As I’ve continued looking through Noah Berlatsky’s Wonder Woman posts for revelations about her Warrior of Peace paradox, I discovered a troubling observation in his second article. In his first one, I was encouraged by a simple observation: “You can’t show everyone how strong you are unless you are tied up and break free and dominate others.” That’s about Wonder Woman’s strength-weakness paradox, not her warrior-peace one, but if we can resolve the strength-through-bondage problem, it shouldn’t be much more difficult to resolve the peace-through-war one. Or at least get some good ideas about how to better talk about it. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. I knew it wasn’t going to be, but Berlatsky confirms it in his second post.
“You can’t show everyone how strong you are unless you’re tied up and can break free to dominate others” presents the strength-weakness elements as opposed, which is an intuitive way of thinking about it. It suggests that to understand one, you have to also show the other. Like how we can’t fully get what light does without first being in the dark, we see how strong Wonder Woman is by seeing her temporarily weakened. But that’s not really how Charles Moulton wrote her. For Moulton, the two aren’t contrasting opposites, but complementary halves of the same portrait. As Berlatsky says:
Moulton’s Wonder Woman is (ahem) bound up with his very particular set of fetishes and fantasies. Moulton made his stories about those fetishes and fantasies; that’s what he wanted to talk about, and in that context WW’s appearance (girly; uncovered), her tools (the magic lasso; the bracelets), and her contradictory image (powerful, but always being dominated) all make at least a kind of sense. His weird blend of feminism/misogyny (“I love strong women — tie them up so I may love them more!”) which means you can’t get the feminism without the misogyny, but also means you can’t get the misogyny without the feminism. In particular, the way and the extent to which Moulton presents and fetishizes female relationships seems equally tied up with his own sexual peccadillos (lesbianism is never very far below the surface here) and with ideas about girls supporting each other in a feminist or protofeminist way. Certainly, Moulton comics are far, far from the first thing I’d give to my daughter, but I can see why young girls might have found something to connect with in them. Women have power (they are so, so powerful!) and they love each other (oh, please, love each other more!)
I guess the point I’m making is that there’s misogyny, but it’s not gratuitous. Moulton has a vision. It’s not PC and it’s totally sexually twisted, but at least he’s thought about it. He cares about women. You can mock that, or argue with that, or even suggest that it might be better for everyone if he cared about women a little less, but at least there’s the sense that he’s paying attention.
What’s troubling about that is that Berlatsky doesn’t dig into it any deeper than that. (At least not in this post. I’m still reading.) He dismisses Moulton’s portrayal of Wonder Woman as interesting, but “twisted.” The feeling I get is that since it’s crazy, we don’t have to understand it. More than that, we probably shouldn’t try to understand it. But while I get that, it’s not satisfying. I suspect that if I can figure out how bondage and strength are related in Moulston’s mind, it’ll lead me to figuring out how peace and war could possibly connect in other Wonder Woman stories, which is what I’m really interested in.
So that’s where I’m going in my next post. I don’t know a lot about bondage, but I’ll attempt to imagine how that fetish works and what it might suggest about Moulton’s interest in strength and weakness.