Lasso vs. Sword
Quick; what’s the difference between these two pictures?
Okay, so yes, Lynda Carter is not Gal Gadot, right. And the revealing, improbable star-spangled swimsuit has been replaced by improbably revealing leather armor. But put that aside.
The big, big difference here is that in the first picture, Wonder Woman is twirling her magic lasso of truth; in the second, Wonder Woman is holding a honking sharp-looking sword, the better to gut and/or castrate you with.
The rise of Wonder Woman’s sword isn’t an aberration, though. D.M. Higgins, on tumblr, graphed the frequency with which Wonder Woman has been portrayed on covers using swords, spears, guns, or other fierce gutting/shooting type weapons:
The graph shows that edged weapons were hardly ever portrayed from the 1940s through the 1960s. There was a slight uptick in the early 1970s, which fell off again until the 1980s. Since then, Wonder Woman has been using the swords more and more — and that more and more kept more and more-ing right up through the present.
Presumably it’ll spike even more when Gadot and her blade get their own movie in 2017…
So, why have we moved from Wonder Woman with a lasso to Wonder Woman with an assortment of pointy things?
In William Marston’s original Wonder Woman comics, the heroine didn’t have a lasso of truth, but a much more useful lasso of control. That control, Marston said, symbolized feminine glamour; or, as he put it, “allure.” As part of his feminist utopian queer-friendly crackpottery, Marston believed female “love leaders” (as he called them) should use their sexuality and righteousness to lead both men and women to happy submission to the matriarchy.
The lasso, with its yonic imagery, was deliberately gendered.
Most comics creators were not gender essentialist crackpot utopians like Marston. Still, Marston was hardly the only creator to link superheroine superpowers to femininity. Marvel’s main early female superheroes, for instance, had powers that allowed them to avoid masculine fisticuffs.
The Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl could turn invisible — she had no offensive power at all. Eventually she gained the ability to create invisible force fields, so she could push bad guys around in a way that made sure artist Jack Kirby didn’t have to show her hitting anyone#. Similarly, in the X-Men, Jean Grey’s powers initially were telekinesis; she could act, safely, at a distance, without the violent energy blasts or super-punches of her teammates#.
The nervousness around superheroine violence extended to television. Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl in the 1960s was prohibited by the show’s creators from hitting anyone. She was only allowed to attack the bad guys with high, chorus-girl style kicks. Why exactly the showrunners saw kicking as more feminine than hitting is unclear, but they did, and as a result, Batgirl punches were verboten.
These days, of course, Batgirl hits people all the time. Feminism, and the movement of more and more women into the workforce, has changed mainstream views of what’s acceptable for women in the military, in the police force, and in comics and films. Sarah Connor got to use an arsenal of high-tech weaponry in Terminator 2 way back in 1991. Xena swung a mean swords. Buffy flung a mean stakes. For that matter, Jean Grey got repowered so she could shoot energy blasts, while new heroines like She-Hulk, Elektra, and Storm inflict blunt trauma, stab wounds, and lightning strikes with vim.
So equality has been attained?
Well, sort of, maybe.
The truth is that female heroes are still occasionally given the less violent, less hitty powers. Scarlet Witch in the Avengers films stands around waving her arms in a graceful/sexy/feminine manner to create chaos at a distance. And Hope Van Dyne had to spend all of the first Ant Man movie waiting to get her superpowers.
There’s still some nervousness about women and superpowered direct violence…
But, while inequality is obviously wrong, is nervousness about violence really a bad thing? Or, to put it another way, what does “justice” mean when it’s defined as “equal access to beating the crap out of people”?
The superhero genre tends to see empowerment in terms of the ability to hit someone really hard, but that’s because the superhero genre is kind of bone-headed – and more than a little obsessed with masculinity#. If your ideal of awesomeness is a giant musclebound behemoth hitting another giant musclebound behemoth through a building#, then, sure, women should get a chance to hit folks through buildings too#. However, at some point it might be worth questioning whether the size of your testosterone is really the best measure of heroism.
Not least because a genre obsessed with testosterone is always going to have trouble giving women a central place, no matter how big their swords might be…
The discomfort, or disconnect, between women and implements of violence could, then, be used not to present women as weak and worthless, but to question the coolness or inevitability of violence itself. And some creators have in fact used it in just that way. In Twilight, after Bella transforms into a vampire, she gains the superability to prevent other superpowered vampire attacks. She deploys her talent not to win a war with evil vampires, but to prevent that war from occurring; she’s a super-vampire pacifist.
G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel has also questioned the violent default of superherodom. In one sequence, Ms. Marvel, aka Kamala Khan, uses her stretching powers to create a giant fist, and hits an opponent so hard said opponent ends up in the hospital. Kamala is really freaked out. Being stretchy means that she can make herself into a weapon—but doing so has consequences. Empowerment as violence is a choice, with ambivalent outcomes. The, of course, there’s Wonder Woman herself.
D.M. Higgins also charted the use of Wonder Woman’s lasso on covers over the years, and discovered that it’s stayed fairly steady:
Even while the use of swords has grown, the lasso itself hasn’t disappeared.
Marston meant Wonder Woman to offer an alternative to violence. In the original comics, Wonder Woman influences people to do as she says, and often reforms them, rather than stabbing them in the face. Even if it is based in Marston’s odd theories about gender roles, the lasso was a challenge to the idea that superness had to equal violence.
That lasso is still around; Wonder Woman can and does pick it up on occasion.
Maybe others, superwomen and supermen, should too.
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