Did anyone feel like punching something after reading the last Countdown special?
No? Just me?
I mean, I love the concept of a gender-reversed world. I picked up the Countdown Presents: Search for Ray Palmer: Superwoman/Batwoman special overjoyed at the thought of Earth-11. It’s just such a wonderful tool when analyzing gender in stories, to run through a familiar story with a woman instead of a man and consider how and why things could be different. Would they think differently about their actions? Each other? Why? And how does the reader react differently?
Granted, there was an option to screw up, but I figured we were beyond writing alternate universe female characters as less capable than their male counterparts. I wasn’t worried when I read it.
I was partially right. We are beyond writing alternate universe female characters as less capable than their male counterparts. All of the female characters were very well done. The dialogue and the way the story was set up suggested that the gender stereotypes were still the same, and that the people meant to be heroes just happened to more often be female than male this time around (probably due in no small part to the most inspiring hero on that planet being the Last Daughter of Krypton as opposed to the standard Last Son). I’d love to see a Kylie Rayner story (or find out what’s going on with Jordan’s counterpart) or a few World’s Finest adventures with Superwoman and Batwoman. The art was lovely, the designs were feminized but not sexualized (I especially liked the effect with the Flash’s long hair). The characterization in general was that the characters were themselves as men or as women.
There was one exception.
One big hairy exception.
Apparently we are not beyond writing alternate universe male characters as less capable than their female counterparts. I hadn’t braced myself for that, so Wonderman threw me for a loop. But there he was, the anti-Wonder Woman. The closest personality in the franchise to him would have been Hercules, not Diana. I even thought he was possibly a male version of Hippolyta but when I went back and reread I saw that Superwoman called him Dane several times. That told me for sure that he was Diana, which made no sense.
I’m going to have to enter exposition mode to explain why (this is an alternate universe DC comic book I’m analyzing, and we need a history recap), so if you intend to read this story and be surprised you may want to stop now.
The story was set during Amazons Attack. In our normal universe, Diana disappeared for a year or so after the fallout for killing Max Lord in a very public manner (Sacrifice, Infinite Crisis, 52), blending into the fabric of the normal universe. After she comes back, her mother returns to life through Circe’s machinations and leads an assault on the United States because she thinks they arrested Diana and the witch messed with her head a little. As is traditional at DC, Wonder Woman spends the entire miniseries trying to make peace between the two countries, the writer spends the entire miniseries setting up another major crossover event, and the bloggers spend the entire miniseries complaining about the story quality and arguing over whether or not the rampaging Amazons are a comment on the feminist movement.
On Earth-11 there’s a big difference. After killing Maxine Lord in a very public manner, Wonderman is thrown out of the Justice League and banished to Elysium Island so he can think about what he’s done. He returns when the Amazon Men attack the United States — as the first warrior off the boat. He was naturally unhappy about being rejected. Wonderman handled things in a remarkably different manner from Wonder Woman. He yelled. He yelled violently and emotionally, presumably pumping his fist as punctuation. He was enraged. He was unreasonable. He seems to be leading the assault. Judging by dialogue of the female heroes around him, this was not unexpected.
Here is where things went wrong. This change could have been wonderful. There’s more than a few story ideas that could present this divergence as a great comment on gender and perception. As prevalent sexist attitudes stand, a burly male hero twisting the neck of a mentally powered female supervillain on television would have gone over a lot worse than the female hero twisting the male villain’s neck. People are not generally conditioned to see women are violent physical aggressors, so a female hero would get a certain disbelief from the populace. They’d rationalize it. A male hero would get much more brutal condemnation, because the stereotype puts women as victims of such violence and men as aggressors. People would believe what they had seen was exactly as it looked much more easily.
Thing is, when you do a commentary like that you shouldn’t forget the commentary. You have to put something in the story to at least imply that the assumption about men and women is wrong. Otherwise you just shovel more shit on the pile. One more story that paints men as violent buffoons and women as sweet reluctant heroes.
A lot of characterization is done through dialogue. We already know these characters through our regular universe, so some of the dialogue in this issue serves to show how the characters are the same. They spend a lot of time making regenderized versions of their standard dialogue (Green Arrow’s opinion about the Amazon Warriors, Kylie’s wearied plea to talk this over like reasonable adults, Batwoman’s lecturing) and those lines come alive because we know their personalities. They also spend a lot of time talking about what an unreasonable muscle-head Wonderman is. These comments could serve as characterization for everyone else. They could show how sexist they are. But because those sexist assumptions are confirmed by the story, they instead serve to characterize Wonderman.
There was nothing to suggest that the other characters were wrong about. There was nothing to suggest that Luthor’s description of Wonderman as a “testosterone-filled lout” (a description given before Wonderman is even shown in the story) was wrong. Superwoman doesn’t even correct her when she calls him that, she just changes the subject. Wonderman’s first appearance, surrounded by burly Amazon men and yelling at the top of his lungs about his vengeance supports this. Other heroes reinforce this with their quips. Their attempts to reason with him are half-hearted and peppered with other characters dismissing those attempts as useless (click on the image below to see the exchange between Martian Manhunter and Blue Beetle). There’s the implication by the Atom that he’s not in his right mind, but none of the characters seem to find his behavior surprising or out of character. They don’t wonder how he could be so unreasonable. They wonder how he could be so unreasonable.
And Dane is the only character with dialogue that shows how different he is from his counterpart.
It has nothing to do with the Amazons being Men instead of Women. The point of the Amazons, classically speaking, is that they act the same as men. True, Marston had some interesting beliefs about which gender was more fit for civilization, but the Amazons were rebooted to be closer to the classical version long ago. Themiscyran women act exactly as Ancient Greek men did, when left alone they build a peaceful civilization full of sport and philosophy, when dealing with the brutal rest of the world they pick up arms and start kicking ass. Diana was raised in peaceful isolation, so she has a different outlook on the basic nature of humanity. That’s why she always has to make peace between the Amazons and the rest of the world.
On Earth-11, the Amazon Men act as Ancient Greek warriors do but with Dane’s behavior there’s no indication they have a peaceful civilization at home. Presumably the male version of Diana was raised in the peaceful isolation as she was, but he came out of it with a martial temperament rather than a love of peace. Judging from the dialogue, this is not new. This is how he always behaves.
The only difference between these two universes is the gender of the characters.
Every other Justice League member does just as well as the opposite gender, except for Wonder Woman. The point seems to be that Wonder Woman’s peaceable character traits are incapable of manifesting in a man. The refined level-headed conscientious warrior who always tries the diplomatic route when the option presents itself is a blunt, hairy brute with a simple gender change. (They never saw fit to give Wonderman the “Chiseled Good Looks of Adonis” or anything close, even though they show the Gods are gender-switched too and a masculine Aphrodite would have been present at his birth. There are ways to draw a hairy man in a beard looking like the pinnacle of rugged male beauty, and this was not how it was done. He was not designed to be appealing.) The understanding woman who worked hard to regain the trust of the world after she’d lost it becomes a bitter man who brings an army to attack when that trust is lost — a bitter man who betrays his friend’s reputation where the female version would not. The defining characteristics of Diana, her confidence, her wisdom and her loyalty are not inherent to the character, they’re a side-effect of estrogen and a uterus. Traded in for male parts those characteristics disappear and all that’s left is pride and a thirst for vengeance.
And they say feminists hate men.