Media Mondays: Wonder Woman

You may have noticed by now that I kind of have a thing for Amazons. My favorite comic book superheroine, after all, is Wonder Girl, and Wonder Woman herself is a very close second. I go by Themiscyra just about anywhere and everywhere I can, and it’s not solely a Wonder Woman reference. And so it goes. The Amazon label is admittedly a problematic one, frequently co-opted by the less pleasant elements of radical feminism (you know, the folks who basically hate me for calling myself a woman, who gleefully throw pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘him’ at women like me when they’re not calling us ‘it,’ who don’t think we have any place in women’s spaces, that sort of thing), but it’s one I wear with pride nonetheless. I’m a firm believer in the power of archetypes – in our ability to draw strength from symbols deeply embedded into our culture. And the Amazons are pretty damn potent. To me, they represent a strength that embraces womanhood, rather than rejecting or denigrating it, as our popular culture too often does. They represent every last woman who chose to stand up and face the world on her own terms rather than giving in to the pressures of the dominant society. So hell yes, I’m an Amazon. Or, at least, I aspire to be one.

That said, of course, I have to concede the point that the Amazons as portrayed in Greek mythology aren’t necessarily perfect, praiseworthy figures. Some of the legends have them slicing off their breasts to better aim their arrows, taking those men they did not kill as slaves, engaging in sexual congress with men only to reproduce and then abandoning or killing any male children. To the Greeks, these were most likely figures of utter terror…and yet, at the same time, they were also clearly figures of intense fascination, because they keep showing up. The Amazons we know today – mostly through media like, well, Wonder Woman – bear only a partial resemblance to the Amazons of antiquity. That’s something I’ve struggled to accept – to the point of having a visceral negative reaction to the Amazons’ recent appearance on Supernatural. (I won’t spoil the episode, but the Amazons of Paradise Island don’t have a whole lot in common with the Amazons of the Supernatural universe, either.)

Wonder Woman’s history is a bit troubled as well: created by William Moulton Marston, whose work contributed to the modern polygraph test, she was not only intended to serve as the world’s first female superhero, but also as a proponent of his philosophy. The idea was to combine “ideal” female attributes – tenderness, submission, and beauty, most notably – with the power of Superman. Wonder Woman would use this power to encourage submission to loving authority. The early stories are thus rather confused, filled with outmoded ideas and instances of bondage that may or may not have been intended as sexual but certainly come off that way. While Marston’s goals may have been noble, he was definitely still rather misguided, and the execution of his ideas was seriously lacking.

And yet, for all the flaws of her creator, for all the missteps along the way, Wonder Woman became a feminist icon. Maybe it was because she was the most prominent female superhero out there – but I’ve always thought there was more to it than that. Wonder Woman is not without her issues, but nevertheless, she’s an undeniably strong woman who embraces her womanhood. She makes no apologies for who she is. At her best, she’s a warrior and a peacemaker at once, a philosopher and ambassador who falls back on violence only as a last resort – but fights capably and ferociously when she must. Yeah, she does all this in a strapless star-spangled swimsuit (and while I ended up avoiding J. Michael Straczynski‘s run on the comic book, I have to admit that I did kind of like seeing Wonder Woman in pants and a jacket in those promo pictures)…but look past that. Look at who Diana is. There’s a lot to love.

Trouble in Paradise

As I’ve said before, I gave up on comics altogether around the time when DC announced the New 52 – a reboot of their entire universe – and made a number of unwelcome changes to characters a loved a hell of a lot. At that point, I really didn’t trust them to do right by Wonder Woman. They’d already messed up Cassie Sandsmark and it soon came out that they’d seriously messed up Starfire. But my friends have been telling me that the current Wonder Woman run is actually excellent, so I took some time in the last week to see what Diana’s been up to.

Well, she’s…different. So are the Amazons. So’s Paradise Island. There are elements I like. I actually like the tension between Diana and her fellow Amazons. It makes for interesting drama. And while this Diana is angrier than the Wonder Woman I’m used to, she’s still strong and fiercely protective of those she cares about. She has the same powerful sense of loyalty and family and the same willingness to build her own family that I remember. She’s a little quicker to jump into a fight, but she’s still clever enough to avoid one.

That said, there are also things that annoy me. The fact that (as revealed in the second issue) Wonder Woman is now the daughter of Zeus, for one. Wait a second – that’s Cassie Sandsmark’s story. You guys took Cassie’s story and shoved it into Diana’s? I’m not actually angry, because it does open up some interesting story possibilities, but I am a little vexed. And, well…Diana’s living in London now. Which is great. Sure. London. I like London. Except…why the hell is she still wearing a costume based on the American flag? Seriously, that’s the whole point of the costume: she dressed in the colors and patterns of the American flag to try and make a good impression on the United States (then one of the most powerful nations on the planet) when she revealed herself to ‘Man’s World’. I’m kind of hoping this will be explained later on – maybe she chose to abandon the U.S. for some reason. And the idea of a Wonder Woman who belongs to the whole world, not just the U.S.A. (which always did seem a little odd), appeals to me. But for the time being, it bugs me.

And then we come to the Amazons. Boy, oh, boy…the Amazons. This is where my opening paragraphs start to become relevant again.

Yeah, by the way, this is not a comic book for children. In case you were wondering.

Let me explain something about how the Amazons in Wonder Woman used to work: essentially, they were all immortal, and they were all childless. After playing their part in Greek mythology, and suffering temporary enslavement at the hands of Hercules, they retreated from Man’s World to the secluded island of Themyscira, or Paradise Island. Diana herself was actually the only child born on the island, and ‘created’ would be the more accurate term – her mother, Queen Hippolyta, crafted a baby girl out of clay and begged the gods to give her life. The rest of the Amazons went on without children or families of their own. They got to live forever, but only in isolation, without any real opportunity for reproduction.

That’s not the case anymore.

As revealed in the latest issue, the new Amazons hew much closer to the old myths. Oh, they still live in seclusion on Paradise Island – a necessary story detail, as otherwise they would have undoubtedly been overrun, destroyed and/or assimilated into other cultures over the intervening centuries. But they aren’t precisely confined there. They don’t hold themselves completely apart. Instead, at certain intervals, they go out to sea, board ships en masse, have their way with the men there, kill them all, then go home to bear any children that may result from the unions.

Oh wait. It gets better.

Yeah. So this happened.

The Amazons also hew to the myths in that they kill any male children they bear…or at least they used to. Turns out they made a little arrangement with Hephaestus, god of the forge, some time ago. They deliver all their male children to him, he takes them as slaves, and in exchange, the Amazons get weapons from his forge. Because…the Amazons are incapable of forging their own weapons? Okay, okay, that’s probably unfair: Hephaestus makes magical weapons, weapons of genuine power, and I’m sure the Amazons can’t really match his craftsmanship there. Even so…

It turns out that Hephaestus actually treats the kids pretty well. You know. For slaves. He certainly treats them well enough that, when Diana offers them their freedom, they refuse and politely ask her to untie their master. ‘Cause, you know, Stockholm Syndrome isn’t a thing. They point out that slavery is preferable to death – but they’re still slaves. They were still rejected by their mothers, banished from their homes and sold into servitude because of the circumstances of their birth. Because they failed at a test they had no power to pass.

As I said before, the Amazons of myth did, according to some legends, practice slavery. They did, according to some tales, kill or abandon their male children. This is not entirely inaccurate. But it still leaves a foul taste in my mouth.

All things considered, I think I prefer the Paradise Island of Wonder Woman‘s prior runs. The Amazons who used their time in seclusion to study and grow, creating astounding new technologies and becoming better people. The Amazons who, faced with a world that was now entirely capable of finding them, chose to put the best of them forward, to try and bring what they had learned to the rest of the world, to try and improve the lot of their sisters on the outside. While the Wonder Woman of the current series intrigues me, I still miss the Wonder Woman of Greg Rucka‘s run, or Gail Simone‘s: the Diana who found strength in family and friends, who was an ambassador and an idealist first and a warrior second. That’s my Princess Diana. That’s my Themyscira. This new world…I’m not so sure about it yet. I’ll keep reading, for now, but I feel distinctly unsettled.

As a Greek mythology buff, I appreciate the accuracy. But as an Amazon…and as an Amazon who would have been killed or sold into slavery under the new order…I kind of miss my sisters. Even if they were never really there to begin with.

NOTE: Yep. This is SUPER late. I’ve been caught up in PAX East prep, and it’s not likely to get better. I’m going to try and work ahead so the next few posts will go up on schedule, and I may try to do some blogging and tweeting from the con, but I’m probably going to be pretty quiet as a rule. Wish me luck in the Omegathon – and hopefully I’ll see some of you at the con!

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