Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Wonder Year

What's wrong with this picture? (Not Safe For Work)

Much is being said about the fetishization of Wonder Woman here in Playboy, and there is some worthwhile discussion on this topic that I'd encourage you to read up on if you're so inclined.

Former Wonder Woman scribe Greg Rucka offers a brief opinion. And another.

One feminist's (Ragnell) perspective on this: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Another feminist perspective (Rachel)

Related: A look at the creation of Wonder Woman

I'm very interested in Rucka's implication that this issue was timed for release in a way to undermine feminine power and authority. With Hillary Clinton a strong contender for the presidential nomination, Playboy releasing this issue where perhaps THE modern iconic pop-culture representation of female power is literally laid bare, made an object for the enjoyment of men does seem tantilizingly subversive. Of course, calling Playboy subversive is probably far too much credit due them, but even discounting any intent here, the timing is curious.

Wonder Woman is a very well-known pop culture figure; likely a vast majority of Americans know her as the female equivalent of Superman. To strip her literally and figuratively of her symbolic power in the most widely-distributed and well-known porn magazine at the same time a woman is running for the highest office does reinforce societal misogynistic messages, particularly: even the most powerful of women are only valuable relative to the sexual pleasure they bring to men.

A related argument going around the comic blogosphere is that Wonder Woman was created as a fetishistic character. Her early stories frequently revolved around themes of bondage, domination, and similar kink. Some are arguing that given her origins and the fact that in comics she is already hyper-sexualized, and that since that's what she's primarily known for (her toned body and skimpy outfit), any outrage over this Playboy spread is manufactured.

I'm not outraged; I think it's a very poor use of the Wonder Woman character and hypocritical of Warner/DC to sanction this since the DC publisher has previously stated that mainstream DC characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.) need to be kid-friendly and accessible and have gone after an artist depicting a sexualized and homosexual Batman and Robin. I'm sure other porn magazines have used WW-like model shoots previously, but likely none of them were DC-sanctioned. Personally, I'm waiting on my Batman PlayGirl spread any day now (and please let it be Christian Bale...woof!). Of course that's not going to happen because there is a clear double standard in place here and that's part of the problem also. To some degree any comic superhero is hyper-sexualized, at least to the point that they have exaggerated anatomy, although I'd point out that most male superheroes seem not to carry that exaggeration between their legs, although female heroes certainly do on their chests. So, the double standard is a problem. Perhaps the biggest problem is that here in Playboy, the character of Wonder Woman, which is does carry with it certain important symbols and significances, is subsumed to the object. Wonder Woman, already sexy, doesn't become more sexy, she becomes sex.

Further, I'd argue that even with her hyper-sexualization in comics and somewhat in TV, that festishism associated with her origins or sexuality does not translate to younger fans. What translate is the symbol, the empowerment, the goodness. While I'm sure young female viewers and readers looked up to the character, I personally know many gay men, including myself, who did. We looked to Wonder Woman as the empowered female and we saw something in her that made us feel good about our own power and possibilities. I frequently use the quote, "homophobia is a room in the greater house of misogyny." I think even as young queers, we subconciously and instinctively understand this. If a woman can have this power and defeat evil men, then us sissies can do it too.

To see an icon of power and hope prostituted in this manner is sad for many of us. Who wants to see their hero put up on display. Although the model has never been associated with the character, the distinctive costume carries the symbol as easily as if it had been Linda Carter doing the shoot. It's not about sex being involved either; sex is fun, positive, and healthy. It's about subversion of the symbol.

It's analogous to the villian finally winning: Wonder Woman is finally stripped of her power and independence, she's just a plaything for men. Her abilities are valueless unless she can arouse a man. The reaction here is related, I think, to the outcry over her recent characterization in Infinite Crisis, where she felt cornered into killing a man. Readers reacted because the symbol that is Wonder Woman was not upheld; it was distorted for what people perceived as a cheap trick to build sales; the main difference here is, it's a cheap thrill rather than a cheap trick.

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