Tuesday, November 28, 2006

I Wonder

Over the weekend, I had a friend over who had not previously been to my apartment. Eying my few Wonder Woman figures, mugs, and books, he expressed some surprise. Clearly he has never known a true comic geek aficionado, who would consider my meager number of Wonder Woman items light-weight. Taking a closer look at Mego Wonder Woman’s fully-rooted eyelashes, my friend asked, “But why do you like Wonder Woman? What’s so special about her?”

At first the question took me totally by surprise. How could anybody, especially another gay man, not see Wonder Woman’s innate fabulousness? Doesn't Wonder Woman’s appeal simply resonate through her very visage?

After I ordered my ex-friend to leave my house, I began to think about his question. Part of my affection for Diana, of course, centers on some childhood memories (discussed a bit in this post). She is one of the few childhood pop-culture memories that hasn't yet been totally burned. George Lucas’s abominations, known as Episodes I-III, ruined the Star Wars mythology forever. Forever. The Black Hole, as we have discussed, is far too creaky to really obsess over as an adult. So, from those big three of my childhood, that leaves Wonder Woman. I have little doubt that Joss Whedon will soon trash that as well. Whedon's interviews have shown almost no understanding of the character. Instead, he wants to simply make a brunette Buffy. That, though, is another entry.

I am hardly alone in my love for the Amazon Princess. Gay men of a certain age often share the Lynda-Carter series as a fond childhood memory. Some take it to far greater extremes than even I. For instance, I only joke about sewing a Wonder Woman costume. This guy sewed his own costume, wore it, and won an award. That’s real devotion and I want to be his friend:

All of this makes me wonder, just why are gay men drawn to certain iconic women figures? Their names are easy to conjure and border on the gay stereotype: Cher, Bette Davis, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lucille Ball, Wonder Woman, and countless others. Anecdotal evidence suggests that queer interest in these women starts in our childhoods, long before most of us even have the language to express our queer sexual desires.

Not every gay boy, obviously, loves every gay icon. I, for instance, found neither Streisand nor Bette Middler all that interesting. Yet, even if we don’t personally share the love for particular figures, we can’t deny their durability within the community. Attend any large gathering of drag queens and you will find all the usual suspects.

Young gay boys don’t just randomly select any woman to idolize. Joan Crawford slinging a gun captures our imagination. Or, even better, Faye Dunawy playing Joan Crawford slinging a can of cleanser really gets our blood going. Few queer boys, though, remember or care about Veronica Lake or Gene Tierney. What makes us choose one figure over another probably has some of the same randomness as what makes the larger public suddenly make any individual a star.

Queer boys, though, focus on women characters that share some basic elements. From Cher to Wonder Woman, our women icons all blended and bended masculine and feminine gender expectations. The women who attract our attention generally fought for success in traditionally masculine roles. In films or in real life, queer-women-icons did everything from shrewdly running a business to making the axis powers fold. Because they succeeded in men’s realms, they often faced sexist criticism.

Yet, they also retained their sexual attractiveness throughout. They were not at all asexual. If anything, they appeared above the mundane middle-class concerns about sexuality.

During our youth, most of us couldn’t claim a desire for same-sex sex. During the seventies, finding a positive image of a gay man was as rare as a tank of gas. We therefore clung to anybody who rebelled against the gender status quo.

In our society, ideas about sexuality and gender intertwine. In the twentieth century, the most popular images of gay men and lesbians showed them as either androgynous or as clownish imitators of heterosexual men and women. Medical authorities even named homosexuals “the third sex” during the first half of the century. Real happiness, these experts told us, only came to men who behaved like Neanderthals and women who spent their days mindlessly baking cookies. Everybody who fell outside those roles were trapped in a gender purgatory.

Given these societal pressures to conform to gender roles and heterosexuality, it’s not hard to see why claiming a gay identity felt like a scary and alienating divorce from the rest of society. We simply didn’t see many happy alternatives for men-loving-men. Developing into an adult filled many of us with dread if it meant we had to conform to a heterosexual world. In reality, we also saw that marriage trapped many of the heterosexuals who surrounded us as well. We searched for any alternatives.

Seeing powerful women toss out the expectations for feminine gender roles and heterosexual marriage resonated with our desires to avoid the same traps. They also showed that having feminine traits was not the same as lacking power or agency. Every time Cher disparaged Sonny’s height or announced her dissatisfaction with married life, we saw alternatives, however small, to the vision of gender handed to us from every other angle. Even endlessly recycled images provided options, like Scarlett O’Hara. The Southern belle succeeded both in business and in getting all the men at Twelve Oaks (through she accomplished the first using slave labor and the latter through lies and manipulation – but that’s is another entry entirely). Despite doing decidedly masculine behaviors and bucking social conventions, Scarlett was never a bridesmaid. She somehow always ended up the bride.

These iconic women also often tapped into a familiar pattern of constantly inventing a public self. The masks, poses, and costumes donned by people like Cher and Madonna spoke to the performance and gender-drag that we all do. Taking it to extremes, these women showed the farce of gender.

In the case of the television version of Wonder Woman, we got some basic fantasies about super powers and magic. Others have also suggested that all comic heroes appeal to gay men because of the “secret identity” and “double-life” narratives.

Wonder Woman had other appeals for young queer boys as well. You didn’t need to be Freud to piece things together about her single-gendered homeland. Even the youngest child thought to ask, “If there were no men on Paradise Island, just how did they have babies?” The slightly more precocious kids cut to the chase, “What about sex? Did this mean that *gasp* they had sex with each other? Can two women have sex together? Does that mean two men can too? Is that a possibility?” Boy, howdy, is it!

The ABC and CBS versions of Wonder Woman downplayed the homoerotic elements of Diana’s Amazon sisters. Instead, Paradise Island appeared as a never-ending slumber party, complete with flouncy, shortie nighties that all the Amazons wore. Those must have been really convenient for all that building, hiking, and jumping they did. Apparently the Amazons spent their days alternating between Olympic competitions and tickle fights. The comic, especially the Marston-era comics, suggested a much more erotic island paradise.

In either version, though, Diana appears as both the greatest hero and the largest outcast on both the island and in “man’s world.” Contrary to attempts to name Wonder Woman a lesbian, it was actually her very heterosexual screaming-thigh-sweats for Steve Trevor that made her seem so queer to her Amazon sisters. They all liked being without men. That was normal. Diana seemed peculiar because of her desire for a man.

When Diana appeared in the United States, she found life confusing. Yet, her life also became a constant adventure. She never apologized for being herself. She didn’t get stuck always doing traditionally feminine tasks, like vapidly vacuuming, nor did she become a masculine dull jock thud. She had far more physical strength than all the men around her (what young queer boy didn’t want to be physically stronger than all the hetero boys surrounding him?), but she also had all the men’s attention. Even while stopping an airplane with her bare hands, she made sure her hair stayed in place.

Like many of us queer boys, Wonder Woman occupied a liminal space of gender and sexuality. She merged traditional masculine and feminine roles, packing them all in her nifty ol’-glory swimsuit.

Perhaps the more images we have of actual queer men, the less younger queer generations will canonize such female figures. For better or worse, the next generation of gay men came of age with shows like Will and Grace and Queer as Folk as common place. While very flawed, these types of shows gave them actual gay characters to look at. I, though, hope Wonder Woman always stays around the queer circles.


Anonymous said...

You just reminded me of a brief but deep obsession I had with Eleanor of Aquitaine. If there was a historical figure who deserved to be a queer male role model, it was her, from (allegedly) appearing during the Crusades topless and with a gold chain hanging from her nipples to raising armies against her second husband, Henry II of England.

And Katharine Hepburn's performance as her in "The Lion In Winter"...now there's some blurring the bondaries between genders with a vengeance!

ZaPaper said...

That's a cool analysis of the Wonder Woman image! I was just a little too young to watch her on TV, and now my only and immediate association with her is a "straight" (not!) guy who pretended to date me and eventually revealed his really unusual masturbation technique involving a Wonder Woman book (which had water-proof pages).

Anonymous said...

I did not know WW was on 2 networks... was Lynda Carter in both?

Given the criteria you listed, I suspect Pink will be the next Streisand.

vuboq said...

Wonder Woman Schmonder Woman. I think we need to hear more about the "friend" that "visited your apartment."

Oh, and the guy you are stalking? What new movie is he in? And why aren't you going to see it?

Doug said...

Damn awesome! I kinda wondered, and now I know.

I watched WW as a kid. I also liked the Bionic Woman. Me and my lesbian cousin would always play that, me being Steve Austin and her being Jaime Sommers. My cousin even had a german shepherd, who got renamed Max for the afternoon.

Anonymous said...

I think you are right on many levels. I often think that this is why queer boys emulate women is because they see it as the only way of having their sexual object choice (a man attracted to a woman)(well, if kids really are thinking about sexual objects, and I'm not so sure I was). It is interesting to think what younger gay kids will think having had Will and Grace around, but I wonder if they will really have seen the during their formative years. A lot of gay visibility doesn't necessarily extend to what might be called "family" entertainment, so it will be interesting to see.

GayProf said...

Chad: Oddly enough, I think Wonder Woman did the same thing somewhere during the PĂ©rez era.

ZaPaper: Oh, Lord! And people think I have an unhealthy realtionship with Wonder Woman.

JPDC: Yeah, CBS bought the Lynda-Carter show after the first season. When it moved to CBS, they switched from the World-War-II era to the contemporary 1970s. I actually tended to like the CBS version a bit more (though others take a strong pro-ABC stance). Yes, it's that deep.

As for P!nk, I know for sure that this gay man adores her.

VUBOQ: What? Are you saying that you are jealous of my friend? Is that what you are trying to tell me?

Kal Penn is in that National Lapoon's: Rise of Taj thingy. I am going to pass.

Doug: I liked Bionic Woman as well, but she tended to just do the same things over and over. How many times did we need to see her shove her bionic legs out of a run-away car to stop it? Plus, Lindsy Wagnor refused to have her character show any violence. That was a noble aspiration, but made for a kinda limited action show.

Now, Charlie's Angels was where the real action hid out.

Kalvin: I agree about the object choice notion. It even appeared in the first version of this entry. The post was too long as it was, though, so some stuff ended on the cutting room floor.

Yeah, it will depend if young kids got to see those shows. Moreover, I am not sure that either Will or Jack were interesting enough characters to capture young queer boys' imagination.

Anonymous said...

This is Seekeronos btw... Bloogger is being a real snit at the moment and won't log in nicely.

Hmmm. As a young, semi-queer boy growing up I had more of a thing for Superman than I did for Wonder Woman.

Plus, I never gave much thought to the lack of men on Paradise Island, although it is possible that they kept some guys in cages in some remote corner of the island who they would keep on short leashes to clean things up after the wild drinking and tickle parties were finished. Oh, and since they were near immortals, I guess that biological clock was something of a non-issue, hence no need to breed?

As for the Youtube guy who made his own costume... WOW. That *is* obsession taken to a whole new level.

Did you notice the "Red Son" (Superman alternate universe where Baby Kal-El's rocket lands in the USSR) version of Wonder Woman in his collection?

(It is on the second or third shelf down, toward the center left).

Yes, comic book geekery aboundeth here. :)

Roger Owen Green said...

Interesting. When I was in the play Boys in the Band in 1975, I remember Judy Garland was referenced - the song "Get Happy!", specifically. And the iconic interests (Garland, Streisand, Crawford, et al.), which I thought was just media cliche, actually existed with the (actual) gay cast members.

Will said...

I've somehow eluded diva-worship, no matter how much of my life I spend in opera houses. My obsessions tend to be over men, whatever their public arena, who exude masculinity and around whom there's an irresistible eau de testosterone.

That said I thought Anthony, with his stash of "mint in the box" Wonder Women and the beautifully constructed costume, was a sweet and totally credible votary. I hope Linda Carter knows of his existence and devotion.

Elizabeth McClung said...

thanks gay prof for trying to attempt some explaination on this subject - which still I admit puzzles me - namely because I remember the 70's & 80's as FULL of gay or what would now be openly camp men on TV - from Battlestar Galactica to Three's company. I also can't quite figure out why lesbians generally don't do the same - I mean there is always Cagney and Lacey, or Bionic Woman - maybe I am missing something but I watched a lot of Bonanza but never wanted to identify with "Hoss" (Though I did think a female "Fall Guy" would make a great improvement) - I mean that's what Charlie's Angel's were about. And Hill Street Blues.

Anyway, zapaper, I REALLY want to hear the rest of this story - I just can't believe that it ended with the waterproof wonder woman book.

maggie said...

Wonderwoman was also an icon for the would be feminists.

She didn't need a man to get the job done. Not a lesbian, but a woman who was in control.(And with super powers,wow!)

She also had a sexy outfit, cool!
You don't have to be dowdy to be a woman in charge. :)

Anonymous said...

Alien territory for me. I missed the boat on women as gay icons. I think their personal lives are often an important element. Tragedy and near-death experiences are always good. The women you mentioned were/are “gutsy” who unapologetically plowed through life on their own terms. Many had an unconventional beauty. One common element shared is they could be seen as survivors.

Me? My gaydar clicked on early, certainly before the age of ten. Roddy McDowall!!! If Roddy McDowall was in it, I HAD to see it. My somewhat bewildered parents accommodated my requests (or sobbing tantrums). He was elegant, refined and cerebral. Dare I say graceful as well? He wouldn’t dream of doing anything as boorish as playing football. I knew in my little heart he was just like me.

GayProf said...

SeekerOnos: Yes, I noticed the Red Son Wonder Woman. He also had the Kingdom Come version as well. Surprising, though, I saw no Mego. And he calls himself a devotee. Pfft.

ROG: You were in a production of Boys in the Band? What was that like? When? Where?

Will and Wayout: That strikes me as a little sad that you never had any prominent woman figure that captured your imagination. It's a lot of fun...

You know that Roddy McDowall voiced the robot V.I.N.Cent. in The Black Hole, right?

Elizabeth: I hear that lesbians had a thing for that Xena woman. Not true? She always seemed like a cheap knock off of Wonder Woman to me.

Maggie: Don't forget that all of her fashion accessories also served a real purpose. Tiara= boomerang, earrings= oxygen delivery devices for outer space, and, of course, those nifty bracelets.

Anonymous said...

I found no interest in the female gender as a child until one day looking through my mothers library. I found a book Titiled: The Incredible Scarlet O'neil. I was enthralled. It seems this woman could press a nerve on her wrist and become instantly Invisible! Oh, to have that power! My sister caught me reading it and took it away. But I had read enough to get my young imagination rolling. Oh how I prayed for such power. When things were going bad I would press the nerve in my wrist and close my eyes but they could still see me. I think if it wasn't for Scarlet O'Neil I might not have made it to adulthood and wouldn't have realized I was different until much later. Thanks Ms. O'neil!

Anonymous said...

Hey the Tonner Doll Co. is coming out a new Wonder Woman Doll. She's a beauty

The Persian said...

I had an unhealthy fascination with Jaclyn Smith as a kid. I didn't like Kate Smith, Cheryl Ladd or Farah Faucet, just Jaclyn. I used to have that show thru a window reflection since (at 7 years old) my parents would never let me stay up late enough to watch it.

Linda Carter, well I certainly know who she is/was but was not ever drawn to her.


Anonymous said...

This was a very interesting post for me, because I have never had a serious female role model growing up. Curious, that.

Dorian said...

Chalk me up as another kid who didn't have a female idol. I was too busy thinking confusing thoughts about men to worry too much abut the women. I did like Wonder Woman, but that had more to do with the fact that it was a super-hero tv show. Although I suppose you can trace my fondness for Dolly Parton to seeing her on tv and movies when I was little.

Anonymous said...

For our host:


Hope that works.

I didn't have a role model, male or female, growing up, but Eleanor of Aquitaine? She deserves to be a role model to all - gay, straight, male, female, whatever!

Will said...

Gayprof, I didn't mean to give the impression that no strong or independent women, real or imagined, engaged my interest and imagination. Far from it! But I never got into actual worship--collecting memorabilia, impersonation, following her public appearances around, etc., etc.

Perhaps it's because I had two indomitable and charismatic women in the generations before mine and grew up knowing that women could do anything they wanted, had minds equal to, and often sharper than men's, women who didn't seek men out except when it was their personal choice.

When the women's liberation movement began, I must confess to having often wondered, "if my grandmother and aunt could have accomplished all that they did in their lives and careers, why couldn't other women? These two remarkable women were my personal heros and role models.

Anonymous said...

No, GayProf, I didn’t know that and had to check the dates to figure out why. When The Black Hole was released, I was 29yo. Not that a childhood icon is necessarily outgrown, but I had kinda moved on to, um... other things by then.

the ancient one

GayProf said...

Ed: Sounds like Ms. O'Neil counts to me.

Michael and Laura Elizabeth: She looks expensive. My love for Diana might have some limits. Besides, once you have the Mego doll, what more do you really need?

Persian: Oooh, I was a serious devotee of the Angels. Well, until Kate Jackson left. Then the show was dead to me.

Larry, Dorian, and Laura Elizabeth: Again, the lack of women heroes just seems sad. I don't mean that you had to go the extent of Anthony in the YouTube film. That's a little over the top. Still, some woman character or person who captured your imagination? Anybody?

Will: It's because the women around you were exceptions that we needed the feminist movement, no?

WayOut: So, I suppose mentioning that Roddy McDowall guest starred on two (Yes, TWO!) Wonder Woman episodes would be moot.

Anonymous said...

My female "hero" growing up was Princess Diana. I started compiling a scrap book of her pictures when I was about 8 years old. I also secretly owned a Princess Di cut-out doll and loved dressing her in her evening gowns. This I kept hidden in a box in my bedroom. When I was 11 I wrote her a fan letter and received back an autographed picture. This was like a religious icon to me. I was 15 when Diana died and it felt like a very personal loss.

Anonymous said...

I never could stand Kate Jackson. I saw a movie that starred Kate Jackson and Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean. Harry and Michael played gay lovers and Kate was Michaels wife. Michael was torn between both worlds and Kate held on for dear life. Harry was Michaels doctor. It was a good made for t.v.type movie.

Anonymous said...

My favorite superhero has to be superman. Toner

Anonymous said...

I looked through my old comic book collection to see if maybe there was a Wonder Woman but no. Mostly Tarzan of the apes with some Superman and Batman. Also, even then my sissy side would take hold and I'd arrive home with a Betty and Veronica. Veronica had class and Betty had style what more could a sissy boy want?

Anonymous said...

I've been doing some Wonder Woman research. What is your favorite recreation of her Goldern Age, Siver Age, Bronze Age or modern?