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Women together! Suffering together— struggling together — loving together — at last breaking free — together!
Okay, so that's a somewhat hyperbolic rephrasing of second wave feminism. Still, you'd think that even if Andrea Dworkin might denigrate my overcarbonated prose, she'd at least approve of the general sentiment. Feminism is all about sisterhood in the face of oppression; women joining hands to resist the patriarchy.
The thing is, you can see lots of patriarchs enthusiastically agreeing with the jeremiad above as well. "Suffering together" — there's S&M; "struggling together" — that's bondage; "loving together" — that's lesbianism; "at last breaking free" — that's revenge — by God, throw in some gore and gratuitous nudity and the guys will flock to it!
Indeed, male creators (and a few female ones) have been exploiting feminism for a good long while, now. Rape-revenge fantasies like the much lambasted I Spit on Your Grave
(1978) or Ms. 45
(1981) get their horror, their energy, and their catharsis from a feminist view of patriarchy. In "I Spit on Your Grave," for example, four men egg each other on in a brutally extended gang rape of Jennifer (Camille Keaton). She then seduces and murders them one by one, repeatedly playing on their inability to believe that she (a) didn't want to be raped and (b) could possibly harm them in any way.
Even when Jennifer flat out tells the chief rapist that she's going to kill him, he doesn't believe her — thus allowing her to literally castrate him. The analysis of male bonding and male rationalization is as viciously clinical as the infamous hour-long rape scene. The movie script could almost be a dry, incisive second-wave treatise by someone like Kate Millet. That is, it could if it weren't, you know, for the full-frontal nudity. And all the blood.
Even more than the rape-revenge genre, women-in-prison movies consciously mined feminism for plot, theme, and emotional content. The typical women-in-prison story features a young, often innocent girl who is thrown into an oppressive, corrupt prison. The protagonist suffers various indignities, including torture and assaults by other inmates. Eventually, though, she bonds with her fellow prisoners, and they work together to break free from captivity. Along the way there are obligatory nude shower scenes and rapacious lesbians.
Still, the most progressive of these narratives couldn't be much more explicit in their depiction of female oppression, nor in their positing of sisterhood as the solution. Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat
(1974), for instance, features a loving, supportive lesbian couple — and a prison break-in
organized by two escaped women bent on rescuing their still-imprisoned sisters. Stephanie Rothman's Terminal Island
(1974) actually comes across as a feminist fable — convicts exiled on an island overthrow the vicious patriarch and establish a society based on gender, race, and class equality.
Of course, the audiences for these movies aren't there to see feminist fables, exactly. They're there for the T&A, for the violence, and for the fetishistic intimations of lesbianism, sadism, masochism, and bondage. The last of these seems especially important in thinking about the way that the movies use and abuse feminism. Women are shown in chains and undergoing torture; that's in part a metaphor for women's oppression, and the need for liberation.
But it's also a kink. The feminist narrative allows — or, indeed, encourages — the mostly male audience to get off on images of women being oppressed. The filmmakers are condemning disempowerment and fetishizing it too, and as a result the vast majority of women-in-prison films come across as fundamentally dishonest. That's why, with a handful of exceptions, they're not that much fun to watch.
There is one creator who made a sincere — one might even say a heroic — effort to reconcile the appeal of female liberation with the appeal of female oppression. That's William Moulton Marston. Marston, of course, wasn't an exploitation filmmaker; rather he was (along with his wife and their lover), the creator of Wonder Woman.
It's not exactly a secret that Marston's Wonder Woman stories are obsessed with bondage. Wonder Woman gets trussed up almost every other panel. And when she's not getting trussed up, she's trussing up others. And commanding them to obey with her mind-control lasso (it only turned into a lasso of truth later.) Or she's strapping mind-control girdles on them and spanking them. Male domme/female sub; female domme/male sub; female domme/female sub, with plenty of lesbian hints: Marston's narratives tripped enthusiastically from one to the other.
Indeed, the first issue of Wonder Woman
could actually be the plot of an exploitation thriller; WW's mother, Hippolyta, and all the Amazons are captured by Hercules and his men and thrown into captivity, where bad things are done to them. Then they escape and put paid to their captors. It's both women-in-prison and rape-revenge at the same time!
So Wonder Woman clearly has links to sexploitation. And yet, there are some crucial differences. In the first place, WW was written for girls. And, in the second, Marston was as committed to his feminist narratives as he was to his exploitation one. And why was he able to be committed to both at once? Because he was a big old crank. As evidence, here he is holding forth on why he created Wonder Woman.
"Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don't want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman. "
Got that? Women need to be stronger so that they can be more submissive. And to get them to be stronger and more submissive, you need to create a female character who beats the tar out of villains. And gets tied up a lot. And ties up men, so they can learn the strength of submission too. And delivers constant homilies on how strong women can be, and how they can do anything they want. Like get tied up. And tie up men. And…well, you get the idea.
It's difficult not to laugh — okay, okay, it's virtually impossible not to laugh at this. But at the same time, Marston was obviously on to something. Wonder Woman was that fabled rarity; a male wank fantasy that actually seems to have appealed to girls. And not just to girls, but to feminists — Gloria Steinem put Wonder Woman on the cover of the first issue of Ms.
More recently, a model in Wonder Woman body paint was featured on the cover of Playboy
, demonstrating that, yes, she's still wank fodder, too.
Obviously, it's hard to please both the Ms.
audience and the Playboy
audience at the same time: feminists and female comics fans were not, for the most part, especially receptive to that Playboy
cover. Still, I think it's telling that WW has been able to keep a boot in both camps for so long. Feminism is sometimes characterized as sexless or unattractive. The truth, though, is that feminism is sexy — it's been repeatedly and compulsively fetishized for over six decades, at the very least.
There are certainly downsides to that. Transforming female liberation into a spectator sport for men is trivializing, icky, and can feed into a lot of ugliness — just watch a Jess Franco movie if you doubt me. At the same time, though, feminism's sensuality has given men an interest — vacillating, conflicted, and often decidedly unhelpful, perhaps, but an interest nonetheless — in the movement's success. Men think strong women are hot — and partially as a result, you have Wonder Woman, and, indeed, a whole slew of female characters who kick ass, from Buffy to Lara Croft. Feminists have every right to mistrust such cultural products, and, indeed, to be wary of all those who embrace the cause out of prurient motives. Still, arguably, and at least sometimes, the feminist icon with the swimsuit and bondage gear may be better than no feminist icon at all.
Noah Berlatsky writes regularly for The Comics Journal, The Chicago Reader, and his own blog, The Hooded Utilitarian. He's also an artist of sorts.
A Pundit in Every Panopticon is ©2010 Noah Berlatsky