Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What Is It With Wonder Woman?

I was going through the airport a little while back, and spotted a woman carrying an adorable Wonder Woman tote bag. Right after my first thought of, "Hunh, cool!" came another less positive thought - "I bet she's never read any of the comics." Two seconds after that, I realised *I* hadn't really read many of the comics either. And yet, I would still consider myself a Wonder Woman fan. And it’s not just me – a quick google for Wonder Woman merchandise reveals a market of fans MUCH larger than I imagine the actual comics readership to be. Hell, if everyone who bought a Wonder Woman t-shirt actually bought the comic as well, DC could discontinue all their titles and just live off that. I see at least three Wonder Woman cosplayers at every comic convention I go to, usually more. The only character I see cosplayed more frequently is Batman, but hell, who DOESN'T want to be Batman? All these people can't be reading the current Wonder Woman - the trade would have been all over the bestseller lists for months if that were the case.

So why aren’t these fans of Wonder Woman, who are happy to shell out for a branded tote or a shirt, or a whole cosplay outfit not interested in reading the comic? Maybe they simply don't like reading comics, and that's a fair enough reason - but I don't think that's the case for all. I think there is a pool of potential readers, that are avoiding the comics.

Part of the problem is pretty easy to spot from a cursory glance across the shelves in any comic book store. There seems to be a prevailing perception within the comics industry at the moment that what readers really want from superheroines is T and A. If you're not a dedicated comics reader, the overall impression of female super heroes in comics is probably this sort of thing.

This is a relatively restrained example.
This kind of art makes me feel like I need a shower just from looking at it. Is it any wonder that women only make up 25% of people who self identify as comic book fans? Imagine if men were portrayed the same way! Oh wait, you don't have to, The HawkeyeInitiative has already done it for you. 

The Hawkeye Initiative is an entire tumblr of people posing
Hawkeye the way that female super heroes are posed.
You're welcome.
Print a few of those out and show them to the men in your life, see how icky it makes them feel, and ask them how interested THEY would be in comics if the male characters were portrayed this way. Happily, not ALL comics portray women this way, and there seems to be a growing demand from fans to move away from this sort of dreck. There are artists and writers out there doing an awesome job of making female super heroes look…well, super. Maybe this is thinphobic or whatever, but I find it easier to believe in a female superhero lifting a car if she has at least some muscle definition. I mean, seriously, look at this costume shot from the recent failed Wonder Woman pilot. The actress is very pretty, but her physique is just too slight to be convincing when playing an Amazon.

A nitpicky point, but it also looks like her boobs are
too far apart in this costume. Like, uncomfortably so.
To my mind if you want me to believe this character is cracking skulls and taking names then you have to portray her as having at least some proportion of the muscle mass required to do so. Here are some examples of what I consider to be convincing super heroine art, from my two favourite superheroine books at the moment.

This is from the first trade of Brian Azarello's New 52 Wonder Woman.
If you want to see something interesting being done with the
Wonder Woman character, I highly recommend it.

J.H William's art in Batwoman is breathtaking overall, but I particularly
love his insistence on putting Batwoman in flat shoes. GENIUS.
These characters are still relatively slender, with a decent rack. But they also have actual visible muscle mass, and are posed in ways that it is actually possible for the human body to pose. The people who read these comics LOVE them passionately, with good reason. Sadly, however outside the comic fan bubble, these comics aren’t very widely known. 
I was happy to note that in the recent superhero themed XBox game, Injustice:Gods Among Us, the designers did bother to give Wonder Woman a relatively imposing physique. It seems particularly important that Wonder Woman have a convincing physique in Injustice considering it’s a straight up fighting game, and I’m really glad they stayed away from the Soulcalibur technique of “More jiggle = Better”
I also dig that they gave her pants. Sort of.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros

I don’t think untapped Wonder Woman fans are only looking for more realistic visuals though. As part of the launch of Injustice: Gods Among Us, Warner Brothers did a poll of 1000 Australians featuring various questions on who their favourite superheroes were, and why. Participants were only able to choose from the characters featured in the game, and considering there are only two female superheroes in the game (Wonder Woman and Hawkgirl), the results are pretty skewed towards the male characters. 
What really stood out for me about the results of this poll, in between fluffy questions like “Who is the classiest superhero?” is what super powers people nominated as the ones they would most like to have. Number one was of course, flight, because that would be undeniably awesome. However, super intelligence was second. You would think, given the way that superheroes are marketed, the audience would be all in favour of the biggest, the strongest, the most powerful. But they're not. Superhuman strength came in fourth, behind moving as fast as The Flash. These results seem to indicate to me that superhero fans as a whole are kind of over the Superman school of superheroes – all powers, no personality. It’s dull, and people have plenty of other ways to get their geek on that don’t involve reading about someone being punched to the moon AGAIN.
Intruiged, I put the question "Who is your favourite superheroine, and why?" to my Twitter feed. I speak to a bunch of super serious comic fans on Twitter, so I was really surprised by the number of people who nominated superheroines from TV, rather than comics. Buffy came up repeatedly, as did Xena. (You could argue these aren't really female superheroes in the strictest of terms, but I was interested to see what characters people associated with the term) In terms of comics, by far the most nominated character was Batwoman, who has only been around for a relatively short time. Ms. Marvel was a close second – another character that is almost invisible outside the comic fan bubble. Someone else mentioned Wonder Woman, but only in the stories written by Brian Azarello. One person nominated Power Girl, but again, only when portrayed by a particular creative team. This is where an interesting theory clicked into place for me. 
I think that what women want in a female superhero is a simply a character who is a woman, and also a hero.
They want a hero- someone with not only physical strength but also strength of character: courage, compassion, intelligence. But they also want a woman: a fully fleshed character, written consistently, complete with character flaws. One of the characteristics most mentioned by my Twitter respondents was “human weakness”, closely followed by "passion"'. Superhero fans don't just want a shallow caricature that can punch real good - they want a depth that simply isn't there most of the time in the way comics traditionally write women. 

TV writers seem to have figured out this is what fans are looking for. The depiction of women on TV is far from perfect, but I feel like there are more bad ass women on TV right now than there have been in a long time. Xena and Buffy have paved the way for more gritty, real life (non superpowered) heroines like Olivia from Fringe. While there is still a lot of jiggly jiggly nonsense in video games, the tide is starting to turn there too. Being able to play a female Commander Shepherd in Mass Effect drew a LOT of new female players into the gaming world, and the new Tomb Raider reboot seems set to try and capture and retain these people looking for a tough female character to play now Mass Effect is done.

FemShep is my jam
I'm not convinced by Tomb Raider yet.
Comics need to catch up with this demand from fans for interesting female superheroes in a big way. Thanks in part to recent changes in the way women are portrayed, women now constitute 42% of all people who play video games. But comics? DC did a poll recently to gauge how well their New 52 reboot was going, and only 5% of respondents were women. FIVE PER CENT. This is totally ridiculous. 

The most recent run of Wonder Woman and Batwoman are a fantastic start, but it's still a tiny fraction of what is being produced. The fanbase is obviously there, ready made, holding out for someone to write the heroine they need. 

Thanks to Warner Bros for supplying survey results and Injustice:Gods Among Us images



    The whole concept of customised heroine + interesting plot in both Dragon Age and Mass Effect have me very devoted to Bioware. (I also love the sims, which is no coincidence)

    1. It's interesting to compare how much more popular with female gamers FemShep has become than Samus Aran.

      Nintendo really tried to sell her as their badge of progressive gaming for a little while there; but continued to allow almost all the Metroid games to include one or more cheat options to undress her. Sort of undercuts the appeal, I suppose, even if you can look past the fact that she was originally conceived as a joke. (Ed: Ahem, link didn't work there - http://zapr.blogspot.com.au/2008/12/i-am-tired-of-hearing-that-samus-aran.html)

    2. My theory on why people like FemShep so much better is that she's not a "female character" - she's a female skin on a male character, and the male characters are ALWAYS better written. Because they didn't write her specifically as a woman, a lot of the skeeziness you get playing female characters is automatically cut out. For example, if you play a Siren in Borderlands 2, every time your male team mates revive you they make a comments like, "Wow, do you work out?" It's fucking gross. But no one would write dialouge like that for a female character helping up a male character.

  2. OT, nitpicky response to your nitpicky comment "A nitpicky point, but it also looks like her boobs are
    too far apart in this costume. Like, uncomfortably so."

    Some of us are wide-set, yo. I know you're not hating here, but I wanted to point this out.

    This woman's chest looks actually really normal and in a healthy configuration to me, and I'm impressed with the costume: the center gore actually tacks to her sternum, and the underwires appear to completely surround her breast tissue. This fit is great!
    I would be substantially less impressed if this particular woman's wideset breasts were shoved together to create cleavage and if she suffered under the usual clothing catastrophe of short underwires jamming things around to get that silhouette. (A too-small cup size is often used as an uneducated cheat to make things fit an 'ideal' alignment, at the expense of stuff like, you know, milk ducts and lymph nodes.)

    Some women's breasts are very close together in the center (making it all that much harder to find a well-fitted bra with a center gore that will tack), and that's great too. But we have to remember that diversity in sizes and shapes includes location and separation on the chest. Separate breasts do not always mean small breasts, as this model/actress clearly shows.

    [Cup sizes are kind of meaningless, but just to make my point for those who care: it's entirely possible to fit a fist in between 28DD/Es without touching breast tissue. I know this for a friend. That cup volume will be substantial but not necessarily be close. The capacity to rein them in to the centre of the chest to create cleavage will depend on the density of the tissue, and it's entirely likely that on the home range, there will be distinct separation without any way to hold up a kitten or can of beer nestled between. Sorry internet.]

    What do I think of Wonder Woman? I think of bad 80s hair and not much clothing. I would never cosplay as WW. I haven't read the comics either.

    1. Touche! I agree, you're right in that at least it looks like she's not getting her breasts squashed, which is a nice change.
      To be honest, the biggest problem I have with the failed pilot costume is that it looks so CHEAP. The corset is all wrinkled because the fabric is obviously paper thin, and it just looks tacky.

  3. I've just found my way here through your nail polish, and was glancing through your archive when i came across this post, to which i can't resist responding.

    I am one of those people who has a deep love of Wonder Woman, but does not read any of her comics. Partly I think this is to do with my impatience with slow-release, episodic media - the comics i do read are all in collected trade format, and the TV shows i watch are all in full-season box sets. But also, i think its to do with the reason i love Wonder Woman, and the way that her modern portrayal doesn't often match my concept of her.

    I love Wonder Woman not just because she is a strong female icon, but also because she's a strong female submissive icon. She was originally written by Marston with all this deliberate bondage subtext, because he strongly believed that "The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound... Only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society," and Wonder Woman was designed to promote this ideal, while also providing a physically, mentally, and emotionally strong role model for girls.

    Since the early days of the comic the bondage subtext has been downplayed (unsurprisingly), and Wonder Woman has been re-coated with assorted forms of girl power. There's nothing wrong with girl power, but there are a lot of female icons out there that i can look to for representations of how to be strong through violence and assertion, and very few who are strong through peace and gentleness. There are also a lot of representations of submissive women out there who are weak, and almost none of submissive women who are strong (other than Wonder Woman, the only one i can think of is Amelia from the Children of Chaos trilogy).

    What i think makes Wonder Woman inspiring is the way she was explicitly created to defy the glorification of violence, to triumph through traditionally feminine ideals instead of masculine ones, and to demonstrate that there was an innate strength and power in doing so. I'm not sure if the recent run of comics adheres to this ideal or makes her more of a badass fighter type, having not read it, but certainly some of the images i've seen from it would indicate the latter (in this cover image, for example - https://readrant.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/wonder.png?w=450&h=688 - her golden lasso has been swapped out for a bloody sword).

    Not quite sure how that fits into your thoughts on Wonder Woman, as i rather doubt i represent a significant portion of Wonder Woman fans. I agree with you 100% regarding unrealistic, objectifying poses and a lack of character depth driving women away from comics. I also think it's about time someone gave Wonder Woman a pair of pants :)

    1. Your focus on Wonder Woman as a hero of peace is a really interesting one, and something that hadn't occurred to me until very recently. At Supanova I bought a great print of Wonder Woman cover from Nicola Scott, who did a fantastic run on Wonder Woman with Gail Simone writing. My boy is a huge Batman fan, and Nicola Scott made the comment that while Batman goes straight for punching criminals in the face, Wonder Woman (when written well) doesn't have to do that. She'll ask them nicely, raise an eyebrow, maybe raise her voice, THEN she'll crack skulls IF she has to. It's a fascinating comparison, because you're absolutely right when you say that Wonder Woman is a character built around the inherent value of restraint in a world full of characters that are built around the value of excess.


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