JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Discovering kindness without 'mawkish humility'

Date

Damon Young

Celebrating superheroes like Wonder Woman, who provide children with a richer fantasy world than tiaras and tea parties can alone, writes Damon Young.

Wonder Woman: a feminist superhero.

Wonder Woman: a feminist superhero. Photo: Philippa Hawker

A party for a five year old girl. Nine fairies with wings, frills and sparkly wands. Pink, white, pink, lilac, pink. And one more princess, my daughter: in blue skirt with white stars, red tank-top, gold headband and bright red boots. Yes: Wonder Woman amongst the gentle kings' daughters and magical sprites.

This is not a rant against pink. And I have no problem with fairies, even if the modern Disney versions have lost their ancient ambiguity (Some fairies were said to crash parties, cause death by dancing, or seduce men into drowning). While kids' gendered play might have consequences for their adult life, the cause and effect is by no means clear.

My point here is to celebrate superheroes like Wonder Woman, who provide my daughter with a richer fantasy world than tiaras and tea parties can alone.

Damon Young.

Damon Young.

Wonder Woman was invented by William Mouton Marston in the early '40s, with help from his wife, Elizabeth. Like her husband, Elizabeth was a psychologist, and the two collaborated on the invention of the first modern lie detector. The couple lived in a polyamorous relationship with Olive Byrne. It was Elizabeth who suggested William's character be a woman, and Wonder Woman was reportedly based on both Elizabeth and Olive. In short: Wonder Woman's literary parents were feminists.

Alongside some dodgy ideas - women having "almost a monopoly on pure submissive emotion," for example - William Marston's basic vision was emancipatory. Wonder Woman combated evil, not by killing or horrifying, but by encouraging honesty and love. "Wonder Woman binds the victims again in love chains," he wrote, "she makes them submit to a loving superior, a beneficent mistress or master." She was as strong as Superman, of course, and punched like a heavyweight. But Diana of Themyscira (as Wonder Woman is also known) also knew gentleness and care, and inspired devotion. She was neither a stereotypical strongman nor helpless maiden, but a feminist amalgam of muscle, morality and mind.

Wonder Woman was not without problems, of course. Diana was often drawn by men for men, which does shed some light on her odd uniform choices over the years and early penchant for bondage. After the Second World War, when women were shoved out of the factories and back into the kitchen, Wonder Woman too was domesticated by DC comics: more romantic starlet, fawning over her beau, than action hero. Recent stories have dulled her distinctiveness. My daughter and I will talk about this, too.

Damon Young's daughter in her Wonder Woman costume.

Damon Young's daughter in her Wonder Woman costume.

But for the most part, the Amazon has been a rare pop culture feminist. This is why Gloria Steinem put her on the cover of the first stand-alone Ms. magazine in 1972. "It's been many years since I was a child," Steinem said recently, "but I still always buy two bracelets." Diana has provided generations with a symbol, not only of modern women, but also of humanity more generally: independence without egotistic brutality, kindness without mawkish humility.

In stories like Greg Rucka's Hiketeia or Christopher Moeller's JLA: A League of One, Wonder Woman is tough, intelligent and righteous, but also wary of intimacy, often lonely, and ambivalent about freedom. She boldly contains multitudes.

Which brings me back to my daughter, striking a pose in her home-made Wonder Woman costume, or asleep with Wonder Woman Chronicles on her pillow. I will not vilify her frou-frou pink tulle. But I will introduce her, with heroes like Diana, to less stereotypically 'feminine' virtues: physical strength and martial courage, emotional autonomy, and a concern for public life.

The point is not to make my daughter a feminist, as if character were a mechanical production. The point is to give my parental consent to her independence in the present, so that she no longer needs my consent in the future. Comics will not do this alone - raising many-sided kids is a many-sided job. But insofar as we must imagine; insofar as fantasy can goad existential growth; insofar as play is also serious - I want my daughter to do so ambitiously.

Damon Young is a philosopher and author. His essay on comic book superheroes, "Illustrating Ethical Dilemmas", will appear in the winter Meanjin.

45 comments so far

  • "I will introduce her, with heroes like Diana, to less stereotypically 'feminine' virtues: physical strength and martial courage, emotional autonomy, and a concern for public life".

    The entire point it that 'feminine' stereotypes are just that - stereotypes. Girls don't need to be 'introduced' to physical strength, courage, emotional autonomy and concern for public life. These are characteristics inherent to all human beings regardless of their sex.

    Commenter
    Lee
    Date and time
    May 06, 2013, 8:57AM
    • Lee, I dont think those qualities are inherent (in the meaning of naturally being there) because of have seen that children copy their parents.
      If the parents do not have courage, emotional autonomy and concern for others - neither do their children.
      You only have to watch the news and see the behaviour, innocent people being king-hit, innocent peoples property being damaged, rubbish being strewn in public places...as examples.
      Damon, I applaud your decision to be active in training your children in love+consideration for themselves and others.

      Commenter
      E10
      Date and time
      May 06, 2013, 9:50AM
    • @ E10:

      I totally agree that the best way to instill qualities like "courage, emotional autonomy and concern for others" in children is for parents to display those qualities themselves.

      Unfortunately what a lot of parents seem to model for their children instead is selfishness, blaming others instead of taking responsibility for your actions and extreme competitiveness to the point that others are trampled on for the achievement of one's goals.

      (I am a mother of four).

      Commenter
      MO4
      Date and time
      May 06, 2013, 12:05PM
  • Well to be fair the reason why she became a romantic type character post WWII was because superheroes died off in the 1950's only to be resurrected with the introduction of the Barry Allen Flash under Julie Schwartz editorial direction which started the Silver Age of comics and the modern interpretations of these characters as we know them today.

    Commenter
    Peter
    Date and time
    May 06, 2013, 9:45AM
    • Why would you want to associate anything about your daughter with feminism? There are many flavours but at it's heart it's discriminatory and doesn't promote equality. My daughter dresses up in hand me down superman outfits that her older brother use to wear. If she wants fairies and princesses she gets that too. No point in limiting or labelling your children, especially with tired sexist labels such as "feminism". The idea that wearing a blue nappy with stars on it and a low cut top is "feminist" sounds odd to me. Thankfully your daughter's outfit is not so risque. There is a real danger of sexualising children before they are ready for it.

      I also don't teach my son to be a masculinist. There are plenty of ways in which we discriminate against men too, but no one wants to talk about that - it's not fashionable, not hip, cool or politically correct. What we need to do is allow our children to choose what they want to do without obstruction.

      Commenter
      FeminismIsDevisive
      Date and time
      May 06, 2013, 10:26AM
      • FD - totally agree and very well said.

        Commenter
        LovedUp
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        May 06, 2013, 11:28AM
      • "What we need to do is allow our children to choose what they want to do without obstruction"

        I agree, but when almost everything around them is "pink and princessy", girls may feel that's all there is for them. Girls need more exposure to alternatives (such as female superheroes and strong female characters in films) so that they realize there are other choices out there for them. It's now starting to happen, with characters like Katniss in the film Hunger Games, but the process has been a bit slow.

        As a child (in the 60s) I was incensed that there were so many male superheroes, but so few female ones and that females (eg: in the kids TV series "Lost in Space") were so ineffectual in comparison to the males. I solved the problem by making up my own female superheroes whose adventures my three younger sisters and I acted out when we played. I even wrote a letter of protest to the TV programmers about it (aged 7) which was actually published in the letters section. (Of course at the age of 7 the outfits I made up for my girl superheroes were not "sexy". They were practical).

        Commenter
        MO4
        Date and time
        May 06, 2013, 11:55AM
      • Lol...yes women should be taught to be more humble than a man, after all, they're so much less capable.
        And, if not, a little slap here and there puts 'em in their place, right?
        Being a pig is also 'toxic' to a relationship.

        Commenter
        Jimmy
        Location
        melbs
        Date and time
        May 06, 2013, 11:59AM
      • By its very definition - which is to promote the equal rights and treatment of women - feminism is neither divisive nor sexist. All feminism seeks to do is elevate women to the same social, legal, political and economic level as men. Not subjugate them or submerge them into some reverse sexism. It's the same sexist and outdated social expectations - expectations that feminism campaigns against - that impacts men too. And while I applaud your decision to let children to do as they please without obstruction, I do wonder how you would respond if one of your children decided to support or work on feminist causes.

        The need for feminism is still vital in this world, especially when raising children to understand possibility and equality so they can understand their place in the world, a world where hopefully people don't think it's plausible, logical or even reasonable to describe a child's choice of top as "sexualising" or the need for equality as "divisive".

        Commenter
        AG
        Date and time
        May 06, 2013, 1:11PM
      • "By its very definition - which is to promote the equal rights and treatment of women - feminism is neither divisive nor sexist. All feminism seeks to do is elevate women to the same social, legal, political and economic level as men."

        Stated goals and practical realities are different things, and I have been given different definition of feminism by a number of prominent feminists, including some who write articles for other sessions of this website and are generally considered to be spokespeople for popular feminism.

        They define feminism as 'promoting and advocating women's rights' - and this, for many people, has come to be the mainstream definition of feminism. And as we have seen with the redefinition of the word 'misogyny' to equate it with 'sexism', popular opinion is what shapes the meaning of a word.

        You will note that while this definition of feminism seems superficially similar to yours, it differs in certain vital ways.

        Commenter
        DM
        Date and time
        May 06, 2013, 1:31PM

    More comments

    Make a comment

    You are logged in as [Logout]

    All information entered below may be published.

    Error: Please enter your screen name.

    Error: Your Screen Name must be less than 255 characters.

    Error: Your Location must be less than 255 characters.

    Error: Please enter your comment.

    Error: Your Message must be less than 300 words.

    Post to

    You need to have read and accepted the Conditions of Use.

    Thank you

    Your comment has been submitted for approval.

    Comments are moderated and are generally published if they are on-topic and not abusive.

    Featured advertisers

    Horoscopes

    Capricorn horoscope

    Trust others to think for themselves. Don't be snobbish about what seems obvious. Everyone learns at their own pace, including you.

    ...find out more here