thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Secret Histories: Wonder Woman, Feminism, and Uncomfortable Truths

In books, feminism on March 16, 2015 at 6:02 am

Sarah S. lepore_wonder_woman_coverThe secret history of Wonder Woman is in many ways the secret history of feminism in America. Or at least this is how it is portrayed in historian Jill Lepore’s book of the same title. Feminism in the U.S.—indeed, the history of women in the U.S.—seems to be constantly forgotten and rediscovered and forgotten again. And so too Wonder Woman, who’s popularity and overt feminism have both ebbed and swelled and waned again.

The secret history of Wonder Woman is also the secret history of the character’s creator—William Moulton Marston—and the inspirations for his super-powered Amazonian—his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston and his/their second wife, Olive Byrne. Psychologist Marston invented the polygraph but failed to bring it into reputable use, earned extra income during college by writing movie scripts, and advocated for women’s rights while at Harvard. He met suffragette Holloway, a woman whose brain, ambition, and political fervor exceeded even his own. But Marston was also a proponent of free love. He carried on one affair that Holloway at least tolerated, possibly participated in, setting the stage for their relationship with one of his college students—Byrne.

The secret history of Wonder Woman includes a bevy of such tricky or uncomfortable realities. One of these is Olive Byrne’s mother, Ethel Byrne, a birth control and free love activist almost forgotten by history, overshadowed by her better connected and more PR savvy sister, Margaret Sanger. And so it includes her daughter, Olive, who grew up learning about birth control and free love from her mother and aunt, and then lived in a secret polyamourous relationship with Marston and Holloway from the time she graduated college to Marston’s death. (Byrne and Holloway continued to live together for the rest of their lives as well.) And it includes Marston, who let his ego mask his general inadequacies and lack of financial success (Holloway was the primary breadwinner for the household and the only consistent one) and yet this same ego also emboldened him to woo and “marry” two such brilliant women.

House of Cards, The Bachelor, and the Villainesses of TV

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2015 at 4:52 pm

Melissa Sexton

On the surface, the two shows I have been watching this month don’t have much in common with each other. The Bachelor and House of Cards seem pitched to very different audiences and to engage in very different kinds of story-telling. House of Cards is a surprise innovation, the product of the new age of media that goes straight to viewers through Netflix’s online streaming platform. The Bachelor represents all the excesses of big studio television plus the excesses of reality television: expensive mansions, helicopter rides to exotic locations, and petty in-fighting highlighted by studio editing. House of Cards seems pitched to savvy viewers, male and female alike, with a longing for complex motivations and a streak of skepticism towards “the establishment.” The Bachelor, on the other hand, is a show unabashedly aimed at a certain imagined type of women. It simultaneously mocks and exults in drunk, emotional engagement, hosting live viewing parties and even crashing some viewing parties in LA.

Given all these differences, I would never have thought to draw any connections between these shows if not for the overlap in their airing: Season 19 of The Bachelor just wrapped up last week, while Season 3 of House of Cards was released [for real, this time] during the last week of February. And yet, watching these shows back to back, I noticed a striking similarity in how these narratives depict women. In both shows, women’s power is ultimately equated with emotional manipulation. But even when such manipulation gets the women what they want, the audience is encouraged to condemn these characters as villains. Such a morality tale is unsurprising in the world of The Bachelor. But in the shadowy, cruel world of House of Cards, Claire Underwood’s oscillation between a will to power and self-doubt is a striking contrast to the unrepentant manipulation of her husband Frank. Why, I asked myself, in such a dark world, is our central female character still under a kind of narrative pressure to be genuine – or, more particularly, why is she still pressured to be truly “nice” to the women who stand in the way of her goals?

***

This double-bind of female friendship and female competition is pretty much a staple of reality television programming. Think of all the cold, aspiring models, season after season, who announced their entrance into America’s Next Top Model by insisting, “I’m not here to make friends.” Long-time fans of the show can guess with some certainty that the editorial inclusion of such footage signals a young woman’s villainization; such ambition, even within a competition, inevitably suggests a woman who will become a “drama queen” or a “bitch” and find herself cut from the running.

Girls’ Progressive Portrait of Women’s Right to Choose

In reproductive health, Television on February 26, 2015 at 1:34 pm

Sarah Todd

The HBO series Girls dodged its first abortion plot line, rendering a character’s appointment at the clinic unnecessary when she started bleeding unexpectedly (whether this was a miscarriage or a belated period was left unclear). Sunday’s episode “Close Up,” on the other hand, addresses the subject head-on.

At the outset of the episode, Adam (Adam Driver) and his new girlfriend Mimi-Rose Howard (Gillian Jacobs) are slumbering in their airy, light-filled Brooklyn loft. Adam wakes up first and easing out of bed gingerly, tucking in Mimi-Rose and kissing her on the cheek. When she descends the stairs to the spacious patio, Adam is waiting for her with a breakfast of crusty bread, a cheese plate and some kind of grilled meat. Clearly they have fallen into some kind of alternate-dimension Anthropologie catalogue. Regardless, Adam gallantly dusts off the chair for Mimi-Rose and scoops her into his arms.

This kind of seven-week-old relationship bliss can’t last for long. Sure enough, when Adam tries to persuade Mimi-Rose to go for a run later that morning, she tells him she can’t because she’s just had an abortion.

What follows is one of the more progressive abortion storylines in recent memory, with Jenny Slate’s wonderful Obvious Child achieving another high-water mark. The episode makes clear that a woman’s right to choose is inherently bound up with her right to be an independent human being.

Mimi-Rose’s abortion happens on her own terms. She chooses to end her pregnancy without talking to Adam first—not because she wants to lie to him, but because she already knows what she wants to do. Then she decides to tell Adam about it after she’s had the procedure, since she wants to be open with him. And when Adam reacts angrily, she gives him space to process his feelings without letting him make her feel guilty or ashamed.

Each of these decisions is in keeping with what the audience knows of Mimi-Rose’s character. As we learned in the previous episode, this is a woman who dumped her childhood sweetheart at age nine because she realized their relationship was interfering with her creativity. She has both the confidence and the self-knowledge to make independent decisions about her life. And it is this independence, rather than the fact of the abortion itself, with which Adam struggles.

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