Friday, July 16, 2010
If one wants to go by certain recent remarks by Gloria Steinem, the cultural worship of men's pants is responsible for the replacement of somewhat more feminine attire on Wonder Woman. As others before me have remarked (given that I'm addressing this brouhaha rather belatedly), Steinem was mistaken in thinking that DC's premiere superheroine was wearing skirts prior to the changeover, but there is a sense in which DC Comics may well have reacted against negative characterizations of Wonder Woman's "objectified" femininity. This would not be because the company believed that "pants were powerful," but rather that pants were more down-to-earth and "realistic." The various tirades against Wonder Woman's superhero costume have practically become their own meme, ranging from the accusations of non-practicality ("why doesn't she fall out of that top?") to those involving cultural hegemony ("why is a warrior from an island of Greek immortal women wearing patriotic colors?")
Without a doubt, the costume's pretty ugly, but it'll probably be ditched the moment the sales of WONDER WOMAN take a dip (assuming they go up during this revisionary period), though it's anyone's guess whether DC will just go back to some version of the traditional costume or seek out some third alternative. As a note of irony, the more sedate costume still doesn't keep some pundits from making objections about objectification: Steinem mentions that the leggings look more like her legs painted blue, and Johanna Carlson mentions the prominence of the Wonder boobs despite the presence of the concealing jacket. Of course, should WW get heavier pants and a breast reduction, that too could signal yet another attack on DC's deletion of the character's femininity.
Alan Moore has recently given another interview in which he (ho hum) again takes responsibility for the "grittification" of comic books, which I've pointed out to be a delusion here. But his real sin in my eyes is his contribution to the belief that comics are better when they are more "realistic." It's a short step from WATCHMEN's simple-minded joke about superheroes catching their capes in doors to the notion that even mainstream superheroes would be better if they eschewed all the unrealistic aspects of their costumes.
All superhero costumes (and garments with similar iconic aspects) are designed to have what I call "kinetic" effects, which includes but is not limited to elements of sensationalized sexuality. Some, like the costumes of Superman and Wonder Woman, emphasize dynamic physicality, which inevitably conjures sex appeal (though not only sex appeal). Some costumes are meant to signal macabre or mystical aspects of the characters, such as the outfits of the Shadow and Doctor Strange. (Admittedly there aren't a huge number of heroines given such costuming, though Raven of THE NEW TEEN TITANS is generally portrayed more as Goth Weirdie than Mystic Hot Chick.) And some, like Batman, mix effects of sexy physicality with those of the macabre.
Kinetic effects are in varying degrees important to all four literary mythoi, but drama and irony can camoflague their dependence on them by seeming to focus on "ideas" rather than spectacle. Comedy does something similar when it emphasizes the subtle witticism over the pie in the face, but at base comedy's dynamizations are more intimately tied to the sensational. Even the driest Woody Allen comedies often revolve around who gets to sleep with whom. The adventure mythos, then, is the least esteemed because it often proves hard to overlay its sensationalistic elements with a culturally-pleasing patina of realism or social responsibility.
I have no current plans to see whether or not this task can be achieved by WONDER WOMAN's new writer, J.M. (Name-Harder-to-Spell-Than-Shyamalan). I had a mild interest in following his TV show BABYLON 5, but have never felt moved to revisit the series, while my only exposure to his comics-work was a reading of his unfinished multi-parter THE TWELVE. Significantly, I found this work a tedious by-the-numbers "realistic" treatment of various obscure Golden Age heroes, lacking any of the deeper thematic elements that Alan Moore brought to works like EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (though THE TWELVE is a little more accomplished than Moore's lesser work for Image Comics). Nevertheless, it's my conviction that an outsized concept like WONDER WOMAN needs to be made more outrageous, not less.
And I'll probably have more to say later about the general tone of the objectification accusation, apart from its latest manifestation in the pantsing of Wonder Woman.