In the gaze of the other

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Playing at Gender: Wonder Woman, Lady Gaga and Mr. Rogers

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credit: infinitecomix.com

Despite what you may think, a real friend is not someone who will stand by you in hard times or beside you in good times or even your dog. A real friend sends you stuff to read, knowing what you like. Well, maybe that isn’t entirely true, but I do appreciate when someone pays attention to my ideas and tastes. Take, for example, the article a friend sent me by Jill Lepore entitled “The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired by Both Suffragettes and Centerfolds,” appearing on NPR three days ago that starts off this way:

The man behind the most popular female comic book hero of all time, Wonder Woman, had a secret past: Creator William Moulton Marston had a wife — and a mistress. He fathered children with both of them, and they all secretly lived together in Rye, N.Y. And the best part? Marston was also the creator of the lie detector.

Only someone fixated on the subject of the “mistress”–all we own and are enslaved to–as I am, would not only find that opener giggle-in-excitement enticing, but would find the hallmarks of a true friend in sending me such a tasty morsel. Unfortunately, that was really the best part of the write up until the end, when the writer mentions Lady Gaga. The in-between was information-light on Wonder Woman, her story, and the author’s influence by First Wave feminism and Vargas pin-ups in creating the character. Anyone who has seen her knows that she is, in part, an early feminist cultural production (freeing others and herself from the chains of bondage in the name of justice and truth) while socially palatable as traditional object of fantasy female–the voluptuous dominatrix (but sometimes submissive) with American good looks.

Despite my disappointment, the subject did inspire a meditation, once again, on gender performativity and camp, especially after the ending citation of modern day’s most notorious, campy pop gender-sexuality blender–the Lady G. Of course, for me, all roads lead back to Judith Butler. Gender role playing and displaying–what Lady Gaga capitalizes on–with its concommitant effects is Butler’s preoccupation in much of what she writes. In her book Gender Trouble, Butler posits that gender is not merely a biological category and gendered behaviors are not natural; gender is a learned performance of the role female or male in a given culture that has been repeated and imitated throughout a society, performed roles passed down from prior generations. Gender is performativity, not a binary–male or female–but a fluid space on a spectrum of culturally produced notions of the “norm.”

In other words, if you take Barbie, on one extreme of the scale of “girlness” and Superman as the opposite extreme, of “boyness,” most people fall somewhere in between those apogees, closer to or farther from society’s picture of the ideal girl or boy. There are Barbie doll models and there are androgynous indecipherables walking among us. I remember reading in graduate school this passage, which struck me with its truth:

The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene. Hence, gender is an act which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once again.” (“Performative” 272)

Until today, years after graduate school, I respect her concerns with the politicalization of gender, the reiteration of gender norms that marginalizes those outside the “norm” and her advocacy for counteraction through exposing the nature of gender as an inherited role. Getting folks to realize that gender is produced, not fate, is the first step to understanding it as arbitrary and a choice, neither a prison nor a target for shame and isolation if performed “incorrectly” by society’s standards, i.e., girls who are too much like boys and vice versa. Butler believes that to allow for an inclusiveness of those traditionally marginalized from the heteronormative gender actualizations–homosexuals and transgendereds–alternative performances need to be disseminated in the population, ones that perform alternative gender iterations.

Here’s where Lady Gaga comes in. She mixes up the gender space with non-normative gender depictions. Whereas Wonder Woman is the straight laced asexual power house “feminist” constrained by imagination and norms of her time (created in the 40’s) and those of her creator, thus her bondage to men (See Lepore’s article), Lady Gaga is a shotgun approach to blasting traditional notions of gender and sexuality in her outrageous meant-to-shock live and video performances of vixen lover, lesbian or straight, mistress or chained submissive, engaged in violent or passive poses of gestured gender and sexuality.

Wonder Woman’s feminism is one focused on proving that a woman, in her mixed portrayal–beauty, chastity, submission, virtuosity, strength, domination–is powerful and worthy of respect, can even save society. She competes with men on a man’s level, physical powers, though hers are emitted from material adornments and tools, her bracelets and lasso, harkening bedroom S&M exploits.

Lady Gaga, on the other hand, is a mesh of exaggerated, contradictory blends of the classic and “aberrant” imagery, the socially “non-normative” gender performances such as gay, lesbian, and transexuals. She thematizes gender as a performance. Camp productions such as those of Lady Gaga in her live and video performances do not merely challenge and expose–something Butler might nod to–gender stereotypes, but they also question heteronormative performances of more sedimented institutions such as monogamy, in addition to alluding to the political history of violence against women. Her Telephone video is a gala explosion of deployed gender, sex and violence.

Whereas Wonder Woman as precursor served as the mixed-gendered asexual icon of the truth about gender and role playing, Lady Gaga overplays and performs a cacophony of gender, sexuality and feminist history.

Exposing the inherited cultural reproduction of gender as well as the strategy to deploy alternative social productions of gender is important not only for little girls who want to grow up to be paid equally to their male counterparts and for anyone who wants to love freely and openly without fear of homophobic hate crimes, but also for breaking up the binary that gender has been, historically produced and transmitted from generation to generation. Wonder Woman needs to break those chains, invisible and hard to grasp. Or perhaps we need a man to do it, someone like Mr. Rogers, who, on one of his shows, exposes the Wicked Witch of the North as mere costumed grandma–a performed role; nothing to be afraid of kids (click on the link to view). And just in time for Halloween.

So, who kicks ass, Wonder Woman as suffragette foremother or Lady Gaga (click on the link to find out) living off the capital of her inherited legacy?

credit: ladygagaexplore.com

6 thoughts on “Playing at Gender: Wonder Woman, Lady Gaga and Mr. Rogers

  1. That is an incredible article. I think your insight has enlightened me, but more, it was fun to read! Thanks.

  2. Being able to combine Wonder Woman, Lady Gaga, and Mr. Rogers in the same article is reminiscent of old bar jokes that began with something like, A priest, a rabbi, and a duck walk into this bar…
    But as far as gender role-ing goes, all species have clearly defined gender roles. The praying mantis and the black widow spider each devour their suitor in accordance with their roles. That we as a species can debate and argue for or against role-ing does not prevent it. Oh it may change or reverse some stereotypical roles but it will not ever level the playing field to complete gender neutrality. Why? Because in 99.99% of all species on this planet the female’s role is to give birth and the male’s role is to give seed. Gender roles will always and by necessity be binary.

    • I love that opening to your comment, MPM. I was hoping the wackiness of the trio would spark interest and humor.
      As to your remark about the impossibility of “complete gender neutrality,” I don’t think that is the aim. I don’t mean to suggest that complete fairness is androgyny and that difference should not be celebrated. Specifically, binary gender models enforce norm types that inevitably produce and historically have produced prejudice and exclusion. While I am not advocating for sameness–except in equal pay for same work–I am advocating for recognizing that we should not be getting our undies in a bunch over or going around beating people up for something as arbitrary and fabricated as gender. It is like burning Margaret Hamilton for being a witch. Not really, but you get the analogy.
      Finally, as to the analogy to other species–birds do it; bees do it–I don’t buy that. People are the animals with the ability to ponder and create their existence to an extent so far beyond any animal to our knowledge. That is the human distinction. What may be “natural” to species with differing abilities to imagine and create and reason, different brains, is not necessarily natural to another.

  3. I can remember my mother lamenting in the early sixties that her social security pay would be less because she was a woman, it really made her mad. First time I was aware there was a difference, being a kid I was shocked. Made me start thinking, as I got older, seeing more and more of the “good ol’ boy” school of economics.
    My own take on Wonder Woman was that despite anything she did or said, underneath she was a nasty bitch liked to get spanked. I am sorry, she is totally the type. I always regarded her power with a snicker, but a gentleman allows a girl her play, her space and does not have to support his own small regard for himself by demeaning what she has achieved or what she values.
    That is the role most males seem to assume, Wonder Woman can be that Dumbo’s Feather that allows your lesser male’s to achieve some sort of bridge between a wimp or a man.
    Just my opinion.

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