Retroactive Continuity: Wonder Woman

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This is actually a few months premature–it’s meant to go roughly halfway between STAS seasons 1 and 2, and we’re still in season 1–but I’m shifting it up because timeliness.

She’s not going to show up in the DCAU for quite some time, other than brief intrusions from outside like DC vs. Marvel, but let’s talk about Wonder Woman, and Wonder Woman, which is in theaters as I write this.

It’s June of 2017. Six months ago, after a shock electoral upset which may have involved election tampering by Russian hackers, and definitely involved election tampering by Republican state officials via gerrymandering and assorted forms of voter suppression, confessed sexual predator Donald Trump assumed the Presidency. A major factor in the campaign was the neoreactionary, quasifascist movement that has come to be known as the “alt right,” the dry run for which was the misogynist terror campaign GamerGate.

And all that barely scratches the surface of how nasty things are for women right now.

Enter Wonder Woman, a film directed by a woman about the superwoman, which presents her as an unstoppably powerful warrior motivated by deep compassion, a naif with much to teach, a literal goddess, all without subjecting her to the male gaze. In short, she is presented as a power fantasy for women, by a woman.

Which is as it should be. That’s what Wonder Woman was made for, crafted by a child psychologist to give girls a model of feminine power, to help them realize their own power.

Or, well, that’s the usual narrative. Typically at this point we’d segue into talking about the other two things William Moulton Marston is known for, the lie detector (which he didn’t actually event and doesn’t actually detect lies) and being submissive and poly. But the real key to Wonder Woman, as Phil Sandifer persuasively argues in his A Golden Thread, is neither of those things; rather, the same project underlies all of Marston’s work, which Sandifer memorably described as “feminist bondage utopia”; in short, Marston believed that the world would be a better place if men voluntarily submitted to the loving authority of women.

In his The Emotions of Normal People, Marston argued for the existence of four basic behavioral patterns: dominance, submission, compliance, and inducement. To oversimplify drastically, dominance is forcing another to do what you want, compliance is allowing yourself to be forced to do what another wants, submission is willingly doing what another wants, and inducement is persuading another to willingly do what you want. The world, basically, has too much dominance and compliance in it, and not enough submission and inducement; Marston thus created Wonder Woman as a model for young people in general, but especially girls, of both inducement and submission.

This plan has a number of issues, one of which is that it ran almost immediately headlong into the very different direction in which superheroes evolved during and after World War II. Quite simply, Marston’s conception of Wonder Woman seeks to bring about utopia, to fundamentally alter “Man’s World” such that it ceases to be exclusively Man’s, and therefore is a figure not of near-apocalypse but full-on apocalypse; she does not use dominance and therefore cannot protect us from those unwilling to submit; and she has no particular trauma from which she originates. In short, the character Marston created is not a superhero as they have come to be constructed.

Toss in the misogyny rampant in the comic book industry, and the result is a character which, despite being one of only three continually published without break by DC, has nonetheless proved to be an immense challenge to writers and artists who tried to approach her as a typical superhero. As, indeed, she will be for the DCAU: out of the seven founding members of the Justice League, she is the only one who has no character arc.

Wonder Woman, rather cleverly, sidesteps this problem by questioning the idea of heroism itself. Not the superhero–that concept never even comes up within the film–but the hero. Diana begins the film convinced that she is a hero setting out on a classic journey. The first act puts all the pieces in place, straight out of John Campbell’s vile little book: the Mentor Antiope, the arrival of the Herald Steve Trevor, Diana’s Refusal of the Call, the intrusion of the outside world leading to the Death of the Mentor, after which Diana finally sets out into the world–and promptly falls into a war movie by way of fish-out-of-water comedy.

But Diana plows through the complexities of World War I, approaching it as a heroic struggle in which her friends are The Good Guys and her enemies The Bad Guys, where her role is to break through the lines, save the innocent villagers, and slay the evil king, bringing peace to the world. But the cracks are beginning to show: the leadership of the ostensible good guys give Diana her first experience with overt sexism, Steve’s people (i.e., the people who made the movie) committed genocide, and while they may be a (real-life) fascist and a (fictional) mad scientist, neither Ludendorff nor Dr. Poison is an entity of pure evil whose death will solve all.

Even peace isn’t necessarily good: Ares, God of War, is the architect of the peace, the punitive terms of which will help the Nazis rise to power. And yet even killing him does not save the day, though it does give the “good guys” and the previously faceless gas-masked “bad guys” (now revealed as frightened teenagers) a chance to rest; the peace will happen, the Nazis will rise, and Diana’s heroics can change nothing.

Relying on heroes gets us nowhere; not only is Wonder Woman not a superhero, she’s not even a hero. This is where the movie stumbles, as it implies that she spends the next century doing basically nothing. Meaning that an unstoppable force who has already proven she can walk across heavily defended borders like they aren’t there and destroy tanks barehanded sat around doing nothing while the fucking Holocaust happened.

But that stumble was probably inevitable, from two different directions. First, it is a case of the film tripping over its essential liberalism; it cannot endorse Wonder Woman actually carrying out her mission of overthrowing Man’s World, and instead instinctively seeks some kind of “middle way” with mealy-mouthed nonsense about changing the world by loving at it. Which is where the other end comes in: the essential problem with Marston’s project was that meaningful change cannot be achieved through what he calls inducement. People do not, as a general rule, let go of power unless forced to do so, which is to say that only power can oppose power; what Marston calls dominance cannot be induced into submission, only forced to comply.

The film tries at the end to reach for the Marstonian ideal of loving authority. Unfortunately, at least in the realm of politics that ideal is nonsense, an oxymoron. Political authority does not and cannot love, because love requires consent while political authority is built on coercion. So, after an entire movie built on the idea that the myth of the hero, of meaningful change accomplished by isolated individual action, is the fantasy of a child, Wonder Woman declares that she will sit around waiting for meaningful change to happen.

But set aside the ending; if Wonder Woman is not a hero, what is she? The movie answers for us: she is a goddess. And certainly that seems to be the effect she has had: countless women have written about how inspiring, empowering, and energizing they found the movie, which is exactly what gods are supposed to do when they’re being loving (as opposed to when they’re being authorities, which involves a lot more smiting and demanding sacrifices).

So, a goddess. Goddess of what? Wonder Woman was created to bring about a better world. Leave aside Marston’s crank theories on how to achieve such a thing and focus on the better world itself. How do we get there? Not by sitting around doing nothing, to be sure–but for all that she herself spends a century doing it, that doesn’t seem to be what she inspires in moviegoers.

Wonder Woman is a power fantasy, not a protector fantasy. She is a disruptive force, the woman in brightly colored armor holding a sword in a room full of stuffy suit-clad old men. We have, generally speaking, observed that superheroes are protector fantasies while supervillains are power fantasies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all power fantasies are villainous; that relation holds only within the context of superheroes, which context Wonder Woman has rejected. She’s no supervillain, but she is a force for change, a warrior for change.

Marston dreamed of a gentle strength that could guide the world into something better. But he’s been dead for most of a century; Wonder Woman lives on, changes, grows, evolves. We’ve seen what’s needed to make a better world, courtesy of the harlequin: the old world must be removed so the new world can be built. The powerful and the complacent look at revolution and see apocalypse; the disenfranchised and the downtrodden look at apocalypse and see hope.

That is who Wonder Woman is: the goddess of revolution.


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