Tag Archives: Matthew Levine

The Superhero and Cultural Subversion

After sending an excerpt of my previous essay on the cultural place of the superhero to a friend, she took offense at the passage where I claim there’s no possibility of the female superhero because of the cultural discourses of power that create and maintain the superhero. She sent me to this New Yorker essay on the genesis and cultural history of Wonder Woman and we discussed it in its minutia until the wee hours of the morning. Reading the essay, a couple passages stuck out at me:

A press release explained, “ ‘Wonder Woman’ was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.” Marston put it this way: “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”

And here, Marston’s agreement with the thesis of my previous essay, with the New Yorker writer echoing the Freud element:

“Do you think these fantastic comics are good reading for children?” she asked.

Mostly, yes, Marston said. They are pure wish fulfillment: “And the two wishes behind Superman are certainly the soundest of all; they are, in fact, our national aspirations of the moment—to develop unbeatable national might, and to use this great power, when we get it, to protect innocent, peace-loving people from destructive, ruthless evil.”

And finally, the political denoument and split of the feminist movement’s relationship with Wonder Woman after the fairly advanced feminist politics of the six years total that Marston ran the title:

Marston died in 1947. “Hire me,” Holloway (Marston’s female assistant) wrote to DC Comics. Instead, DC hired Robert Kanigher, and Wonder Woman followed the hundreds of thousands of American women workers who, when peace came, were told that their labor threatened the stability of the nation. Kanigher made Wonder Woman a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She gave advice to the lovelorn, as the author of a lonely-hearts newspaper advice column. Her new writer also abandoned a regular feature, “The Wonder Women of History”—a four-page centerfold in every issue, containing a biography of a woman of achievement. He replaced it with a series about weddings, called “Marriage à la Mode.”

The notoriously backwards internal politics of the comics industry reared their ugly head and from 1947 onward with few exceptions the Wonder Woman character’s vaguely radical feminist components were rarely touched on again outside some attempts to make her a “career woman” in the 70s, her new look roughly modeled after the fashions of Mary Tyler Moore’s sitcom heroine. The superhero, as a power fantasy, can at best touch progressive politics through the questionable tactics of the savior narrative or at worst use the most superficial trends of feminism as a trojan horse for reactionary politics while maintaining plausible deniability against their doing so. The sins of second wave feminism in their most bald form were regurgitated in Wonder Woman comics.

Of course Wonder Woman as a conscious piece of feminist propaganda couldn’t work. The reading of comic books has always been, like most “entertainments” that pretend to exist outside the possibility of intellectual criticism, processed on the unconscious level. This, not the conscious intent of the creator, creates their possibility of unwitting cultural subversion.

Comic books, as products meant for children, have sexual repression built into their DNA. It’s not an accident that Doctor Octopus always attacks right when Peter Parker is on a date. This is a repeated motif. Escape into superego to avoid the id. Express the repressed sexuality in obsessive endless images of bondage style sadism. Superman’s initial visual conception was in softcore bondage pornography. This is not a design error, it is the design.

The recent debates over the objectification of female characters in comic book art, while long overdue, miss one of the basic elements of the overarching visual aesthetics of superheroes. Superheroes have always existed as hypersexualized figure drawing to the point where Jack Kirby and Stan Lee had to invent the absurd “unstable molecules” to explain why the clothing of the superhero is always perfect form fitting and never folds. I’m not advancing the idiotic moral equivocation argument pushed by the dread MRAs here. Even if the sexualization cuts both ways, the sexual objectification of the female characters exists in a different cultural context. The larger cultural norms for the entire history of superhero comics as a genre have involved the commodification of women as sex objects. As such the absurdly enlarged breasts, shrunk waists, and erotic posturing of female characters is the reproduction of the larger culture and reactionary.

However, the coded hypersexualization of the masculine that arises from the broader attempts to repress homosexual tendencies creates possibilities of politically progressive subversion. The repressed id always makes itself known to those paying attention.Coded language wants to be found out. It seeks community.

The person who introduced me to comic books when I was two years old, my cousin (a terrific fellow who leads an exciting life) now runs gay superhero costume themed fetish parties. They look like a hell of a lot more fun than Comic Con. In the linked NY Times article he mentions pretty much outright using the homoeroticism of the images as a means of discovering himself. In superhero comic obsessed communities, it ended up actually being the white cis-het sexuality that was repressed on the ground. Comic Con has “cosplay” but there are no cis-het superhero sex parties that I know of. Their impulses have to exist largely in voyeurism. The repression of the “deviance” led to the opposite of what was intended. This is irony at its richest and most satisfying.

So far this is the only subversion against the norms caused by the main streams of superhero comics I can think,of. I say this not to marginalize its positive effects but to assert the circumscribed nature of the superhero in my prior essay.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Check out his first book here. He also just released a comedy album which you can hear selections from for free here.