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.
Hi everyone, Mike here. I am so pleased to welcome Gisell Álvarez, LPC-Intern, as a contributor to the blog. She has a fascinating background, which you can read more about here and I look forward to her contributions! We will, at times, be engaging in roundtable discussions, but she will also be writing individual blog posts.
Mike McMahan: Welcome to the blog, Gisell! I’m happy to have a perspective besides my own. I’m glad you suggested talking about Elena of Avalor, as I hadn’t even heard of the show and I think it’s a perfect topic for you to start with; the reasons why are obvious to anyone reading your bio. For anyone who hasn’t seen the pilot episode, it streams on YouTube. Let's start at the beginning. I have a young daughter so I see some of these series and I am fairly familiar with the closely-related Sophia the First (for better or worse!). I am curious to know how you discovered this series?
Gisell Álvarez: Thanks for the opportunity! Talking about pop culture is so much fun. I follow a blog on Facebook called HelloGiggles. It covers a variety of topics, from gender issues to Hollywood trends. One of the bloggers published a very exciting and enthusiastic article about Disney having finally a Latina princess. I was interested, as I have so many emotional and significant memories linked to Disney. The first time I went to the movies with my dad was to see a Disney movie (Aladdin, with a non-European princess). The graphics, the music, everything was magic to me, and the fact that my dad was with me that day watching my eyes sparkling with fantasy, made it even more special.
So, of course, I was excited when I read we were going to have a princess that would look like us (Latina women), eager to live life as we do, full of emotion and passion, with our constant desire to dance, our strong character and, most importantly, the relevant role we have in our own society. Our society is one where, even though machismo is widely accepted, we are the cornerstone of our communities. I was beyond excited. So, I looked for the series and watched it and, then came away disappointed. Elena is more like a Spanish princess with dark skin, which doesn’t really reflect the Latino people. Spanish people, as other people from the Mediterranean coast, have darker skin color. In theory, Elena lives in a pre-colonial universe; however, there are no signs of indigenous people. On the Disney web page, Elena's biography says she is Spanish and Scandinavian descendant, so... how is Elena a Latina girl?
Mike: I noticed that at times their seemed to be an Arabic or Middle Eastern flair. It seemed to me that they wanted to go with at least a superficial Latina/Spanish feel (Elena's grandmother and grandfather are called Abuelita and Abuelito, for instance). But then, the writers/creators pulled back a bit and decided to try and muddy the waters a bit, for reasons that are unclear. They seemed to resort purely to stereotypes, such as the mustachioed Lt. Gabriel Nunez and the use of "mija" as a term of endearment. At other times, there seemed to be an Arabic flair that, to me, had a sore thumb quality. I don't recall this random culture mixing in Disney's other efforts to capture a particular culture, such as The Princess and The Frog, which felt, to me, more honest.
Did you also pick up on what appeared to be ham-fisted Aztec imagery? I thought that the flying leopard, was perhaps an attempt to evoke Aztec culture.
Gisell: I also noticed these kind of Middle Eastern aesthetics. I heard some rhythms that sounded like old Mexican corridos. And that mixture of a leopard with a quetzal bird? I also saw a wolf, and I believe we don't have wolves in our territories... The "Latino" touches are more than anything, reminiscent of Mexican clichés. They are what outsiders identify about the Mexican culture and things that Mexicans do not share with the rest of the countries in Latin America.
I agree with you that the Jasmine and Mulan characters looked more like a portrayal of their correspondent cultures. A leopard with wings could be cool, I think it has potential; however, the Aztec, Maya, Inca, or Muisca indigenous cultures and imagery are so much richer than a leopard with wings or a gray wolf. If you think about Pocahontas or Mulan, both of them have historical figures as inspiration. I don't know why they didn't look in our history and get inspiration from one of our impressive and brave women. If you want to keep it Mexican (because half of the world thinks that all of us are Mexicans) you could use Malinche, or even Frida Kahlo as inspirations. I know that their stories are very dark, but the original fairy tales that inspired Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty aren’t exactly light, either.
Now, think about Moana, the upcoming film which features a Pacific Islander princess. She looks a lot like a Pacific islander girl, and brings beautiful elements from their indigenous cultures. So, they can do it! I think they didn't do their homework researching as they should have with the Latina princess, and that they need to start all over again, as difficult as that will be.
Mike: Yeah, it seems like some homework may have been in order. Even a quick jump onto Wikipedia might have fixed some of the issues that you’ve identified. A person would think, as well, that even though this isn't a film and therefore had a smaller budget, that Disney could have hired someone as a consultant, such as a college professor in Latino studies, for example.
It’s worth noting that my daughter really liked this program, though given that she's in preschool she may not have been sensitive to the larger cultural issues (haha). I'm wondering how important cultural issues are for older children (from inside or outside the United States) or whether these concerns are more for parents? Also, did you see any positives in this program? For me, I thought it continued the more recent trend in Disney films of trying to present stronger female role models. In this case, Elena seems to be the definitive ruler, rather than waiting for a dashing, Prince Charming-type. It doesn't appear, at least from this premiere episode, that she will making the same mistake that Anna made in Frozen.
Gisell: Elena is an empowering character, no matter the ethnicity of the spectator. For Latinas, she is a young, Western girl willing and capable of conquer the world, and our girls need to see that it is possible for each one of them to try and succeed in and conquer their own worlds and face their own challenges.
In establishing rapport and constructing a common language, when doing counseling with children, Elena could be an awesome bridge. The program helps therapist get closer to their realities and it gives us the opportunity to share a similar reality, where we are not only the strange adult, but also somebody willing to connect. Elena has so many attributes that many children could identify with, and therefore feel more confident and more willing to see the strength within them. Elena likes to be strong, and pursues strength even in the most challenging moments. That's a colorful invitation that resonates with our kids, especially those who struggle with self-esteem and self-expression.
I think the kids that watch this really don't give much relevance to the fact that Elena is not light-skinned and blond; they like the character, they like the story and how she looks is secondary. I'm assuming, of course, that if we put Elena on TV for your daughter and my six-year-year old Colombian cousin, they would enjoy the story without much (or any) thought about Elena's race and/or ethnicity. However, for Latina girls, it's awesome to have the chance to show them that a popular character has a name with phonetics similar to ours and that is described as a Latina princess, even when some adults don't know what the hell that is. I also realized that I was assuming that Mulan, The Princess And The Frog and Aladdin were more accurate portrayals of their respective cultures. But I began to think: what am I basing that on? My own outsider perception? I have never discussed this matter with a Chinese girl. Maybe they have some things to say about the portrayal, as I did.
I have a question for you. Do you feel that other animated productions have accurately portrayed you as a Caucasian? How well do you think the European princesses have represented the ethnicity that could describe your daughter?
Mike: That’s a good question, and one I’ve never really considered. I do flinch a bit at some of the messages (implied or otherwise) that are part of the fabric of these stories, but that’s more about gender. I also realize that these films are, in some cases, over 50 years old and may have reflected feelings about women that were prevalent at the time and it’s a bit unfair to hold them to modern standards. There are so many Caucasian princesses (and characters in general) that I have never considered how white people are reflected. This huge number makes it easy to identify with this character or not with that character based on things besides gender or race/ethnicity, but rather characteristics that I find appealing or unappealing. When I discuss these films and shows with my own daughter or with clients, I try to emphasize positive attributes such as courage, problem solving skills and willingness to take part in team work. It’s easy for me to ignore race and ethnicity because I’ve never had to say “finally, a white princess!” since that’s literally almost all of them.
Well, thanks again, Gisell, for coming on board. I’ve really enjoyed this discussion and look forward to your input on a variety of topics!
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
Recently two articles caught my eye and caused me to reflect on how we view stereotypical gender roles and how we impart those roles to our children.
The first is a recent study that showed interesting results about how boys react to Disney princess movies. It has been well-documented that there are significant concerns about how young girls react to these films. Disney has made strides to address these, most notably with the more female-empowerment themed story line of their most recent princess film, Frozen. Spoiler alert! It turns out that “love at first sight” may not always work out well, as Princess Anna learns the hard way from the dastardly Prince Hans, an aspect I discussed previously.
Surprisingly, boys who view these films seem to come away with something less potentially problematic and quite positive: a sense of empathy. The study suggests that the more boys are exposed to the Disney princess films, the more they have “balanced interests,” including a lessened preference for traditionally male toys, such as toy guns. In addition, they were more likely to be helpful with school tasks and have an easier time sharing toys.
According to the researchers who conducted the study, "Princess media and engagement may provide important models of femininity to young boys, who are typically exposed to hypermasculine media. It may be that boys who engage more with Disney princesses, while simultaneously being exposed to more androgynous Disney princes, demonstrate more androgyny in early childhood, a trait that has benefits for development throughout the life span."
The phrase “rape culture” has gained traction recently, as highlighted by concerning statements and rulings from judges in sexual assault cases. Whether exposure to Disney films will help mitigate this is something that could potentially be explored in future research.
Less surprisingly, the study showed that Disney princess films may reinforce negative gender stereotypes in girls, including placing a higher emphasis on physical appearance, possibly to the exclusion of developing more positive skills, such as doing well in math class. These types of concerns about girls and negative gender roles are not new, and hopefully Disney will find a way to provide more and more positive role models—something they are clearly working to do.
Disney has worked to move away from having all white princesses, as exhibited by the non-white heroines of films like Mulan, Pocahontas, The Frog Prince and the upcoming Moana, for which they are to be commended. However, Marvel Comics recently took an even bolder step, announcing that Iron Man’s “real life” identity will be that of a 15-year-old African-American girl. This strikes me as a real departure, considering Iron Man literally has the word “man” in his name.
The new character is named Riri Williams and, in a contrast to the concerns I expressed earlier about girls not engaging in a math class, is a 15-year-old MIT student. This, obviously, busts a number of stereotypes about both women and minorities.
One thing I’ve noticed in working with children and adolescents is that while boys may object to stereotypically “female” media such as Disney princess films (“I don’t want to watch that, that’s for girls!”), young women don’t seem to react in the same way. I have worked with several girls who seem as aware of super heroes and Star Wars as do their male counterparts, especially now that the awesome Rey is on the scene. And while Marvel has had several female leads, they may not be as relatable to adolescents. For example, Jessica Jones; her story lines are more adult in nature, as they reflect her struggles with both literal and metaphorical sexual violence. The idea of a 15-year-old genius building an Iron Man suit herself in a dorm is very positive, and I can see teen girls identifying with this character in a positive way.
Something that has been a challenge to the mental health field for a while is engaging African-American clients in mental health services. I’ve written extensively about how I develop narratives with clients and I love the idea that this new Iron Man (or will she be Iron Girl or Iron Woman now?) might be a way to engage female African-American clients. Obviously I’m not saying that this character is going to dramatically improve black clients engaging into mental health services—that would be ridiculous. But I’m fond of the saying “when a door opens, I walk through it.” I see this as a possible door and, if it opens, I am walking through it. After all, reaching people is one of the key components of being a successful psychotherapist and I’ve had success with adolescents using these narrative-building approaches. Viva Riri Williams!
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
By Mike McMahan
Kudos to Lady Gaga, star of stage and screen, for being willing to come forward as a sexual assault survivor. While she has been open about her past for some time, just recently she gave an interview to Billboard in which she put her emotions on full display. As I've written before, coming forward can be a challenging experience.
According to the article, she was struggling with the same type of emotions that many survivors wrestle with. However, she was preparing to perform a song calling attention to the issue that night on the Academy Awards before an audience of millions, something most other survivors don’t have to face. A group of other survivors was scheduled to appear on stage with her, and she met with them, showing how nervous she was about performing. One of the other women told Lady Gaga that she wanted to get matching tattoos with her to express solidarity. The idea was embraced by all of the survivors who appeared on stage, something that will no doubt remind them of the power of the experience.
Being a part of the group and getting the tattoo may have provided the survivors with two things that can also come about during psychotherapy. The first is a feeling of validation, which comes when a client is heard by the therapist and feels that his or her point of view has been taken seriously and credibly.
The second feeling is one of normalization, which is a feeling a client gets when they feel they are not alone, “weird,” or abnormal and that other people feel the same way, especially if they have faced similarly adverse conditions. The most powerful example I have seen occurred when I observed a group at the Childhood Bereavement Center. One of the things they do is have a dinner with the children and families in which staff is present. A counselor greets the group and welcomes everyone and reminds the kids present that everyone has lost someone close to them. Though no other formal therapeutic activity occurs during dinner, it seemed clear to me that kids could be helped to know that other kids lose parents (for example) at a young age, though they may not have friends or classmates that have to struggle with this as children.
I believe Gaga may have provided the survivors with a similar experience.
So, if these were clients, where would they go from here? Well, the experience with Gaga might be the beginning of a new narrative in which they are people who have triumphed over a very challenging situation. Though trauma can be obviously difficult, many people find themselves to have transformed into stronger people as a result of having survived and worked through the experience.
Maybe the survivors that Gaga highlighted were already there, and the tattoo is a reminder of how far they’ve come on their journey. Or maybe some are just starting that journey. Or maybe someone in the audience started that journey as a result of Gaga’s gesture. That’s how helping is… You put the seeds out there and hope they find fertile ground and take root.
Mike McMahan is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Antonio, Texas.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture