With Wonder Woman’s tenure as the United Nations Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls coming to a somewhat unceremonious end, I can’t help wanting to do a postmortem on her appointment and the controversy surrounding it. In addition to finding the whole affair oddly fascinating, I found it revealing—not only about global attitudes towards feminism but on how the most recognizable symbols of pop culture feminism are often inherently polarizing.
While I do not question that all parties involved genuinely had nothing but good intentions, there were some serious objections raised almost immediately (after the collective online shout of “cool!” dissipated, anyways) and they bear further examination, especially in light of the apparent success of said objections.
The three things that were most controversial about this “appointment” are all significant. The primary objections were that Wonder Woman is overtly sexualized, that a fictional rather than a real woman was unacceptable for such a role, and that giving “Wonder Woman” that voice for women was effectively just handing it to the DC Comics marketing department. While there were a few objections related to her history of violence and some that simply being a comic book character delegitimized her, the former was not really unique to this case in any particularly interesting way and the latter is something I won’t dignify with a response.
No matter your thoughts on the politics of the campaign, this is an ad you’d probably want to stop and look at.
Before I jump into the fallout over all this, it’s probably a good idea to recap what exactly happened. While this was a big deal in geek and/or feminist circles, it was quick and a lot of us may have missed most of it. In October of 2016, the UN announced that Wonder Woman would be named an honorary ambassador. The press release mentioned that as part of a campaign with DC and Warner Bros, Wonder Woman would be connected to everything from fighting abuse to promoting examples of women making a difference. What would WW actually do though? Primarily, be featured in various social media campaigns to promote gender equality as part of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.
Without getting into depressing (and obvious) specifics, I’ve been thinking about fascism lately—specifically the concept of “utopian fascism”. As is often the case when grappling with such issues, I turned to science fiction for a guide. Fortunately, there is a fictional government perfectly suited to explore the question “can democracy and universal prosperity ever be successfully combined with fascism?”: Star Trek’s Federation.
The Federation’s exact political structure is sometimes difficult to pin down, but it seems to be a combination of a democratic interplanetary parliament, a massive military alliance, and a totalitarian bureaucracy.
This isn’t what it looks like.
Now don’t panic! This isn’t going to be super depressing nor is it going to be about space Nazis (unless you count the above-pictured episode TOS episode “Patterns of Force”). When I talk about fascism, I’m talking about the philosophical concept as it dates back to Rome, not the actual horrific reality of modern-day fascism. I am not about to ruin all of our moods by writing some anti-Starfleet propaganda… at least, not too much of it. What I will do is take a look at how the Federation is utopian, how it’s fascist, how (and if) the two can be combined, and what that all says about our vision of a perfect government.
The Fifth Element is one of those movies that it often seems like everyone likes.From the comic book visual aesthetic to the ostentatious yet believable nature of the universe, there is a lot to love about this flick. It is also a film that plays with tropes and genre staples in almost every scene. It could be said to be the opposite of a film like Young Frankenstein, which is a parody film that loves its genre; Fifth Element is a genre film that loves its parody. But while he employs many tropes, director Luc Besson seems to be deconstructing and analyzing those very cliches in a way that often makes the result truly brilliant.
One of the things that gets dissected in this fashion is gender. The way that gender and heroism are intertwined in sci-fi is a constant presence in almost any scene in which there is significant development of the protagonists, Leeloo and Korben Dallas. While these moments sometimes play into expectations and brush with actual tropiness, they also make some crucial points in a way that resonates with an unusually diverse audience.
My primary focus will be three things: Bruce Willis as the “generic action hero”, The Supreme Being as a female archetype, and of course, Ruby Rhod.
Ever since that famous scene in Planet of the Apes with the temple dedicated to an unexploded nuclear missile, I’ve been fascinated with the concept of post-apocalyptic theology. The duality of simultaneously worshiping death and finding ways to validate the lives of those who continue to survive takes on a very literal dynamic in these stories and it allows for some unique and fascinating narrative possibilities. While numerous classic geek works from Tank Girl to Adventure Time examine this in one way or another, I have long been particularly fascinated by the Children of Atom from Fallout. Granted, with the amount of time I’ve spent playing Fallout games, I know more about their beliefs than I do many real-life religions, but something about the Children of Atom hits right at the issue of what our artistic musings about post-apocalyptic religion really say about us as a culture.
Top: Warboys pray at the altar of V8 in Mad Max: Fury Road. Bottom: High Confessor Tektus leads the Children of Atom in praying to a nuclear submarine in Fallout 4.
While we don’t know what a post-apocalyptic religion would actually look like, we have real-life cults with apocalyptic visions that share some commonalities. We also have real-life mainstream religions that reference apocalyptic events. Large-scale death and destruction are a historical part of most major religions, in some cases as an allegorical component to the philosophy and in some cases as a literal part of the religion’s history, often both. Many of these stories are given apocalyptic qualities in their retelling. But “fictional anthropologies” of future religions are incredibly revealing and deeply fascinating. From the various “mini culture” city-states deifying gasoline and automobiles in the wastes of Mad Max’s Australia, to a monk guarding the knowledge of the past in Canticle for Leibowitz, to a tribe worshiping the power of the Ringworld engineers’ long abandoned buildings, there are some common themes among our favorite works in this sub-genre that are worth exploring. To me, the Church of Atom is an arguably perfect example of those themes, so I have chosen to focus mainly on them throughout this post.
There are a great many things about Firefly that are special. The show is a perfect illustration of Joss Whedon’s belief that “good sci-fi can’t be something you like, it has to be something you love1.” Fans of the show continue to love the Firefly universe over a decade after its one-season run was completed. The thing most of us “browncoats” would likely say we love most, though, is the people. The relationships in Fireflyfeel authentic. They feel grounded despite the fact that much of what we see happens while flying through space.
No matter if it’s the close sibling bond between Simon and River, the surprisingly sweet marriage of Wash and Zoe, the “everyone’s frenemy” that is Jayne, or the socially complex love between Mal and Inara or Kaylee and Simon, the way these people interact with each other is what we keep coming back for. But of all the relationships on Firefly, the one that is arguably the most significant is the friendship between Zoe and Malcolm.
“Honestly sir, I think you got ripped off.”—Zoe on seeing Serenity for the first time
My first introduction to VirusComix.com was via a friend who sent me a one-shot issue of Subnormality. It was a densely packed comic where a space marine is retelling the sci-fi horror he had just experienced to a prostitute at a large commercial chain brothel on Christmas Eve. The story is simultaneously a parable about human resource consumption and territorial expansion and an examination of the little details that make up the human emotional experience through the lens of a brothel conversation. Needless to say, I was hooked.
When I got to the strip that told the story of an atomic cowgirl named Shango and her nuclear physicist mule dealing with gender stereotypes in the Old West… well, whatever’s a step up from hooked, I was that.
The one-shots by creator Winston Rowntree remain fantastic and, as the years go on, they start to become more issues than strips, eventually telling multiple simultaneous narratives happening in the same place to different people. As the individual one-shot comics got longer and more wordy over the years, they started to introduce recurring characters and themes. The current issue is a massive narrative about the lives of several people in a city. We see, for example, the experience of the writer and her friend and the experience of the people moving furniture outside the window or the experience of the band backstage after the concert they’re at. The way the details of these peoples’ lives are presented, often requiring the reader to track multiple independent narratives happening simultaneously in the same place, is an amazing experience. It almost feels fractal in nature; the minute details of how individuals relate to each other forms a sort of meta narrative about humanity itself.
Many of you have seen the Steven Universe episode “The Answer”. Many of you had the same reaction I did which was an unequivocal “this is the sweetest thing ever!” Some of us were surprised (and impressed) that they’d been allowed to “get away” with it, even in a show like SU. But what was it about “The Answer” that was so groundbreaking? It was a seriously cute love story about two immediately likeable characters; a fairy tale romance that was as innocent as it was beautiful. It was also the first fairy tale most of us had ever encountered where the two star-crossed lovers were both female.
If ever there was an example of innocent (and insanely adorable) love in a cartoon, this was it. It’s a storybook romance about an aristocratic seer and an impulsive soldier falling in love and defying the established order to be together, becoming rebels fighting for the survival of Earth in the process. That is the kind of story that seems like it would be a natural fit for a Disney movie. It’s the kind of story kids are exposed to on a regular basis and it’s considered appropriate, healthy, and even necessary. But none of those stories have queer characters, especially not in the leads.
The fact that Ruby and Sapphire are depicted as women is what made this groundbreaking, even though it is the kind of story most kids grow up watching over and over. By featuring two female characters instead of a heterosexual couple, this episode pushed boundaries—boundaries that make no sense to begin with. I mean, this isn’t an Adult Swim show we’re talking about. We’re not seeing or hearing about anything that could be considered remotely explicit; there’s not even a kiss in the episode! It’s a cartoon that no parent would consider objecting to if it told a heteronormative story with the exact same plot and dialogue. The simple fact that the two leads happen to be women made it seem taboo; or at least “edgy”. It often feels like these stories can’t exist in children’s media.
But, like all inclusive stories, the people being included gain while nobody else loses. Everyone who watched got to see a fairy tale romance about two of our favorite characters, and girls realizing that they love other girls got to see that their stories are just as beautiful and inspiring and normal as any other. It is precisely the lack of stories like this that give them the air of controversy and sometimes make them feel… different.
That is what Rebecca Sugar and SU’s other creators attempted to address with The Answer and in adapting it to book form, they have taken an incredible (and incredibly cool) new step in that direction.