Sunday, July 27, 2014

It's All Greek to Me

This essay is not a critique of what Wonder Woman comics are doing wrong right now. I can't provide that, because I don't know what Wonder Woman comics are doing right now. I'm beginning to think that my reluctance to pick up Wonder Woman comics isn't just my fault, it's the fault of a conscious decision on how to present the character. I'm not going to read the comics if every time I look in on what they're doing it looks like something I've already seen and didn't like the first time. It's quite possible that if I read them, I would find many things that I like, but I will ultimately fail to keep up because all of the elements of the stories that bore or frustrate me will continue unabated and unaddressed. The fact is, I shouldn't have to force myself to like something, it should make me want to read it. It's possible that Wonder Woman has a strong fan base that demands more of the same Greek mythology stories, but I can't help but wonder if there are more people out there like me who could be regular readers if the series just went in a different direction.

Some of you may think that if I am being turned off by Greek gods, then Wonder Woman just isn't the series for me to follow, but that shouldn't be the case. There has been so much of Wonder Woman and her stories that I have loved over the years. Wonder Woman is a super-strong immortal feminist who fights crime. In lieu of crime, Nazis or terrorists or monsters or any combination thereof can be substituted in a pinch. That premise in itself is rife with story potential and it doesn't have a damn thing to do with Greek mythology. Just the premise of the feminine feminist crime-fighter sex symbol provides more fodder for creative stories than a rich weirdo dressing up like a bat and punching the mentally ill. When you decide that she also has to be firmly rooted in Greek mythology it completely and needlessly limits the stories that you can tell with the character. Remember Richard Donner's first Superman movie? The main plot was about Superman foiling Lex Luthor's evil real estate deal. That had nothing to do with Clark being an alien raised in a farm in the Midwest, but it worked because a character's origin story shouldn't dictate what stories can be told about the character or even what stories will be his most iconic. Someone should have told that to the makers of Man of Steel.

I know that Greek mythology has been central to Wonder Woman comics since their inception, but it didn't really make sense then, either. Wonder Woman's primary purpose was to be a feminist superhero (and here I am using the word "feminist" just to mean promoting women's rights and female empowerment - I'm not writing this to debate the meaning of that word), so the idea that she comes from a matriarchal society made a degree of sense, but making it specifically the Amazons of Greek myth caused a number of problems, including the fact that the Amazons were not just matriarchal, but actually comprised entirely of women. No society on the planet could get far or last long by excluding a whole gender and it is insane that feminine separatism could be presented as an ideal, which, by the way, was the Greeks' point in their depiction of the Amazons. The Greeks never intended the Amazons to be seen as an example to follow or even a workable society. Even invoking the Amazons as Wonder Woman's background raises many problems, because by acknowledging the Greeks' depiction as being wholly accurate, you are making the Amazons the bad guys by necessity and engaging misogyny on its own terms rather than on yours - especially problematic since it makes a strawman out of actual feminists who do not advocate a society that excludes men. All of this could be handled well and used to portray a positive matriarchal civilization, were it not for the fact that "feminism" has become such a dirty word in some segments of our society that it must be avoided at all costs, leaving the only safe way to write Wonder Woman and the civilization she came from the same way that the Greeks did, with the ugliest misogynistic aspects still intact.

As much as writers who approach the character this way want to remain true to Greek mythology, I have to question how well they are doing that, since they seem to have all missed a very basic fact: The Amazons were not Greek. Of course, we have no record of an all-woman society in history, but the Amazons could have been based on a real civilization wherein women were of such a standing that they were allowed on the battlefield alongside men. Possibly seeing women in battle sparked fanciful ideas in the minds of Greek soldiers of a land ruled only by women, where men were just prisoners and sex slaves. Even if the Greeks' depictions were a complete fabrication not based on a real civilization, it doesn't change the fact that even according to Greek myth, the Amazons were not from Greece. They were a separate civilization from the Terme River and the Eurasian steppes - what is now Turkey and Ukraine. There is absolutely no reason they should worship the Greek gods. This oversight becomes more glaring with each reboot of the character that tries to streamline the national affiliations of Wonder Woman. They have already undone the decades that Wonder Woman spent as a patriotic American, although I don't really see how her efforts to stop the threat of the Nazis through her service in the U.S. Army was a mistake that needed to be corrected. Why is it that nobody found her devotion to a rival culture's gods troubling? Doing away with the Greek pantheon might not even be necessary to make this work. Since knowledge of Sarmatian mythology is so sparse, the Amazons' loyalty could be divided between the various gods of their region. It could be a good opportunity to shake things up by introducing the Turkic and Slavic gods into the mix. A rivalry between Zeus and Bielobog could result in some cool stories, though you might want to stop short of having more modern gods of that region (like Yahweh and Allah) join the battle. Still, that is just an idea for a way to make her background more colourful and interesting, not a permanent solution. If you remain as dependent on gods as the comics are now, they will keep running into the same problems of the same stale characters acting the same ways over and over forever.

A more permanent and satisfying solution to the religious plot blockages would be to handle Wonder Woman's background and gods the same way we treat real-world cultures and religions. The reason Wonder Woman's origin and the depiction of her relationship with her gods looks so stilted and rings so false to me is that it doesn't reflect any real world people's relationship with their God or Gods. We wouldn't handle any real-life cultures or present-day religions this way, so why should it be different for fictional cultures and long-dead religions? It would be like if the Scarlet Witch suddenly had to spend all of her time fighting dybbuks and golems or if half of Captain America's stories involved talking coyotes and thunderbirds. Catholics don't spend most of their time dealing with the interpersonal problems of Saints, not even the Pope, who, like Wonder Woman, was granted his powers by his God. Wonder Woman isn't even a priestess - she's a soldier and, in some interpretations, a diplomat. Her job involves combat and politics, but because of the mishandling of her religious background, her religion has become her biggest obligation and that's bullshit. She should have better things to do than clean up after gods that she doesn't really have a reason to worship.

The problem of Wonder Woman stories' fixation on Greek gods and myths may just be a symptom of the larger problem of not allowing Wonder Woman her own independent identity. Not only are creators afraid to let her be feminist, they are afraid to let her be feminine. Any sense of gentility in the character is greeted with suspicion or hostility, so she is instead written as a cliché of a proud warrior race - like Worf in a halter top. Did you know that she used to be a submissive? That is even more anathema than calling her a feminist, and understandably so, since the bondage-centric origins of the comic are uncomfortable for many people, though I think if you keep her signature weapon as a lasso, the cat is kind of out of the bag on that one. By having her express her sexuality the way she did in her Golden Age comics, you could show another side to Wonder Woman. You could show that an honest expression of sexuality or femininity doesn't have to be undignified or diminish your own strength. I'm not saying that Wonder Woman comics need to go back to her origins, which were sometimes downright offensive, but I do think it's necessary to flesh out Wonder Woman's character in a way that is not just an archetype. She doesn't have to be Conan/Tarzan/Xena. She could be something different. She could be something better.


Blogger JaredMithrandir said...

Golden Age wasn't a Feminist, Marston based the character on his belief then Women were Superior to Men, he did not believe they were equal.

The use of Greek Mythology makes WW stories epic in a way most Superheroes can't be. Her other villains are not really all that good.

6:35 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home