Mike McMahan, LPC: Last year was a big year for Wonder Woman. DC Comics’ writer Greg Rucka confirmed that she is bisexual in a lengthy interview with Comicosity. This interview raises a number of interesting points about the difficulty in defining sexuality and how language plays a role. In addition, Wonder Woman was announced as an ambassador for the UN—before being dropped just two months later.
There were multiple perspectives on whether this was a feminist move on the part of the UN or not. But coming as it did, in early December, an argument can be made that women finished the year in a weaker position than many had assumed they would just weeks before. Specifically, virtually every pundit and politico expected that the United States would be electing its first female president, Hillary Clinton. No one would argue that Donald Trump’s victory was a victory for women, save perhaps Trump himself (“the women love me!”). That said, a significant number of women voted for him, so that is not to go unmentioned, either. Though I’m still skeptical that they found him a champion for women, specifically, as opposed to a good leader for the US in general.
Our heroine, Wonder Woman, is poised to make a comeback in 2017, though—maybe. The standalone Wonder Woman film will be released this year and will likely make piles of cash. On the other hand, she appeared in Batman Vs. Superman, largely considered one of the worst movies of last year. And DC fared no better, review wise, with Suicide Squad, though I liked it.
Gisell, there’s a lot to unpack here. You’ve told me before that you’re a Wonder Woman fan. Where do we start?
Gisell Alvarez, LPC-I: Well, we have a lot to discuss here. I love Wonder Woman for many reasons, some of them significant and others not too much. First of all, she is a heroine and that's something we don't see frequently in the comics universe.
She has been heroic and outstandingly strong without her special powers; she was a regular woman and kept being super, refusing to accept the fact that other men told her she was occupying places where a woman shouldn't be. She did what she wanted to do with justice and honor and never allowed her gender to define her aspirations, goals, or role.
She is independent, smart, and ambitious. She has been in love, but it didn't affect her purpose in life (even though, Steve kind of had to die to make things easier to keep her independent, which I don't agree with).
She is a brunette. This feels very silly, but as a Latina woman, it is very difficult to try to identify with blonde women. Wonder Woman has dark hair just as I do, and at the time I was a child, that meant the world.
Mike: I don’t think of that as silly at all. We’ve talked previously about the lack of non-white heroes (Elena link) and I’ve discussed it almost ad nauseum on the blog. I think that having a diverse array of heroes in pop culture (super- or otherwise) is helpful to the world at large, but it is also helpful in therapy, especially for the type of things I do to engage teenage clients. When you’re a young person, you identify with pop culture in a more meaningful way, which is something I’ve become aware of as I age and something I notice with clients. When I was in grad school, one of my cohorts remarked that I frequently commented on t-shirts that kids were wearing. It’s totally true! But they always responded well, too. When you’re in your adolescence t-shirts, and the pop culture images contained on them, can really project a developing sense of identity and belonging.
Gisell: For a long time, there was speculated among fans that Wonder Woman was a lesbian or bisexual. In the beginning, it was due to the way the Amazons live, but then more and more reasons were added. I always wanted her to be something other than a heterosexual woman. As a bisexual woman myself, the fact that she could be a lesbian or bisexual made her even more relatable.
And we were told last year she was bisexual, and that's remarkably significant. Bisexual women and men very often are not only discriminated by the heterosexual population, but also by homosexual women and men. Bisexual women and men are frequently told they don't know who they are, that they are confused, that they are cowards, or just sexual players. Both, heterosexual and homosexual populations tend to push bisexual women and men to "take a side" in order to be "real". So, today we have such a strong character, with a tremendously strong sense of identity, who is a bisexual woman. Some of the beauty of it is that, in the end, it doesn't define who she truly is. Wonder Woman is a fantastic and unique heroine that has the incredible privilege of potentially falling in love with women and men. And we need that kind of representation in the pop universe.
Mike: Addressing her sexuality certainly opens up a myriad of possible story lines and characters. As you say, you obviously identified with the character, and I am confident that other young women (and men) will identify with this as well. Previously, when I wrote a piece about the possibility that Elsa (of Frozen fame) might be lesbian, One Facebook commenter took strong issue with the idea. I understand that there would be quite a lot of blowback to this decision and with the amount of money involved in this franchise, this is not a move Disney is likely to make, despite being a very pro-LGBTQ company. But my gut reaction to this resistance is “if you don’t like this direction, feel free to watch a different movie.” There are so many shows and movies that there is room for a myriad of character types and if a viewer chooses not to engage with a character who is lesbian, no worries, there are plenty more Disney princesses to choose from. Like, you know, all of them.
I have this knee-jerk idea that women would support Wonder Woman across the board on all of the above issues. But, if you look at the voting records of women, it seems that the idea of women banding together and voting as a bloc is incorrect. Now, there may be a lot of reasons people did or did not vote for Hillary, in the same way that there are a lot of reasons people did or did not vote for Trump. But it seems relatively clear (as clear as anything is in 2017, anyway) that this idea of women voting together en masse in the way ethnic or racial minority groups do was mistaken. Perhaps we see the split in women’s feelings on so-called “women’s issues” reflected in the ups and downs of Wonder Woman.
Gisell: It's been a challenging and interesting year for women and feminists, feminicides increased in South America, the term "feminazi" has been spreading out in social media, celebrities are using feminism as a marketing strategy, and the president-elect of The United States thinks he can grab us by our vulvas. And yes, the fact that Hillary Clinton is a woman was one of the reasons Donald Trump won the election, in my opinion. Americans seem not to believe that women can do a job that has been only assigned to men; Americans appear to not believe women and men are equals.
On a few occasions, women have run as presidential candidates in my country, Colombia. There, we don't believe women can do the job either. However, for the first time in our history, a lesbian women is a presidential pre-candidate, and I think we need to celebrate it.
Now, the short time Wonder Woman had as a UN ambassador did not surprise me. I understand both sides. The supporters that see the positive impact of it, and the detractors that see how Wonder Woman aesthetics could send the wrong message. However, I can't help but ask myself, would we say the same if the ambassador was to be Superman, with his very exaggerated body aesthetics? What do you think, Mike?
Mike: The question is almost rhetorical. I’m pretty confident that no one would care one bit. The hulking man fits in with the stereotype of masculinity that has been pounded into all of us for years. He looks like the kind of guy that fought Nazis during WWII. I’d like to think that he’d fight the alt-right now, but that’s a different topic. I’ll note it for the future!
I’m behind on DC movies and haven’t seen Batman vs. Superman. All of my friends are saying it sucks, so maybe I’ll skip it—I’m not a masochist. But all this Wonder Woman talk has me curious about that movie. Coming in June of this year!
Gisell: Wonder Woman is coming back from the hand of Zack Snyder, a director I like, but whose cinematic aesthetics I consider markedly exaggerated. We saw the incredibly huge bodies of the Spartans in 300, and the incredibly thin bodies of the Sucker Punch girls. Something that we see again in the growing Justice League: beautiful slow motion, "out-of-our-reality-bodies", not too impressive acting, and very poor screenplays. We'll see what Wonder Woman's movie bring for us, the trailer was awesome--let's see later...
Mike: I like Zach Snyder, too. Watchmen was great and very faithful to the source material. He does have a style of exaggeration and a sort of hyperrealism. He exaggerates sexuality at times, but then will look away or wink. I noticed that especially in 300, which to me was overtly homoerotic, yet featured a minor female character (possibly the only one, I can’t recall for sure) in a shower scene. It struck me as “all you guys watching this insanely masculine film, never fear! Here’s a naked girl!” I’m fairly confident that the homoeroticism was on purpose, or at the very least not lost on Snyder.
As far as Sucker Punch, I don’t disagree about the thinness of the girls, but that’s a problem of Hollywood at large and as a fanboy of Sucker Punch… well, what can I say. I’m a guy! I enjoyed the eye candy aspect, even though I feel a bit guilty saying that. I suppose it’s “movie fan Mike” versus “therapist Mike.” It’s pretty rare to see a huge Hollywood pic evoke a postmodern aesthetic outside of Quentin Tarantino. But unrealistic body types is a YUGE problem for Hollywood. And is reinforced by so-called “women’s magazines,” although there is pushback to that going on in the world of satire well as serious journalism in places like Teen Vogue. I must confess I don’t know anything about Teen Vogue besides the fact that I’ve seen it at grocery store checkouts, so if they had this caliber of people before, I was not aware of it and it is certainly to be applauded.
But back to the topic at hand, how would you utilize all these new Wonder Woman perspectives when working with a client?
Gisell: Wonder Woman could be a good inspiration in a mirror work with a client. So, you have Wonder Woman here, but she is more than the iconic comic character. She is all that our clients want a super woman to be--she is the reflection of those strengths and qualities a client would like to pursue; even more, she is the reflection of those strengths our clients often don’t allow themselves to believe they can embrace or develop.
Wonder Woman is a mirror to find the strength within us. This approach is a sort of projective technique, and I know these kinds of techniques are highly polemic. But, in my opinion, very often they are liberating because clients are invited to talk about themselves in a non-direct way, and this is more comfortable, especially during the initial sessions.
So, maybe we have a female client who has been repeatedly abused emotionally and psychologically by her spouse. She has come to you because she is feeling "nervous" all the time, her heart palpitates rapidly with no reason, and she feels she can't control her breathing.
You can see how your client is struggling with anxiety, not sleeping well and is not eating well, either. With reluctance, you learn the details and now you know her spouse abuses her in a daily basis, and she is so frightened and ashamed she is not willing to talk about it with you. She is not willing to allow herself to think she can advocate for herself and stop the abuse.
Now you bring Wonder Woman into the conversation, and you guide your client to use this iconic character to represent all the strengths she would like to embrace without pushing her to get immersed in a reality she is not willing to face. However, you are already identifying all those elements that would eventually help her to get more empowered and confident.
When talking about superheroes and superheroines, every one of them is seen depending on the color of the lenses of the viewer, and that's because comic superheroes have something of us, something that we consider super and extraordinary; and that perception is a source of knowledge about what a person values as strength and exceptionality, which is something we, the therapists, should always look for in our clients.
Mike: I couldn’t agree more. That is a great perspective that I believe a lot of women could benefit from. Thanks for being so forthright in this discussion. I really learned several things!
Gisell: I enjoyed it, too.
Mike: Until next time…
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
Gisell Álvarez, LPC-Intern is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx. She is currently under the clinical supervision of Mary Contreras, LPC-S.
By Mike McMahan, LPC
With the recent announcement that the game tokens in Monopoly will be changed by an internet vote (no way that goes wrong), we can all quake in fear that something will happen to the shoe. This bit of news reminded me of a pretty interesting bit about all of the so-called “house rules” that many of us follow when playing this often long and contentious game. One of the best known examples is placing money generated from Community Chest and Chance into the center of the board (perhaps held down by the thimble), to be won by the next person who lands on Free Parking. Anyone who has ever read the rules know that Free Parking is, in fact, named for exactly what it is. A place to sit for free while waiting for your next turn, as explained in the rules video.
Truthfully, that’s kind of boring. Whatever it might say in the rules, the Free Parking jackpot is a whole lot of fun. It also keeps money circulating in the game, though the game will undoubtedly be extended due to so much money being in play.
Near the end of the video, the narrator notes that many people have likely never read the rules of Monopoly and likely learned to play when they were taught by friends or family members and, therefore, learned whatever “rules” that person played with. This is the reason the Free Parking jackpot has become so enshrined.
When you think about it, this is actually a lot like life. There are certain rules of life and society that we all agree on, even though there is no rule book to explain them. These are called social constructions. It is an interesting concept to read more about and it’s implications go well beyond a blog post, but let’s consider a simplified example. If I show you the color red and ask you what it means, you will likely say “stop” (unless you’re a bull, in which case it inexplicably means “charge”). Think about that for a second. There is nothing about the color red that makes it means “stop” more than anything else. At some point, it became used on stop signs and presumably became enshrined going forward. But for most of us, if you see red, you stop.
How does this apply to your life? Well, how often do you find yourself saying “it’s what everybody does” or “that’s just how it works?” Does it really? Or are you assuming that just because something is red there is something inherently woven into its meaning that means stop? There are different levels of this. A fairly minor one is how we dress. I’m sure I can google it, but I’ve always wondered why a tie is considered formal. Tie a random piece of cloth around your neck and you’re dressed up? Sure, why not.
Much more worrisome to me, especially as a mental health professional who frequently works with teens, are agreed upon social norms that may not be best for all of us. There’s an idea that a lot of people have (though not everybody, and it is fading) that a person needs to get married by a certain age. If you find that special someone and you’re in love, great. By all means, get married if it’s what you think is right and I wish you happiness. But I have had clients tell me “this relationship is bad, but we both think it’s time to get married and start a family.” Whoa, whoa, whoa. Why is it time? Says who? There may be an imaginary consensus in society that a lot of us buy into, but that doesn’t mean it’s real in any sense. It may even be a narrative we've slotted ourselves into without realizing. At some point it was “decided” and that was that. And marriage can be challenging as you age. Any number of studies point to the advantages of waiting until at least the mid 20s before making a lifetime commitment to someone.
So the next time you find yourself saying “it’s just how it works,” ask yourself if you’re buying into something because it’s what is “always” done. Maybe it’s Free Parking and you should win a lot of Monopoly money because someone taught you those rules. Or maybe you should sit there and enjoy the view. It’s free!
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
By Mike McMahan, LPC
If you’ve ever been to Walt Disney World, and tend to think too deeply about these experiences, this article published on Atlas Obscura may hit home. Though I hadn’t personally thought about it in relation to the Magic Kingdom, it is certainly a fit. As the article notes, when Mickey Mouse is walking down the street, as far as kids are concerned (and anyone, really) that’s really Mickey. This is much like our own version of “reality”: typically, once we decide something is real, we’re sticking to it and it’s hard to change the course. The idea of creating a shared space, in which participants forget about the so-called “real world” and lose themselves in this consensual reality is not unique to Disney, certainly. I have experienced it at concerts as well. People may be dressed in similar fashion, or they may be wearing t-shirts of the band that is performing or similar bands. At times, this experience can bleed out of the concert venue into the surrounding area. Maybe you recognize a fellow fan by their appearance on the way in and wave or say “hi.” Phish and Grateful Dead fans have been known to set up vending areas outside of the concert and sell t-shirts that include a snippet of a lyric. This is a very subtle way of acknowledging a shared reality, as someone who is into the band will recognize it and connect with the wearer, while someone not familiar with the music will likely see it as pure nonsense and move on.
One of my favorite experiences with this phenomenon was the opening night of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. At the theater where I saw it, every single screen was showing the film. People were cosplaying the roles, so the lobby was filled with stormtroopers, tusken raiders and sith. There were cardboard cutouts of the film. Souvenir cups for drinks. Foods and snacks renamed with a Star Wars theme. Middle-aged nerds such as myself were wearing t-shirts and were giddy with delight. It wasn’t anything near reality, but for that few hours, we all agreed that it was.
Depression is much the same, but in a completely opposite manner. Once your brain locks you into a narrative dominated by depression, it can often be all that you see. Instead of seeing t-shirts suggesting Star Wars and fun, you see shirts that remind you that everyone else is skinnier, more successful, happier. Instead of Mickey Mouse reminding you that you’re at Disney with your family, you see dark clouds and imagine ghosts from your past, reminding you of failures and telling you that you’re worthless.
The thing is, this reality is no more “real” than Disney World or the opening night of The Force Awakens.
Coming out of depression is not a sudden thing. It’s hard to leave Disney because you’ve had such a good time, but it’s not literally hard to leave. You get on a bus or in a cab and go back to the airport and go home. In the same way that you see signs that you’re on the way in, you see signs that you’re on the way out. “Thanks for visiting Disney World! Come back soon!” There are signs that you’re leaving a concert too. The band is playing an encore—they’re almost done. The house lights are back on—you’re outta here. Depression is the same way.
I have written previously that psychotherapy can be like a journey, so it makes sense that this metaphor of Disney as pilgrimage would also apply to psychotherapy as well as the journey of healing that a client undertakes.
Something I frequently work with clients on is observing. I ask them to look for signs that they are coming out of their depression. The purpose of this is two-fold. The first is a sort of “light at the end of the tunnel” effect. Once the client starts to see that a few things may be going right, it gets easier to hold on and work towards better times. We have all experienced this, but it’s hard to see when you’re mired in the dark hole of depression. The second reason for this is so that if depression should re-occur, they will know the signposts to look for next time as a guide out of the dark. It can be anything: it’s easier to get out of bed; you’re cooking healthier meals; you make plans to go out with friends for the first time in a while; you feel like you’re enjoying reading novels again. Once these signposts begin to pop up for my client, I reinforce these positive signs during our sessions and encourage them to look for more. It gets easier as it goes, because as the client starts to feel better, the signs are going to be more prevalent.
The article also refers to rituals, or behaviors that we do all the time at certain times. People may easily fall into rituals with their journey through depression. How often have you heard someone say something like “whenever I get depressed, I just sleep all day?” Or “I’m so depressed I just ate a whole jug of Ben and Jerry’s.” While these are jokes, somewhat, both sleeping too much and overeating can be signs of depression. If you have journeyed back from depression, it might not be a bad idea to ask yourself what are the signs you’re diving back in? And what rituals do you participate in that reinforce these feelings.
And when you’re back at full speed, why not a trip to Disney World?
Mike McMahan, LPC, is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture