Sunday, October 15, 2006

Wonder Woman, Identity, Poststructuralism and Feminism

Originally the stuff I've written up below was part of a page-by-page analysis I was doing of the 'Wonder Woman' #170 issue, 'A Day in the Life', but then I figured this specific discussion is a topic all its own. I might one day do post the analysis (when its finished) for those interested in my 'Queering of Wonder Woman'. we'll see.

Lois: ‘You’re a real piece of work, you know that?’

Diana: ‘ “Piece of work”? Is that a “made from clay” joke?

In this delightful little exchange between Diana and Lois towards the end of the ‘Day in a Life’ issue, the pair begin to embark on a discussion about Diana’s contradictions, about her conflicting roles, and about how she maintains them. How fitting that they would do so by reminding us that Diana is indeed, a woman sculpted from clay.

When Hippolyta longed for a child, her Gods told her to go down to the beach, and to form the image of the child she wanted from the clay at the shore. She did so, probably sitting for hours and hours, carefully and lovingly crafting the form of a baby girl, her heart’s desire, a soul missing from her previous life. The Gods breathed life into the child, and blessed her with fantastic gifts. She was named Diana, and the rest, my friends, is DCU history.

As a woman of clay, Diana insights a playfulness concerning issues of identity. Indeed, the dramatic resonance of much of the storytelling in the Wonder Woman comics hinge on the conflicting and contradictory elements of the title heroine’s mission and personality. She comes as peacemaker, yet she wages war. She holds status as a political ambassador, yet acts as super heroine more often than not. She is the representative of Themyscira, once a city off the Aegean, now the island home of a lost civilisation of thousand-years-old Amazons, yet she wears clothes seemingly fashioned around the American flag. She is a princess and warrior born; yet she worked and sat right at home (albeit briefly) in ‘Taco Whiz’.

She is a woman made of clay, and Lois notes that she reminds one of ‘sculpted bronze’. She appears constructed in her perfection, she is a woman of impeccable and perhaps flawless beauty, so much so that she appears archetypical, an imago, so perfect as to seem unreal. Yet she lives and breathes, she bleeds and she suffers so openly and honestly, as to have collected a fierce band of close friends and protectors over the years.

Diana’s situation, while seemingly steeped in the fantastic, in the mythological, seems an appropriately allegory for the poststructural critique of identity, and the queering of sexuality receiving currency in certain academic circles today. Just as the scriptwriters of Kill Bill saw fit to look at Superman’s alter ego of Clark Kent as a critique of the human race, Diana’s story appears itself a mirroring of our own reality; a comment on the identities we hold dear.

The first point to be made is that, in being made of clay, Diana immediately calls attention to the idea of identity as a fiction. Increasingly poststructuralist literature is redrafting the way identity is looked at. Through various linguistic teachings, identity is being exposed to have been an intricately formed and discursively produced fiction. Certainty is being made undone as identities are being historically situated. In Queer Theory in particular, a genealogy of homosexuality has exposed the historical conditions that produced sexuality as a way of talking about who we are. It has looked at the conditions that have lead to the production of sexual subjectivities. And along with it goes a problematising of the foundations upon which we have come to make such firm statements. The binary distinctions between man and woman, hetero and homo, nature and nurture, are being called into question, and with them the constructs that proceed from their foundations; particularly an opening up of gender boundaries, of sexual diversity. We are looking at ourselves, but we are even more looking at the ways we came to identify specific phenomena as delineating identity, and we are slowly but surely recognising their contingency. (Of course such a project is not unanimous, nor without pitfall, but such a discussion is perhaps more appropriate elsewhere). And Diana, smiling benevolently from her position of improbable perfection, seems cheekily aware of it all. She knows that identity is something to be achieved, something maintained everyday, like the image of clay from which she was sculpted, and she even goes on to advise how she does so.

Through the rest of their discussion, Lois questions Diana on just how she manages to own all the contradictions that make up her personality. She evokes the same questions that perhaps have been plaguing us from the outset. Just how does she manage it? How does she appear to be so perfect, and yet at the same time blatantly flout such jarring contradictions as being a warrior devoted to teaching peace? How is she both ‘exotic’ and ‘down home’? How does she live in wealth, and then sit in poverty to care for the dying? Diana answers us by holding up her Lasso of Truth, that Golden Lariat that is both literal and metaphorical weapon, and suddenly, perhaps, all becomes clear.

In a relatively recent retcon, Diana’s Lasso of Truth has been described as a conduit for the truth powers inherent to Diana herself. It channels her ability to derive the truth from things, from people. And with it, she answers our questions with seeming poststructural efficacy. She maintains these contradictions; she owns them, because they are the ‘truth’ of identity. She recognises identity is a fiction, and she knows that it doesn’t make sense, that she is made up of a whole mess of contradictory elements. But more than that, she recognises that that is part of what it is to have an identity at all, that is its glaring truth, and it is a truth she is reminded of by the symbol of the Lasso. In its fire none can lie, least of all her, not because deceit is impossible, but because there is no right and wrong to identity, because war and peace are both as relevant to her as each other.

Even more intricately, the choice of dichotomies consistently evoked throughout the ‘Day in a Life’ issue seem almost deliberately trying to suggest the theories about binarisms in language and identity that have given poststructuralism and Queer Theory their clout. It is not a subtle issue of Wonder Woman; it deliberately chooses completely alien situations, polarised, and rubs them up against one another, using Diana as the link. Diana at a talk show. Diana on the Moon. Diana teaching self-defence. Diana in her New York penthouse. Diana at the UN. Diana in a Bar. And part of what has made poststructuralism so successful, is its work on binarisms, and their deconstruction.

Theory discusses that our modernist modes of thought are built upon distinctions between polar opposites, like man/woman, hetero/homo, presence/absence, inside/outside. In each one there is a privileged half, and a diminutive one. One is always considered the lack of the other, or its inferior, its opposite. Yet without one, the other cannot exist, they are necessary to each other’s power. As such it is possible to say that man gains meaning from woman, and vice versa. A world built upon the notion that man is superior to woman, that he is a negation of her characteristics, is hopelessly flawed, or so theory says, for it assumes an opposition that is easily undermined. Their opposition is fictitious; they are hopelessly interconnected in the way the Yin Yang symbol suggests (the contrast between light and dark on the yin yang symbol is punctuated by the small dots of the opposite colour that each one contains, suggesting the necessity of their relationship, the forever dependence of them both). By exposing these binaries for their co-dependence, the idea is, possibly, to erase the notion of privilege in their relationship, and to encourage a recognition that our identities gain as much meaning from what we seek to oppose them to as what we like to keep within. We are made up of binaries, and while moving outside of them is difficult (or impossible?) an awareness of them, and their contingent opposition, helps us to lead lives aware of uncertainty, and allows us flexibility.

It is this power that Diana appears to invoke. In her constant awareness of her contradictions, in owning them, in acknowledging them as the truth of her (fictitious and constructed) identity (she acknowledges to Lois, ‘I’m not perfect’), she can better assume her roles in the world, open to change, to flux. She can live with herself, she can never forget.

Finally, and perhaps most wonderfully about this entire discussion, is the way it appears to evoke not only some of the issues of poststructuralism and identity, but also its critique, specifically a feminist critique.

In the end the discussion hinges upon Lois’ own insecurities about Diana’s friendship with Clark/Superman, with Diana attempting to reassure Lois by using her Lasso, by trying to convey her commitment to the truth. It seems at that moment Lois is becoming the ‘woman’ to be juxtaposed to Diana’s ‘Wonder Woman’. Lois is the voice of reason, perhaps, but importantly she is something of an anchor. She reminds us throughout, and more so here than elsewhere in the issue, that Diana’s project does not occur in isolation. The ideal of being able to prove and live with identity as contingent, fractious, and constructed, must take place in a world where, as Lois admits, its easier to ‘Deny. Deflect. Go Shopping. Break Something.’ Diana must still validate and justify herself to the world she lives in, to those who want identity to be a certainty, for whom it is a certainty. Diana’s acceptance comes easy for her; she has never existed another way, she has lived as a woman of clay from birth. But for Lois the world is not as easy that way. It is perhaps ironic that earlier in the issue Diana is described by Lois as ‘post feminist’. Is this a further playful hint at poststructuralism and identity? As long as its project has been underway, various Feminist critiques have opposed poststructuralism’s sudden undermining of identity and subjectivities, just as women have gained a position to unite around and assert their own. Lois is perhaps our Feminist (though not in a literal sense), reminding Diana that there is an entire world to which her ideas will be called to be accountable. Her argument about Clark/Superman is misdirection. For not in its content, but in its spirit, it is a reminder to Diana to still live in the world in which others move, to stay accountable, to remember that not all women exist as she does, and that their existences are just as legitimate, their ideologies just as important to the discussion.

This particular aspect leaves me with an important issue to ponder. In providing a symbol for identity as contingent, does this mean Diana has possibly moved so far from her Feminist routes, into another theoretical political landscape altogether? If it is possible to identify a possible poststructural message in Diana’s politics, in the way she is presented, does that mean she is no longer the same Feminist symbol she has often been described to be? At various times, the Wonder Woman comic has been the sight of different Feminisms, sometimes radical, sometimes more liberal, at other times simply non-existent. I wonder if any at all, there is as strong a feminist message in Wonder Woman as I believe there has been before, and as strong as I believe there is a poststructural one? And more importantly, are the two necessarily mutually exclusive? It is characteristic of a text to provide multiple readings, I wonder what the alternatives are to my own. Any thoughts?

alex x


Ragnell said...

Actually, I believe the original point of Diana was to be beyond Feminism. She was a visitor from a society where female potential was fully realized. She was there to show the way.

Beautiful insight on the "made of clay" and fictional identity symbolism. DC's been flirting with metatext in their stories for quite some time now, and it's interesting that a character who for so long has been the absoltue representative of truth in their universe is the most obviously fictional character there.

AlexinWonderLand said...


a thought to ponder: d'you think playing up the 'made from clay' idea with Diana in her text is possibly a comment on the subjectivity of truth? and do you think maybe its that kind of elasticity that has contributed to the vastly different interpretations we seem to have gotten of Diana over the years? I'm starting to court the idea that perhaps from the outset Diana has been set up in such a way that she has become an easy vehicle to make political and social commentary, and that perhaps something inherent to her origin story has made it easier for writers to play around with their own interpretations without feeling like they've 'hurt' the character inherently. and i wonder if thats something to be embraced..

maybe thats a little too far? maybe i need my evening nap...

alex x