The Need for (Re)Defining Feminism with Wonder Woman
I was excited to see that I could combine reading female writers with reading graphic novels. I wanted to believe in an idea of women having some form of equality in the Comic universe, even though I had a rational idea that they were vastly outnumbered and likely faced an uphill battle. Unfortunately, I found Jodi Picoult’s “Wonder Woman: Love and Murder” and as much as I wanted to love it, it just about murdered Wonder Woman for me.
Wonder Woman is a funny character—while an essential member of the Justice League she struggles to keep independent arcs afloat with any regularity. She has been cancelled for stretches and is seldom kept up in mainstream media. Apart from Linda Carter’s epic run and Gal Gadot’s recent (and highly unpopular) casting in Batman Versus Superman Wonder Woman has been the red-headed stepchild of the DC Universe’s film endeavors. Print-wise, Aquaman has had more notable recent runs than Diana Prince, and so has Catwoman, Batgirl, Red Hood, Daredevil. Her New 52 reboot leaves something to be desired as she is still less interesting and less dense than her male counterparts. When you compare her to Batman or Superman, characters who also developed in the Golden Age of comics and endured through the Modern Age, she has a significantly smaller amount of books, collects and runs. And the pauses between her runs have been longer (when do Batman and Superman ever not have runs going?)—notably she took an extensive nap during the Silver Age.
My question is, why isn’t Wonder Woman more of a beacon of feminist inclusion in the comic industry? She makes it onto IGN’s “Greatest Heroes of All Time” list and Empire Magazine rates her among the most influential heroes of all time… but comic fans are a bit less forgiving, including her on Comic Buyer’s Guide’s “Sexiest Heroes” list but not a “Greatest” list. I live with a weekly comic buyer and I never see Wonder Woman on the stack….I see X-Men, Catwoman, Batman, Batgirl, Superman, Aquaman, and a thousand arc variations of them, but rarely if ever Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman was created to promote a female sensibility. William Moulton Marston, inventor of the polygraph test, invented Wonder Woman under the guidance of his wives…yes wives. His first wife insisted on a female character, and elements of Wonder Woman’s costume were influenced by his second wife (through polygamy not divorce). Views on polygamy may be up for debate, but Marston had some progressive views about women, and wanted Wonder Woman to wield Truth as a weapon (as he did too). Now despite that her making was intended to represent the new, liberal female spirit there were several problematic features of Wonder Woman that have persisted in alienating her from a liberal female audience.
First of all, Wonder Woman’s costume is a huge problem area. While men find it attractive there are heavy handed S&M features of it– the lasso, the cuffs, the ritual tying up and the large-breasted woman with a skimpy bustier. Wonder Woman, as an Amazon, is full of both muscle and curves, but her outfit always leaves her exposed. The muscle and curves I can embrace—they are emblematic of female strength and sexiness being able to go together (and they are the reason that few have rallied behind the twig thin and flat chested Gal Gadot to play Diana Prince). The problem with a curvy woman isn’t her curves—the problem is the exposed, skimpy quality of her costume. Jodi Picoult said in her introduction to Love and Murder that she wanted a change to the Wonder Woman costume (straps to support a well-endowed woman) but was quickly and firmly shot down by the DC artists. Jim Lee’s re-working of Wonder Woman with a jacket and pants only lasted for 14 issues, and was quickly undone by the next re-launch a year later.
Secondly, Love and Murder pulled an aggressively pseudo-feminist standpoint that really makes it hard for female and male readers to bond together and see virtue in the Amazon. Shailene Woodley, a popular actress in the Divergent series, just said that “feminism” wouldn’t ever work because taking men out of power and putting women into it was bound to fail, because balance needed to be attained. Despite a remarkably flawed view of feminism (see the whole interview here: http://time.com/87967/shailene-woodley-feminism-fault-in-our-stars/) Woodley brings us to the crux of the problem with Picoult’s Love and Murder. “Feminism” is a multi-faceted approach to viewing gender, gender identity, identity development, and biological versus societal factors regarding sex and gender in a body (and that’s still simplifying it by too much, so Woodley needs to read up a bit more). The problem with a “feminist” approach can be the Woodley perception—that feminism is an aggressive, butch approach to literature and relationships that is isolationist and reveal a staggering lack of emotional IQ.
Picoult sadly falls into this pitfall with Love and Murder and lost out on a prime opportunity to do some real justice to a character who needed to be brought into a modern feminist fold.
Love and Murder tried too hard to be feminist, and as a result it lost out on the organic strength of a woman battling a realistic world. Wonder Woman is a god, she is otherworldly, and we are strange to her—the way many woman secretly feel in their world: semi-divine, a bit misplaced, but surrounded by people who are not like us. In Picoult’s world Diana Prince has had to become the primary identity of Wonder Woman, as Wonder Woman publically killed someone and had to relinquish the public eye. Diana is an agent in a masculine black suit, partnered with a man who she is cold and distant to and then falls in love with as the story progresses—a kitschy rom-com plot line that wasn’t necessary. She is an alien in an alien world—she doesn’t understand anyone but makes no attempt to become one with the world or even to comprehend we poor basic humans. Instead of using her alienation to make her feel more human, she feels arrogantly, superiorly inhuman. Her skimpy costume, her odd pandering to her male companion, they read as incompatible with her cold, bitch-on-wheels demeanor.
Then we get into the third and biggest problem with Wonder Woman.
How can you promote femininity in a positive and inclusionary way while promoting female infighting?
Simply, you can’t. Women need to band together— which is why I agonized over Picoult for weeks before writing anything about this comic down, because I desperately want to support her. But I am supporting the rest of the girls by saying that the organization of heroes and villains in Love and Murder unnecessarily promotes catty female infighting that counteracts any positivity that was intended in this reboot.
By resurrecting Hippolyta and using Circe as a main villain (two ideas Picoult claims as her own, not as requisites for writing the book by the DC powers-that-be) Picoult sets up a mud fight between scantily clad women and asked the reader to shout “Girl Power” from the sidelines. Hippolyta and Circe are both a bit bland and their motives aren’t ever clearly defined, they backstab, they coerce and use their bodies to get what they want. They guilt trip.
I really wanted them to be more complex as characters—but even Wonder Woman falls short at the end. After an epic battle where Hippolyta has said that she is willing to kill her daughter if Diana continues to side with humanity, Diana’s epic revelation turns into her handing her mother a knife and kneeling before her saying that she was willing to die if her mother was willing to kill her.
Of course she was willing to kill you.
She said she was going to do it a page ago. Not much changed.
Except that I am flabbergasted by how disappointed I am that Wonder Woman has never diversified. What will it take to truly bring a realistic feminist approach to Wonder Woman where she is valid, dimensional, and reaches not only the female audiences but builds a bridge for the male readership.
Jodi Picoult is an American author with over 14 million copies of books in print. She writes many books with strong female leads or women seeking voices, notably My Sister’s Keeper, The Pact, Keeping Faith, and The Tenth Circle. Several books have been made into highly successful movies, My Sister’s Keeper stared Cameron Dias and Abigail Breslin. She currently lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children.