1970s, that the character issued from such murky roots...
Now that we live in a time where young female fashion and culture has embraced and remodelled even pornography (in the form of fashion accessories, at the very least), one can argue whether this represents women's appropriation of a once-repressive culture, or the complete and unexpected victory of that culture. Marston's ideal of a "feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman" contains within it a template which in no way conforms to 'feminist power', in that it neither represents the practical situation of women, highlights what their potential and strengths really are (insofar as these differ from male strengths), or frees them from the expectation of being physically 'beautiful' and morally superior to men. In a way, even Catwoman is a better role-model, since her own S&M iconography is more honestly presented (and a lot less serious and 'committed' than Wonder Woman's), she achieves her goals through a combination of physical prowess and intelligence (without the aid of any 'powers' or particular gizmos)...and her own ability to dazzle and beguile is part of her modus operandi, rather than 'something for the dads'.
Catwoman, ironically, for all that she is portrayed as 'split right down the middle', projects herself as considerably less conflicted than Wonder Woman - because she continues to be a product of her current era, and is easily adaptable to it. To boot, she's actually less kinky than the Wonder Woman character, because she has a sense of humour and is not trying to play herself 'straight'...
...and at least she knows what she likes to wear. Wonder Woman needs to join Superman in the shrink's waiting room, because these are two creatures of another era; no fashion makeover can change the roots of either without destroying their original potency. Superman is a strongman in a geek's world, and Wonder Woman a bondage icon trying to turn over a new leaf - without permission to change style. Unlike Lynda Carter's costume, Adrianne Palicki's WW garb hides her legs (both in the initial latex and later cloth versions), which ironically brings her even closer to the 'Mistress' ideal of William Moulton Marston, which revels not in nudity, but in constriction. At the same time, perhaps nominally for nostalgia's sake, the costume mirrors the revealed décolletage of the Carter years which would have outraged viewers of the Bionic Woman reboot (which respected Lindsay Wagner's place as the only fully-clothed female hero of the 1970s). So which change is being made here? A new modesty below but unseasonal abandonment above? As I observed at the start, what issues from conflict will in itself be conflicted.
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