Saturday, January 18, 2014

A word on Wonder Woman’s parentage

I was perusing the library’s “adult comics” section, which consists entirely of Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side anthologies, and I saw this poppy little number about the history of Wonder Woman. So brightly colored! So pleasingly shaped (the book, not the woman—although . . .). Sure, I could stand to be educated on Wonder Woman. She IS fairly important, and there IS a movie coming out in 2016 that will give us our first cinematic representation of that character (and that is a rant for another day). Let’s learn about Wonder Woman! Girl power and so forth.

Her history starts out innocently enough. Wonder Woman’s creator was prominent psychologist William Moulton Marston, best known for his invention of the lie detector machine. Professional academic though he was, he took a look at the growing popularity of comics and said, “I’d like a piece of that action.” For the CHILDREN though.
“Feeling big, smart, important, and winning the admiration of their fellows are realistic rewards all children strive for. It remains for moral educators to decide what type of behavior is to be regarded as heroic.” (p. 12)
I mean, someone has to morally educate the youths, and if they insist on reading the comics, we will put the morals in their comics.

Foolproof plan.

Marston’s wife, Elizabeth Holloway, seemed a self-sufficient sort of a lady. After she married Marston, she decided, like him, to study law. He was going to Harvard Law, but that hallowed establishment didn’t allow women to attend and “she dismissed the era’s idea of a separate Harvard law school for women as ‘lovely law for ladies’” (p. 12). She got her master’s in law from Boston University instead.

Even so, William was WAY more gung-ho for the women’s movement than his wife was. (In fact, she didn’t see the need for a women’s movement in 1970 and actually said, “What’s the fuss all about?”) But his views were a little . . . hm . . . well.
In 1937, “he gave an interview to The New York Times predicting that ‘the next one hundred years will see the beginning of an American matriarchy—a nation of Amazons in the psychological rather than physical sense,’ and that eventually, ‘women would take over the rule of the country, politically and economically.” (p. 19)
Sounds pretty good, but notice how he wasn’t talking about gender equality? He was talking about feminine domination. Possibly involving whips.
“In short, he was convinced that as political and economic equality became a reality, women could and would use sexual enslavement to achieve domination over men, who would happily submit to their loving authority.” (p. 19)
Let me just repeat that, using Marston’s own words. He believed that womankind’s long fight for equal (or superior, in this case) social and economic status would ultimately be clinched by the fact that “her body and personality offer men greater pleasure than he could obtain in any other experience. He therefore yields to this attraction and control voluntarily, and seeks to be thus captivated” (p. 19).

According to your father, yes.

And this was the enlightened context from which sprung forth Wonder Woman. More quotes, because I couldn’t make this garbage up.
Marston’s words again: “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world. There isn’t love enough in the male organism to run this planet peacefully. Woman’s body contains twice as many love generating organs and endocrine mechanisms as the male. What woman lacks is the dominance and self assertive power to put over and enforce her love desires. I have given Wonder Woman the dominant force but have kept her loving, tender, maternal and feminine in every other way.” (pp. 22–23)

And it gets better.

The book keeps mentioning Marston’s four children. What it fails to mention until page 28, which I was unfortunately reading immediately before bed last night, is that two of those children are biologically his wife’s . . . and the other two are biologically his research assistant’s.

Right. So. Olive Byrne was his student at Tufts, and then she and Marston became friends, and then she moved in with him and his wife, and then the three of them made babies and were a happy family. Because why not. The women even named their children after each other.

Oh yeah, and Marston based Wonder Woman on Olive, pinnacle of liberated womanhood that she was.

All this, combined with the knowledge that Marston also wrote bondage erotica featuring Julius Caesar “conquering” the peoples of various countries, thoroughly sullies all my idealistic notions of Wonder Woman being a champion of women’s empowerment from the start.

But I intend to be fair to Diana Prince. She shouldn’t be punished for the sins of her father; so I’ll continue reading and hope for a swift end to Marston’s involvement in this proud and storied history. Besides, she seems to be overcoming her daddy issues nicely these days.

That's the gist of it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Life After Life: Reincarnation for the person who’d rather not come back as a platypus

I’ve been hearing Kate Atkinson’s name in various places and contexts over the past year, and I just happened to have gotten around to reading this book right when The Morning News announced its 2014 Tournament of Books contenders (of which this is not one but sort of is because it's in the pre-tournament playoffs). So well done, me.

If you’ve heard anything about this book, I would be willing to bet that the anything you heard was both (a) positive and (b) a little hard to follow. “There’s this girl . . . and she dies at birth. But, like, then she gets another go at it? But then she drowns as a child. So.”

Well basically, it leaves us at historical fiction with a side of reincarnation, even though it’s rarely addressed as such within the book itself. And instead of coming back as a cow or a wizard or something, Ursula is born again and again to a woman named Sylvie and a man named Hugh, in a warm bedroom in England on a snowy night.

The book is rhythmic down to the smallest detail. The sections of the book, along with Ursula’s life, are ordered in patterns that carry you only so far before inevitably bringing you back to the beginning and starting again, each time taking you on a slightly different path because of Ursula’s slight changes in behavior. Each cycle carries you a bit farther than the last, into later and later years of Ursula’s life. Some cycles overlap with previous cycles, with only minor (but often crucial) variations; some are completely uncharted territory. Each life that Ursula lives is hers and yet different from the last. And while Ursula isn't ever fully aware that she is repeating her life, she's able to affect historical events by making small course corrections each time around.

Step 1: Distract enemy soldiers with kittens. Step 2: There is no Step 2.

And listen, a lot of horrible things happen to Ursula and the people in her life, and there’s often a war on (specifically, a WORLD War), but somehow the overall tone is light. Atkinson writes with a humor that isn’t necessarily humor.
The salami-eating man had followed her out into the corridor when she went in search of the ladies’. She thought he was going to the buffet car but then as she reached the lavatory compartment he attempted, to her alarm, to push in after her. He said something to her that she didn’t understand, although its meaning seemed lewd (the cigar and the salami seemed strange preludes). “Lass mich in Ruhe,” leave me in peace, she said stoutly, but he continued to push her and she continued to push back. She suspected their struggle, polite as opposed to violent, might have looked quite comical to an observer. (p. 336)
You see? A terrible thing is happening, and yet we are given permission to chuckle (albeit somewhat nervously).

Historical events, people, and places are scattered about like tasty yet incidental berries, and Ursula herself is so real that she comes off as neither a hero nor a villain but merely a person. I feel pretty comfortable saying that, for all these reasons and more, this isn’t just a book you should read; this is a book you should read twice.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

And on the 11th day of January, they snacked...and also they read.

It’s time for the first mini-readathon of 2014,* hosted by the lovely Tika (aka Snowflake, if you’re in the know and want her to kick you in the shin).

I don’t have a great track record with readathons, mini or otherwise, and I think it’s because I set my sights too high. So the theme of this mini-readathon is “Strive for Mediocrity—Except in the Realm of Snacks, Where We Maintain Very High Standards Indeed.”


My primary goal is to make some serious headway in The Goldfinch, which, after several months of waiting, I received through the library hold system and will be called upon to return unto the library hold system when the calendar strikes January 17. The circle of life.

“Mini” justification: While the book itself is anything but miniature, goldfinches are pretty small, as birds go. And the story opens with a boy, and a boy is just a pocket-sized man.

Yes I know.

To break up the monotony of reading only one book for 8 hours, and in keeping with my quasi-New Year’s resolution to read more comics, I will be . . . reading some comics.

I’ve got Y: The Last Man (Book 3—One Small Step), Batman: Year One, and something called A God Somewhere, which is a 2011 Vertigo comic billed as a “superhero tragedy” (SOLD). I also have a stash of comics that I’ve bought over the years and never read, waiting in the wings. But this is enough to be getting on with (and everyone knows that once you buy a book you never read it).

"Mini" justification: They are COMICS.

As for snacks, I haven’t had a chance to acquire any yet. BUT THERE WILL BE SNACKS. Petite ones.

*I’m actually writing this on Thursday night so I can schedule it to post at start time Saturday morning, because I have no Internet at home (Still. I KNOW.) and I plan to spend most of the readathon in my pajamas, which I could probably get away with at the local coffee hole in Hipster Town, USA, if not for this modicum of pride I’ve managed to cling to thus far.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

She Matters: This post turned into a diary entry. No one make it weird.

The subject of female friendships has always been uncomfortable for me to linger over. You see, I’ve never quite gotten the hang of them.

I mean, when I was young, being with other girls was easy. I don’t remember fretting over imagined or actual slights. It was all sleepovers and tree climbing and pretending to be horses. (I was a skewbald pinto named Man o’ War, and I preferred my dry oats with cinnamon and sugar.)


One of my friends broke my nose ("horsing" on a trampoline is not recommended), and we didn't lose a step over it. Friendship was simple.

As I got older, the idea of making and maintaining female friends became so fraught with uncertainty and potential danger that I decided just one close friend was plenty. I had my best friend, and I was not taking applications for additional ones. I know now that this was a misguided attempt to insulate myself from rejection. Then and now, I craved approval from my gender peers . . . and middle school had taught me a hard lesson on that subject.

I started to open up a bit in high school, and even more in college. And if I made a list of every girlfriend I’ve ever had, it would have a lot of names on it. I have known and been fond of many women in my life. But the relationships either never grew past a certain level of intimacy or we lost touch. I suppose losing touch is a likely outcome when you move away from every friend you’ve ever made and also happen to be terrible at using a cell phone for anything more involved than text messaging.

To make a long therapy session short, this is an area where I’ve always found myself lacking. I want to be less guarded with women, less intimidated, more genuine . . . unapologetically earnest even. I’m almost 30. I may start having babies soon, and I live thousands of miles away from my family. I would not be exaggerating if I said this sometimes keeps me up nights.

It's not healthy to identify with Annie Walker on several levels, y'know?

Enter Susanna Sonnenberg, who insists on making me think about this sensitive subject with her book, which examines her relationships with various women throughout her life and the ways, minor and major, they changed her. I think whenever anyone writes introspectively, there’s a risk of sounding pretentious and self-involved. (Have you read any of your old diaries lately? You sound like an asshole. Trust.) That tone certainly crops up in this case, especially if you have a terrible habit, as I do, of being overly critical of other women’s intentions. 

But set that critical tendency aside. Ride out the occasional note of pretention. Because if you do, you will find pieces of your experiences reflected back to you (mixed in with some situations that are foreign to you of course, because of how we are all unique and such).

For instance, saying goodbye to a summer camp friend:
I was crying, and she was, too, as we embraced by the cars. We were girls, we lived big. Our arms chained around each other’s necks, our sobbing was pure. No lovers had been parted so cruelly, no bond had been severed so swiftly. (p. 42)
Or struggling to maintain a sense of self in relationship with women:
I knew how to make men last, trusted their allegiance and their reliable limitations. Women didn’t last. Unable to help my hope and longing at the start, I opened myself, gave away everything, immersed in a woman as if I wished to disappear. (p. 8)

When you get right down to it, it’s difficult to remember the details of these vignettes, even immediately after reading one. And that’s OK. They belong to Susanna; she’s just letting us wander through them for a while. What the book gives you to keep is an impression, an overlying feeling that you, too, have had such friendships, that they mattered . . . and that you had forgotten just how much.