She Has No Head! – Is the Destruction of The Amazons The Destruction of Feminism in DC Comics?
I drafted Wonder Woman #7 for my CBR reviews last week not knowing what the issue was about, and it resulted in the toughest review I’ve had to write for CBR yet. To CBR’s credit, though the review skewed a bit editorial, they ran it. However, we have strict word counts over there and I have many thoughts and feelings…so here we are on She Has No Head! five days later.
I have loved and supported the new Wonder Woman under Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang. I supported this book vehemently even when I did not agree with all the choices they made — like Wonder Woman being Zeus’ daughter and thus a demi-god — because I understand that writers have to do things that are unpopular sometimes in order to tell the best story. And in fact, doing something unpopular can often be the right thing to do. In addition to that, I also understand that stories are not tailor made FOR ME, and I don’t expect them to be. So I accepted the changes as many fans did and continued to read, and frankly to love, so much of what Azzarello and Chiang were doing.
Before we get any deeper into this, let me say that Azzarello and Chiang are still getting a lot right – Wonder Woman is still an incredibly well-written comic, and it’s drawn by easily one of the best comic artists working today, so it’s no surprise that it’s beautiful. I understand why people love this book and I will never suggest it’s a “bad” book. It’s a quality comic book in many ways.
However, the biggest problem for me is that destroying The Amazons is an arrow to the heart of female empowerment and feminism. It is completely Azzarello’s prerogative if he doesn’t subscribe to that idea, but it is simply a fact for me and I hope talking about this here will help some people understand why dragging The Amazons through the mud is a sensitive subject for people. Quite simply, The Amazons are, in comics (and in many other mediums) one of the best examples of female empowerment and thus have become a catch all for feminism in general. The Amazons may not have been created originally to be such a thing, but they have been adopted as such in more modern times. Feminism means different things to everyone I suppose. For me it is simply the pursuit of equality between the sexes. Because we are still not there – at true equality – positive examples of female empowerment are important both in the real world and in media – as what better reflection is there of our society than the media that we create? The reason that “girl power” is even a thing, is because we’re still striving for that equality. And it’s one of the reasons why we just can’t afford to let things that represent female empowerment disappear. It’s also important to remember that something being female positive, does not mean it is male negative. By empowering women, it does not mean we have to “de-power” men. Being equal is not about making the other sex less important, it’s about making them equally important.
There are not a lot of examples of true positive female empowerment in media. Sure, they’re out there, there are plenty of books, movies, television shows, and beyond throughout history that represent female empowerment and/or feminism. It’s out there in both obvious and subtle ways — from Ripley in Alien and Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games — but when you look at it in the scope of all media, it’s very small in comparison. And thus it’s precious. And so it must be fought for and protected diligently lest all examples of female empowerment and feminism just disappear in the night when we weren’t looking.
When a reader connects to a concept like The Amazons as a beacon of positive female empowerment, it’s devastating to have those myths, characters, and culture turned into one-dimensional monsters out of nowhere in three pages of a comic book that you previously loved. Absolutely devastating.
One of the most common words to be thrown around on the Internet at women by people who disagree with them is the word Feminazi. The implication of Feminazi generally being that the woman in question is an unreasonable militant feminist that hates men. It’s a horrible and generally false stereotype that is shockingly pervasive. So when you take something that is the symbol of positive female empowerment and more broadly a symbol of feminism and present it as exactly that stereotype (except even more extreme) then it just feeds into all that is wrong with those ideas. Azzarello’s Amazons are absolute monsters. They are presented as women who not only rape in order to procreate (and yes, I believe rape is the right word), but also women who kill after they mate, women who either kill their sons or sell them into slavery, and who seem to lie and hide what they do and who they are. I don’t see any way in which these women – an entire nation of women – can be labeled as anything except monsters.
There is no nuance to this idea. It is the broadest and most one-dimensional way to illustrate an entire people and culture as absolutely irredeemable.
Yes, mythology tells us – and let’s be clear here – this is MYTH – not FACT – that Amazons as an idea in Greek Mythology may have opted not to raise male children, they also may have raped in order to become pregnant. And they were certainly warriors, although the difference between warriors and murderers should be quite clear to us all as comic book fans. Much of what Azzarello is choosing to use has basis in Greek Myth, however A) the myths vary greatly; B) to take on ALL of the absolute worst qualities of a group of people at once while showing none of the other attributes that might offset some of those abhorrent qualities presents a drastically unbalanced portrait of an entire people which feeds into the absolute worst “Femi-nazi” stereotyping; and C) Regardless of the roots of Greek myths, The Amazons of Wonder Woman were certainly never intended to be presented this way. The Amazons of DC Comics, though warriors, were never intended to be monsters.
Because at the end of the day I must confess that I believe in story first. Tearing a character down in order to build them back up again can be a fascinating story. And stripping them of everything they thought they knew and believed can make for the beginning of an exceptional heroes’ journey, but the price in this case is unbelievably high. Perhaps more importantly however than the high price, since that’s a bit more objective and personal from fan to fan, is the fact that it doesn’t seem to work on a logical storytelling level at this point.
For starters, the idea that Diana has no idea that these people she came from and that, for a time at least, raised her, are murders, rapists, liars, and slavers seems far fetched. It makes Diana out to be either incredibly naive, or just galactically stupid. Diana is neither of these things. I have seen arguments that this is only something that happens every 33 years and thus could be easily hidden from Diana, but I don’t think rape, murder, slave trade, and the broken heart of giving up your child against your will, would be so easily hidden. Do you think you would not know if your mother was a rapist, murderer, liar, and slave trader? Do you think you would not know if your mother was the Queen of a people that behaved this way? I suspect most people would know if they were being raised by monstrous murders.
And if the Amazons don’t think it’s wrong – as they do not seem to in these brief pages – then why hide it? People hide things only when they know they are wrong.
And if these are Diana’s people, why has she been sent to “Man’s world”? We must assume that Diana’s entire mission has been rebooted as well, since it seems ridiculous that these women would send her on a mission of anything other than utter destruction. Obviously there could be more still to come, but it’s hard to imagine how any of this fits together in a way that isn’t devastating.
As for the rape question, I have seen so many people being ignorant on this one point that I’m exhausted. The Amazons boarding a boat at sea and having sex with the men on that boat absolutely makes them rapists. If there’s magic involved, then that means the men cannot consent, therefore it’s rape. If the there’s no magic involved and most of these men do consent then great, but there are obviously going to be exceptions. There will absolutely be men that do not consent – most obviously – gay men. And the “it would be every man’s fantasy!” leaves out every gay man on earth. You simply cannot to that. I would also argue that you have to concede that at least a few are so in love with girlfriends or wives that they would abstain (sure it’s going to be rare, but there are some dudes out there actually like that, I’ve heard the tales!). Not to mention the men who would be savvy and paranoid enough to know that nothing in life is free (if I was a dude I would be one of those for what it’s worth). Quite honestly the whole situation makes men out to be utter morons and paints The Amazons as nothing more than murderous sirens. For those that say that a man simply cannot be raped by a woman, I urge you to read up on the subject matter. It is absolutely possible, has happened, will continue to happen, and is horrifying, the same way the rape of a woman is horrifying.
For those of you crying out that we don’t know the whole story yet. Okay. Sure. In fact, yes, we can all agree on that one point, the story is not over yet. There are a million ways in which Azzarello can resolve this. People can be lying, things may not be what they seem, magic could be afoot, etc. But I can only deal with what I have now, and the way in which the story is being told. So that is what we are discussing. Azzarello is an incredibly smart writer and there are clearly levels to what he’s doing here. His words are carefully chosen, and it’s entirely possible that all of this will pay off in an amazing way and even a redeeming way, but I have been burned too many times before by comics like this. Held out hope, kept reading, only to have those hopes dashed mercilessly against the rocks.
I spent the weekend trying to decide whether this story would have hit as painfully if not for the current state of women in the real world. In the U.S. alone we are in a fever of women’s reproductive rights being stripped away, women being denied a seat at the table for discussion of these rights, women who use birth control publicly being called ‘sluts’, and women being physically violated by things like transvaginal probes. Not to mention everything from continued victim blaming for rape, sexual harassment in the workplace, and women still (in 2012!) making approximately 80 cents on the dollar. And those things still ignore the far larger and more obviously dangerous problems that women must face in so many other countries – being forced to marry your rapist, being stoned to death for daring to be raped, to even archaic rules like women not being allowed to drive cars.
It’s hard to ignore that this is a society that increasingly hates and distrusts women, especially as they gain any ground or power for themselves. And so it’s doubly hard to see that reflected back in our fiction right now. To see powerful women – which The Amazons have unequivocally been – as THE example of a society of powerful women in DC Comics – stripped of everything that might be good and honorable so that we may see the broadest most hateful stereotypes of them presented. The erroneous and damaging stereotype reinforced yet again that women with power will become absolute monsters. I would never make an argument that a matriarchal society would be a utopia. I would argue that any society that has inequality can by its very nature NOT be a utopia. But I see the Amazons, time and time again turned (primarily by men I’m sorry to say) into horror stories. Wildly exaggerated speculation of man-hating, man-killing, war-like unreasonable monsters. The question in fiction seems to lately be – how could powerful women be anything but monsters? For me, it’s a bridge too far.
I’m not telling you to not read this book, I’m not telling you to not like this book, it’s got a great writer and a great artist and one of the best characters in all of comics, and until now has been a hell of a story quite well done. And if the deconstruction of The Amazons doesn’t offend or bother you, by all means, keep reading. You can do that the same way that I can say that I think this is a bridge too far. The same way that I can say that it undermines too much of what I loved about both the Wonder Woman mythos and too much of what I believe is the seminal touchstone for feminism in comics.
It’s possible in a different political climate that I might be able to handle this deconstruction and keep reading, but considering the way the world is right now for women, and the way mainstream comics are right now for women…it’s just too damn much.
That doesn’t mean I think Azzarello or Chiang are sexist or misogynistic or out to get women (though many of you will infer that with continued failed reading comprehension that blows my damn mind). All it means is that this story has failed to be a story I can continue to invest in and advocate for. That shouldn’t be offensive to you the same way that it is not offensive to me for you to continue reading Wonder Woman. Different work speaks to each of us. This no longer speaks to me. I yearn for and seek out powerful female characters in all of the media I ingest and comics, I’m sorry to say, is the one that fails me the most frequently, and so it’s also the place where the context seems to matter the most. At this time, in this place, in this context, making The Amazons into one-dimensional monsters is too fierce a blow for me.
You can’t eliminate the only long standing example of female empowerment at DC Comics and expect people who care about such things to just roll with it. I’ve seen a lot of comparisons over the last few days about “Oh this would never been done to Superman, or Batman, etc.” I even made a similar argument myself – something along the lines of “DC wouldn’t dare to turn Ma and Pa Kent into small town meth dealers and racist bigots simply because it’s en vogue, or possibly more realistic to modern times.” But the reality is that even if it’s true that you can’t do this to Ma and Pa Kent (which I suspect it is) it’s still a false equivalency. Because if you do that to Ma and Pa Kent you’ve still got dozens upon dozens upon dozens of powerful positive origin stories for dozens upon dozens of male superheroes and you’ve still got precious few for female superheroes. And you just destroyed the longest standing origin for the longest standing female hero.
Undercutting The Amazons is not undercutting just any female empowerment myth, it’s undercutting THE female empowerment myth.