I’m a big fan of DC Comics’ Earth One series. They’re retellings of the most famous heroes’ origin stories, and that can be terribly overdone, but these graphic novels have their own unique tone and they’ve been released as full volumes on a pretty slow schedule (not monthly issues) so they maintain some interest. They’re “darker and edgier,” but not grim for the sake of being grim, and I really love the way they feel internally consistent as complete reimaginings. There’s no stuffing in dark versions of things just for fun, they start with a new concept and spin it out slowly.
Wonder Woman is the fourth and latest to get the Earth One treatment, as reimagined by celebrity comic writer Grant Morrison. Sometimes I love his stuff, sometimes I hate it, so I wasn’t sure what I’d think about this one. Then I got excited on the dedications page when I started realizing this is an openly feminist Wonder Woman book! But, is it? Feminist, I mean? The story opens strongly, with Diana rising up and defeating a man who’s oppressing and abusing her and her Amazon sisters. Huzzah! The rest is more complicated.
This Wonder Woman represents of a very different culture from our own, a different concept of utopia and femininity. I love that they’re not all white anymore, but there my happiness stops. The whole culture is based on an internal contradiction in which violence/war/etc. are coded as masculine and repulsive and yet the whole culture is built on physical prowess and combat… Which leads to Diana and other Amazons bodyshaming every human woman they meet. The women, particularly Etta Candy (called “Beth” here) resist and take offence to the Amazonian disgust with their bodies, which indicates to me that Morrison knows it’s a problem… but it still happens and that makes it hard to take Diana seriously as a feminist role model.
The Amazonians also present an alternate sexual culture — “science fiction lesbians with a side of bondage” as Beth Candy puts it. One of Morrison’s trademarks is his deep knowledge and use of comic history, so I believe this is intentional. The Wonder Woman title has been accused of salacious BDSM overtones from the beginning, and more recently plenty of fans have raised questions about sexuality in an all-female culture, and I’m totally game to bring those things out and talk about them. Unfortunately they aren’t explored in enough detail to keep the Amazons from being “sexy” and objectified. Probably well-meant, but written by a man who maybe doesn’t get it.
As might be expected with Wonder Woman, it all comes down to the concept of “man’s world.” Diana has long identified herself as an emissary from Amazonia, usually advocating peace. In this book, she declares it’s time for women to take over and time for Amazonia to “share their culture,” but that idea is kind of terrifying too. Their culture, while it has some advantages in the “trial = honestly discussing our differences” department, is also violently terrified of change, openly hates men, and Diana honestly seems to be advocating their dominance in place of “man’s.” They seem better, they at least care about feeding the hungry and actually really important things like that, but they’re not paradise, and it’s not okay for women to use femininity as an insult either.
Finally, there’s a (completely unsurprising) plot twist at the end which comes down to “Diana got her exceptional power from a man.” It’s not blatantly awful, in this case it may be showing a possible reconciliation that tempers the extreme “women only” thing the Amazons have been doing the rest of the book, but it still strikes the wrong note. It doesn’t make Diana more complex, it just makes the whole thing difficult to parse in a coherent feminist way.
At risk of drifting into “No true Scotsman,” I am a feminist, I am involved in feminist groups, and I don’t know anyone who thinks like this. The stereotype of the “man-hating feminist” is just not accurate, especially when combined with the other problems listed above. I think this is a well-meant rendition of Wonder Woman, and maybe it’ll improve if and when Morrison gets the chance to develop the strengths and weaknesses of all these characters together — the Amazons addressing their own problems as well as the rest of humanity’s. As it is, though, we kind of have to take the book at its word, and that makes it look very problematic. For all of us who have to defend feminism out in the world, representations like this make our jobs that much harder.