A WOMAN OF INORDINATE STRENGTH
Beyoncé went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and saw, at an exhibit called “Superheroes,” a costume worn by Lynda Carter for the purposes of being, on television, the first official live-action Wonder Woman. Beyoncé, a Carter herself, was impressed by the tiny waist and the spangliness. She wanted the lasso. “To make everybody tell the truth? I need that,” she told the Los Angeles Times. It was 2008. Superhero films were entering the prestige era, and the singer was on her way to what in pop music is called “worldwide domination.” Beyoncé Gisele Knowles-Carter would soon become the first woman to appear overqualified for the role of a demigoddess. “It would be a very bold choice,” Beyoncé said, about the choice of herself. “A black Wonder Woman would be a powerful thing. It’s time for that, right?”
Past time, and yet not the time. Wonder Woman had never been embodied on the big screen, even as Batman had nine movies made about his life so far, Spider-Man six, and even the Green Hornet one; since Halle Berry’s Catwoman (2004) had bombed, the men of Warner Bros. had made scant efforts to bring genderor racialparity to the DC Comics universe. For nearly another decade, anyone wanting to see herself in a Technicolor epic about a dark-haired, bright-eyed, corseted lass who hates war, calls home a paradise, and has a preternatural gift for staying alive, played by an actress whose bolt-from-the-blue casting is one of the great origin stories in Hollywood, would have to rent a four-hour movie made in 1939 called Gone with the Wind.
Heroines: Do they want to be heroes? The best-selling heroine is a pinup who, while the soldier is asleep in the bunker, comes to life and steals into the world he left behind. She preserves a memory of home, and telegraphs promise. The wartime, white heroine also arises because her men fail, on their own, to provide the justification for white supremacy. She says her skin is fairer than her sex.
A strange feminist claim on Scarlett O’Hara, small business owner and rape victim, took root a decade ago, when morals were not much imputed to the complexity or strength of female leads. Critic Molly Haskell opens Frankly, My Dear: “Gone with the Wind” Revisited, her beautiful 2009 book-length apologia for Scarlett, by recollecting her appearance on an early women-and-film panel, ca. 1972, alongside Gloria Steinem. Steinem cited the “spectacle of Scarlett being squeezed into her corset to a seventeen-inch waist” as a “perfect illustration of female bondage.” Haskell retorted that Scarlett was a “fierce, courageous heroine, going her own way, a survivor.” Deciding, over three decades later, that they were both right, she adds magnanimously that the “difference of perspective was an early augur of the fault lines in feminism, or perhaps a necessary split focus.” Steinem saw women as victims of history who couldn’t look back, so that only the future was female. Haskell wanted to celebrate “women in the past (real or fictional) who’d held their own in a chauvinist culture, who’d subverted the norm and gained victories not always apparent through a literal reading of the plot.” It would take a very unliteral reading of the plot to ignore the “norm” our heroine had no intention to “subvert,” and neither feminist, that day on the panel, seemed to remember who’d laced the corsets.
Women with all different skins and histories have nonetheless taken part in the legend of Scarlett. Take, from 1985, a master stroke of appropriation by poet June Jordan:
A Reagan-Era Poem in Memory of Scarlett O’Hara
who said, in Gone With the Wind,
something like this:
“As God is my witness, so help me God:
I’m going to live through this
And when it’s over
If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill,
I’ll never go hungry again.”
The poem says:
In 1975, Jamaica Kincaid wrote an iconoclastic, rather amazing essay on Gone with the Wind in the Village Voice, called “If Mammies Ruled the World.” Scarlett is a “petulant little bitch” who doesn’t deserve her Mammy, says Kincaid. Kincaid does:
A Mammy . . . is different from your mother because while your mother is expected to love you, Mammies love you for no reason at all. A Mammy is the sort of person to whom you can say, I just raped fourteen children and I killed eight of them and she’ll say isn’t that terrible, I love you anyway.
But Scarlett is/was lovable, or at least she is/was unlike other women on-screen to the very degree that a person, in real life, becomes unlike other people when you’re in love with her. Even Margaret Mitchell, who spent ten years writing the novel on which the David O. Selznick film is based, thought the lodestar of her story was the imperfectible sister-in-law, Melanie. Scarlett, the perpetual rival, ran away with the plot. A storied, idealizing dialectic of “fair and dark ladies” in the national literature, laid out by critic Leslie Fielder in Love & Death in the American Novel (1960), was weirdly synthesized in this white-skinned, black-haired, all but blackhearted girl with epicene habits. She broke the code.
THE FIRST comic-book heroines to be considered super were rather, to use a slang word, extra. There was Sheena, Mystery Woman of the Jungle, a Fletcher Hanks creation, pretty except when she turned into a blue-skinned, skull-faced avenger (still blonde, though) thanks to some ancient Egyptian curse-blessing. (When Ike gave Tina Turner her name, it was to rhyme and harmonize with the version of Sheena, now called Queen of the Jungle, he saw in the live-action TV series  starring Irish McCalla as the girl, raised by an African witch-woman, who turns into animals. Turner’s persona reclaimed the “exotic.”)
Next and more generative was Miss Fury, drawn by June Tarpé Mills: a twenty-three-year-old former model who was the only female cartoonist on the Sunday pages, albeit with a male-passing alias, and who, in a photograph with her cat, looks like a hotter Colette. Her intensely colored comic strip was also coded, or not even coded. Here again, the story begins with a totem’s discovery: an African-leopard skin, entirely black with claws, spiked heels, and a whip tail, originally fitted for a (male) witch doctor. Mills was a sophisticated artist, clever about using the “primitive.” By no mistake was Miss Fury, debuting in the spring of 1941, first known as Black Fury.
One night, with nothing to wear, an unmarried socialite named Marla Drake puts on the cat’s skin and goes out into the Manhattan nightlife, where she tangles with a carjacker, fends off the misconstruing cops, and begins a long rivalry with a Nazi whore known as the Baroness. The skin gives her the power of anonymity, making heroic acts look like role-play: Miss Fury, as she’s known in the press, cuffs crossdressing villains and ties up double agents in lingerie, her manner evoking the lesbian sybaritism of 1930s French fetish photography and the virulent femmeness of ’40s American noir. When a man named William Moulton Marston was creating Wonder Woman, he told the artist, Harry G. Peter, to make her “as powerful as Superman, as sexy as Miss Fury, as scantily clad as Sheena the jungle queen, as patriotic as Captain America.”
Because he was unlikely for his time, it is easy to see Marston as the hero, the lightning-struck creator of a comic so rich in expression, so queer in theory that it’s as peerless today as it was unprecedented then. He was as Northern as Mitchell was Southern. Born and educated in Boston, he became an experimental psychologist who claimed to have invented the lie-detector test. Before the Depression, he worked as a “consulting shrink” for Universal Studios in Hollywood; after being fired, he decided that comic books, not movies, were the ultimate form of propaganda. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind landed in theaters during what Neville Chamberlain called a “lull in the operations of war.” Wonder Woman made her solo debut two years later, as the first US Army planes flew over Europe, in issue number one of Sensation Comics: “At last, in a world torn by the hatred and wars of men, appears a woman,” as if female leads in action comics had been doing anything besides, as John Berger would say, appearing.
But a superlative heroine was destined to appear sooner rather than later. Marston’s idea was one of many seeds racing toward the egg of necessity, sucked in by timing, chance, fate. The environment was fertile. Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States, believed in suffrage, free love, shorter skirts, vegetarianism, and eugenics. Margaret Sanger believed in a woman’s right to make informed choices, and also in eugenics. Marston idolized Sanger. He believed, or at least once said, that the next hundred years would see the dawn of American matriarchy, and that women would use love to conquer men in a “serious sex battle” in the twenty-fifth century, a point in time conveniently far from his own. Believing religiously in suffrage, he excelled as a progenitor of so-called male feminism, the supererogatory mode of allyship practiced by men for whom “equality” means easier access, and putting a woman on a pedestal meant looking up her skirt. On hearing, from his publisher, that every comic-book heroine so far had been commercially a failure, he replied, “But they weren’t superwomen. They weren’t superior to men.” His visions of female supremacy took to the limit a bad idea, that a woman can only be a person if she’s not only human.
Marston died in 1947. Eight years later, his nemeses gathered at a US congressional hearing on the perils inherent in comic books, and the censorious Comics Code Authority took effect. Notably, several of the sociologists defending the educational value and guiltless pleasures of comics were women who worked with children. No one’s passion, however, matched that of Gershon Legman, who played the smart, demented henchman to the more conservative bully Fredric Wertham, and whose Love & Death: A Study in Censorship (1949) is one of the era’s most contradictory, ingenious, terroristic tracts, a superior read to Wertham’s well-known tome Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Legman held certain Reichian ideas about youthful sexuality repressed in the service of violence. Unlike Wertham, he saw that girls, especially, lacked their freedoms. Unlike Marston, he wasn’t optimistic. A woman in search of her power will, said Legman, try to be a man:
. . . pants, penis, and all the rest of itand do what men do; or, failing that, to claw down the nearest male by whatever means one can, and so be faced with no invidious comparison. In essence, this is the bitch.
Legman lays blame at the feet of Miss O’Hara, calling her a “Venus Dominatrix” with “one hand always on the reins, the other ready with the whip” and lamenting how many men she ruined, murdered, or let die: “Margaret Mitchell did for bitchery what Edgar Allan Poe did for murdershe made it respectable.” To the unsuspecting, the “bitch-heroine” appears to be “merely an historical hussy, an exceptional vixen.” To those who see her potential, she masquerades as a “poor, helpless, pathological case.” Legman’s sociological usage of mask is advanced. The b-word becomes prefix, then synonym in feminine cases: A superheroine is really a bitch-heroine, whereas superheroes are either strongmen or very strong men.
Two decades later, a thirty-year-old Wonder Woman was the lone female survivor of the golden age in American comic books. Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes were launching Ms., the magazine that heralded second-wave feminism.The first regular issue arrived July 1972. The cover lines: GLORIA STEINEM ON HOW WOMEN VOTE. NEW FEMINIST: SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR. MONEY FOR HOUSEWORK. BODY HAIR: THE LAST FRONTIER. And in bigger, accentuated letters: WONDER WOMAN FOR PRESIDENT. This was no joke, nor was it figurative: Diana of Themyscira, drawn in a credible approximation of the original style, appeared on the cover in what amounted to a one-piece swimsuit with red latex boots to her knees and a whiplike lasso. She looked upset. She didn’t look presidential, but also it didn’t look like you had a choice.
That spring and summer the congresswoman from Brooklyn, Shirley Chisholm, was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Chisholm said that she had “always met more discrimination being a woman than for being black.” White feminists may have seen her as more black than woman. Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzug, who together with Chisholm had founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, encouraged but did not endorse her run and, at the same time, told her not to accept a “divisive” endorsement from the Black Panthers.
The scholar Michele Wallace argues in Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1978) that the black woman doesn’t need a costume. She is already held to be a “woman of inordinate strength.” She “does not have the same fears, weaknesses, and insecurities as other women, but believes herself to be and is, in fact, stronger emotionally than most men. Less of a woman in that she is less ‘feminine’ and helpless, she is really more of a woman in that she is the embodiment of Mother Earth.” Ergo, says Wallace, she is a superwoman, burdened by the source of her powers.
Or, as Pam Grier, with a more positive spin, put it in Essence in 1979:
I created a new kind of screen womanphysically strong and active, she was able to look after herself and others. If you think about it, you’ll see she was the prototype for the more recent and very popular white Bionic and Wonder Women. When I grew up I knew a certain kind of Black woman who was the sole support of her family and who would, if you disrespected her, beat you into the cement. [And] I brought that lady to the screenplayed her to the bone!
Technically, the prototype for Wonder Woman on television was Wonder Woman on the pages of Sensation Comics. Yet Grier, who broke out as the “Black Mama” in Black Mama, White Mama (1973), a women-in-prison film, was correct in the meta sense. Grier “confront[s] villainy unlike any other screen heroine,” said Kincaid in her profile, for the August 1975 cover of Ms., of the exploitation-cinema queen. While Wonder Woman, aka Miss Fury as a Stoic, was reconstituted as a more diaphanous icon on family television, a Pam Grier movie was playing at adult-only theaters in America’s cities, considered by (male) critics to be “mostly comic-book stuff.” In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), an end-of-the-millennium annal of Midtown Manhattan, the sci-fi novelist Samuel R. Delany elegizes seeing porn at the cinema and plots out a utopian and literal intersectionality along the city’s grid. These affinities make sense together: Obscenity before the spread of feminism was closer to the avant-garde, that military metaphor for experimental, revolting art, but has since gentrified and migrated to the speculative, where it’s more at home. Like science fiction, pornography casts our predictions as sexual predilections and bases more narratives on shame, which bodes better for change than fear, curiosity, even desire do. Forgetting the question of whether depictions of sex are progressive (they are not, per se) or whether all progress is good (definitely not), we can see that as a realm of theoretical experience, pornography gives us a crude new way of doing ourselves.
Once in the early 1980s, when the radical feminist members of Women Against Pornography were giving antiporn tours of Midtown, Delany did an ad hoc tabulation of six skin flicks playing on Forty-Second Street and six films showing at “legit” cinemas just around the corner. He recalls,
I counted the number of major female characters portrayed as having a profession in each: The legit films racked up seven [among them]. The porn films racked up eleven.
On the same films I took tabs on how many friendships between women were represented, lesbian or otherwise, in the plot. The six legit films came out with zero; the six porn films came out with nine. Also: How many of each ended up with the women getting what they wanted? Five for the porn. Two for the legit.
Delany, in his delight, didn’t see this as a harbinger. Attractive, classy women would come to get what they want, if what they wanted was to be very professional. Yet there would remain a measure of the illicit in female success.
Nothing was to be more legitimating than a win for Hillary Clinton. In Frankly, My Dear, Haskell notes that during the 2008 Democratic primaries, “Scarlett was invoked by columnists as a Hillary avant la lettre, the only heroine tough, nervy, and presumptuous enough to compare with the I’m-no-lady senator’s aggressive take-no-prisoners campaign.” This too might have warned: Scarlett was least appealing whenever she’d gotten her way, and closest to lovable when she’d lostlost her mother to illness, the first of her husbands to the war, the man she really wanted to a better woman. Consider, in Selznick’s Gone with the Wind, the scene that cleaves the film at intermission:
Scarlett has returned to the desuetude of her father’s plantation. She runs to the sacked fields, where she digs with her bare hands in the dirt, finds a turnip and gnaws at it, then retches. There is nothing wrong with the turnip. What sickens is the churn of her need. Raising herself high, she lifts a fist and swears what June Jordan remembered, what everyone who’s seen the film remembers, and as her silhouette blackens against the incarnadined light, she looks like a Kara Walker cutout. Why is this still so lasting? Already on the screen, the image appears seared into the eyelids, the afterimage of what should be green, young, living. We recognize a scene where the heavens blaze and earth seems to tremble. It’s the villain who shakes her fist at the sky.
OR MAYBE JUST BEAUTIFUL
This image has its mirror in Wonder Woman (2017), when Diana (Gal Gadot) sinks to her knees in no man’s land, shield at her side and sword planted. Used promotionally, including on a many-storied billboard in Times Square, the militant, submissive image gives pause and for a second it appears, because of the position and lunar curve of the shield, that Wonder Woman is pregnant. A formal impossibility. Superheroes do not create life.
The making of Wonder Woman synchronized almost perfectly with Hillary Clinton’s second campaign for the American presidency. In January of 2013, she resigned as secretary of state, and by September she was “wrestling,” she said, with a rerun. Hillary had lost to, then served, a man who in becoming the first black president was required to be transcendent: Barack Obama, with his slim, insouciant grace, his ability to always be fitting, always smiling, to cry when children were shot in school, to charm without seeming to manipulate, could also be called the first female president. (Only fair, since Toni Morrison had given the title of “first black president” to Mr. Clinton.)
At the end of 2013, Gadot was announced as Wonder Woman in the movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and quietly, at the beginning of 2014, she signed a three-picture deal with Warner Bros. The second picture would be her solo debut, with Michelle MacLaren set to direct. Little was known about MacLaren’s vision, but rumors were that she, having helmed her share of HBO’s epic Game of Thrones, had wild ideas: Diana would have, for instance, a literal tiger as a sidekick, and would look, in head-to-toe bronze, like a slutty Camilla of the Volsci.
Between April of 2014 and January of 2015, three books came out on the uniqueness and kinks in Marston’s life story and life’s work. The first and nerdiest was Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine, by the comic-book historian Tim Hanley. The next and most impassioned was critic Noah Berlatsky’s Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941–1948. The definitive best seller, by New Yorker writer and Harvard professor Jill Lepore, was The Secret History of Wonder Woman.Lepore, with unequaled access to sources and archives, fashioned a compelling case that Wonder Woman, more than any other cultural figure, freed us to see women as world leaders.
Hillary announced her candidacy on a Sunday in April 2015. The next day it was reported that MacLaren had fallen victim to “creative differences,” and by Friday that Patty Jenkins had stepped in. Jenkins wrapped principal photography on Wonder Woman the following May, about a month before Hillary got the votes for the Democratic nomination, and the first trailer aired at San Diego’s Comic-Con five days before Hillary, wearing white like a suffragette, addressed the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Team Hillary had correctly assumed that she would not have to face another man like Obama, such a man being statistically nonexistent; they had not guessed how unlike Obama her opponent would be. The people at Warner Bros. had not intended to make a revenge fantasy, but that is what the movie, released seven months after Hillary’s loss, became.
Jenkins had made a film called Monster (2003) about the lesbian life of prostitute and serial killer (or serial victim, taking up murder in self-defense) Aileen Wuornos, a credential auspicious to fans, including DC Comics artist Greg Rucka, who remember Marston’s Wonder Woman being queer. Yet the titular role in that film had gone to Charlize Theron, the role of her lover to a sweet, confused Christina Ricci, and Jenkins best humanized the model (or induced sympathy with Wuornos on the grounds that, with a right turn here or there, she could have looked like Theron). The opening scene has Wuornos in her memories as a blonde little girl, dressing up like a heroine in a cape: “When I was little I thought for sure one day, I could be a big, big star . . . Or maybe just beautiful . . .”
The first fifteen minutes of Wonder Woman give us two early versions of Diana, five years old, then twelve, played by two distinctly Anglo-Saxon girls who dispatch any wishes that this Wonder Woman, because Gadot is Israeli, isn’t white. By the time she’s old enough to be played by Gadot, Diana believes she has inherited a sword called the “god-killer,” to be used when Ares returns to finish what he started with the Amazons. When, in the film’s final showdown, she meets Ares on the wrong side of World War I, it’s revealed that Zeus is her father, Ares is her brother, and Diana herself is the god-killer. A sword is for once just a sword.
The great, cathecting moment is when the Amazons, faced with the arrival of German U-boats, pour over the lip of the island, an astonishing cliff, on horseback with bows and flaming arrows. Diverse and variegated in their flesh, educing sheer pride in all those bared arms and thighs in the face of bullets, they oppose in every way these gunmen who personify the uniform. Finally, the “sex battle” is made literal and lifted to the putative, vaunted glory of war as soldiers do not hesitate to shoot, seeing babes brand-new as rivals. Rare to see the second sex go hand to hand, one-to-one, with the first, defending the beautiful as immortal. Thrilling, after decades of women on the edge and on the verge, to see them breathe and just . . . go over, like they do at the end of Thelma & Louise (1991).A preference for death over captivity spurs radical movement.
BATTLING MOSTLY FEMALE ENEMIES
Princess Diana of Themyscira, or Paradise Island, arrives at her powers not by extreme training or in a freak accident, and not in the freakiest accident of all, which is birth, but by intelligent design. According to Marston, the Amazons are immortal reincarnations of former slaves, living for millennia in a splendid, dickless citadel à la Lesbos, a place reconstructed in postdecadent, prewar fantasies of feminist separatism, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) and Inez Haynes Gillmore’s Angel Island (1914). When Queen Hippolyta wants a child, the goddess Aphrodite breathes a preincarnated being, the soul of an aborted fetus, into a lump of clay and names it Diana. Diana, when grown, is like the other Amazons but younger, stronger, with a fatal weakness: She can fall in love. Alone among her kind, she has no saving memory of men.
One day in the middle of World War II an American spy and pilot, in pursuit of a Nazi, crashes on Themyscira’s shores. A Venus who hardly knows she’s flesh stands and gazes for a moment upon the misfortunate Captain Steve Trevor, an inverted, hapless Captain America, before saving his life. When Steve explains about the Nazis, Queen Hippolyta decides to send “our strongest maiden,” and Diana, forbidden to compete and wearing a mask to do so anyway, beats her sisters in a tournament to become . . . our Amazon in Washington. Thus concludes the first solo issue of Wonder Woman. Diana chooses men because, obviously, they need her more. Yet when she adopts a facade as Diana Prince, taking the name of a military nurse who happens to look like her, she finds herself up against men’s unawareness of their need.
“I’m almost jealous of myself as Wonder Woman,” she thinks in one early issue, from the Marston/Peter years. “Nothing I do as a normal woman, Diana Prince, ever impresses anybody.” Like a normal woman, she can, as a matter of fact, do several impressive things her boss cannot. She is always loaning him confidence, free of interest. She takes excellent dictation and types like hell, and Steve says she is “quite the little psychologist.” (Steve is quite the little moron, unable to tell the likeness between a woman with spectacles and the very same woman without: Superman changes his eye color and hides his eight-pack to become Clark Kent, but Diana remains blue-eyed and hourglassy.) Quickly, she becomes a secretary in the army, then an intelligence officer, andfor one issue, in 1943the first female president of the United States. Even forgetting the superpower differential, it’s less awesome for a princess to do almost anything than for a secretary to be elected world leader. What happens is something like a persona swap.
By the ’60s, Diana Prince has grown into an up-to-the-minute modern gal. The Amazon is stricken: “I can’t be jealous of myselfcan I? . . . Wonder Woman must change.” And she does, out of her reds and blues and into civilian clothes forever, though forever turns out to be four years, the span of what is called the Diana Prince era. No more powers or special weapons, instead self-defense and certain charms. No Steve, killed off at last for being boring. Diana undertakes life as a singular woman, a Greenwich Village boutique owner by day and a jet-setting spy by night.
The most remarkable issue of the Diana Prince era is remarked on, for the most part, negatively. Delany had written an award-winning space opera (Nova ) and an unpublishably graphic porn novel (Hogg ) when, in 1972, DC Comics hired him to do a six-issue story arc. Excited to make Diana a “believable woman, working with other women,” Delany dropped her off on the Lower East Side, suddenly and for no real reason homeless and unemployed, fending off catcallers and finding a place to crash, all while outdoing Bianca Jagger in a white two-piece suit. (Her superpower? Keeping white clothes clean.) She gets her old job back as a joke: “Wonder Woman” is here a creation of Madison Avenue, a brand ambassador for Grandee’s department store, “designed for that newest factor in the American economic scheme, the new liberated woman,” and Diana happens to look the part. She finds a friend in her ex-boutique employee Cathy Perkins, changed by Delany into a bright-blonde feminist who invites Diana to have her consciousness raised. Diana balks: “I wouldn’t fit with your group. In most cases, I don’t even like women!” Cathy yells: “What you’re saying is . . . you don’t like yourself!” There was no second issue.
Berlatsky finds “The Grandee Caper,” marketed as a Special! Women’s Lib Issue, to be the “undoubted nadir of Delany’s illustrious career.” Lepore, less opinionated, notes only that in 1974 a female academic wondered whether the Women’s Lib Issue was the “worst travesty on feminism ever written.” It’s hard to see what the big deal is: Marvel and DC are notorious for contradicting origin stories and reintroducing heroes as strangers to themselves, while Delany, rather than give the heroine amnesia, changes her view to make more sense psychologically for an Amazon queen manqué, an immigrant to mortality who doesn’t have money or a place to live. Diana, raised to think of people as being women, may mean only that she doesn’t like most people. (Enough radical feminists weren’t great fans of the rest of us, either.) Self-loathing is not a hate crime. Yet the consensus holds. In her 2004 book Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes, the activist and critic Lillian S. Robinson shuns her own title’s plurality to dismiss the era as simply “not feminist”:
This so-called new superhero, out of uniform and battling mostly female enemies while conforming to the sexy ’60s ideal, embodies a cultural femininity that helps to demonstrate why the (also) so-called Sexual Revolution struck so many women as notor at least not yeta women’s revolution.
How many women do you need to make a women’s revolution? Ms. had Wonder Woman and twenty-six thousand subscribers in the first month, but Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan had Burt Reynolds naked in a centerfold and a circulation of 1.2 million, even though Cosmo could well be described as a guide to “battling mostly female enemies while conforming to the sexy ideal.” Fifteen years later, Ms. had peaked at a circulation of 700,000, Cosmo at about four times that. Numbers by no means equal importance. Some women read both magazines. Yet many more aspired to conformity, if conformity is what you call trying to game a system you can’t change, than subscribed to Steinem’s idea of a feminist message. Apocryphally at least, when Delany was canned, the Diana Prince era canceled, it was not because readers complained but because Steinem did.
In an exceptional recent defense of the Women’s Lib issue, scholar Ann Matsuuchi raises the importance of Delany’s realpolitikal questions, to wit “how we eat, sleep, and fuck.” She notes the “early acknowledgment of class conflict present in feminist organizations,” particularly in the tough, ambiguous ending: Diana ends up defending the female workers, as well as the feminist protesters, in a small, victorious battle against Grandee’s slew of henchmen and underfed Dobermans. The consciousness-raisers celebrate the city’s closure of the store and the mayor’s announcement that the wage gap will be investigated, but the party stops when the workers show up angry, accusing the feminists of “putting 250 women out of work!” The comic ends by breaking the fourth wall, asking the reader what she would say to them.
EVEN IN ANOTHER TIME
Thrills of the Marstonian Wonder Woman lie in a site-specific lesbianism. The island in the Devil’s Triangle, the women’s prison in California, the all-girls boarding school in New England are reasonable locations for female same-sex desire and its fulfillment, seized on in the relief of having one choiceand one choice is still a choice. Sex with men, for women, is an ultimate double bind. Apposite is sadomasochism, a campy, mirthless drama based on heterosexuality, its denouement a rejection of the pretense that all else is equal. On Marston’s Lesbos, the play is actually playful. No Sadean women. No wounds. Bondage is a national sport, competitive and friendly, almost jokey: Issue number three (1943) has a slew of Amazons hanging shackled from a log by a fire, dressed up as deer to necessitate the flaying and stripping of “hot, stuffy doe skin.”
Erotic freedom in most feminist theory has been unwonted. Hanley, Lepore, and Berlatksy struggle differently to find the humor in this perversity, and to reconcile one man’s preferences with all women’s needs. A most eager Berlatsky remembers one stylish passage, a sort of thought experiment involving an all-female harem, in Susan Brownmiller’s generative Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975), and decides that “in order to condemn the history of eroticized bondage, Brownmiller is forced, however briefly, to participate it.” No doubt the notion of a top woman scholar being “forced” to costar in his projections on her work is exciting, but it is premature. For if Brownmiller cannot describe a slave harem without conjuring someone’s wet dream, Berlatsky remains unable to posit, or even research, a female eroticism that is not in some way a slave mentality. He seems to believe alongside Marston that sex presses play on a rape fantasy.
The realist version of sex-as-rape comes to us in Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981). Dworkin’s sexual veganism finds validation in some photographs, in Hustler, of a woman naked and captive and stunned as a deer, trophied for the benefit of men described in the accompanying text as “hunters.” She is on softer ground when reading a dirty little book called Whip Chick and deciding that, though the work is attributed to Jessie Miller, the author must be a man. No Jessica in her mind would hit upon the “central conceit that power defined as cruelty resides in the woman, especially the feminist woman,” sometimes in the novel called “amazon.” She rejects the characterization of “male power . . . as precarious at best, easily transformed into its opposite by women who are more ambitious in their masculinity than the anatomical males.”
Anonymous was a woman, goes the credo. That Pseudonymous could not be a woman when the novel was pornographic suggests ignorance of the material. When the avant-garde novelist Iris Owens wrote smut for money as Harriet Daimler, did she not use her own hand? Author or no author, a woman is used to the man putting his name on her ideas, and some of these ideas are bound to be bad, obscene, desperate. Leaving the whole gaze to whoever owns the camera is not a better idea.
At the Marston family home, we learn in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a copy of Henry T. Wharton’s Sappho (1885) has one name, Elizabeth, written inside. Elizabeth Holloway Marston, born on the Isle of Man, told William to make his hero a she and lent truth to his cries of “Suffering Sappho,” yet no one can say she’s a lesbiancertainly not Lepore, who as a reporter and historian is either incurious or loath to conjecture about the lusts of her female subjects. She traces the s/m imagery of Wonder Woman to suffrage motifs, which were rife with symbolic chains and gags, overlaid with straight male fantasies. Yet nothing in the life story of Marston suggests he knew bondage from war bonds before he met Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, a spiritualist librarian who called it “love binding.” When, at Tufts University, outside of Boston, Marston and Olive Byrne, his student turned assistant and lover, performed experiments to measure “captivation emotion” in coeds, it was Byrne who took him to the sorority hazings where first-years were tied up and caned. We want to stop and consider these twisted whims. We are hurried along to see destiny.
Lepore’s big revelation is that Olive was the abandoned second child of Margaret Sanger’s sister, Ethel Byrne. Byrne and Sanger (both née Higgins) had worked together as feminists and radicals, cofounding the Brownsville, Brooklyn birth-control clinic where Planned Parenthood began, but their fates divided when they were charged with obscenity and sentenced to thirty days in jail each. In 1917, Byrne went on a hunger strike and was released after ten days on the proviso that she stay out of activism. The bargain was made for her, against her desires, by Sanger, who did the month unstintingly and emerged to more fame. Where there were two, there could only be one.
Nine years later, Olive Byrne moved in with Holloway and Marston, bore two of Marston’s four children, and became a model for Wonder Woman, hiding her identity in black and blue ink. Lepore shows us a daughter reclaiming in an alternate storyline her mother’s loss. Angela Robinson, the queer writer and director of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) goes further, beginning her film with the sight of Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote, too blonde and delicate for the part), causing Marston to salivate as Holloway warns she’ll break his heart. (“It won’t be her fault, either. She’ll just be surviving, like an animal in the jungle.”) Olive in a burlesque outfit at a French bondage shop inspires the first sketch of what Marston calls Suprema, the Wonder Woman. (Publisher Charles Gaines said, “Just Wonder Woman.” Just!)
A fragment of Sappho, as translated by Anne Carson, applies: “Someone will remember us / I say / even in another time.”
There were some who looked at Sappho’s work and reputation and couldn’t believe she was a woman. They believed she was two women, one a great poet and the other a (presumably great) whore. Sappho the poet was gay with her friends, though she was married; Sappho the whore leaped from a cliff to her death for the want of a sailor’s love, turning around the myth of the sirens. This belief in two Sapphos has since been debunked, yet the paradox remains, odd and predictable, that the more singular the woman, the likelier she is to get split.
When I started writing this essay some winters ago it seemed to be all about pornography, porn doing everything first. Waves of change or iconoclasm, each one rolling back to a breach of decency: Eve wakes up next to a snake and can’t find her clothes. The French Revolution begins infamously with the printing of smutty libelles, painting Marie Antoinette as a lesbian, orgy-loving whore. The golden age of American comics is begat by the Tijuana Bibles, little cartoon nudies sold illegally in low places, like speakeasies, in turn begat by William Hogarth’s sequential engravings on the life and death of a prostitute, “A Harlot’s Progress,” 1732. Yet these seeming blueprints were themselves burlesques, say, of manners and mores, of back-alley witnessings or imagined palazzo scenes, situations only shown on television. Even the pseudonymous or anonymous works started seeming unoriginal and male, copies where the original had been drawn in air or lost, destroyed. I began seeing every female nude as a parody of a woman alone.
By spring it was obvious that I was watching porn in lieu of doing things myself, like when I was supposed to be sending late-morning emails, or while my husband annoyingly slept for hours each night. I was watching it more and masturbating less, to the point of never. It occurred to me that what I sought was not titillation or shame, but the pleasure of watching extremely competent people do their jobs. Hence the reality-adjacent, uncomplicated pornos I chose, some of which showed women in white-collar professions, like “lawyer” or “real-estate agent,” but in all of which, obviously, sex was the work. Either the women loved this work, or they did not think love was at issue. They did not waste words. They did not come forty-five minutes late. They did not make long phone calls or chain-smoke or look bored or cry. None of them appeared to be drunk in the afternoon, or at any time of day, for that matter, and I watched, worn-out and mesmerized, as woman after woman appeared not to think about being a woman at all.
NOT A PRINCESS IN A ROYAL SENSE
Season two of the televised Wonder Woman (1975–79) updates the Diana Prince era to Steinem’s time, with Carter playing to that contemporaneous notion of the heroine, held over from girlhood, as an embodiment without genitals. Diana, working side-by-side with Steve, delights in her tongue-biting impression of a medium-powered federal agent at the IADC (Inter-Agency Defense Command, a fake CIA). Her pussy-bow blouses and slacks are the definition of smart; she can fly a plane, man a submarine, and drive stick; she knows offhand the time in every zone and can read Japanese. Twice she uses her superpowers to get to work on time. Once, undercover at a “foreign consulate” in Palm Beach, Florida, she poses as a maid to the visiting dignitary played by Steve, and points out this estranging sexism with an ironical little laugh, like, wouldn’t it be funny if things were this unfair in life?
The show’s achievement is the fantasy of being untouched, of being single, self-sufficing, and in possession of a three-bedroom apartment, a four-door Lincoln Continental, and a full set of Louis Vuitton luggage. The star indulges a fetish for competency. She is “pleasure doing business,” incarnate. When June Tarpé Mills drew Marla Drake lounging around in a bikini, the strip was nixed from thirty-seven papers. When Diana Prince as Carter goes to the pool thirty years later, she wears a black one-piece more modest than her “costume.” Sex, newly a licensed weapon, is only to be used when she’s on call.
Nothing more wants to be said about liberation in the ’70s, except perhaps that “liberation” was a curious term of art, often meaning something quite legal. Under earlier twentieth-century censorship laws, a dirty picture and a birth-control pamphlet were both obscene, so that pornographers and radicals made good cellmates. Funny to think that porn went straight, but that’s how it looks.
While Diana does Washington, the star of Deep Throat is making her first “legit” movie, also her last. Linda plays herself in Linda Lovelace for President (1975), a comedy where the punchline is the title.
A MILLION GIRLS born under the banner of Wonder Woman, or of Lovelace, for President entered the workforce in the ’90s. One found her place in the Oval Office. Monica Lewinsky was a child of divorce and of no-fault divorce laws in California, where the settlements won by stay-at-home women like her mother, Marcia Lewis, lent a certain lusorious valence to “wages for housework.” Monica learned from Marcia that, as Monica told Linda Tripp on the phone, lying to men, to authorities, was “the way to get along.”
Yet the First Side Chick of the United States of America turned out to be more honest than the president, less interested in lying for his sake (by continuing to deny the affair, or falsely confessing she’d made it up) or for her own (by calling it sexual assault) than in proving to the world she was in love. People took it on evidence that she was selfish, careless, attention-seeking, obsessed with sex and herself. Probably she was. At the time of the tenth sexual encounter she was twenty-three years old, and who, at twenty-three, were a man to risk the highest power in the country for one of her blow jobs, would then feel incentivized to keep her mouth shut?Lewinsky offered to take a polygraph, conjuring a vision of her breasts barely restrained in black rubber tubes, her pulpy upper arm in a blood-pressure cuff. (The offer languished. A month later, the Supreme Court ruled out lie detector tests as proof of truthfulness.) She kept talking until she got the president to say what a girl who is done being a man’s little secret wants him to say. “I did have a relationship,” Bill Clinton said that August, “with Ms. Lewinsky.”
“Monica: I Suffered Like Diana” was the headline on BBC News when Monica’s Storyonly two hundred pages shorter than the Starr Reportcame out in hardcover. Lewinsky had hired the official biographer of Princess Diana, explaining: “I’m not a princess in a royal sense, but I was also wronged by a man who said he loved me.” Later she felt wronged by feminists who didn’t, like Friedan and Steinem, but also like Katie Roiphe and Erica Jong. “They think only bluestockings are worth paying attention to,” the conservative columnist Lisa Schiffren told Vanity Fair in May 1998. “A bunch of Wellesley girls [are] saying that Wellesley girls and Yale graduates are worth fighting for, and high-school grads and hairdressers and lounge singers can be destroyed.”
Lewinsky was not unprivileged. She was unprofessional, lacking a sense of place, time, genre. She took her employment as pretext for action in a soft-core porno, and took the porno to be a true romance. On being told, euphemistically, that she was “too sexy” to handle correspondence in the White House and would instead do publicity in the Pentagon, away from the president, Lewinsky, according to her testimony, cried. There are a lot of twenty-three-year-olds in porn, but there’s no crying in porn.
An alternate dreamlike ending to Lewinsky’s story was revealed by the network television show Supergirl (2015–) in three episodes guest-starring Lynda Carter, alongside the titular, early-twenties heroine, as the American president. The first aired two weeks and a day before the 2016 presidential election, when all the city papers and national magazines were promising Hillary her win, and yetwhat viewer who remembers the ’90s could have failed to see Carter as President Lewinsky? After, when it was clear that the rules had not worked, that strategic rule-bending in the service of equality had not worked either, and that the most respectable, sex-denying, tireless woman in America could yet not be president, it was easier to forgive Lewinsky her priorities. Forty-four and single, never married, the uncompromised Lewinsky had become the rare notorious figure who can make a believable speech about making change. Her convictions, based on lived and relived experience, inspire a new notion of feminism: not simply the premise that women are equal, that our rights are human rights, but rather the ambiguous and provisional belief that whatever was done to us because we were girls is what we should not do to others.
TO FREE THE ONE PRISONER THAT SHE LOVED
“Knockout,” a stellar episode in season two of the televised Wonder Woman, begins with Diana (Carter) coming home at midnight, dressed in gray gabardine separates with a periwinkle blouse and carrying a slim attaché case, telegraphing hours spent late at the office, not having fun. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Steve has been kidnapped by a leftist revolutionary group, ill-defined but akin at a squint to the Symbionese Liberation Army. Diana’s boss tells her it may be a “knockout on the top level of the IADC.” It turns out to be a fight to the mat between Diana and a revolutionary, Carolyn Hamilton, each of whom is unused to meeting her match.
Carolyn is tall, black, and furious, and once she was a cop in San Francisco. Steve saved her life on a sting there, and in return she’s only kidnapping, not killing him. How could a good police officer have gone so bad? She explains that she got disillusioned, but Steve isn’t having it. All cops are disillusioned, he says. Carolyn sighs, “Okay. I fell in love.” She blushes, expositing to Steve that she infiltrated a radical group only to be radicalized by its leader, and that when her testimony led to his imprisonment, she quit the force and took up his side.
This inducement to a spit-take sounds ripped from the prosecution in the 1972 trial of Angela Davis, the radical feminist and scholar who had been fired from a college philosophy department for practicing communism, and who stood accused of helping a Black Panther plan a fatal, failed prison break for the sole reason that she was crazy about him. Albert Harris Jr., the prosecutor, promised the all-white jury that the defendant’s “own words” would “reveal . . . beneath that cool academic veneer . . . a woman capable of being moved to violence by passion.” His perorations strangely ennoble an imagined base creature who aims not to dispossess the prison system but to “free the one prisoner that she loved.” Davis was saved by not testifying to her intellect, or to her beliefs.
Carolyn is played by Jayne Kennedy, an actress and broadcaster who, like Carter, was working-class and came up in beauty pageants: Kennedy was the first black winner of Miss Ohio USA and a semifinalist at Miss USA; Carter reached the semis at International Miss World after winning Miss World USA. Both women worked in television from the early ’70s, but only one was entitled to become Wonder Woman, the bombshell who shows off her talents in a tiara and swimsuit, competes to become an ambassador, and wishes for peaceto wit, the ultimate beauty queen. Carter herself looked white as a German, though her mother was Spanish by way of Mexico. When she was cast, she’d say later, she had twenty-five dollars in her savings account, and was about to quit and go back to Arizona. When “Knockout” was filmed, she was the highest-paid actress on TV.
The year before Carter’s adventures on the small screen ended was the year Kennedy signed on as a host of The NFL Today, a top-rated football show airing Sundays on CBS. Kennedy, said a CBS official, had been cast by means of the “greatest talent search since Scarlett O’Hara.”She was the network’s first black woman sportscaster. She became, in the ’80s, the only woman host of Greatest Sports Legend, the first black woman to have a best-selling series of workout tapes, and the first black actress to appear on the cover of Playboy, which she did with her clothes on. Carter, who turned down Playboy, had been cast as a Playmate in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), but when she couldn’t make reshoots, and was replaced, the beginning of her serious film career became the end. She drank, becoming an alcoholic between her first and second marriages. Kennedy disappeared from screens and gained forty pounds after a videotape was leaked in the 1980s of her and her ex-husband, the actor Leon Isaac Kennedy, having hard-core sex. Kennedy became the first star to be infamous for videoing with one man what millions of others wanted to do with her, and that’s when she got tired of firsts.
THE AXIS OF EVIL
Like Carter, like Kennedy, Gal Gadot is a graduate of beauty pageants. She was crowned Miss Israel in 2004 and went on to the Miss Universe contest, where apparently, burdened by winning, she adopted a bad attitude so the judges would vote her out. She was a fitness instructor in the Israeli Defense Forces, and appeared in a Maxim spread with ten other conscripts in bikinis, the “world’s sexiest soldiers.” Producers asked her to audition for a Bond movie, Quantum of Solace (2008). The part went to Olga Kurylenko. Gadot studied law and, perhaps in an extreme wishfulness for world peace, international relations, and worried that she was too smart, too serious to act for a living. In 2016, she beat three other actresses, including Kurylenko, in screen tests for an unspecified part in Batman v Superman, which turned out to be the role of Wonder Woman. Gadot had the least experience, but believed that listening to her favorite Beyoncé song, “Run the World (Girls),” before the audition gave her an edge.
Excepting the bit about Maxim, this information comes from the first major cover story on Gadot, for the magazine W. There has been almost nothing to say since. Gadot enjoys going to the beach, and eating a burger. On press junkets, she has the useful appearance of a crush on her co-star, Chris Pine. She has no discernible tastes. She looks great, not youngindifferent to age. It’s futile to imagine her being fat, or becoming an alcoholic, or having bad plastic surgery. When her forehead registers sweet confusion, sweet concern, or sweet befuddlement, three of her total five facial expressions on-screen, the creases form the letter W. She is a miracle of breeding.
In July of 2014, during a particularly egregious Israeli bombing of Gaza, Gadot posted a photo of herself and her elder daughter, then about two years old, in matching kerchiefs, covering their eyes with their hands. “I am sending my love and prayers to my fellow Israeli citizens,” the caption read. “We shall overcome!!!”
She attached a number of hashtags:
We are right.
Free Gaza from Hamas.
Gadot has appeared on the covers of Elle, Marie Claire, Glamour (UK), Rolling Stone, and W. She appeared on the cover of GQ as the magazine’s 2017 Woman of the Year. For the story, star and writer went to a beautiful beach in Tel Aviv, a city sprung from the ancient Palestinian port of Jaffa. “I don’t want to seclude myself from society,” said Gadot. “It’s easier for me here [in Israel], ’cause profiling people is really easy for me.” Google each story to see whether the writer mentions Palestine (Gal Gadot + Elle + Palestine), and each time the result is accompanied by the caveat that one of the searched terms is absent. Missing: Palestine. (Questions about the nature of “the occupation,” or about the American alliance that has helped make Israel the most militarized-per-capita nation in the world, are likely off-limits. More questionable is the absence of facts that so determine the setting.)
Recent discourse around sexual abusers in Hollywood has centered on the folly of separating the art from the artist, whether the artist in question is a brilliant director or a hack, and even when he is an actor. By these standards, to enhalo the new Wonder Woman with a proud suffragette effulgence without taking the political measure of the woman who plays her is absurd. Had Gadot, with the same résumé, been cast in the same Wonder Woman movie ten years ago, one would be tempted to guess that the casting director was Slavoj Žižek, so artless is the ideology on display. Were Gadot a great actress, no one would remember the word “ideology.” Instead she is an off-brand Barbie with nerve and an incredible smile but insufficient chops to be a Bond Girl, and were it not for the strength of her biography, hard to ignore, she would not be here.
One day it was reported in the New York Post that Gadot was threatening to drop out of Wonder Woman 2 unless the studio rejected funding from the producer Brett Ratner, who has denied over forty sexual assault allegations to date. A reporter at the Los Angeles Times found such an ultimatum to be moot, since Ratner’s deal with Warner Bros. would expire before the November 2019 release date for the sequel, and the actress herself, confirming the severance of ties, took no responsibility. Writers on women’s sites nevertheless held to the notion that Gadot had, secretly, effected the change. As a blogger at the magazine W wrote: “Maybe she really is Wonder Woman.”
DARA BIRNBAUM’S Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1978–79, a six-minute video made and shown on cable concurrently with season three of Wonder Woman, comprises footage of Carter executing, over and over, the two-footed spin that changes her from Diana Prince to Diana, the Amazon. The piece isolates one oneiric moment: Carter using her nails to slice through a wall of mirrors, severing the reflection of her head, her face revealing no motive. She isn’t her sunny self. She’s cutthroat.
Birnbaum, in the Bush years, told the artist Nicolás Guagnini in the magazine Cabinet that for her there had been no more “corporate, commodified” and “horrendous” image of thefeminine in a male-dominated entertainment industry than the “idealized vision of a woman, with a perfect body, wrapped in the American flag.” She said, “If Bush has his own ‘axis of evil,’ then that image was mine.”
IN THE SACRIFICE OF HER OWN ANIMAL
The Women’s March on Washington, DC, taking place the day after the inauguration, a year ago last month, of the forty-fifth American president, was the largest since the Vietnam War. My husband, a registered Democrat who believes more than I do in the life-preserving instincts of others and in the value of the individual life, looked around and said, “Isn’t this amazing?” “Yes,” I said. “Imagine you had to share an identity with all these people.” I am not even American. He, from the birthplace of John F. Kennedy, was carrying a sign that advocated for representative democracy. He gave me a blank one.
I wanted the sign to say, after Hannah Wilke, without context: BEWARE OF FASCIST FEMINISM. This seemed likely to be misunderstood, and I was not even sure what I could mean by it, whether the sign would refer to a sexless or a white supremacist feminism, or whether it would caution against finding strength in numbers. Because it was a women’s march, and because it was disproportionately a white women’s march, the police were not openly armed or antagonistic; and because we were marching in defense of our property, our own bodies, which the authorities seemed to agree were valuable, it felt like an exceedingly lawful marchand the pairing of lawful and march has the scent of fascism, even as it comes from somewhere safe.
Finally I wrote, in cursive: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” It was Florynce Kennedy’s idea. It was appropriate, conforming. Three of ten mothers and/or daughters at the march wore woolen pink hats with little cat earsPussyhatswhich were knitted first by women my age in Los Angeles and then by women across the United States, Canada, Australia. There were more uteruses, inked and glittery, than peace signs. Where some people observed the ironic, dread phallicity of the Washington Monument in the background, others noted that the organic pictorialism was essentialist and trans-exclusive. I saw one problem, which is that the vagina is always metaphorized, never the metaphor.
Kennedy was right in a mythic, not a historical, sense. Gender is a chicken-egg situation: The concept of “mother” precedes that of “woman.” Earth’s first mothers were gendered when their babies began to talk, and the fathers, jealously, interpreted. Those who would be men seized upon naming, since how could they be sure, otherwise, that they were cocreators? That they had created anything? For this reason it was decided that God, who had created everything, was a man. Envying God was then a woman’s fate. Had daughters of mothers come to power in the past hundred years, abortion would be a sacrament.
I walked around thinking of the grounds on which abortion is denied. Women were established as citizens when Roe v. Wade was won in 1973. For the first time, tenuously, we had the right to kill, the requisite for belonging to a democracy since the word was invented in ancient Greece, where all citizens were soldiers, all soldiers citizens. This power, and with it the responsibility to choose, is feminism’s frontline in a sprawling fight, and yet there are no accolades, no parades, no fancy burials. I looked at men in the crowd wearing army jackets, camouflage, to stand out. I thought that if the red-blooded among them were permitted to kill babies, perhaps not their own, they would not stop at necessity, nor be reasonable. They would find a way to demonize babies and become vigilantes. They would stuff fetuses and mount them in their oak-paneled rooms. I told my husband that I was getting sick, and went to read, and drink, until it was time to walk to the White House.
I was reading the mythologist Joseph Campbell. Seven words of his, taken from his work on goddesses, were inscribed on the sword, the god-killer, that Wonder Woman uses in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman. Snyder had, in his everlasting gloom, made one good choice. (Jenkins leaves the sword to gleam blank.) The words were: IN THE SACRIFICE OF HER OWN ANIMAL. The passage as a whole, starring Artemiswho in Rome was called Dianabecame my parable of abortion:
Originally Artemis herself was a deer, and she is the goddess who kills deer; the two are dual aspects of the same being. Life is killing life all the time, and so the goddess kills herself in the sacrifice of her own animal. Each life is its own death, and he who kills you is somehow a messenger of destiny that was yours from the start.
Artemis is sometimes thought to predate the Greeks, who said she was a midwife and a virginthat is, she was exceedingly private. She turned a man into a stag for looking at her naked. She had one love and was tricked, in a bow-and-arrow contest, into killing him. Hers is considered the most feminist legend. True, because unlike Athena she did not try to win at Zeus’s game. The heroine we need is against the hero. The antagonist. She remains outside.
Later, all the pink pussy-heads in the front-page photographs made me think of the primal scene in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992). Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), the prim, unsexy secretary to Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) of Shreck’s department store, has recently survived her death and is about to have a transfiguration. “Honey, I’m home,” she says, clicking on the light in her bachelorette pad, dazed and bruised. Then, all in one breath, “Oh I forgot I’m not married.” She pours milk for her black tabby into a bowl, and drinks herself from the carton. Her countenance changes. She’s Catwoman, yowling at her answering machine with its message from the Shreck’s perfume counter, knocking over the pill-pink phone, vandalizing the pale-pink walls with spray paint, stabbing to death her stuffed animals, and feeding the pieces to her garbage disposal. A black vinyl trench coat, hacked up and sutured with white twine, becomes her new suit. A pink neon sculpture above the sofa says: HELLO THERE. She smashes out two letters. Finally, she’s silhouetted in the window, behind her the sign that now reads: HELL HERE.
There is a woman living in a two-bedroom, two-story house in the desert, alone. The house sits flat on the land and has a wall of high, exposing windows. When she first moved in she wanted, for the first time in her life, to have a gun.
Soon she is walking around naked, not minding whether the chicken farmer fifty yards away might be able to tell. Since she cannot make out his gaze and never meets him, it never matters. Thinking about lovers she almost had, it occurs to her that what she misses is having a body; she cannot be sure of having one now. The desire to be in touch with any men per se swells and then ebbs, incidentally commensurate with taking, as prescribed, pills.
Days go by, and though she participates routinely in life online, she occasionally, for thirty-six hours at a time, says no words of her own. She reads to herself from old and new books. Often she hears snatches of banal family dialogue and pop songs off in the distance, where no music is playing and only rabbits and roadrunners speak.
It’s like her head is a cracked radio, tuned to misty signals from former life.
She has lost all her photo identification and does not buy a gun. She loses her phone, does not replace it.
Her closest friends, in terms of physical distance, are two hours away on night roads. They find it implausible or worrisome that she would be living there out of desire. But in the city she called home the people she loves are joining women’s clubs, like boys’ clubs for girls. Alienated is the least she can be.
The idea is to get her appetite back.
DR. VENES, a psychotherapist in a town for retirees, sees her on Tuesdays. The office is painted Ceylon green and hung with a Georgia O’Keeffe print, thankfully of a mountain, not a flower, and an Ansel Adams print, also of a mountain. This is where she learns that one symptom of what’s happened is “hyperarousal,” which sounds and is not really sexual. Any little noise can strike terror. Peripheral vision is a nightmare, and it’s hard to sleep.
Dr. Venes gives her a pad and a pen and hopefully instructs her to draw the animal with whom she identifies. A rabbit is easy to draw, but the doctor has not understood. There is no other animal she wants to be. She wants to reclaim the animal that she is.
Animals on the edges of her property act wild and sane. Sometimes nesting, other times seeking out ideal territory, they yet do not grasp, or try to expand, beyond their reach. Admirable, she thinks. Precapitalist. There are no fat cats in the jungle, and no anxious, depressed coyotes in the mountains near.
On the phone a friend, who is a dancer, says that he is reading the John Berger book, the one about looking at animals. She says that he hopes he is prepared to change his life. Once she had thought that figurative art began with depictions of naked women, which she tried to see as self-directed portraits. Even after seeing a documentary on the Chauvet Cave she thought this. Berger at last made it stick in her head that the first subjects for art were animals, and she took this as a cure for her narcissism.
That is to say, she had gone so far as to believe she was her own worst enemy.
What strikes her about the earliest paintings is that the horses, bison, deer are always in motion. The artist finds the animal to be moving. She does too.
Like Edweard Muybridge, says the dancer. Yes, whereas the female nudes are always sitting, lumpen. Open wombs, without context or terrain. Yet as certainly as the first sculptors were men, the first painters were women. Berger says the first paint was animal blood, which can be washed away, erased, renewed.
Like Ana Mendieta with the chicken’s blood. For years, to express discontent with anythinglate feminism, new and late feminist artshe had used the word bloodless and now she understands what it means.
She goes to a restaurant and meets an ancient, self-made woman, weighed down by crystal earrings, who claims psychic powers. Marlene is her chosen name. Marlene wants to know, what’s her problem. She explains that she has been trying to differentiate between what happens to her because she is a woman, and what happens to her because she is vain, conceited, even arrogant, lazy or unconcerned, unwise, difficult, recalcitrantand a woman.
Maybe her problem is that she can’t want to die without hating her mother. At times she is so cold and inimical that when she tells a stranger she will never have children, she meets with no argument. Marlene, for instance, does not argue.
People say that Duchamp became a true, or a definitive, artist when for many years he stopped making art. Marlene says, “I don’t know who that is, but if you’re telling me that a woman is most herself when she does not have to prove it, then I agree as much as I disagree. I don’t want to agree.”
But by the end Duchamp was making art again, and it was his best.
ON LONGER WEEKENDS, her friends who are actresses, Nan and Bianca, come to stay. They eat chicken with their hands and drink dark wine. They talk about why they aren’t lesbians. Nan thinks it’s hard to sleep with people you respect. Bianca thinks it’s a question of desire, but also a sacrifice, financially. She, in a joking tone, says that lesbianism is a good idea she wishes she’d had.
They all agree that when a rich person pays a surrogate to bear her child, she renounces womanhood, entering the dark side of the sexual dialectic, and chooses likeness to men. But when two or more women are in a relationship and one is the surrogate, there is no necessitated change in status.
Two ways to look at it, animal-wise. First is that, where the beavers disappear, the fish do not leap out of the stream to build dams, nor do they grow teeth. Second is that, where the water is toxic, or where for some other reason there are not enough males at mating season, some fish change gender midstream, and sometimes change back.
Why not take evolution into one’s own hands?
There are lesbian albatrosses who live, in their black-and-white glamour, monogamous, full lives on Oahu. To the dancer she says, in answer to the question as to why she is still wearing lipstick in the desert, that there was a beautiful lesbian in Paris, Natalie Clifford Barney, who looked at other lesbians in trousers and bow ties and declared that she did not understand why a woman would want to dress like the enemy.
Elizabeth Grosz says that art is animalistic to the precise degree that animals are sexual. Freud was half-right when he talked about excess and the libido, and Darwin was half-right in seeing the beauty in sexual dimorphism as necessary to reproductive ends. Yet Grosz says that when birds bloom in color and fish bulge, they are not only battling for attention, not only turning attention into sex. A reddened bird, a bluing fish intensify sensation. This intensification is art’s point.
Once she accepted that it was “unfeminist” for a girl to say she is “not like other girls,” when it was merely uncouth. That it was not something to say did not mean it was nothing to desire. Of course she is like many other women, which is not undesirable, even here, but being in likeness has not helped her make a single thing she considers to be art.
Suffering is what matters to an animal’s rights. Language does not, really. Reason does not. Somewhere she read this and ever since has wondered whether animals suffer.
Women do. They have to, to become in the first place. There is a painful procedure, an abortion or a plastic surgery, some kind of cut.
Luce Irigaray when she writes about Spinoza says that women’s suffering comes from a double-negativethat men cannot conceive that women do not exist. She exists not for herself, but as the condition for masculinity.
Spinoza’s reading of Adam and Eve concerns human freedom versus the knowledge of good and evil. He says that when Adam saw Eve, he recognized a wife who completely agreed with his nature.
But isn’t what makes Eve the woman in the story her reluctance, her unwillingness, or her inability to agree completely with his nature?
ONE HOT MORNING she is making coffee, barefoot in the kitchen, when a soundless motion alerts her to the presence of a snake. This is the first snake she has seen in person, and she feels undisturbed. A woman who answers the phone at animal control tells her never to touch a snake, especially one that is over four feet long, tan with reddish-black markings, since whether or not it is poisonous it can certainly bite, and can sicken. She pretends to write down the number of the fire department.
When she is done drinking coffee, she puts on latex gloves, the kind she uses to wash dishes and dye her hair, and goes to the snake, tense and wound up in a corner, and talks softly until it uncoils. Like a mother of cats, she picks it up by the back of the neck, then grabs its tail and carries it thrashing outside, where it speeds off, relieved.
One week later her husband comes to visit and it unusually rains. He gets out of the car and goes into the house. She is putting on lipstick in the mirror, finding her phone, finding cigarettes. Then, in her sandaled feet, she takes one step and senses something evil.
This is the second snake. Paler and larger, at least five feet long, it is marked like the first one and not the same. She knows that according to Spinoza it is not really evil but a threat to her self-preservation. She knows without having been taught that it is a rattlesnake, before hearing its tail. The snake is a yard from her feet and two feet from her house, where her husband, already in the bedroom, can’t hear when she calls. There is no way to leave it alive. She gets behind the wheel and waits for it to move, and runs over it, again and again, until it splits, bursting like milkweed.
The passage of day after day allows this snake to return, where she killed it, to nothing. Rabbits and local dogs don’t touch it. Birds leave it alone. Whenever she comes home and sees it disintegrating, she feels better. Not much longer, she thinks, until she has been alone for so long that she can recognize her enemy from a distance.
Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer based in New York.