One of DC's famous "Trinity", Wonder Woman is a fascinating character. Her history is tied to some pretty fascinating feminist ideas, but in spite of her controversial origin, DC has typically been very reserved when it comes to open discussion of Wonder Woman's sexual identity. Now, it seems, that's changed; the current writer of Wonder Woman, Greg Rucka, is openly discussing it. How does Wonder Woman's sexual identity relate to DC's current range?
Wonder Woman's Past as a Sexual Symbol
The myth of Wonder Woman taps into the complex sexual identity of her Amazon race, and William Marston capitalized on the ambiguity of the Amazon when he created her. Marston was heavily critical of the masculine comics of his day, in large part because he saw the unrivalled potential of the medium:
"The picture-story fantasy cuts loose the hampering debris of art and artifice and touches the tender spots of universal human desires and aspirations, hidden customarily beneath long accumulated protective coverings of indirection and disguise. Comics speak, without charm or sophistication, to the innermost ears of the wishful self."
When Marston created the character of Wonder Woman, he was sending out a powerful sexual message. He created an Amazonian culture of warrior-women, a peaceful and advanced all-female culture with an associations with women's rights. As the series went on, he used the character of Wonder Woman to present his views on sexuality and gender in conflict with typical American thoughts.
Marston, you see, had some pretty fascinating beliefs. He believed that all men secretly desire to be dominated by women (however they might pretend otherwise), and that all women are capable of enjoying the experience of both domination and submission. This led him to view the society of his day as a foolish experiment, one that unwittingly crushed masculine and feminine identity beneath false sexual roles. He imagined the world becoming a better place only if women took charge, and men learned to submit.
It's common knowledge that Wonder Woman was conceived as a sexual symbol for dominance and light bondage (it's no coincidence that her weapon of choice is a lasso of truth). Less well-known is that this actually fed out of Marston's social and sexual beliefs; he truly believed that in the character of Wonder Woman he was explicitly challenging the masculine-centric system of his day.
DC Makes a Stand
The truth is that, traditionally, DC has preferred to be very quiet about the connotations of Wonder Woman and her Amazonian tribe. Issues of sexuality and sexual identity are powerful, political issues; the debate on gay rights has historically generated more heat than light. A fear of being controversial has often pushed DC into unwise decisions. For example, in 2013, W. Haden Blackman and J.H. Williams III chose to quit DC after they were barred from writing a lesbian marriage between Batwoman and Maggie Sawyer.
Last year, after the Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage, writer and artist Jason Badower chose to change Wonder Woman's story. He had her officiate a same-sex marriage, and — when challenged on it by Superman — make a strong statement:
"Clark, my country is all women. To us, it's not gay marriage. It's just marriage."
For the first time, Badower was choosing to carefully and critically assess the idea of Amazon culture. He pointed to it in distinct contrast to modern Western thought, where gay marriage remains 'revolutionary'. What's more, the same issue actually tapped into Marston's old concepts of female dominance and male submission; Badower showed Wonder Woman subdue an army without a single punch. The old questions of sexual identity were emerging once again.
As part of DC's "Rebirth", Greg Rucka is heading up the relaunched Wonder Woman comic. It's a tremendous run, but startled readers with some implications. Revisiting Wonder Woman's backstory, Rucka had one background Amazon character make a vague comment implying a romantic history with Wonder Woman. Fans reacted with surprise, wondering if this meant Wonder Woman now officially dated women as well as men.
Greg Rucka's Response
For Greg Rucka, the question of whether or not the Amazons are gay is the wrong one. He views sexuality as a social construct, and as a result it's no surprise that an island of women would be gay. He doesn't see this as radical, and isn't interested in parading in on the page, because to the Amazons it's nothing more than the norm. He explains:
"But an Amazon doesn’t look at another Amazon and say, 'You’re gay.' They don’t. The concept doesn’t exist."
This perspective has colored how Rucka handles the story. Rucka and DC are handling this as a non-issue, a simple fact that has to be acknowledged while telling the story. There's no need to spotlight it, Rucka doesn't intend to have a 'coming out' story for Wonder Woman, and we can't expect deep discourse on the issue. He views Themyscira and the Amazons as what he calls a "queer culture", and he'll assume that background as he (re)tells the story of Wonder Woman's origin.
"[DC] would, I think, like any business, prefer this not be an issue to anybody. But most of us human beings would also really rather this not be an issue for anybody anymore. It is what it is. This is how the Amazons live."
Here's the interesting thing, though. Rucka sees this distinction as fairly important, given Wonder Woman's origin. As we'll see on the big screen next year, Wonder Woman's story begins when she meets a man — Steve Trevor, to be played by Chris Pine. Although Steve is Wonder Woman's classic love-interest, Rucka feels it's important that Wonder Woman's decision to leave her island nation isn't motivated by love; instead, it's motivated by duty. He views the love-motivation as inherently 'less heroic'.
"When we talk about agency of characters in 2016, Diana deciding to leave her home forever - which is what she believes she’s doing - if she does that because she’s fallen for a guy, I believe that diminishes her heroism. She doesn’t leave because of Steve. She leaves because she wants to see the world and somebody must go and do this thing. And she has resolved it must be her to make this sacrifice."
This is a fascinating perspective, and I leave it to readers to draw your own conclusions.
The Changing Social Context of Sexuality
As you can see, DC's treatment of Wonder Woman is changing radically. This is largely because of changes in society, particularly regarding the subject of sexuality. In Marston's day, his bondage-oriented feminism was a matter of some controversy; he frequently had to defend his depictions of Wonder Woman, arguing that they weren't just simple titillation.
DC's silence on the issue for many decades represented a desire to keep Wonder Woman's sexuality out of the spotlight. Now, with social mores having changed a great deal, DC has chosen to allow Greg Rucka to explore Wonder Woman's sexuality in an unusual and creative way.
Notice that, although Greg Rucka is talking about this in interviews, he's not going to highlight the issue in the pages of the comics. Rather, he's simply going to assume the social norms of Themyscira, and tell the story he wants to tell. He wants Wonder Woman's sexuality to be a "non-issue", something that we pass on with barely a comment.
This marks a sea change for DC superheroes. Where before, openly homosexual relationships were the subject of intense discussion, Rucka wants Wonder Woman to be uncontroversially bisexual. He doesn't intend to stir up a furore; he doesn't intent to inspire debate; he simply wants to tell the story of Wonder Woman and the Amazons. That, to him, is self-evidently a "queer" story. Although he's inheriting the legacy of William Marston, Rucka intends to do so in a much more passive way. He's not seeking to challenge the social mores of today; rather, he's simply intending to assume that the social mores of today give him the freedom to explore Wonder Woman's story in a way that he feels it should be explored.
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As Wonder Woman is one of DC's most important superheroes, about to star in her own solo film, it's no surprise that the world has sat up and taken notice. This is only a subtle change, but it's an important one, in that it redefines the character for the modern age. I happen to think that William Marston would be proud.
Do you think this is a step in the right direction? Let me know in the comments!
Sources: Do The Gods Wear Capes? by Ben Saunders