In a world where online feminist discourse is largely defined by female voices, Noah Berlatsky’s work strikes me as especially important. As a self-described feminist, Berlatsky is interested in gender, comics, and culture, and his pop culture criticism is an incisive exploration of how looking critically at gender norms is essential for both women and men.
Berlatsky’s writing has been featured in diverse publications such as Slate, the Atlantic, and Reason Magazine. He’s also the editor of The Hooded Utilitarian, a comics and culture site.
The Rumpus: I really loved reading your book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.
Noah Berlatsky: Oh good! That is what every author wants to hear.
Rumpus: I think I was more familiar with the iconography of Wonder Woman than the comics. The text is much kinkier and queerer than I imagined. Were you surprised, too, when you first started your research?
Berlatsky: By the time I started the research on the book per se, I’d been blogging about the comics for three years or thereabouts, so I knew pretty well what I was getting into. I was definitely taken aback when I first saw the comics though. Dirk Deppey, who ran the wonderful and sadly defunct Journalista! linkblog at the Comics Journal, wrote about one issue. I believe it was the one where Wonder Woman has to escape from a gimp mask, and starts thinking about the history of bondage as she bites through the mask and frees herself. And yes, I definitely looked at that and said, Holy crap! I’d never really thought much about Wonder Woman at all; the few comics I’d seen were uniformly awful, as most latter-day Wonder Woman comics have been. But I started to try to read more and five years later, here we are.
Rumpus: It is so interesting that you got your start in blogging, since some academics seem to view this sort of popular writing as fundamentally separate from scholarship. Do you feel they are more connected?
Berlatsky: I think it depends. I actually got an MA in history from the University of Chicago after I got my BA, and though I dropped out of the PhD program to go fail at writing poetry, I’ve always been very comfortable with, and interested in, academic approaches to criticism. My blogging about Wonder Woman was often fairly theoretical from the get-go, even though it obviously wasn’t in an academic setting officially.
There are a lot of comics scholars who blog for the web. My site, The Hooded Utilitarian, has been hosting a academic group blog, PencilPanelPage, this year, and I’ve met lots of comics academics through blogging, including folks who helped me connect with Rutgers University Press, like Ben Saunders and my editor at the press Corey Creekmur. Comics also has a history of fan scholarship outside of the academy, so I think that the boundaries between blogging and academia may be more porous in comics than in some other fields. At the same time, there can be something of a division. I think my book is more willing to engage with arguments from blogs or material from blogs than academic books sometimes are. For instance, I talk about Maxwell’s Unintentionally Sexual Comic Book Covers page; I think that sort of thing may have thrown my peer reviewers a little.
Rumpus: Do you feel as though you are writing for different audiences when you blog, as opposed to when you are writing freelance articles for popular magazines? I remember that one of your pieces on Orange is the New Black was picked up by Jezebel, for example, and that the discourse surrounding that particular article didn’t really put your work in the context of the research you have been working on for a long time.
Berlatsky: Yeah, to some degree. Hooded Utilitarian has somewhat turned from a solo blog into a magazine type thing over the years; other people now write for it regularly. But it’s still pretty small, and no one gets paid—so it’s much more of a place for me, and whoever wants to join me, to write about whatever we happen to be obsessed with or interested in. So I was able to blog through every issue of the original Wonder Woman run over the course of a few years, which, you know, the Atlantic isn’t going to let me do that, because there’s no news hook and there’s not a gigantic audience for 60-year-old pop culture.
The Jezebel thing you’re talking about was in response to my piece on how OITNB‘s institutional critique of prison doesn’t really work in part because of the way it deals with gender, right? Which they turned into me wanting a show about a women’s prison to focus on men. My editor warned me that there would be pushback to that article, and he was correct. But I don’t know that I really expect folks who read my work in a venue like the Atlantic to necessarily have read my blogging, or really to have any idea who I am. When you blog at a small space like my site, you do get a community and an audience who have a relationship with you, which is lovely. At other sites, folks are usually there because they are interested in the site, not in you. I think there are some commenters and readers on the Atlantic who do know me at this point (for better or worse), but when Jezebel reacts to an article like that, they don’t know or care much about who wrote it, or what I’ve said in the past. Maybe someday I’ll become so famous that even Jezebel knows who I am, but I’m not holding my breath.
Rumpus: Ha! Well I’ve been a huge fan of your work for a while now. Do you consider yourself to be a part of the online feminist community? Or do you feel like the gender analysis you do is separate from that?
Berlatsky: I think there are various different online feminist communities, and I’m definitely connected to some of them. For example, I’ve written a fair bit about sex worker issues for a number of venues, and I follow and talk to people who work on those issues on social media. A lot of the gender analysis I do is based in part on reading theory and academic work—though there’s a good bit of that online too, and often I’ve connected with academic writers online as well — I’m friends and online acquaintances with people like Julia Serano and Sharon Marcus, both of whose academic work is hugely important to my book. So I guess the answer is that feminist communities online and offline are overlapping, and that I’ve learned a ton from many of them.
Rumpus: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Berlatsky: Yep! So much of my writing and thinking is influenced by feminist thinkers that I feel like it would be disingenuous to say I wasn’t a feminist. I know there’s some controversy about whether guys should identify as feminist or not, and if other folks (men or women) arrive at a different place on that, that’s fine. But for me, I feel like feminism is really important to men as well as women. As Julia Serano says, misogyny is targeted not just at women, but at femininity, which means that men who are perceived as feminine in one way or another (because they stay at home and watch the kids, because they listen to the wrong music, because they’re gay) can be targeted for violence or censure. I think feminism is the best way to critique those kinds of gender stereotypes. As I think I said in another piece somewhere, men won’t really be free until women are, which is something a lot of feminists have said as well. (Marge Piercy’s A Woman on the Edge of Time can be read as making this point, I think.)
Rumpus: Those are all great points. I agree that considering the ways that masculinity is a construct is also really important. That’s one of the reasons I was so intrigued by Marston’s Wonder Woman. His ideas about feminism and gender relations struck me as so radical, especially when viewed next to more modern reboots of Wonder Woman, which you point out seem so much more retrograde and patriarchal.Why do you think there has been a shift away from a queer and radical Wonder Woman?
Berlatsky: I think the question is more, how did that queer and radical Wonder Woman ever get published in the first place? Those original Wonder Woman comics are pretty unique in the history of superhero publishing. There were some fairly sexualized early superhero comics (like Sheena Queen of the Jungle) and there are some latter-day superhero comics that deal with sexual material (like Watchmen or The Boys), but as far as superhero comics for 9-year-olds advocating for lesbianism, bondage, and matriarchal utopia—Wonder Woman is pretty much it.
So, I guess two things—the Wonder Woman comics were really linked to Marston and Peter’s particular vision. None of the folks who have succeeded them have been very interested in or committed to that vision; that’s the case for even relatively reverent interpreters like Gail Simone and Greg Rucka and George Perez.
Second, the reason people haven’t been committed to it is that the vision is still, in many ways, radical and uncomfortable.
People have trouble reconciling feminism and bondage. Jill Lepore, in her book, for example, does what many critics have done, and tries to make the sexual aspect of the bondage out to be theoretically inconsequential. She says that the bondage imagery comes from a feminist tradition or iconography of women breaking out of chains. And yes, Marston uses bondage imagery as a way to graphically represent female liberation. But that doesn’t explain why Wonder Woman herself has a bondage lasso which she uses to tie other people up. It doesn’t explain why you have women tying up other women. It doesn’t explain why you’ve got the scene tying up a female gorilla. It doesn’t explain the pink ectoplasmic ropes of bondage goo. It doesn’t explain all the hypnosis, or the venus girdles of love, or the mind control imprinting machine.
Rumpus: Do you think Marston and Peter’s obsession with themes like bondage are problematic when considering Wonder Woman as a feminist figure?
Berlatsky: Do I think bondage is problematic in terms of feminism?
Rumpus: Feminists are pretty split on this concept in general, right?
Berlatsky: Yeah… it’s a tricky question. I would say that most feminist thinkers find them “problematic” in the sense that they’re controversial among feminists. So, I don’t think the problems that people might have with Marston’s theories means he’s not a feminist, any more than the problems people might have with Andrea Dworkin or Susie Bright (to name two other feminists I admire) means that they’re not feminists.
In terms of my own take on whether Marston’s theories are incompatible with feminism—I think there are kind of a couple of parts to that. But to stick to the sexual content specifically, I think third wave feminists (like Susie Bright) have done a lot to argue that kink and feminism don’t have to be at odds with each other. Bondage means a lot of different things in Marston; it means women breaking out of chains; it means submission to love; it means men and women playing with different gendered roles and gendered positions. I don’t think any of those things necessarily has to be unfeminist. It also sometimes means sexual objectification and control of women, which can in certain situations be a problem for Marston’s feminism, in my view—but I think he’s usually pretty careful about it.To me, one of the things that’s inspiring about Marston/Peter, and one of the reasons I think the comics are important to feminism, is that they anticipate the third wave in a lot of ways. This is a pro-sex feminism before the second wave started really. So I think it’s a resource that thinks about feminism and bondage and sex in way that parallels third wave concerns, but approaches them often from a different angle, or from some different preconceptions. Which I think is really valuable—and makes it frustrating that so much of the discussion of the comics has been devoted to trying to get rid of the sex, or in saying that the sex is irrelevant. These comics are important to feminism because of the kink.
Rumpus: I loved learning about how this type of sex-positive feminism existed pre-second wave. I was also interested in how culturally specific a lot of your analysis is. You draw on many Western theorists when considering how gender is constructed in Wonder Woman, for example, your use of Freud and a number of second and third-wave feminist thinkers. Do you feel that there are any cultural biases when we consider women’s empowerment and disempowerment? In other words, do you feel that the way dominance and submission is portrayed in Wonder Woman is culturally specific or do you think it touches on more universal themes?
Berlatsky: Huh; that’s an interesting question. In the book, I point out that Marston’s theories arguably parallel some of the social relationships in ’90s Japan, which Anne Allison talks about in her book Permitted and Prohibited Desires. So there’s one place at least where there seem to be some cross-cultural connections.
Marston himself saw his theories about dominance and submission and female superiority as natural, or universally true, I think. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone else really taking that claim seriously; he was an idiosyncratic crank in a lot of ways. And he was also really racist; I don’t talk about this in the book as much as I should, maybe, but he and Peter regularly use racist depictions of Asian people, and Wonder Woman #19 is a shockingly ugly portrayal of black people as evil animalistic Nazis. So I don’t think Marston is revealing universal, cross-cultural truths about the way men and women are, or must be. But I do think he’s a surprising, and sometimes profound, thinker about how gender can work, or what gender can mean to sex, sexuality, freedom, violence—a whole range of things. And I think those insights are still relevant, or could be relevant, to many people.
Rumpus: And that leads me to my last question. How do you think our perception of Wonder Woman will evolve going forward? Especially in a world where those cultural boundaries are blurring more and more?
Berlatsky: Obviously, for me, in an ideal world, everyone would read my book and then read the original comics and the world would be swept with enthusiasm for bizarre sexy bondage Wonder Woman with space kangaroos.
Realistically, though, it’s more likely that Wonder Woman will continue to be a minor pop culture icon, who a lot of people recognize but few people care about that much. The comics with her have vacillated between horrible and moderately entertaining for decades, and I don’t see any sign of that changing anytime soon. The one game changer could be the films; if Wonder Woman becomes a very popular cinema character, then that’ll be the way that most people know about her. So I’d say the future of Wonder Woman is mostly up to Zach Snyder and Gal Gadot. My guess would be that she’ll be turned into a fairly typical female kick-ass action hero. She’ll hit things and brood and look hot, not necessarily in that order.
Noah Berlatsky’s book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, will be released on January 14, 2015.
All images provided by Noah Berlatsky.