Sunday, June 11, 2017

Wonder Woman and the Superheroine

Originally, at the end of my last post, I said I would write next about my favorite children's books to read with my sons. However, intervening events have given me cause to postpone that topic until next time. Namely, yesterday I saw Wonder Woman with my boys, this past week I happened to rent the first season of CW's Supergirl from the public library, and in November I am presenting on Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the American Academy of Religion. (Yes, I know: I get to have all the fun.) The coincidence of all these things made me realize that this was the topic I should write about today.

First, Wonder Woman.


In regards to content, I found the first third of the movie on Themyscira (the secret Amazon island) to be the most interesting. Production-wise, Patty Jenkins (the director) avoids making the star's attractiveness the center of the film, a temptation to which other directors might certainly have succumbed. Though the plot has some holes in it and the climactic action seen was CGI-cluttered, it was good to see a powerful, world-shaking female character in a superhero film. That is something sadly lacking.

There are have been a number of reviews of Wonder Woman from this kind of feminist angle, such as this very insightful piece by Zoe Williams. As I watched the Supergirl television show, I found it also attempting to strike some of the same chords. (To be honest, the show is not very good. What I've seen hasn't been terrible, but it's also quite soap-opera-ish, if that's a word. Fair warning!) The pilot episode finds Kara Zor-El (Kal-El, or "Superman's" cousin) having chosen to hide her powers so as not to attract attention. She's initially happy to stay in her male cousin's shadow. The resistance she first gets from friends and family when events draw her out into the superheroine role could speak to the pressures in society for women to stay quiet, not rock the boat, and defer to men. Otherwise, there are several playful debates on her title: why is it Supergirl and not Superwoman?

One of the best episodes I've seen, though, shows Kara battling the android Red Tornado and having difficulty overcoming it because she's afraid to get angry. This leads to a fascinating conversation between Kara and a mentor about the costs involved when women show anger in the workplace: for men, it's seen as assertiveness, while for women, it's seen as threatening and disruptive. Kara needs to overcome that socialization. From the picture below, I'll let you decide if she succeeded.


My favorite feminist superhero has to be Buffy, though.


While the Wonder Woman character and movie has traditionally drawn on Greek mythology, I always saw powerful currents of Hindu goddess figures in Buffy's role as slayer "(i.e., "death-bringer") to demonic forces. In Hindu mythology, the goddesses Durga and Kali come into existence for the express purpose of purging the earth of evil figures. In some cases, the iconography is uncannily similar. Here for instance is a popular devotional image of Kali in her role as destroyer:

Compare to Buffy, at her most merciless:


I particularly enjoyed the series Buffy for its satisfying character arcs - nothing ever felt forced on that show. Perhaps due to nostalgia, it's always been the standard-bearer for my vision of a female hero. Now I've come to realize how problematic that is. A few years ago, right after The Force Awakens came out, a friend confided to me how refreshing it was to see a female protagonist (Rey) who was more than a "damsel in distress" (see Megan Garber's piece on that point). My knee-jerk reaction was, "Oh, Buffy did that twenty years ago." I am now deeply sorry for that response. Why? That was twenty years ago. In that time, how many potential superhero role models have I had as a white male? (Answer: A LOT.) Superheroines over the same period? Hmmmmm. Gosh, not as many. We need to do better at showing the cultural diversity and range of the superhero figure. (Along those same lines, I concur with the buzz of excitement for the first Black Panther trailer.)

It's for that reason that the most poignant and important moment in Wonder Woman for me came long before Gal Gadot ever came onto the screen. It was the scene of eight or nine year old Diana Prince running off to watch the warriors and mime combat moves with them. It seemed like a powerfully self-aware moment when the film acknowledged its intent to provide a role model for a portion of the audience such movies have not done well reflecting. As a boy (hell, as a grown man) I watched these movies to imagine myself as a hero. Everyone should have the goose-bump experience of watching someone do something fantastic on the silver screen and think, "Wow! That could be me." Hopefully, we're a little closer to that goal now.

Next time, when we explore my favorite children's literature, we'll see how mice, Hobbits, rabbits, and Martians all get along well together. Until then, take care.

10 comments:

  1. I'm curious to know your thoughts on Jessica Jones (Netflix) or any of the heroines from comic books who haven't made to television and big screen.

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    1. I'll be honest - I haven't seen Jessica Jones, so I can't comment on that character. However, recently re-reading old Avengers and Dr. Strange issues (as in 1960s) I was reminded of just how poor the representation of women was in those books. Portrayal of the Wasp in the Ant-Man (so far) film(s) seems like a missed opportunity, and why wasn't there room for Clea in the Dr. Strange film? Disappointing. What do you think of Jessica Jones and the other heroines?

      Thanks for the comment!

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  2. I can only talk about television Jessica and not the one in the comic books. She isn't heroic, and that's alright. I don't know that we need that. She's a drunk, she's promiscuous, she secures an abortion for a friend. She's been severely damaged. Maybe we need to see flawed people doing awesome things more than perfect women with lassos? Jessica's husband is eventually Luke Cage, so they are both minorities. I think as you have more heroines, especially more written by women, you can't expect them to behave in the same ways as heroes written by white men in the 50's, 60's 70's or even now. As the writer and audience change, so does the heroine and the life she leads.

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    1. Those are all very good points. I especially liked what you said here: "Maybe we need to see flawed people doing awesome things more than perfect women with lassos."

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  3. Well, after all, how many women with lassos are you going to see?

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    1. Well, the other day...just kidding, probably not too many.

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  4. But I do think the creation of heroes is a funny game. It is fantastic to have all sorts of heroes and heroines in all sorts of places (novels, comics, films...) but not just so that people that look like them can claim them. There are all sorts people who end up identifying (or falling for) all sorts of people and a greater breadth of heroes (or antiheroes) is good news for that reason.

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    1. That's a fair point. The greater variety of mythic figures prominent in popular culture should be there to broaden horizons, not limit them.

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  5. It's time to write a new article.

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    1. Patience! The next one will be ready soon enough.

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