Last week, Vom Marlowe complained about Wonder Woman’s new costume. But the outfit, with its black leggings and cheesy leather jacket, was not just a sartorial disaster. DC Comics excised most of the patriotic symbolism from Wonder Woman’s look, a decision that drove Vom to desperate measures. And by desperate measures, I mean she actually agreed with something on Fox News: Wonder Woman had become un-American.
Superhero comics used to be comfortable with unabashed displays of patriotism. In the 40s, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and about a thousand imitators fought the Nazis while wearing some combination of, stars, stripes, and eagles. In the 60s, Nazi-bashing was replaced by commie-smashing, and many of the new teams were directly tied to the U.S. government. Even the X-Men, representatives of a despised minority, worked with the FBI. And, of course, Superman stood for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”
But nowadays, unqualified patriotism is a rare thing in the superhero genre. Heroes with names like the Star-Spangled Soaring-Eagle Flag-man are long gone. Most modern superheroes are either indifferent or openly hostile toward the U.S. government. Marvel spent all of 2009 telling stories about outlaw superheroes fighting a tyrannical government agency run by Norman Osborn, better known as the Green Goblin. Even Superman has abandoned his American roots: according to the film Superman Returns, he now stands for “Truth, Justice … and all that stuff.”
Why has flag-waving gone out of style among superheroes? Ask a right-wing blogger, and their answer will probably be that the majority of comic book creators are effete, East Coast, artsy-fartsy liberals who hate America. As an effete, East Coast, artsy-fartsy liberal (who doesn’t hate America), it’s hard to deny the fact that displays of patriotism are less popular with the Left. Why this is the case could be a whole blog post in itself, but suffice to say that comic creators today offer far less unqualified love to their country than comic creators in the past, and much of that is due to left-wing political values.
The corporate publishers have also played an important role in the decline of superhero patriots. Marvel (owned by Disney) and DC Comics (owned by Time Warner) are multinational corporations that sell their superheroes (and related merchandise) all over the world. Unfortunately for heroes who wear star-spangled underwear, America is not as popular as it once was, and displays of American patriotism don’t play well in overseas markets. Entertainment conglomerates, for whom national affiliation is little more than an issue of tax liability, have no qualms about downplaying the American roots of certain intellectual properties. Thus, Wonder Woman now wears a leather jacket and Superman stands for “all that other stuff.”
But is the lack of patriotism, specifically nu-Wonder Woman’s lack of patriotism, actually a bad thing? Vom Marlowe certainly thinks so, and she argues quite persuasively that American girls aren’t going to be inspired by leather jackets and black leggings. Historically, patriotism was a male-dominated phenomenon (the term is derived from Greek word for fatherland). Wonder Woman, along with Rosie the Riveter and a few other cultural icons, encouraged women to be patriots and to take pride in being American. This is no small development, and it’s easy to see how Wonder Woman could inspire young women to serve their country. And if patriotism was all about public service and fighting Nazis, it would be hard to disagree with Vom.
But reducing the patriotic symbolism in Wonder Woman’s costume is not necessarily a terrible thing. I don’t believe that patriotism is any more virtuous than racial, ethnic, or class affiliation. It’s just one way for people to prioritize their loyalties and define their in-group. Before anyone jumps down my throat, I’m not suggesting that patriotism is inherently evil, but like any means of dividing up humanity it can potentially lead to evil behavior, especially when it’s exploited by the state. From the perspective of this bleeding-heart liberal, the character could actually improve by defining herself in global, rather than national, terms.
If there’s a problem with the current incarnation of Wonder Woman, it’s that she doesn’t define herself as anything (or at least not as anything that’s relevant to real people). Fox News is wrong (shocking, I know) when they accuse her of being ‘globalized,’ as that would require that Wonder Woman show any interest in the broader issues of Earth. Instead, the current story seems to be shaping into yet another parochial conflict involving wayward Amazons and evil gods. It’s worth noting that Wonder Woman wasn’t always so vacuous. William Marston’s Wonder Woman was a unique concept that combined American triumphalism with social revitalization through the new woman and loving submission. Subsequent writers watered down Marston’s crackpot ideology but replaced it with nothing. Wonder Woman’s patriotic symbolism devolved into nostalgia, an acknowledgment of her connection to World War II, but lacking any deeper meaning.* And even the World War II origins were thrown out after the 1987 reboot. The new ‘globalized’ costume is not so much a break with the past as the culmination of a decades-long trend towards irrelevancy.
(On a related note, if anyone has a pool going for how long this “bold, new direction” will last before the inevitable reset, put me down for 1 year 2 months. Though I’m probably giving DC more credit than it deserves.)
*Vom is correct in pointing out that the star-spangled underroos represent freedom, and almost everyone would agree that freedom is good. On the other hand, even something as universally praised as freedom means very different things to different groups.