Suffering Sappho! Wonder Woman and Feminism By Jack Halberstam

5 Jul
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Suffering Sappho!!

For those of you young enough to associate the term Amazon only with the corporate giant that slew the bookstores and sold the world, the new Wonder Woman movie may not evoke any earlier lesbian or feminist associations. But for people who still remember certain strands of lesbian feminism from the 1970’s, the term Amazon conjures fierce, one-breasted women who lived without men and who fought, hunted, made war and love and generally embodied a utopian feminist past. And while the Amazons so beloved of lesbian feminists tended to be figured as white, others may make connections to the Dahomey Amazons – not mythological figures at all but an all female military regiment started by the third King of Dahomey in the 17th century. These Black Amazons held political power and trained for war and were only disbanded when Dahomey became a French protectorate.

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Seh-Dong-Hong Beh, a leader of the Amazons of Dahomey

The now much maligned Michigan Women’s Music Festival used to open and close every year with a group rendition of Maxine Feldman’s  “Amazon” (“Amazon women rise, Amazon women weaving rainbows in the skies. Amazon women fly, Amazon women fly!”) And Feldman left no doubt as to what she meant by Amazon: “I am and once was called Amazon, now I am called lesbian!” That is clearly not the meaning of Amazon in the new Wonder Woman movie and indeed the Diana Prince who leaves Themyscira for London is no Dahomey style man-killer. She does not come to bury patriarchy, she just wants her place at the table. Indeed, our era’s Wonder Woman spends more time ‘leaning in’ than leaning on the bad guys.

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Leaning in?

Too bad, because I had very high hopes for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. Jenkins, after all, made the fantastic Monster in 2003 starring Charlize Theron as famed rape revenge serial killer, Aileen Wuornos. And Wonder Woman as a character and a comic book hero has a long and colorful origin story that stretches back through early suffragettes, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and a domestic triangle involving psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston, his wife Elizabeth Holloway and his student/lover Olive Byrne (also Sanger’s niece). None of these details make their way into Jenkins’ superhero movie, alas, and instead we get a competent, conventional blockbuster with an alluring lead actress and long drawn out action sequences punctuated by a few moments of humor, a few leaden speeches and a rewritten version of World War One!

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William Marston with both of his female partners (Olive Byrne in white and Elizabeth Holloway in the right hand corner) and their four children.

 

wonder-2The Wonder Woman of the comic books from the 1940’s was a social justice figure – she opposed male dominance; she defeated the Nazis; she rescued people; and in one issue, she ran for president. In Patty Jenkins’ film, a blockbuster angling for franchise status and no doubt timed to coincide with what most people thought would be the first female presidency in the US, Wonder Woman is a romantic heroine, looking for a mate and fighting baddies along the way. For those who are so inclined, one could even read a Zionist narrative into Jenkins’ film given that Diana Prince is played by Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress, and former Miss Israel, who credits her time spent in the Israeli Defense Forces for her winning the part of Gisele in the Fast and Furious franchise. Her military expertise is fully on show in Wonder Woman. Also, Jenkins’ Wonder Woman moves the comic book narrative setting of World War 2 to World War 1, probably because an Israeli actress fighting Nazi’s in World War 2 would require some kind of discourse on the Holocaust!

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The Germans are still the bad guys in this version and actually the first time Diana meets Steve Trevor he is wearing a German uniform for disguise and the Amazons ask him how they are supposed to tell the difference between him and the enemy. Good question! And would that the film had followed up on this Amazonian instinct that wars pit one form of violent and racist nationalism against another…but we lose sight of any kind of critique quickly as a heteropornographic conceit takes over in which a lovely woman has been stranded in an asexual community of women and then spies a naked man for the first time. After some banter about whether the naked Steve is a worthy representative of the male species, Diana Prince begins the inevitable fall into the sloppy clichés of hetero romance accompanied by bottom-feeding lines like: “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.”

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“Men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary.”

This is all very disappointing, if only because Wonder Woman began promisingly enough with scenes of Diana’s childhood in Themyscira: this was women-only territory and the women were training for war. In Amazon territory, viewers are treated to some bona-fide female muscularity in the form of Robin Wright, who plays Diana’s aunt, Antiope, and there are even quick explanations for the absence of men – “men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary.” Once she leaves her Amazonian isle, Diana is plucky and feisty enough and she quickly lets Steve Trevor know “what I do is not up to you.” She consistently out thinks, out fights and out runs him and he underestimates her at his peril. But his presence is intended to snuff out any fantasies of Amazonian love between women.

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Perhaps Patty Jenkins should have made the Wonder Woman film a narrative nested in the far more interesting story about the polyamorous threesome of Marston, Holloway and Byrne who, together, coproduced the fantasy that finally made it to the pages of DC comics. Jill Lepore, in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, tells this story  with verve and skill and she untangles this history from a straightforward account of comics and locates the emergence of Wonder Woman firmly within a scene of sexual experimentation, security porn and suffragette feminism! According to Lepore, Marston, who is also credited with the invention of the lie detector, first married a lawyer, Elizabeth Holloway, and then fell in love with his student, the boyish Olive Byrne. The three lived together and shared household intimacies, chores and inspiration and they had four children together. After Marston’s death, the two women continued to live together, suggesting that the intimacy was not simply an extended three way in which the women shared the man. Olive was the niece of the great suffragist and early feminist Margaret Sanger and it was she who brought Sanger’s activism and writings to Marston’s attention. Much of Sanger’s work fueled Marston’s imagination when, later in life, he was hired to create a female superhero for DC comics. According to Lepore: Marston’s comic, was meant to chronicle what he called “a great movement now under way—the growth in the power of women.”

imagesMarston’s Wonder Woman was fiercely feminist. She was bold and strong if also limited and liberal (she believes in “truth” after all!). But the Wonder Woman that he and Byrne and Holloway birthed was sexually inventive and gave voice to a kind of lusty relation to life, love and romance – romance for her often involved inverted gender roles, light bondage and a casual relation to violence. Many of the Wonder Woman stories played out Marston’s ideas about the power of men submitting to women and there was a non-exclusive representation of heterosexuality capacious enough to allow for a frisson between Diana Prince and her Amazonian sisterhood. Power dynamics, in the Wonder Woman comics, were full of eros and like Marston and Byrne, student-teacher dynamics were avowedly erotic rather than sources of anxiety and concern. Wonder Woman was a utopian who believed in a world made lousy by men and a potential world in which women kept everything in check.

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That the power of women might be linked to lesbianism is not a hidden theme in Wonder Woman. According to Jill Lepore and others, lesbianism was always a clear part of the narrative. Indeed, conservatives railed against both Batman and Wonder Women in the 1950’s on account of the clear implications of a gay relationship between Batman and Robin and the obvious association between Diana Prince and lesbianism. Most accounts of the comic book character refer to her as bisexual. And yet, in the 2017 movie, in an era of gay marriage and public recognition of LGT families, the plot makes no nod to Sapphic love at all! Indeed, Diana Prince only comes to life when she meets Steve Trevor, leaves the island and begins a romantic flirtation with him. He even names her, for god’s sake, when he cuts her off as she is explaining to a military man in London that she is Princess of Themyscira. She gets only as far as “Prince…” when Steve interrupts and says “Prince, Diana Prince…” She also gets her “love conquers all” and “only believe” lines from Steve and the film suggests that after Steve is gone, she still believes he will return to her. Diana’s relations to women are firmly situated in a mythic past and they are all firmly situated as kin rather than love interests.

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While the Wonder Woman of the early years of comics regularly rescued her mates, now she relies upon them to do the heavy lifting. The female super hero who carried men to safety and punctuated many a particularly gnarly situation with pithy catch phrases – “suffering Sappho” but also “great Hera!” and “Athena’s shield! – is nowhere to be found in 2017, in a future world that early Wonder Woman could never have been pessimistic enough to predict. So, what is a contemporary Wonder Woman to do? Too queer for Hollywood, too powerful for male pornographic gazes, too militaristic for feminists, too feminist for Christians (probably too Jewish for Christians in the latest incarnation), too dangerous and castrating to be victim to Trump-like pussy grabbing activity, but too liberal to lead a freedom fight. While Wonder Woman in the past, and definitely in Marston’s version, strongly embodied the feminist aspirations and struggles of the day, does she represent any kind of feminism now?

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Marston’s Wonder Woman might be bewildered by the marketplace of ideas about feminism now and might not be sure whether she is a feminist or not, or what feminism even means in an era when Ivanka Trump, Angela Merkel and Cheryl Sandberg represent female accomplishment! Diana Prince is certainly no corporate feminist asking for a seat at the table; but nor is she simply Roxanne Gay’s “bad feminist” in the sense of finding herself outside its logic. Is she the womanist feminist of 1970’s radical feminism? A lesbian separatist stranded outside the Michigan Women’s Music Festival? Or is she the anarcho-feminist from my Gaga Feminism? Could she be the central character, with her raised fist and willful arm, of Sara Ahmed’s powerful polemic: Living a Feminist Life (Duke UP, 2017)? And will contemporary young feminists embrace the 1940’s Wonder Woman or ask for a trigger warning in relation to her preference for militaristic solutions to political problems?

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To take just one of these options, Sara Ahmed’s sense of a “feminist life,” we might find only a very rough fit between Ahmed’s principles and Wonder Woman’s proto-feminism. And at certain points, they would have to part ways. Sara Ahmed’s book was written in the wake of her decision to leave Goldsmith, a hard decision that she made, as she puts it, “after three years of working with others to challenge how sexual harassment has become normalized in academic culture.” Deciding to give up the institutional life with its tendency to provide brick walls for us to knock our heads against in favor of a feminist life, Ahmed returns to the work of philosopher Marilyn Fry, Black feminists bell hooks and Audre Lorde and other thinkers often associated with 1970’s and 1980’s radical feminism and even argues that “we need a revival of lesbian feminism.” This return has Amazonian potential as does the book’s embrace of willfulness and killjoy tendencies. Reviving the call to see the personal as political, Ahmed quotes Fry’s notion of “lived theory” and even flirts with her separatist orientations (Ahmed declines to quote white men in this book).

But, Ahmed also positions feminism as an “archive of fragility” – she defines fragility as “the quality of being easily breakable” and feminism as “self-breakage” and a feminist politics of fragility as a model of “not only how to survive what we come up against but how to enable relationships to endure that can be easily threatened by what we come up against.” This fragile feminism has little room for a bondage-oriented super hero committed to fighting evil men in hand to hand combat (although Ahmed does conjure the image of a feminist army!). Ahmed’s book is beautiful in places, profound in others and it ricochets between pure anger, despair and a poetic conjuring of the inevitability of miscommunication, and the futility of institutional routes to multiracial and non-sexist education.

But ultimately Ahmed’s return to lesbian feminism, the reclaiming of the kill joy is not as inclusive as Ahmed makes it sound and despite reaching out to trans women with the definition of womanhood as “all who travel under the sign women,” the history of lesbian feminism that she draws upon is the exact history of feminism that made transwomen unwelcome in the first place! And the connection between feminism and fragility, along with Ahmed’s sympathy for trigger warnings and calls for safe space, and never mind her warning that humor “is a crucial technique for reproducing inequality and injustice” might ultimately leave readers with a depressive version of feminism – one that precisely lacks joy, pleasure and sex.

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Wonder Woman, might balk at having to understand herself a part of what Ahmed calls a “fragile archive,” a record of the many slights and wounds that female-bodied people are dealt in a male-centric world. In Ahmed’s world, Diana Prince would not have much recourse to humor and she might have to issue a few trigger warnings before seriously kicking some patriarchal ass. Wonder Woman would be inclusive of trans women but she would ultimately have her fist in the air for safe spaces, sensitive students who are used and abused and a kind of femininity that does not want to hear about the erotics of bondage.

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Likely Ahmed would not accept Wonder Woman as a symbol of the “feminist life.” But if we return to the Black Amazons of Dahomey, we can find a better image for her book and for some compromise between the tough, gnarly, intersectional feminism that she offers us and the anarchic power of the super hero. Fortunately, Wonder Woman had a much more interesting twin sister – Nubia – a Black super hero sculpted from dark clay while Wonder Woman was sculpted from light clay by their mother! When the two meet, in a volume of Wonder Woman comics from January 1973, they engage in woman to woman combat – Nubia wins but does not kill Diana, instead she claims the title of the Real Wonder Woman and the two unite to defeat Mars. In another issue, Diana is battling to “free the women of Africa.” This is laughable when we remember the Dahomey militias, and luckily Nubia steps in to save “the women of Africa” from the promised emancipation at the hands of a white hero, and she gives Diana a lesson in anti-colonial struggle.

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We might hope for some future Wonder Woman movies that hew more closely to the spirit of the original Wonder Woman than Pattie Jenkins’ safe and genre conforming film. Supposedly something is in the works about Marston, Holloway and Byrne and there are also rumors of a Nubia film with squabbles online about whether Nubia should be played by Serena Williams! Either of these has more potential to tap into super-heroic feminist powers than the film we have been given in 2017, a time when a few violent women willing to put male “heroes” in their place while fighting for justice could go a long way. If someone is sharpening her pencil and readying to write/draw an episode of Wonder Woman in which both Wonder Women – Diana Prince and Nubia – or even a multi-racial coalition of trans* Wonder Women are gearing up to fight an evil Overlord with yellow hair, tiny hands and an even tinier vocabulary, let me know. And when they are finished with him, how about fighting a host of Overlords like Google, Uber, Whole Foods and others and taking back the term Amazon for more righteous and queer utopian freedom dreams?

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9 Responses to “Suffering Sappho! Wonder Woman and Feminism By Jack Halberstam”

  1. Margarita Quillempán July 8, 2017 at 8:34 pm #

    Reblogged this on El diario de la adultez.

  2. Cheryl July 10, 2017 at 12:08 am #

    Many thanks for your insight on the film, the backstory on WW, and the registered critique of “feminist” responses to the film. You write what I felt after viewing. (The use of exclamation marks made me smile & are done to full effect). Righteous, and right on.

  3. Stanley Thangaraj July 14, 2017 at 9:46 am #

    Jack Halberstam’s brilliant reading of Wonder Woman/Women across times and spaces beautifully illustrates the context in which feminism gains meaning and power. What a wonderful piece that needs to be read and used as a model for the type of feminist work we aim to do. Thank you Jack!

    • bullybloggers August 3, 2017 at 1:51 pm #

      Thank you Stanley!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Jack Halberstam on Wonder Woman and feminism – Frontpage – CHB Blog - July 6, 2017

    […] At the website Bully Bloggers, Jack Halberstam contrasts that sanitized Hollywood feminism of the recent Wonder Woman movie with that of the original comic book series, which, according to Halberstam, was shaped by struggles for women’s emancipation and the lineage of lesbian feminism. Read an excerpt from Halberstam’s piece below, or the full text here. […]

  2. Jack Halberstam on Wonder Woman and feminism – Frontpage – AboNewsCast - July 6, 2017

    […] At the website Bully Bloggers, Jack Halberstam contrasts that sanitized Hollywood feminism of the recent Wonder Woman movie with that of the original comic book series, which, according to Halberstam, was shaped by struggles for women’s emancipation and the lineage of lesbian feminism. Read an excerpt from Halberstam’s piece below, or the full text here. […]

  3. Jack Halberstam on Wonder Woman and feminism – Frontpage – EcoGreen - July 7, 2017

    […] At the website Bully Bloggers, Jack Halberstam contrasts that sanitized Hollywood feminism of the recent Wonder Woman movie with that of the original comic book series, which, according to Halberstam, was shaped by struggles for women’s emancipation and the lineage of lesbian feminism. Read an excerpt from Halberstam’s piece below, or the full text here. […]

  4. Jack Halberstam on Wonder Woman and feminism – Frontpage – ADC Voice - July 7, 2017

    […] At the website Bully Bloggers, Jack Halberstam contrasts that sanitized Hollywood feminism of the recent Wonder Woman movie with that of the original comic book series, which, according to Halberstam, was shaped by struggles for women’s emancipation and the lineage of lesbian feminism. Read an excerpt from Halberstam’s piece below, or the full text here. […]

  5. Jack Halberstam on Wonder Woman and feminism – Frontpage – APG Editorial - July 7, 2017

    […] At the website Bully Bloggers, Jack Halberstam contrasts that sanitized Hollywood feminism of the recent Wonder Woman movie with that of the original comic book series, which, according to Halberstam, was shaped by struggles for women’s emancipation and the lineage of lesbian feminism. Read an excerpt from Halberstam’s piece below, or the full text here. […]

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