Sunday, 26 August 2012

What would Wonder Woman do?

The news that Wonder Woman will get to do the jiggy-jiggy with Superman has coincided neatly with US senatorial candidate Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" gaffe. While the former is simple plot evolution, driven both by commercial need and social change, the latter has shone a light on the ingrained misogyny of US conservatives and the limits of their philosophy. But there is a connection between the two.

Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling has noted the apparent paradox of the right's championing of self-ownership (I own me, I cannot be enslaved) on the one hand, and their readiness to qualify this when dealing with a crime that directly offends female self-ownership (I have rights over your body if we've previously had sex, you don't own your own foetus). Of course the paradox dissolves once you remember that modern libertarian rights, like the classical liberal rights they derive from, are in practice reserved for white men of a particular class, which is why George Galloway has made such a twat of himself.

The reliably funny Stonekettle Station's Jim Wright (an ex-US military dude in Alaska who isn't a right-wing nut-job) asks if Akin's belief that "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down" is evidence that women have superpowers. This got me to thinking about the whole superhero thing and why it developed in America. I'll come back, like a salmon to its spawning ground, to why this matters in the context of modern politics, but for now, bear with me ...

The classic interpretation is that superheroes evolved during the Great Depression as a form of escapism and vicarious empowerment in a time of great stress. Initially, they weren't so superhuman, being like Dick Tracy (launched 1931), who relied on intelligence and fancy gadgets. During WW2 they became more super, none more so than illegal immigrant Superman who started life in 1938 as the creation of Jews fleeing pogroms and Hitler (excellently fictionalised in Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay). Thereafter the superheroes reflected American geopolitical concerns and social change, from conformity and anti-communism in the 50s, through the questioning of authority (government and family) in the 60s and 70s, to modern concerns about gender and sexuality.

It's a commonplace that the roots of the superhero can be traced via Beowulf to Gilgamesh and Hercules, but what is of more modern provenance is the idea of superheroes as a class or breed apart. The post-war evolution of the superhero "team", from the Justice League of America and the Avengers to the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants, sees a gradual shift from a group of individuals that deliberately pool their resources for the common good (echoing the Allies and the UN) to a group defined (sometimes unwillingly) by their genetic destiny. The Watchmen eventually turns this on its head with a group that has few actual super powers and is considered an antisocial subculture of weirdos who dress in capes. The Incredibles combined both themes to comic effect.

    The explanation for why superheroes did not successfully evolve in Europe often points to democracy and the American dream. The idea that ordinary people can do great things, can reinvent themselves, meant that the acquisition of superpowers was (sort of) credible and aspirational. The "vulgar" exploitation of talent and wealth (Batman and Iron Man) was admired.

In Britain, our heroes were gentlemen of independent (and invisible) means, from the intellectual (Sherlock Holmes), through the jingoistic (Richard Hannay, James Bond) to the downright stolid (Bulldog Drummond, Biggles). Alf Tupper, The Tough of the Track, remains the only notable working-class hero who wasn't an outright joke, and his particular talent was running fast on a diet of fish and chips (he'd never have made Team GB).

The other major influence, which overlaps with democracy and the American dream, is the myth of the West. Natty Bumppo (The Last of the Mohicans) was the archetypal frontiersman, followed by The Virginian and The Lone Ranger. They were built in the heroic mould: brave, nostalgic, ever-questing, supremely skilled, and ultimately alone (Tonto didn't count as a person). This heritage means that the superhero character contains strands of misanthropy, nativism and hyper-individualism, all of which feed the tendency towards the fascist (the unelected vigilante who just knows what's best), which surfaces as far apart as the modern Batman (The Dark Knight) and Ayn Rand's John Galt (Atlas Shrugged). See? I was always going to return to right-wing loopiness eventually.

The idea of self-ownership, which underpins classical liberal thought, largely derives from John Locke's Second Treatise of Government:
Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.
This combines both the idea of self-ownership, which by definition denies slavery (you cannot cede ownership of yourself to another), together with the idea that when a man mixes his labour with nature, e.g. working the land, the product becomes his property. At one level this is entirely consistent with Marx's notion of labour value, the idea that the worker's own labour-power is hers by right and that the surplus value of her labour should be inalienable. However, Locke cheerfully invested in the Africa-America slave trade and was involved in the drafting of Carolina's essentially feudal and slavery-friendly Constitution; and his theories on property conveniently denied rights to the land to Native Americans, on the erroneous basis that they did not cultivate or enclose it, and thus did not mix their labour, in his narrow definition. What was "common to all men" became the property of a few.

Writing in the late 17th century, his theories on self-ownership assume we're talking about white men only. The "slavery" that he cared about was subjection to an arbitrary (and possibly Catholic) monarchy that trampled on the property and religious rights of Protestant gentlemen. Real existing slavery in the Carolinas, like the dispossession of native Americans, fell outside his philosophical worldview, as, I suspect, would the notion of female self-ownership. An unborn foetus would have been the property of a man who had "mixed his labour" with that "inferior creature", woman.

Despite the ideology of the melting pot, America has always been more concerned with preserving group distinctions than Europe. In the latter, one's origins could (and can) be laundered within a generation, something that Americans heiresses famously took advantage of in the late 19th century (Winston Churchill's mum was one). Money was always more important than breeding or race, despite the claims to the contrary. In the USA, the racial segregation of the Confederacy was just the extreme manifestation of a general belief in rigid community rights; apartheid avant la lettre.

Superheroes are exemplars of the destiny of genetics, of inescapable fate (avenging dead parents etc), of group identities beyond negotiation. They are the antithesis of freely-chosen membership, of democratic practice. When a civilian aspires to don the mask, this either ends in tragedy and/or comedy (e.g. Kick Ass). The evil villain who parodies the superhero's methods and accoutrements is a visible corruption of the ideal, evidence that you cannot cross the line, no matter how talented or rich you are. His fundamental crime is Prometheus's hubris, Lucifer's pride, a refusal to accept the order of the universe. He's uppity.

The mad insistence by many right-wingers in the US that Obama cannot be American is part of this. For some of them, a black president just breaches too many unstated rules.

In Britain, "breeding" does not actually refer to your genetic stock but to your education and upbringing, which is simply a matter of money. David Cameron may well be a misogynist ("calm down, dear" etc), but he isn't crass enough to treat women as a breed apart, any more than he'd claim that blacks have natural rhythm (it's the Notting Hill Carnival this weekend, so there's still time).

In the US, Todd Akin is regarded as a fool and an embarrassment by many, but there seems every chance he will cling on to his candidacy as his views appear to be shared or condoned by many others. By a delicious irony, his opponent in the senatorial race in Missouri is a woman, the pro-choice Claire McCaskill.

C'mon Wonder Woman, save the day!

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