Of all of the flak fired up to obscure the mean-spirited, thick-headed sexism of Brian Azzarello's script for Wonder Woman #7, the most stubbornly effective has been the claim that his recasting of DC's Amazons is true to the warrior women's mythic roots. Resorting to such an argument has a particular appeal to fanboys, of course, because it calls upon the sacred pseudo-objective principles of continuity, which justify the side-stepping of any reasoned ethical debate in the name of fictional precedent. As such, Azzarello's decision to portray the Amazons as sexual predators who murder their partners, and who would have slaughtered their male offspring too if a kindly male god hadn't taken the be-testicled babies off of their hands, can be excused simply by saying Them Greeks Said That's What Them Amazons Did A Long, Long Time Ago. Fanboys who'd never expect the details of the origins of the Fantastic Four in 1961 to be taken literally today have no problem, it seems, in falling back upon the suddenly sacred canon of long-dead myth, and using it to beat off the pernicious attacks of those persistently joy-killing pedants of the politically correct too.
Oh, those silly, and often considerably worse than just silly, flakkers.
|Look fan-boys! Naked women having sex with strangers, some of whom aren't even handsome!|
There'd be no point in denying that the Amazons weren't always portrayed as the threatening, inferior Other in the myths which survive from Bronze Age Greece, just as it'd be daft to push the idea that later Greek historiography failed to show the Amazons some measure of respect. Where their fighting power is accentuated in myth, it's never to make the point that the free-spirited and war-like Amazons were an admirable nation. Whenever the Amazons encounter the Bronze Age heroes, they're always defeated, leaving the respect that's granted to their skill with the bow and as horsewomen functioning in the same way as any villain's fighting prowess does; it builds up the threat of the antagonist in order to make the protagonist's victory all the sweeter. As Phyllis Chesler wrote; "Amazons are a universal male nightmare, exorcised by ridicule or disbelief", and that certainly describes the Amazon's part in these myths. They were an exceptionally bad lot, an example of unnatural foreign ways which had resulted in a matriarchal culture that was inferior in every fundamental fashion to the self-image of the men of Hellas. In that, the mythic Amazons represented the threat of contamination posed by women who refuse to do what they're told. Even when we come across pseudo-historical reports of the Amazons from later periods which don't take the despicable nature of their culture entirely for granted, such as in Herodotus, there's no suggestion that their freedoms should be extended to the women of Greece.
And that, of course, is the whole point of why the "myths and legends" defence of Azzarello's work on Wonder Woman is so phenomenally ill-judged. Not only are there a host of ancient takes on who the Amazons were and how they behaved, meaning that "continuity" is a far more problematical business than the flakkers assume, but the Amazons were a creation of a profoundly sexist culture. To take William Moulton Marston's benevolent, humane take on them and replace it with patriarchal propaganda informed by the overwhelming bigotry of the distant past is to make an exceptionally forceful, and presumably deliberate, sexist statement about women's rights today. Azzarello's Amazons are evil. Beautiful and remorseless seducers, they use their phenomenal beauty to trick poor defenceless men into impregnating them before not just murdering their lovers, but, in the words of Wonder Woman #7's script, draining the lives from them. (I'm not sure what that means, but we have to credit Azzarello as a writer who makes his choices on the page deliberately, and so it must indicate something other than simply "death".) In this, Azarello actually makes the Amazons worse than those of the Bronze Age myths, and far far more despicable than the reports of the later histories.
To my knowledge, there are three dominant portrayals in ancient myth and history of the Amazons mating habits; they visited their male neighbours once a year for procreation; they mated with the male slaves they've captured during their endless wars against mankind once or twice a year; they created a new society with the men of Sythia and formed families in which the Amazon women retained their previous freedoms. Astonishing as it sounds, Azzarello has either invented a new and yet-more derogatory spin on the Amazons, or he's opted for the most woman-hating ancient take on the myth that he could find. Either way, it's a despicably regressive business, and those who support Azzarello because of his fealty to ancient sources ought to know that they're talking piffle. It would be hard to imagine that anyone would want to take the myths of Ancient Greece and use them to make a baby-killing race of women even more despicable, but Azzarello's managed the feat, merging the traditional blokish fear of sexually active and independent women together in a toxic mix of sexism and tacky fan-boy thrilling sex scenes.
When modern-era experts argue over the degree of anti-female prejudice in any of the periods and locales associated with Ancient Greece, the debate's concerned not with the possible existence of oppression, but with its degree. Nobody suggests that any of the cultures we associate with the catch-all term "Ancient Greece" bore any measure of what we'd today recognise as equality. In whatever class a woman found herself in, her freedom to participate in decision making and the broader affairs of society was always markedly inferior to those of the males who shared a similar social position. (Sarah B. Pomeroy study of classical antiquity's women is tellingly called "Goddesses, Whores, Wives & Slaves".) The women of Sparta, for example, may have lived lives which were in terms of power more expansive and fulfilling than those of Athens, but neither ever inhabited worlds which anyone but a standard-issue M.C.P. would regard as fair and equal, or anything close to it. The visitor to Athens during its supposed height of the 5th century BC would find a deeply patriarchal culture which, in its treatment of women, was far, far closer to that of a fundamentalist Islamic nation today than one that's recognisably Western in the modern sense. And yet Azzarello has chosen to implant the ideology of that women-loathing culture into Wonder Woman. DC Comics has been undermining the essential feminist virtues, the fundamental decent-heartedness, of its Amazons for years now, but Azzarello has taken that drift towards gender bigotry and left no-one, beyond the die-hard denialists, in confusion about where DC stands on the issue of women's rights. After all, Wonder Woman is the most famous super-heroine of them all. Whatever might be achieved in the pages of, for example, Batgirl and Batwoman can't hope to publicly counter-balance the unpleasantness that Azzarello has chosen to pump into the pages of Diana's own book.
Who are the heroes of Wonder Women #7? The caring community of male brothers saved from the Amazons by the god Hephaestus. Who are the villains? The Amazons, lock, stock and barrel, with the sole exception of a single panel showing a grieving Amazon mother having her male baby removed from her at birth. (She's just a hypocrite, of course, weeping when the culture she chooses to inhabit treats her just as it does her fellow man-slaughtering sisters.)
Gloria Steinem once wrote: "Wonder Woman's family of Amazons on Paradise Island, her band of college girls in America, and her efforts to save individual women are all welcome examples of women working together and caring about each other's welfare. The idea of such cooperation may not seem particularly revolutionary to the male reader. Men are routinely depicted as working well together, but women know how rare and therefore exhilarating the idea of sisterhood is. Wonder Woman's mother, Queen Hippolyte, offers yet another welcome example to young girls in search of a strong identity. Queen Hippolyte founds nations, wages war to protect Paradise Island, and sends her daughter off to fight the forces of evil in the world ... Wonder Woman symbolises many of the values of the women's culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women, sisterhood and mutual support among women, peacefulness and esteem for human life: a diminishing both of "masculine" aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts."
Well, now the Amazons kill their lovers, and they would be killing their male babies too if a kindly male god hadn't saved them from their own vileness. And, of course, it's fine, because the Amazons were baddies in those centuries-old myths from long-dead, repulsively repressive cultures.
I have no doubt that both Marston and Steinem's hearts would be broken by Brian Azzarello's Wonder Woman #7. As daft and perhaps even contemptible as it will sound to the cynics and the flakkers, the sexists and the apathy-mongers, mine feels similarly shattered too.