Monday, 31 October 2016

42. Hey Wonder Woman! It is time to leave adolescence behind

A big question mark emerged with the appointment of Wonder Woman as UN ambassador for women and girls's empowerment. The problem with symbols is that everything in them is -funny enough- symbolic.

If you are looking for an ambassador and you decide to go for a fictional character, product of a fantasy, it kind of suggest that women's empowerment is not yet embodied in anyone and is still a fantasy. Which is not true. An obvious example would be:

The problem of super heroes

There are other problems with Super heroes having ambassadors positions beyond being not real. Super Heroes in general terms represent the crisis of adolescence.

  • They have an identity crisis, most commonly shown through a secret identity, a permanent tension between what can be shown to the world and not, always fearing the reaction the moment they show "who they really are" or "what they can do", etc. 
  • They hold a polarised view of the world that divides it into good and evil, with the caveat that both sides feel they are fighting the true evil. Super villains feel that the authoritarian righteousness their arch-enemies represent is evil (think how political correctness is discussed nowadays).
  • They feel the potency of their sexuality which is represented in these superheroes physical power and sometimes hyper-sexualised images (this potency is rather realised through battles rather than sex). 
  • They have this feeling of immortality, and their vulnerability needs to be kept very very secret. 
  • Many of them are now starting to discover aspects of the family history that were not known and are dealing with cultural and familial mandates. 
  • A shadow with the sex drive, secrets, shame, past traumas, transgressions, anger, vulnerability, fear of rejection, and even the death drive emerges embodied in the super villains. 

These epic battles between super heroes and super villains represent the rich emotional inner life of a teenager, who is trying to work out right from wrong, I from Other, self expression and limits, individuation and death drive, etc, etc.

The case of Wonder Woman does not escape this pattern. She represents the fantasy of a teenage boy and all his Oedipal layers. A version of a very powerful woman, overtly sexualised with impossible body figure who has left everything behind to protect him, with big breasts to feed him and in real life she is happy to leave her Princess status to be his loyal secretary in a military structure.

Even if we leave aside that comics are marketed mainly for teenage boys and their conflicts, the change in hierarchy between the fantasy world and the real world embodies the contradiction of Wonder Woman as a symbol of empowerment, particularly for adult women. There is the argument, of course, that for girls that haven't gone through adolescence, finding this warrior side can be a useful emancipatory model to guide them through adolescence in the way to adulthood. Even if probably there are other less sexist symbols.
But even if we are willing to give it some credit, the problem of global cultural relevance of a woman wearing an tiny outfit and the american flag crushes all argument.

Not surprisingly (and fortunately!) there was a reaction.

UN staffers organised a petition to change this decision and during the ceremony stood up with the fists up in opposition and left the room soon after.

Several articles in different media criticised the move:
The Guardian:
The New York Times:

When the UN took the opportunity that the release of a Wonder Woman Hollywood's film offers, to give a truthful need of change in culture and politics a bit of PR, it banalised the cause as a mere publicity campaign. It pretends to want to change culture by playing exactly within the cultural limits that tell women they should remain pursuing -instead of transcending- an unattainable, unrealistic and even undesirable wonder woman model.

Super heroes do not win

The end of adolescence comes with integration, rather than the victory of a polarised side over the other. It comes with acceptance of our own dark sides and the maturity it comes with deciding how to behave.

A super hero is hardly an aspirational character. In fact, they are not a complete and free individual able to lead a normal life. It is rather a kind of psychological aspect who remains slave to its purpose as much as the super villain. Superman cannot have a normal dinner if he knows his help is required. A Super Hero is a sacrificial character who triumphs in taking his/her quest up to their own demise or failure. As characters they are special because through their power and will are able to take this battle up to the point when it can be resolved but not necessarily because they can or should win.

In a polarised world the inner battle is "exteriorised", forming sides, good and evil. While one side exists, the other will do too, and probably will go through periods of polarisation and integration while different generations go through their crisis of adolescence like in Star Wars. Speaking as he received the Hans Christian Andersen literature award, Haruki Murakami said:

“At times we tend to avert our eyes from the shadow, those negative parts. Or else try to forcibly eliminate those aspects. Because people want to avoid, as much as possible, looking at their own dark sides, their negative qualities. But in order for a statue to appear solid and three-dimensional, you need to have shadows. Do away with shadows and all you end up with is a flat illusion. Light that doesn’t generate shadows is not true light,”

Super heroes do not win, because for one side to disappear, the other side would have to disappear too. But that's not what happens. Whatever we think it is killed in this battle, returns.

In not "so super" characterisations, like Lord of the Rings, both Frodo and Gollum lead the way together towards Mount Doom to do "what has to be done" which is the integration of both characters in Sam and resolve the polarisation by destroying the externalisation of power, the dependency, that the ring symbolises. To do so, Sam increasingly takes on responsibility by killing the spider, confronting the Orcs, and carrying Frodo always at the verge of falling into the temptation of the death drive (Sauron). Frodo fails in getting rid of the ring, because it cannot be done consciously. It simply happens once he accepted "the" shadow as his own and thanks to having had pity for the ugly, squalid, grown-up dependent big-eyed baby that is Gollum, Sam's shadow. Pity in the externalised shadow, meant we'll have pity with ourselves, with our own shadow in the moment of internalising it, disempowering it of its potential of causing our self destruction.

In a way, if super heroes are so relevant today might suggest that we are collectively in some sort of adolescent period that polarises our view of the world. We read on newspapers of European Identity crisis, the war against terrorism painted in black and white, political correctness v the most outrageous racist and sexist rants we've seen in a long time, the post-truth era, voters rage, etc, etc.

In this sense, the Empowerment of women truly comes when Wonder Woman is no longer needed, when the inner battle finishes, when we show pity to our inner shadows and we can focus our strength in changing reality.


No comments:

Post a Comment