Wonder Woman has broken into our public culture, quite literally. An Amazon warrior whose gladiatorial strength and fighting is exalted as the peak of our modern conception of womanhood. Women dress as her for Halloween, and Hollywood releases movies of her. However, while modern social critiques applaud this image as a victory for the modern woman, what is interesting is why it might be considered one in the first place.
Wonder woman is an easy character to attack for being the product of a man’s mind: a corset fused with a bikini bottom and a pair of boots. One may be surprised to find, she was inspired by the feminist Margaret Sanger. A champion of women’s rights –of the right to their own bodies– may herself have been surprised to know that she would come to inspire the character residing between the glossy pages of boys’ comics. Though the advent of an independent female superhero is indeed a milestone in popular culture, it shouldn’t be exempt from critique.
What makes this modern reincarnation so interesting is the reception it has received from society, especially young women. Many people have voted with their feet on whether this is a good interpretation of femininity and power. Not having commonly accepted definitions of femininity or power, many people are willing to take Hollywood’s image of their combination without question. Most interesting in this case, is not what is considered femininity by Hollywood –this has been established in modern times, through a truly male vision of femininity– but what is considered power.
Power in its most ugly sense is a relative benefit, it only exists in relation or contrast to others. It is the amount of control, actual or potential, one has over others. This power is only valuable if those who are subject to it have the possibility of claiming it themselves; in economic terms it is a positional good. Wonder Woman is the epitome of a feminine version of this power. Rather than finding a new characterization of power, a female character is placed into the male concept of power: super strength, gladiatorial fighting ability, and an unthinkingly childish sense of courage and justice. Ultimately, all superheroes are male oriented, the premise of a superhero is the exalting of attributes mainly stemming from our adrenaline glands mixed with some imaginative capacity. Thinking of the character of Sherlock Holmes, a super-human sense of logic, induction, and creative thinking, one realizes why he is not a superhero. Ultimately, rather than having a mastery over the universe, he instead understands its underlying realities and laws better than most.
A woman asked William F. Buckley, a guest on Woody Allen’s show from the 60’s: ‘Do you think miniskirts are in good taste?’ After taking a clumsy first stab at it with: ‘On you I think they are’, he took an even more daring second by saying, ‘I think good legs are in good taste’. Only in the 60’s could a self-proclaimed conservative be so liberal about a woman’s sexuality. Beyond the witticism is a statement on the nature of feminine definition. The woman’s question rests on a notion of ‘good taste’ and Buckley’s answer asserts that, in his own case, he is the arbiter of that notion. Extended to society, it is not difficult to see attraction and sex being so closely related, down to the biological level, that for many aspects of ourselves the verdict has lain in the observing group or sex.
Currently, the true reality of power and femininity is that they are treated as suspect. In modern politics it has been the case that any serious female politicians must take on the traits of men. They must dress in pant suits, be or become rather dowdy, and lose any sense of sexuality or femininity. In the United States, the closest woman to ever become president while looking bookish in her youth, began to lose her femininity the closer she got to office. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the current Prime Minister Theresa May seems far removed from any notion of femininity. Caroline Lucas, the main representative of the Green Party in the UK, Angela Merkel, Dilma Rouseff of Brazil, all follow suit. Women in major political positions seem to need to present some appearance of affectation of masculinity. This seems to say more about men than about these women, for what reason men want to see themselves in the women that are positioned or elected in power I will leave for others to ponder.
Interestingly, take the other variation of women in politics, those roles that have no official political role except ceremonial. Most first ladies of the United States have tread the line of respectable yet feminine, from Jackie Kennedy to Michelle Obama. In Britain the Queen could not be thought of in her youth as not being in a dress, nor Kate Middleton with long hair and close fitted and stylish coats and dresses. Queen Rania, the Middle Eastern Diana (not to mention Diana herself), is very much a similar type of ceremonial leader. From all the leftover monarchs of Europe to other pseudo-monarchical systems now removed from political power, it seems to be not only required to be attractively feminine, but oppressively so. These feminine figures who are told to maintain their beauty and figure for public eye are the subject of constant tabloid and fashion magazine scrutiny. The price of power today is the loss of femininity, and the best bargain women today can strike is ceremonial power for keeping this trait.
In all the ways one can observe man’s effect on the public conception of women there still is needed an explanation, and one might be found with the forefather of our understanding of biology: Darwin. He wrote in The Origin of Species:
Inasmuch as peculiarities often appear in one sex and become hereditarily attached to that sex, the same fact probably occurs under nature, and if so, natural selection will be able to modify one sex in its functional relations to the other sex…this leads me to say a few words on what I call Sexual Selection. This depends, not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the male for possession of the females
Continuing on to describe the manners in which male members of species are altered depending on female acknowledgement of the prominence of features such as horns on stags, or spurs on cocks. In this he touches upon a salient fact. Females, in the history of biology, have controlled the image of men. The arbiter of ‘good taste’ in the fundamental biology of ours, and many other species, is the female. Thus is it any surprise after all these geological eons, that man took his opportunity to take his revenge. In the one set of systems and laws created and governed by men, the woman is subject to the taste of men. Compare this to the discerning eye of females and natural selection on the beauty and diversity those have created; it is any wonder mother nature gave this job to the females?
So long as men fear this reality, that women hold much greater sway over the image of man than they would be comfortable admitting, men will continue to create and overlay their ideas of femininity on women in society.