It’s funny, because I was just writing about Wonder Woman this week for an unrelated project, and talking about how I’m relatively unfamiliar with her, and why. My point was that I’ve never really been overly interested in her as character because she is inextricable from the idea of “women.” To quote Dwayne McDuffie “If you do [one] black character or a female character or an Asian character, then they aren’t just that character. They represent that race or that sex, and they can’t be interesting because everything they do has to represent an entire block of people.” The solution is to provide a spectrum of characters that represent that block, and Wonder Woman, in her origin both fictional and real, was intended not just to be “a female superhero,” but “the female superhero.” As McDuffie was trying to point out: it’s hard to make a character a person when they have to represent an entire demographic of people. My growing interest in Wonder Woman as a character has paralleled my reading of stories that present her as human (metaphorically).
But when I said that the difficulty of extricating Wonder Woman from her status as “a paragon of the feminine” lead to me to be less interested in her, what I didn’t mean was that she should be separated completely from her origins as “a paragon of the feminine.” Which is kind of what happened in this week’s issue of Wonder Woman. (Spoilers ahead.)
I’ll let Tim Hanley explain:
In this issue, we learn that Hephaestus’ minions are the male children of Amazons, who they trade to Hephaestus in return for weapons. Hephaestus takes them in and raises them as is own, and they’re one big happy family, working at the forge. You see, thrice a century the Amazons go out looking for dudes to have sex with, seduce them with their feminine wiles, kill the dudes after they have sex with them, keep the female babies to be Amazons, and ditch the boys. Apparently it’s been going on for a while.
Let me digress for a while.
I’m not a huge fan of the “demographically limited society is a philosophical utopia” trope. While the idea that an all female or all African (to name two prominent comic book examples) society would be a naturally more peaceful or technologically advanced one can be a narrative step that makes a firm stance that that minority demographic is worth welcoming into our culture in reality, it seems no more or less problematic than saying that an all male or all caucasian society would be a natural utopia.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of fantasy and science fiction out there that presents exactly the opposite: a female dominated society that is a hegemonic and oppressive dystopia. Most famously (because D&D has so many imitators and has founded so many fantasy tropes) the Drow of D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting, ruled by a evil spider-queen goddess. In Drow society men are enslaved for labor, sex, and reproduction. I like this trope even less, because it plays into the fears of every person who believes that the stated goal of feminism, gender equality, actually means “female dominance and male oppression,” or, for that matter, that “equality” means the oppression of the majority at the hands of the vengeful minority.
Ok, now lets put this out there: I have really been enjoying the New 52 Wonder Woman comic. It’s full of everything I like in modern mythological stories: blood magic, great curses, subtle mythological injokes for those who can notice them, oracles, gods, and inventively designed monsters. The first issue reminded me in a lot of ways of Sandman, and that’s just about the highest praise I can give anything that has mythological gods as its major characters.
So when the Amazons of Paradise Island made their first appearance in the comic, taunting Wonder Woman that they could smell the injured male god Hermes’ genitalia from yards away, and that they were toying with the idea of cutting “the offense from the offender,” I nodded. “Okay, this is what isolationist societies are like. It’s realistic. The Amazons are disgusted with Man’s World and project that hate onto individuals, but they don’t make war because it’s against their principles.”
Presenting the Amazons (or at least some Amazons) as people who openly and vocally despise the World of Man and will do anything to protect their home, but who value their principles of philosophy, peace, bravery, and violence-only-when-there-is-no-option-and-then-without-cruelty more than their animosity was fine with me. It’s a fine way to humanize the Amazons (who, prior to the New 52 were actually a separate race entirely) without denying Wonder Woman’s roots. You can humanize her as a character and keep from presenting Paradise Island as a stereotypical utopian society without removing the fact that she comes from a culture that prizes diplomacy as much as the warrior’s way, and art and philosophy and freedom as much as the thrill of battle. Ideally you’d get a society much like our own current one: flawed, in all likelihood with some new ways of separating citizens into stereotypes, but one that understands, for example, that politically sanctioned slavery, infanticide, and cold-blooded murder, even of our enemies, is wrong.
Oh, wait, the Amazons stopped killing male babies when Hephaestus said he’d trade weapons for them: so they’re only baby killers when slavery isn’t an option. Presenting the Amazons as murderers and slavers of men is that second trope that I mentioned above, the one that fails to subvert the, yes, still pervasive notion that if you put a woman in charge of something she’s going to oppress men (with more regularity than if the genders were reversed).
Even setting that aside, the plot twist doesn’t even make a lot of sense, as Hanley points out:
This bothers me. For a lot of reasons, some of them dully logistical even. I mean, how does Wonder Woman not know about this? Was she literally JUST born? Or did she just not notice all the babies, and everyone ducking out every 33 years? It’s not a big island… I have NO idea why this was done. It serves no purpose in the story, other than to make Wonder Woman look dumb repeatedly.
Indeed. Why do the Amazons need to have babies if they are immortal, or at least very long lived? If they aren’t immortal, how has Hippolyta always been their famed leader? If they aren’t immortal, why hasn’t Wonder Woman wondered how they were a functioning society at all since she believed, up until this issue, that she was the only child born to the Amazons in history?
I may have had trouble getting into Wonder Woman because of how she is painted as The Woman Superhero who represents All Women (Superman doesn’t explicitly represent masculinity, does he?), rather than as a single woman with her own unique characteristics. I like the idea of making her, and the Amazons, more human and fallible than godly and utopian. But slavery, murder, and infanticide aren’t relatable fallibility. They’re some of the worst acts that humans can inflict on other humans, and yes, assigning those acts to a group of characters who have historically been ones that built a feminist utopia (even if I’m not a big fan of that trope) left a gross taste in my mouth.