DC Comics Flunks Test with Wonder Woman Makeover


I need to rant about the Wonder Woman (WW) costume “makeover” that DC Comics just put out for it’s 21st century version of this superhero.

In yesterday’s NY Times George Gene Gustines gives the impression that this change in wardrobe is a great leap forward for the modern woman. But that’s hogwash. It represents more of the same old-boy pandering to the male gaze and fantasy. In the Boston Herald today Lauren Beckham Falcone is more on target: “OK, I get it. It’s probably a challenge to save the world when you’re going strapless, but a cropped jacket? Biker gloves? Shoulder pads? Boot spurs? That’s a whole lot of costume to chase villains in.” Also reference the current online articles at Women’s Media Center and On The Issues Magazine, as well as my previous WW article for OTI.

I’m really peeved that DC Comics had an opportunity to make WW over as a feminist symbol of strength and justice, and instead kept her as a bullet-breasted male fantasy, more violent and cruel than in her 1940′s persona, when she never killed. Using WW in my art as a visceral way to help bring parity and empowerment to women (and men), I want to fight this silly DC Comics makeover on every front I can. I’m so angry and disappointed that neverending sexism prevents us from having even one non-objectified female superhero. I don’t know of any. Do you?

Below (click on thumbnails) are some images showing how I use WW in my art.

These ceramic tiles are for commissioned walls with some of my make over ideas on what Wonder Woman would say today:


This sculpture (Wonder Woman 632) is one that Gloria Steinem is donating to Smith College:

This sculpture shows my Wonder Woman wearable art:

This is what happens at my interactive performance events:

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The Art of Transitioning

by Linda Stein

Originally published in On The Issues Magazine

© Linda Stein

I’m caught in an artistic state of transition. I didn’t plan it. It came slowly, over a period of 6-8 months, maybe more. I wasn’t aware of it happening. It took me by surprise.

© Linda Stein

Now, it’s become clearer to me: I have, indeed, been in a gestating/ incubating phase.

Let me try to remember its beginning, to articulate its progress, to recount my process.

At some point, at the beginning of this transition, I found myself thinking about how hard it is to store large sculpture, which as an artist I must do prior to its being sold or exhibited. Sculpture can’t be placed in penta-flex folders like small drawings or manuscripts of novels and music. It can’t be lined up easily on shelves like paintings and prints. It usually needs a lot of irregular space. Sometimes it needs crating or packing to protect against its fragility. This idea of the physical area needed for sculpture came into my thoughts and hibernated at the back of my mind, hardly noticed.

At the same time I had this desire to take my gender-bending art to another level, or to put it out into the world in another way. I was mulling over how I could expand the ideas of my latest work–The Fluidity of Gender series –which included my black leather torsos and Wonder Woman defenders, as well as my Knights of Protection series and Body-Swapping series–and expand its many gender presentations and identities. How could I meld and scramble the continuum between, and binaries of, masculinity and femininity, both of which had so occupied my thoughts since 9/11, (when my abstract sculpture first became figurative)? I wanted to take my current artistic output to another level, and wondered how I could dive into this gender maelstrom of visual/visceral scrutiny. How could I take what I had been doing in my art to its logical or illogical extreme?

© Linda Stein

© Linda Stein

And more was brewing within me. Yet another conglomeration of thoughts was commingling with this gender obsession: I wanted to bring in my work remnants of my past art, bits and pieces of prior artistic themes and concerns: the profile series of the 1970s, the excavation series of the 1980s, the machete blade series of the 1990s, the unrecorded but visceral images that were implanted in my brain from my evacuation from 9/11 ground zero. This mulling took place in my alpha-state moments: when I swam laps for an hour in the mornings, when I jogged or worked out at the gym, during sleep times, sitting quietly or doing mechanical tasks.

© Linda Stein

© Linda Stein

So this is what I did: I satisfied my craving to do mindless tasks by painting white the walls, floor and ceiling of my studio. I needed to clean my work area, to sort my tools. I needed to throw out all kinds of stuff, organize my brushes, empty containers.

And I started doodling in my sketchbook. I scribbled carelessly and without any goal. I used whatever utensil was easily at hand: pen, pencil, marker, bits of pasted collage and paint. Weeks later there seemed to be a pattern forming, a repetition of personally coded motifs: one combinative form starting with the tip of a machete blade and ending with a profile of nose, lips and chin; a calligraphic alphabet of what I call profile writing, a stick-figuration of the twin towers; two simplified representations of my androgynous sculptural forms.

© Linda Stein

And from there it was easy. I needed only a separate larger piece of paper or canvas to continue my private sketchbook doodles and make them public for viewing. I started with Gender Scrambling 758 which I made as an archival pigment print. My gosh, what happiness I felt to complete a work of art in a single day or two, rather than working for months on a sculpture. And what relief to accomplish this without lugging heavy tools and equipment. What a nice, restful break.

I combined acrylic and gouache paint with collage from newspaper and magazines, I printed up fragments from my previously completed art and merged them with figures from current events, such as politicians or historical icons. And then I branched out to have my gender-fluid figures include colleagues, role models, friends and family.

And so, my unconscious desire to travel away from my sculpture, for a while at least, led me to transition to an artistic world of 2-D collage-painting and printmaking, rather than 3-D sculpture, in order to hone in on a blending of the sexes, a reunion of my past artistic motifs, and even an inclusion of the people in and around my life. It seems so magical to me now. I was somehow programmed, as if in a dream, to drive through this phase of transition, one in which I remained and remain in the passenger seat, or perhaps in the driver’s seat–but as the chauffeur–ever surprised and curious to see what’s over the next bend in the transitional road.

© Linda Stein

© Linda Stein

Linda Stein is Art Editor of On the Issues Magazine. She is an artist-activist, lecturer, performer, video artist and currently has a five-year solo exhibition, The Fluidity of Gender: Sculpture by Linda Stein, traveling the country through 2015, accompanied by her feminist lecture: The Chance to be Brave, The Courage to Dare. Her web site is: www.LindaStein.com and her archives are at Smith College. Stein is Founding President of the non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation, Have Art: Will Travel! Inc. She is represented by Flomenhaft Gallery in Manhattan. Stein’s traveling exhibit will be at the Robert Graves Gallery at Wenatchee Valley College in Washington from Jan 2 – March 14, 2013.

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Sculptor Linda Stein Apologizes to the Girl She Bullied in Childhood

by Linda Stein

HAS BULLYING AFFECTED YOUR LIFE?
TELL US ABOUT IT. SEE SURVEY AT THE END OF THE ARTICLE.

Originally published in On The Issues Magazine, Hot Topics

In eighth grade, I was a bully.

We were five girls picking grass straws in the playground of my junior high school. I won. I was suddenly the president of the “I Hate Carole Club.” I was thrilled. I’d never been president of anything before, and I thought these four other girls were the most popular kids at school. My job as head of this organization was to lead the others in ridiculing Carole. She had a funny last name, red hair and freckles. I didn’t associate what we did with the term “bullying;” we were just playing around.

©Linda Stein, "Justice for All," 2010

I don’t remember anything we did or said to Carole but I feel shame about it still.  During the past year I tried to find Carole so I could apologize. I cringed every time I thought about her, knowing we must have made her life miserable.

I couldn’t find her. And then all of a sudden I did.

It was a remarkable conversation.

“I don’t remember any club or that you were president,” she told me. “But it was the first thing I talked about with my shrink when I was older and went into therapy.

He asked me ‘what did you do to make them so angry at you?’ I guessed that I talked too much about how I was president of my youth club after school. I shouldn’t have done that.”

“It was not your fault, Carole,” I said emphatically. Please don’t blame yourself for this. The fault is mine and ours and the fault of a society that only recently began to pay attention to this issue.”

Bullying has always been a part of life. But these days it is in the news far more often. In fact, October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Making people aware of the consequences of bullying could save lives.

A 16-year-old Long Island boy, believed to be the target of bullies, recently committed suicide and statistics indicate that the problem of bullying, is getting worse, particularly in American schools. At least half of young people interviewed say that they have been bullied, especially online.

People everywhere are becoming more aware of lives made miserable by thoughtless harassment, sometimes leading to permanent damage and death. When Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi jumped to his death after being filmed kissing another man, New Jersey strengthened its anti-bullying legislation and President Obama spoke out saying it’s time for Americans to dispel the myth that bullying is “just a normal rite of passage.”

Beginning with Georgia in 1999, forty-nine states have now passed school anti-bullying legislation. Only Montana has not. Typically, though, this legislation is an unfunded mandate requiring schools to have anti-bullying policies but providing no financial resources to improve school climate and security, according to the National Safety and Securities Services.

Here’s the story about how I finally found Carole:

After many attempts, another junior high school buddy, Anita, came to mind. I emailed her and she said she was in touch with Carole!

(Coincidentally, Anita had taken a workshop the previous week in which people were asked if they ever had been bullied). “I could think of no one,” Anita said to me, “until I thought of Carole. I had been the perpetrator of her bullying.”

As Anita remembered it, it was her idea to bully Carole. “The I-Hate-Carole-Club probably stemmed from my idea to shun her because she was different,” Anita said.

After I spoke to Carole, I thought about how sad it was that we had no one in our lives–no parent, teacher, coach or clergy–who discussed this subject with us in a meaningful way. If I had received some proper guidance before I badgered Carole, I may well have reversed roles and stuck up for her.

I could have been Carole’s defender, that is, the bystander who came to her aid. Today, I wish that I had done that. After all, as I told Carole in the exchange of life-stories that became a part of our phone reminiscences, my art work is about protection and accepting diversity.

In the lectures and performances that accompany my traveling exhibitions I address bullying and harassment and mention my experiences both as Carole’s bully and as one who was also bullied as a child. To symbolize how bullying can be combated, I use my favorite childhood superhero, Wonder Woman.

To my regret, I failed, as a kid, to emulate her.

If only I had been like one of my gender-fluid sculptural Knights of Protection for Carole.

Now, though, with the subject of bullying as a significant theme for me in my life and work, I knew that what I wanted to do most in that phone conversation was to profoundly apologize to Carole.

And to my relief, Carole accepted my apology.

Linda Stein will be writing more about bullying. Tell us your story. Were you a bully, a bystander or bullied?

HAS BULLYING AFFECTED YOUR LIFE? CLICK HERE TO PARTICIPATE IN OUR SURVEY.

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ENUF ALREADY!

Do you know that the average female artist earns 10%-30% of what a male artist of comparable standing earns for selling comparable art? The Economist Magazine says it all in its recent article The price of being female http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2012/05/post-war-artists-auction. In an artnet list of the top ten most expensive post-war artists at auction we find the sculpture Spider by Louise Bourgeois selling for over $10 million. Sounds great, right? Sure, until we compare it to the Orange, Red, Yellow painting by Mark Rothko which sells for over $86 million! And so it goes.

And get this: it’s widely known that when artists submit work for jurying in a “blind entry” without revealing their identity, the results are usually 50% or more female. But just add a name or sex to that entry and then we are back down to below 30%. See Eleanor Bader‘s recent article in Truth-Out Magazine http://truth-out.org/news/item/8971-women-artists-still-face-discrimination

Need more convincing? Take a look at the web site listing artists currently being shown at Gagosian Gallery http://www.gagosian.com/artists. You’ll find 25 artists, 22 male, 3 female. How about sister gallery owners like Mary Boone Gallery? Out of Boone’s stable of 30 artists, 25 are male, 5 female http://www.maryboonegallery.com/artists.html.

Respected galleries with other than top-heavy representation for male artists are the exception. That’s why women and men should support galleries like Flomenhaft Gallery, an example of diversity with a stable of 17 artists, 6 male, 11 female http://flomenhaftgallery.com/flomenhaft_gallery_artists.php.

Women and men who care about inequity in any field must lend their support to the many female artists struggling to stay alive in this cauldron of bias existing in today’s culture?

Here are some suggestions:

1. For those that can afford to buy art: buy art from galleries like Flomenhaft, where female artists are supported. (Full disclosure: my own exhibition, The Fluidity of Gender, is on view at Flomenhaft until June 23rd http://conta.cc/KZ09JK.)

2. For those that can afford to contribute money: make a donation today to support non-profits like my Have Art: Will Travel! http://haveartwilltravel.org/ or purchase a Woman of Courage fine-art print in which 20% goes directly to the appropriate women’s charitable group http://haveartwilltravel.org/?page_id=1212

3. For those employed, look to your places of employment, especially those of you who are academics, to help get female artists in exhibitions at universities and institutions around the country.

4. For those of you who own businesses or foundations, help women get grants, honors and awards for their achievements.

5. Make contact with venues, or friends and colleagues who know of venues, that might bring female artists to lecture.

6. Use social media to spread the word of a female artist you want to support. If you are a twitter maven, use it on behalf of women artists.

7. Use your positions as Art Historians, Curators, Teachers, Critics, Writers, Corporate Heads and Lovers-of-Art to help promote female artists.

Thank you for giving this thought.

Linda

Linda Stein
100 Reade Street
New York, NY  10013
212.964.6007
www.LindaStein.com
President, Non-Profit Corp:   www.HaveArtWillTravel.org
Vice President, NY Chapter of Women’s Caucus for Art: http://nationalwca.org/index.php
Art Editor: On the Issues Magazine: http://www.ontheissuesmagazine.com
Represented by:
Flomenhaft Gallery, Chelsea, Manhattan. http://bit.ly/flome
Traveling Solo Exhibition: The Fluidity of Gender: Sculpture by Linda Stein, 2010-2015: http://conta.cc/KZ09JK
Latest YouTube Videos: http://lindastein.com/home/steinVideo.html
Latest Lectures: http://haveartwilltravel.org/?page_id=2124
Latest Exhibition Catalogues: http://www.lindastein.com/home/exhibitionCatalogs.html
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Pushing Back Attacks on Artistic Freedom

originally published in On The Issues Magazine, Summer 2011


September 15, 2011

Conservative Republicans flexed considerable muscle earlier this year and threw a knockout punch against freedom in the arts.

Led by House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Catholic League and other groups, conservatives succeeded in getting the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to remove a four-minute 1987 video, “A Fire in My Belly.”

Edited from a longer unfinished surrealist collage by late gay activist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS, the video includes an 11-second scene of ants crawling over a crucifix. The National Portrait Gallery included this video in its exhibition, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.

The show, as described in the exhibition catalog, was a scholarly and historical exhibition about sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture. But it was considered an outrageous use of taxpayer money by Catholic League President Bill Donohue, who was quoted in ArtNews. “Why should the working class pay for the leisure of the elite when in fact [they prefer] wrestling,” he said.

Despite the fact that Hide/Seek with the Wojnarowicz video had been privately funded, the National Portrait Gallery caved under pressure and, as pointed out in an email by James Saslow, Professor of Art History at Queens College, “the Smithsonian directors never raised the crucial argument that the interpretation imposed on the Wojnarowicz work by the Catholic League – that it was somehow anti-Christian – was totally baseless. It ignored the fact thatWojnarowicz, himself born Catholic, used religious symbolism to dignify AIDS suffering and gay oppression, not to mock the church.”

The censorship has attracted substantial media attention, including from bloggers and some newspapers.

In 1999, a similar situation occurred when a prize-winning work of art, The Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili, a depiction of a black Mary that used elephant dung in its materials, was shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art; Mayor Rudolph Guiliani cut off funding for the museum and threatened to evict the entire institution.

In 1989, a photograph by Andres Serrano, Piss Christ generated controversy and scorn from elected officials. At that time, television host Bill Moyers asked Sister Wendy Beckett, an art critic and Catholic nun if she were offended by Piss Christ. “No…it’s what you make of it,” Sister Wendy replied. She said that the work could make one feel “a deep desire to reference the death of Christ more.” Piss Christ is the opposite of “comforting art,” she said, where the viewer “is not challenged in the slightest.” In contrast, said Sister Wendy, “real art makes demands.” In April, Piss Christ was destroyed by hammer-wielding Catholic fundamentalists in France.

Jonathan David Katz, co-curator (with David Ward) of Hide/Seek, described his dismay at the removal of Wojnarowicz’ work in an email. “When will we stop letting the Right dictate cultural policy according to their most cynical and opportunistic political calculations? When will our leadership grow a backbone and vigorously oppose the ignorance, distortion and threats promoted by the enemies of pluralism in this country? Let’s be clear, the Right spawned this, but the failure of our Democratic leadership, from the President on down, to oppose this makes them a party to the same cynical political calculations. These are dark days for those of us who believe art has a responsibility not to reflect power, but to challenge it.”

But some view the issue as extending beyond art. Wendy Olsoff, co-owner of PPOW Gallery, which represents the estate of David Wojnarowicz, believes that the fast-moving process was not different than the Congressional assault on women’s health care. “Where are our elected officials? Why aren’t they speaking up?” she asked. “An image taken out of context of ants crawling on a crucifix for eleven seconds is hardly the issue and merely a smokescreen for the real horrors that Americans will endure if the Democrats do not speak up quickly and take a stand – the censorship of a ‘Fire in My Belly’ should be a call to arms.”

Joan Marter, Rutgers University Professor of Art History and Co-editor of the Woman’s Art Journal, agrees that “the actions of the Smithsonian in removing a video installation from the show are outrageous.” She called Hide/Seek a ground-breaking exhibition. “At long last a show that focuses on artists and issues that should have been given full consideration decades earlier!” she said. The only payoff from the censorship, she believes, is that the video by Wojnarowicz has gone viral on the Internet. “The artist has received well-deserved recognition for his genius,” said Marter.

This Right-wing censorship does not bode well for the direction of the arts. Congress immediately put the National Endowment for the Arts and other arts funding on the chopping block, and the pressure against the arts remains powerful. “(A)rts professionals need to be proactive now if they want to forestall a new culture war,” Executive Editor Robin Cembalest warned in ArtNews earlier this year.

The Wojnarowicz video may or may not appeal to one’s aesthetic sensibility, but censorship is inappropriate. People interested in preserving artistic freedom must keep punching back at this Right-wing censorship and bullying.

Back to Cafe Home


 

Linda Stein, Art Editor of On The Issues Magazine, is an artist, activist and lecturer. She is represented by Flomenhaft Gallery in Manhattan and Longstreth Goldberg Art in Florida. Her solo exhibition, “The Fluidity of Gender: Sculpture by Linda Stein,” is traveling throughout the country through 2013, currently at East Tennessee State University. Her archives are at Smith College. Web site:www.LindaStein.com.

 

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Female Violence in Search of Justice

originally published in On The Issues Magazine, Winter 2011

Remember Lorena Bobbitt? I asked my partner that question and her response was a devious smile. Why her tinge of pleasure?

The 1993 Bobbitt case brought public attention to the issues of marital rape and domestic violence. Within days after cutting off her batterer-husband’s penis (subsequently reattached), feminist groups rallied around Lorena, citing the continuous abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband.

Remember Francine Hughes? She was the battered wife who, in 1977, after 13-and-a-half years of domestic abuse, told her children to put on their coats and sit in the car while she set her husband aflame in his bed, killing him while he slept. As the house burned, she drove off with her children to the local police station to confess. Here, too, public reaction was supportive of Francine’s violent behavior. In her Michigan trial, Hughes was found not-guilty by reason of insanity.

Bobbitt and Hughes kept floating in my mind as I read responses to a survey that I conducted, soliciting people’s favorite icons. I became curious about this after writing an essay for On The Issues Magazine, Icons, Superheroes and Fantasies a Feminist Can Love? I was especially interested in reactions to Lisbeth Salander, the leading character in Stieg Larrson’s The Millenium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest). Most respondents, I found, were either staunch supporters or haters of Salander: they addressed the vengeful violence she used, or questioned whether fantasy figures, rather than real-life people, should be included in the pantheon of feminist icons.

Here are a few sample responses:

“Salander is indeed is a feminist hero for a new generation. All three of my daughters love Lisbeth and so do their friends.” Skip Sheffield

“I don’t find the Salander character empowering mainly because I don’t find revenge to be empowering.” Joslyn Barnes

“I found the theme of violent revenge in the name of pseudo-justice on the part of a fantasy character based on male standards of behavior antithetical to all that radical feminism stood for and supposedly still does. What happened to over-turning male dominated aspects of society? Changing the language? Changing behavior? What is empowering about an out of control woman killer? She remains an unhappy anorexic, autistic, neurotic person who kills with impunity and remains unsatisfied throughout her vicious exploits. She is pure and simply a male fantasy figure providing no insight or enlightenment for contemporary women dealing with real problems of discrimination and subordination. Why is acting more like men empowering?” Joan Hoff

“You can’t read The Millennium Trilogy for the feminism, but you can read it for the fun of identifying with all the ‘Girls Who.’ They may not engage in feminist politics, but in the sense that they all exemplify bravery and defiance in the face of violence and evil, and triumph in a misogynist, patriarchal world, they are all feminist heroes.” Judith Lorber

“I found the gratuitous violence horrifying. No, I do not find Salander a role model. I don’t think we need to mimic men in terms of heroism.” Jan Goodman

“Lisbeth is an uncompromising, take-no-prisoners feminist hero. She’s familiar with violence and unafraid to use it in retaliation. Indifferent to fashion, she may be the least “feminine” hero in contemporary fiction. And one of the most feminist.” Michael Kimmel

“As for justice: I agree with you that our systems are so utterly bankrupt that there’s almost no hope except from scruffy, weird outsider figures like Salander, the post-modern techie and anarchic Robin Hood.” Doris Friedensohn

“I don’t understand your fixation on women who show power by using revenge. Women who are truly powerful should not use the old hateful measures that men have used for thousands of years. If they do, why should I revere them? I see them as copy cats — no better than men. Women should reach out, listen, try to understand why the person behaved the way he/she did, and try to change behavior by listening, by discussing, by compromising, not killing.” Claire Reed

“I have read all of Stieg Larsson’s books on Lisbeth Salander. I love her.” Anita King

“For one to be an icon they can’t live in fiction.” Robert Dinnerstein

“I think there is a profound difference between the violence of a rapist and that used by a woman in fighting back against the rapist. In my thinking, Lisbeth acted basically out of self-defense — and defense of her mother and other women who were attacked, trafficked, brutalized and murdered. She has been forced to endure so much, and she has come to the point of refusing to endure more. This is not ‘taking up male behavior’ but acting out of righteous resistance to her own situation and that of other women. Her example and ultimate victory may help some of her readers to do just that, in their own way and under their own circumstances.” Mary Lou Greenberg

The cathartic pleasure from this kick-ass hero was felt by some respondants to be so rare that she hit a nerve of gratification, undiminished by being pure fiction. To those who say feminist icons and role models should only be taken from real life, I would ask: How can we ignore art? It’s the fantasy that’s so appealing to those who love Salander. For them, fiction and fantasy inspire and their dream of being assertive, strong, capable, brave stops short of an analysis of morality. Music lovers thrill to Wagner in spite of his anti-Semitism. The fantasy figure, as well as the historical one, can be a resource to spark imagination.

My conclusion is that our society is starving for feminist pop culture icons and superheroes. We want them in all shapes, sizes and colors. And we want enough of them so we can choose which ones best fit our individual fantasies, as well as our personal concepts of morality.

Linda Stein is Art Editor of On the Issues Magazine. Her latest work is on tour in a three-year traveling solo exhibition called The Fluidity of Gender: Sculpture by Linda Stein. Her blog, YouTube videos and website also relate to the concept of protection and pop culture icons.

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Icons, Superheroes and Fantasies a Feminist Can Love?

originally published in On The Issues Magazine, Winter 2011

 

I hate violent movies. I was never drawn to the shoot ‘em up genre that attracts so many viewers to the big screen with buildings and people blowing up, blood spewing everywhere, excruciating tortures writ large – those scenes never did it for me. Usually I had to avert my eyes or walk out of the movie theater.

Why then am I so fascinated with a character for whom violence seems to come with as much ease and lack of emotion as making morning toast? Why does Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s The Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest) obsess me and make me feel empowered?

I’m not alone in this attraction. Three million of Larsson’s books have been sold in Sweden alone, a country of only 9 million. So many people, women especially, have Lisbeth Salander’s name on the tips of their tongues that one can often overhear conversations in restaurants and elevators, on trains and campuses: “Have you seen the first movie? Have you read the second book? Salander is amazing, smart, cunning, strong, capable.” She has become the go-to person who gets the job (that is, stopping the evildoer in his tracks) done quickly and for-keeps. She’s the protector-par-excellence for those who cannot defend themselves.

©Linda Stein

Since the concept of protection has been the focus of my life’s work, my art, for the last three decades, I can’t help being drawn to this butt-kicking, catharsis-inducing avenger. She may be a moral quandary, she may pose an ethical dilemma, she may use astounding brute force in a way that borders on sadism, but she demands that her followers admire her outstanding intelligence and daring. She conforms to her own sense of justice/ethics as she exposes the corrupt individuals and prevents them from continuing to hurt the unprotected, especially at a time when the police and authorities will not, or cannot.

I am drawn to other icons of protection. I still turn to the 1940s Wonder Woman (in spite of her un-feminist flaws as sex object) for inspiration as a role model and symbol of security. I still warm to her simplistic, idealistic compassion for the downtrodden and her bloodless destruction of villains who die, not by her own hand, but miraculously by some kind of self-inflicted accident. I love that she never kills.

But Lisbeth Salander — as in a cathartic morality play — appeals to my primitive sense of justice. While engaged in her acts against what she sees as unjust, I don’t get caught up in the nuances of right and wrong, though I might wonder afterwards: How much would I hurt someone who hurt the one I love? How much violence is in my character? At the time I simply cherish the story’s reversal of traditional gender roles and take pride in this super-competent woman who transcends victim status using brainpower and the tools of modern day technology.

Tools of the Superhero Trade

And what are the tools for this superhero? While Wonder Woman has her golden magic lasso, invisible plane and bullet-proof bracelets, Lisbeth Salander has her Taser, computer hacking abilities and photographic memory. While Wonder Woman has a black/white traditional concept of righteousness, predictable in the way she responds compassionately and non-violently to bad guys, Salander, in contrast, is a walking time-bomb, a mess of contradictions and problems, a poster child for Asperger’s syndrome, more like the young anime outsider, Princess Mononoke, also entirely autonomous and not defined by men or a love relationship, and with a dark, damaged past – and violently vengeful.

In contrast to the tall, muscular, brightly garbed, ray-of-sunshine vision of Wonder Woman, with her pretty American Pie expressions and sexually-objectified postures, Lisbeth Salander is a small, queerly androgynous weirdo – sullen, introverted, self-doubting, socially awkward, gloomily clad in black leather and body piercing. She is a Gothic punk outsider, a vigilante genius with a cold penetrating gaze, a mesmerizing pop culture fantasy figure acting out unspoken desires with life-affirming results. With her lock-picking talent and high tech surveillance abilities, she gets herself into whatever places and positions she wants. It’s almost as if she can see and walk through walls.

Lisbeth Salander has qualities that bring to mind another current gender-bending icon – Lady Gaga – also fiercely independent, powerful, electrifying and mesmerizing. Gaga, too, is a pop-culture sensation bridging, combining, flaunting and reversing gender stereotypes and concepts of masculinity and femininity. With her outrageously in-your-face performances, she takes command of her body, her alien accoutrements and surroundings. With grand guignol bravado she tells the world that she is the ultimate person to be reckoned with.

Her status as role model, trailblazer and fashion icon is questioned by some, but for her fans she is a confidence booster, a source of empowerment. A self-described bisexual, Gaga is at one, like Lisbeth Salander, with the outcasts of our society. And like both Salander and Wonder Woman, Gaga gives the impression that she can satisfy her every desire exactly when and how she pleases, albeit with her own personal theatrical twist: sky’s the limit, money’s no object, fantasy costume and bizarre setting unparalleled. This brand of super-autonomy, it must be noted, is not often allowed in a female.

For Lady Gaga, the word choice is taken to a totally new level. She can decide to do anything. In her video Alejandro she combines eye-popping imagery with flashes at breakneck speed and little transition: Virgin/Prostitute, Wrist Cuffs, Religion, Intercourse, Body-Caressing, S/M, Strip-Tease, Fascist Uniforms and Epaulets. Is Alejandro a Nazi storm trooper? Is Gaga’s repeated cry “pump my cigarette” a command for sex? Does the video end with gang-bang rape or is Gaga enjoying and provoking the men grabbing at her near-naked body?

And Paparazzi too, races unabashedly from sex to violence to humor to the bizarre and fantastical. Thrown over the balcony by her lover, Gaga appears in a wheel chair, then on crutches. She takes part in lesbian love scenes and kills her boyfriend using poison with a sly smile on her face, revealing the personal agency she now takes for granted.

Groundbreaking but less-than-super heroes

©Linda Stein

Not so for foremothers Thelma and Louise. Agency is not afforded them by the culture and climate of the film’s release in 1991 except in small doses, which women in my circle of friends touted as milestones and held dear. I cheered as I watched them on a road trip, having an adventure usually reserved in films only for men. And though I remember the film (directed by Ridley Scott and written by Callie Khouri) as being the first to challenge gender stereotypes and the first female “buddy” picture, these two women were allowed, as I see in retrospect, only a tease of assertiveness. No Wonder Woman, Salander or Gaga were they. They had a very limited choice, especially in the final scene of that movie. Whereas Wonder Woman, Salander and Gaga would have gone heads-on, battling and confronting the sexist system and authorities, Thelma and Louise were given a script 20 years ago with limited traditional choices: either surrender or shoot their way out of the approaching police posse which was cornering the duo at the edge of a cliff. It may have been decided when the movie was made that shooting, in the style of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, would appear too bloody for women in the early ’90s, and surrender would not have left the audience uplifted. So in their last resort to control destiny and express a sense of freedom, the only other option for Thelma and Louise, was to drive their car into the Grand Canyon, giving viewers the false sensation of victory over injustice.

This less-than-happy suicidal ending doesn’t deny the groundbreaking gender-bending highlights of Thelma and Louise, but it disappoints nonetheless.

Disappointing, too, is superhero Storm from Marvel’s X-Men comics. Though she has remained the most successful and recognizable black superhero since her appearance in 1975, I found no feminist thread to grab onto and no reason to look to Storm as a role model. Written by Len Wein and penciled by Dave Cockrum, Storm has been given a storyline that, to my mind, is tedious and boring, and not worth retelling.

What a waste of an opportunity to create a superhero of color for youngsters to admire. Touted as the first black female to play a major role in either of the big two comic book houses, Marvel Comics and DC Comics, it was not worthwhile to Storm’s creators to display her facial features naturally; they were drawn, instead, as unashamedly Caucasian.

Where is the superhero of color that has, for instance, the power and entrepreneurship of Oprah, the commitment and talent of Miriam Makeba (Mama Africa), the tenacity and honesty of Sojourner Truth, the soft power intelligence of Sonia Sotomayor and the thrilling presence and oratory skills of Barbara Jordan? Now that we, as consumers of pop culture, support and demand the creation of more and more female superheroes, those of color should be given their due – preferably with a body that does not conform to the eroticized object of the male gaze.

The bottom line is that we have been starved for feminist pop culture icons, superheroes and fantasies – and we want them in all shapes, sizes and colors.

Linda Stein is Art Editor of On the Issues Magazine. Her latest work is on tour in a three-year traveling solo exhibition called The Fluidity of Gender: Sculpture by Linda Stein. Her blog, YouTube videos and website also relate to the concept of protection and pop culture icons.


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Feminist Fantasies?

As I wrote in On The Issues Magazine I have looked for feminist pop-culture icons searching for Parity/Protection/Peace.

Please fill out this quick survey to let me know your favorite feminist icons in pursuit of justice.

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Wonder Woman and Lisbeth Salander

So you probably know by now that I’m writing, lecturing and making sculpture (The Fluidity of Gender will travel for 3 years) addressing my current fascination with the connection between Steig Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo of 2009 and William Moulton Marston’s Wonder Woman of 1941-1947.

Got into a big discussion with a woman last week who thought Lisbeth Salander was “empowered” by having breast implants prior to the start of book 2.

I have the opposite take; in fact I think that this breast part of the book was certainly written by a man, but I question whether the really empowering book parts weren’t written by his girl friend!

Salander’s image of herself is critical to the strong feminist thrust of the story, and critical to why so many viewers feel her revenge is cathartic and empowering and even “ethical.” An eye for an eye?–as a peacenik it’s hard for me to get my arms around this. What do you think?

Like all cathartic morality plays Larsson’s story appeals to a primitive sense of justice. It doesn’t get caught up in the nuances of right and wrong, only the visceral big picture.

I will ponder the strength, moral judgment, mobility and access to self-protective devices of both Wonder Woman and Lisbeth Salander in terms of their role-model value.

Are you a Salander fan? A WW fan?

Linda

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