glaurung_quena: (golden age wonder woman)
The backstory for Wonder Woman's people has always been a bit strange and never made all that much sense. Attempts by DC to "modernize" the Amazons in the 80's and more recently have fixed some cosmetic issues but the underlying lack of sense has continued or even gotten worse.

Let's start with the Greeks )

America has the Wild West of the 1880's, Japan has the era of the Samurai; similarly, the ancient Greeks had their Heroic Age, roughly corresponding to what archaeologists today call the Mycenaean period in Greece (1500-1100 BCE). While the Scythian culture with its warrior women seems to have emerged in the 9th century (around the same time as archaic Greece), in fiction, the Greeks backdated Amazons to make them contemporaneous with their beloved legendary heroes and demigods. Which had the unfortunate effect of making centuries of classics scholars dismiss the whole concept of Amazons as a myth, despite the very level-headed accounts of them in surviving Greek non-fiction.

Amazons in the comics

Enter William Marston, who needed a particular kind of backstory for the character of Wonder Woman. His goal was propaganda, pushing for a vision of the world in which women were seen as superior to men and their right to rule the world was self-evident. Which meant Wonder Woman had to be an outsider, someone from a culture where women were powerful and in charge, who could look upon American customs of sexism as quaint and silly. What better background to give her than to make her an Amazon? Warning, bad mythology next 500 meters )

Next time, I'll continue by looking at the revamped origin story that the Amazons got from DC in the late 80's.
glaurung_quena: (Default)
As [personal profile] oursin likes to remind her readers, "secret history" is an overused marketing term for "actually quite well established history that people buying the book were maybe not acquainted with," but in this case it's definitely appropriate, as the history of Wonder Woman is inextricably tied to the polyamorous union of four adults who created her, and who did everything they could to keep their relationship an utter secret not just from the world but from their own children.

Various histories of Wonder Woman written by comics fans in this century have included details about William Marston's unconventional family and his fetishism for bondage, but all of them are frustratingly superficial and give little or no credit to his partners as co-creators, or to the political and social movements that influenced their creation of Wonder Woman.

Jill Lepore's book reveals that Wonder Woman, like all the writings attributed to William Marston, was a collaborative effort between Marston and his three partners, all feminists and suffragists like himself. Clues from college yearbooks and the like suggest that Elizabeth Holloway, Olive Byrne, and Marjorie Huntley were all bisexual and that the Marston family was not just polygamous but fully polyamorous. It is a truth universally acknowledged that bisexual women in want of children should find themselves an agreeable donor )
Overall, an excellent history not only of Wonder Woman, but also a look at one slice of the history of feminism in the years between the passage of suffrage and women's liberation, showing how there was never actually an end to activism and the push for greater equality. Recommended.
glaurung_quena: (Default)
Many feminists wiser than I have commented at length about Heroes, and how the series suffers from the same sexism and lack of non-cookie-cutter female characters that permeates modern superhero comics. I am sure many of those bloggers have already noted that, in last week's premiere, the first new female character for this season -- Lethal Guatemalan Girl -- is essentially a darker skinned version of Multiple Personality Girl from last season -- both have awesome powers not fully within their control, which manifest only when they allow their darker nature to take over (said darker nature then calmly and amorally solves the problem at hand by killing lots of people).

That said, yesterday I caught up on reading Steven Grant's column, and then wandered into the living room where [livejournal.com profile] morgan_dhu was watching the series premiere of Moonlight, a cheap knock-off of "Forever Knight" which seemed to have no faith in the interestingness of its basic premise -- it wasn't enough that he's a vampire private eye and she's a journalist and together they solve supernatural crimes. No, he also had to be the detective who was hired to track her down years ago when evil vampires kidnapped her when she was a young girl. I had seen and complained to [livejournal.com profile] morgan_dhu about this recent trend of new TV shows loading down each character with enough angst, secrets, mysterious pasts and unlikely coincidences to fully flesh out three or four characters before.

The new Bionic Woman is another prime example: Jamie Summers has a mysterious past (sealed juvenile court records), a lost pregnancy, a delinquent hacker sister, a creepy stalker boyfriend she is too stupid to dump, and a nemesis who wants to kill her for mysterious reasons. It used to be that TV shows would either stick to a very simple backstory (A crew of men and women explore deep space in the future; a ranch family deals with the trials and tribulations of life in the old west), or else they built up a complex mythos slowly over time (X-files, Buffy, Forever Knight, Highlander) -- for instance, I think Moonlight managed to rip off a full season's worth of worldbuilding on Forever Knight into a single 42 minute show.

This time, however, the annoying stupid TV writers collided in my feeble brain with something Steven Grant said recently:

A problem is that the pressures of the market have encouraged a lot of publishers and editors to confuse gimmicks (a badge that exists mainly to set a project apart from other projects) with hooks (elements specifically calculated to arrest a reader's attention and make him want to buy/read the book). It's not surprising the talent pool has become confused about it as well. The desire is strong for material that at least on the surface seems to have something that allows it to bob above the vast ocean of identikit comics out there now, but desire and desperation are easy to confuse, and desperation tends to allow people to talk themselves into believing something that's not true is true, and a lot of missteps get made that way.


I think this has become unfortunately true of TV writing as well. And I think I know why (or at least one why - see endnote for a second why), but it's a complicated multipart why.

1, The huge proliferation of TV stations and TV shows, has made the demand for writers much greater, which in turn has meant that there aren't enough high quality writers to go around. (NB:the problem in comics is quite different, and has more to do with comics creators being increasingly drawn from the tiny shrinking pool of comics fans, instead of from the world of professional writers as a whole).

2, Those writers being hired to do TV today grew up in a society where the typical "avid reader" goes through only five to nine books a year. Which means most of that evergrowing group of writers getting work in TV are not readers; they draw their inspiration, their concepts of storytelling, and their intuitive knowledge of how narrative works, not primarily from full length books (novels, plays, epic poems, sagas, etc), but from movies, TV, comics, and video games.

3, Novels (read that as shorthand for novels, plays, epic poems, sagas, and other long-form narratives) are long. They can display the full range of storytelling possibilities. Movies, TV, comics, and video games are all short: like short stories, they have to use short cuts to tell their stories, and cannot display the full range of storytelling -- stuff inevitably gets truncated, abridged, or left out.

4, If you mistake the abbreviated, abridged form for the complete thing, you get a distorted idea of how it worked. Archaeologists looked at the artifacts from early American hunting camps and concluded that the late ice-age Clovis culture had killed off all of North America's large indigenous wildlife in an orgy of hunting. They forgot that what they were seeing were hunting camps, not full-blown settlements; so naturally there weren't all that many seeds and plant harvesting tools alongside the bones and spearpoints. And then ideas of Pre-columbian origins went down the completely wrong path for 30 or 40 years.

5, The same goes for writing: today's crop of TV writers has formed their ideas of how to tell stories based on comic books and other TV shows, instead of novels. So, instead of understanding, at an intuitive level, why TV shows have certain traits, they just assume that those traits constitute the essence of TV writing... and the result is an endless succession of shows that are bad, poorly constructed and poorly conceived, with characters who come across more as a collection of pitch points (gimmicks in Steven Grant's terms) than as real, believable characters.

Endnote: The above is an intrinsic explanation for a lot of the bad writing that I've seen proliferating on TV of late. A second, extrinsic explanation has to do with pitches. As studios have tried more and more to take the risk out of their business (because they don't understand that all creative industries are inherently and unavoidably crap shoots -- 90% of your products will not sell, and there's no way to predict what 10% will prove popular ahead of time), they have started micromanaging the creative process more and more. At the same time, they are working longer and longer hours, in the grand American delusion that quantity of work is the same as quality. So they no longer have time to even read a proper executive summary of the series ideas they are micromanaging. Instead, they base their decisions on pitch points -- so writers are forced to convey not just the overall concept of the show, but everything about the show in the form of pitches -- 30 seconds worth of talking, or 3 sentences of writing.

Add the two together and I think you've got a pretty good explanation for why TV shows these days seem to want to burden their characters with huge, complex, overwrought backstories, instead of keeping things simple.

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