Imagine for a moment that we did away with 80% of the male super heroes. Across all media formats, we had just 2 or 3 male characters and any particular year you were lucky to get a movie that headlined just one of them. How would that change your relationship with the characters? Your views on how they were portrayed?
Given the plethora of male characters, this scenario is hard to imagine. However, when it comes to female characters, it's pretty much the status quo. And that, is the problem with Wonder Woman and discussions of which actress is picked to represent her.
For women with geeky interests, Wonder Woman is often THE comic book hero you are taught to honor and revere. With the lack of choice, strong bonds form between many girls and women of all different bodies, interests, outlooks, wants, and desires. These various views on Wonder Women are often diametrically opposed to each other.
Now many of these diverse and divergent groups can find what they need in the myriad of representations of Wonder Woman on the pages of comic books. You can follow her adventures in her swimsuitesque outfit or you can read the books where she wears pants. Maybe she's thinner in some and more muscular in others. You often, but not always, find her presented in a way that matches your relationship with the character.
The same is not true with movies. It's been how long since Wonder Woman has appeared in a movie? (Try never.) So not only do we have the issue of many diverse groups having to agree on a singular representation of a fictional character, we don't have many alternatives to look forward to in order to sooth our souls when our representation of Wonder Woman isn't chosen. It is, for some, even harder when it feels like the woman chosen seems to reinforce certain messages that we receive all the time from Hollywood about which women are suitable to be represented (although in the case of this particular choice, it's even more complicated).
Normally we could just talk about our feelings but speaking about women's bodies is itself problematic. There's an awful lot of body policing out there. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish discussions about the lack of diversity in the representation of women's bodies with those that are intended to police those same bodies, decreasing diversity.
It's tempting to say that we shouldn't talk about women's bodies at all. I mean, isn't the writing and acting so much more important? But that lack of discussion is what allows the lack of diversity to continue.
Yes, I'm saying there are no easy answers. I'm also saying the problem isn't with Wonder Woman but rather the fact that we lack diversity and use her as a crutch. We don't let her be an individual. The lack of other female characters that can gain the same level of broad appeal means that she will continue to be an amalgam rather than a true character in her own right. And that makes me the saddest of all. We need to discuss these limits. We need to both discuss the representation of Wonder Woman for this movie, directly referencing the body of the actress. We also need to talk about how those discussions are also symptomatic of the issue. The complexity of the problem requires a complexity in approaching it.
An early photojournalist and photographer, Frances Benjamin Johnston came from a wealthy and well-connected family in West Virginia. She started by taking portraits of friends and family before touring Europe in the 1890s. In 1894 she opened her own studio in Washington, DC. She worked for a number of newspapers and magazines and once was called "Photographer to the American court." In addition to photographing many famous people, including Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Admiral Dewey, and the Roosevelt children, she is well known for her pictures of architecture and gardens. She also used her prominence in her field to encourage other women to enter the craft.
She came from a family of accomplished women. Her mother, Frances Antoinette Johnston, worked for the Baltimore Sun as a congressional journalist and dramatic critic. These political connections helped the younger Johnston gain entry as an official White House photographer for the Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Taft presidential administrations.
Over three thousand of her images are available online through the Library of Congress Johnston (Frances Benjamin) collection. Many of them are of gardens and historic homes, including over a thousand hand colored photos.
If you're looking for a strong woman who rubbed elbows with the elite and traveled the world, Frances Benjamin Johnston is a great person to look to.
Recently I watched episode four of the PBS series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. This episode covered 1897-1940, discussing the development of an African American middle class and black owned businesses. During the episode, Professor Gates mentioned an exhibit by W.E.B. Du Bois at the 1900 Paris Exposition that had pictures of African Americans in a variety of settings, many of them concentrating on the middle class. Curious, I did an internet search and found that many of the pictures, in addition to other pictures gathered by Du Bois, were available through the Library of Congress.
I love these pictures because they contradict the typical narrative spread in the mainstream media at the time and today. While I understand how they can themselves be problematic, I think they help show the diversity and complexity of the African American experience. Due to segregation, many African Americans could seek service only from fellow African Americans. Additionally, by purchasing from black-owned businesses, that helped keep the money in the community.
These pictures could be useful to anyone running or playing in or publishing a late Victorian/early Edwardian US game. They could show that whites weren't the only college students or athletes, that a number of African Americans also studied the sciences, were nuns, etc. Given the time period they are from, they are classified by the Library of Congress as "No known restrictions on publication." This means that they are likely to be in the public domain, although you should always consult an attorney if you are unsure.
The full collection can be found at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/search/?st=grid&co=anedub. Here are some sample images.
Looking for some inspiration for your bard? I recently watched the movie The Sapphires and loved it. It follows the adventure of four singers who happen to be aboriginal women, showing the racism they face in Australia and their dreams of catching their big break by playing for the troops in Vietnam. Three of them are sisters: Gail - the headstrong lead singer, Cynthia - a jilted bride-to-be recently left at the altar, and Julie - a young mother who wants a better life for her and her son. They are joined by their cousin Kay, a woman who had been stolen from her family because her skin was pale enough to pass as white in Australian society. Along the way they are helped by a down-on-his-luck Irishman, Dave Lovelace.
The Bechdel Test
The movie passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Not only are there four main characters who are also women, but they rarely talk about men or relationships with each other. Most of the conversations are about their lives and their goals. All of the female characters have their own personalities with relatively complex motivations and backstory. I also love how they handle the women's sexuality. They have sex, fall in love, and everything but those elements to ordinary life are not presented in a negative light. They also are allowed to be sexy and sexual without being sexualized.
Race and Racism
In addition to being featuring four aboriginal women, the film weaves race and racism into its narrative in interesting and compelling ways. The sisters enter a talent contest but are denied the prize due to their background. The relationship between Gail and Kay is strained as result of Kay's upbringing away from the family, a reference to Australia's Stolen Generations. Martin Luther King Jr's assassination is referenced and provides an impetus for them to perform for the troops. Many of the US soldiers are African-American.
While these elements are all presented, they are not the driving force of the story. The primary story is about the adventure of the four women. However, the issues of race are woven in nicely and something that could help game masters and game designers alike.
Based on Real Life
The movie is inspired by the real lives of the original Sapphires: Laurel Robinson, Beverly Briggs and Naomi Mayers. They were a band of three aboriginal women who played at clubs, parties, universities, and more in the Melbourne area. They were asked to perform for the troops in Vietnam, but two of the original members refused to go as a protest against the war. The remaining member, Robinson, went with her sister, Lois Peeler. Robinson's son, Tony Briggs, used their story as inspiration for a play based on their experiences. This play was the basis of the movie. The role of Lovelace was created for the film.
The creators behind slash: romance without boundaries were kind enough to send me a demo copy of their game. For those who haven't heard about it, the goal is to create the best fan-fiction romantic couples. Game play is similar to Apples to Apples, Cards Against Humanity. One person, the matchmaker, chooses a person card in their hand and the rest of the group chooses a person from theirs that they think would make a great pairing. Of course, great is highly subjective. In some versions of game play, the matchmaker may ask players to "defend" their choice by asking them to create fanfiction on the spot, often according to a prompt. For instance, the player might be asked to describe the first date between the two.
For some of my friends, this game would be absolutely perfect. They love fanfiction and this game is a natural fit for them. But I like it for a number of additional reasons. First, I find that this sort of knowledge doesn't get rewarded as often as it should. Being able to converse about a wide range of people and characters - everyone from pop culture to historical figures to characters from literature are included. In the version of the game where you have to create fanfic, you probably could use more than passing familiarity with a name to make it truly epic.
Additionally, I think overall it might break some barriers (although it doesn't have to). There's no gender, sexual orientation, or other barriers to suggesting a match.
Beyond the game itself, I want to use this for character generation, especially NPCs. When I want to create a new character, I could just pull a card from the rather large deck and use some elements from that person to create a character. It might even be cool to pull two or three and create a character that combines aspects of those people.
Currently, the cards are available for download through the game website. Games by Playdate also have a Kickstarter for the game. Filamena Young has a great interview with Meg about the game on Gaming as Women.
Thanks to Meg McGinley-Crowe, Glenn Givens, and Dan Brian for putting this on my radar. It's awesome.