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.
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Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture