Well, it’s been interesting to see Flashpoint get off to a running start, as it were. However, it has been even more fascinating to watch the potential controversy brew around the event, as more than a few commentators have been quick to point out some… unfortunate decisions made by the DC editorial staff in relation to the event. The most recent such controversy errupted over the recently-published “World of Flashpoint” map, included below. Click to enlarge, and pay particular attention to Africa.
Yes, that’s right, the company somehow thought that it might be interesting to label Africa as “ape-controlled”, which was inevitably going to stir up controversy. Which, of course, it has. Add this to the equally unfortunate implications of a gendercide perpetrated by the all-female Amazons, and that’s one big controversy brewing right there. Allegations are already flying about the racist and sexist nature of these decisions.
While I can appreciate the arguments and sensitivity around these concerns, it’s hard to imagine this was anything other than a lose-lose situation for DC. If they had to apply any description from the map to Africa, it would be equally controversial. Imagine the allegations of racism flying if the region were conquered by Nazis (colonisation!) or flooded by Aquaman (a throw-away continent!) or became the land of the undead (voodoo zombies! that’s not even the right racist stereotype – voodoo is strongest in the Caribbean!). Hell, if they left Africa off the event entirely, people would claim that editorial were being racist for ignoring the continent.
I’m going to come flat-out and say it. I have to think very hard before throwing around words like “racist” and “sexist.” Those are allegations and labels which stick and which scar – which end up defining a person or industry. It’s not a stain you can easily wipe from your record, nor do I believe that it should be. There are people out there who can watch No Country For Old Men and suggest that psycho killer Anton Chigurh is clearly intended to be an angel, so there are people who can read anything into anything – and there’s a point at which anything can be construed as politically incorrect, or outdated.
But still, that’s pretty damning. Turning Wonder Woman’s all-female compatriots into a bunch of man-killing and castrating super-harpies was just asking for trouble. Allowing a super-powered monkey (well, ape – but few will care about the valid distinction) to conquer Africa was always going to sit uncomfortably. I find it amazing that it didn’t occur to anybody in the office – and perhaps they might have done something to mitigate it. Hell, labeling Africa as “Grodd-controlled” would at least add an extra degree of separation between the offensive content.
However – and this is the thing – it makes sense from a story point of view. If the point of Flashpoint is to show a world upside down, then these decisions make perfect sense, are quite logical and potentially fascinating from a story-telling point of view. Since the event focuses on the Flash, it makes sense that his characters are front and centre. Gorilla Grodd has always lived in Africa. Because that’s where Gorillas come from. He has always had ambitions of world-domination. Because that’s what super-villains have. Since he lives in Africa, and wants to conquer, it makes sense that he would conquer Africa. I imagine producing a map labelling “Russia (Ape-Controlled)” might have left more than a few commentators scratching their heads, and then sparked a similar debate about why Grodd shouldn’t conquer Africa. They’d claim the company was going a little too far to avoid a controversy, and wonder why.
Similarly, the theme of the event seems to be picking apart heroes and (generally) putting them in positions which are in marked contrast to their standard roles. Superman, the champion of truth, justice and (formerly) the American Way, is treated as an alien. Batman isn’t Bruce Wayne, isn’t really especially heroic, and is indifferent to cold-blooded murder. Captain Cold, the leader of the Flash’s villainous Rogues, is now a beloved hero. So something has to be done with Wonder Woman – and, logically, her all-female island. In mainstream continuity, Paradise Island is a calm a tranquil haven, so the logical way to reverse that dynamic is to turn them into a bunch of cold-blooded conquerers. Since their peaceful nature in the regular universe is defined by their gender (Paradise Island is, implicitly, a paradise because there are no men), so their violence here is defined by their gender.
It does make sense from a story point of view and, to be entirely honest, I credit writer Geoff Johns for daring to play with the concepts. He’s doing his job, and he’s not afraid to shake things up. After all, it would seem kind of pointless to have Wonder Woman unaffected by the historical revisions, and it would be seem strange not to use Grodd. These storyline possibilities just flow from their status quo.
And, if you ask me, there lies the problem. The issue isn’t necessarily that a wave of female violence is a sexist idea, but that it draws attention to just how sexist the idea of Paradise Island actually is. Similarly, it isn’t that the idea of having Grodd conquer Africa is racist, just that it underscores how potentially offensive the idea of “Gorilla City”, a state run by super-intelligent monkeys in central Africa, actually is. These two concepts were drafted decades ago, and have sat int he background of comic books since. We don’t give too much thought to them, because they’ve always been there. And, true to form, it’s only when the concepts are shaken-up that we notice how potentially inflammatory the ideas are. If you need to wear kid-gloves to re-jig a classic concept without provoking a PR nightmare, it’s a sign of how outdated the concept is.
The idea of the Amazons is a fundamentally sexist idea. The notion that a world without men exists as some sort of idyllic paradise (and that paradise couldn’t exist with men) is completely nonsense. We just don’t notice it because the idea of “the amazon” long pre-dates Wonder Woman. Let’s shake things up a notch, and pitch a similar idea today. Imagine walking into an office at DC and pitching “Wonder Male.” It’s a series in which a young female character stumbles across an island populated entirely with men. This island is perfect, because the men have sequestered themselves away from the corruption and vice of ladyfolk. If you weren’t greeted with silence, you’d be laughed out of the meeting. Why do we tolerate this idea in reverse?
Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of Wonder Woman. Even today, there are far too few female action icons for young girls to look up to. There’s a great scene in the animated feature film, where Diana teaches a young girl (sick of being made to play the role of the princess in all the boys’ games) how to fence and fight with the best of them. It’s that great Joss Whedon response to the question he always gets about why he creates so many strong female characters. He replies, “Because you’re still asking that question.” So my problem isn’t with Wonder Woman.
It’s with this idea that the Amazon nation is some sort of crazy paradise. If the nation had been steadfastly pacifist in the face on unchecked aggression during Flashpoint, feminists would (understandably) be just as upset. They’d suggest that the female characters were allowing themselves to be victimised to fulfil a meek gender stereotype. Some commentators might suggest the nation was climbing into the fridge. However, the opposite approach, an (overly) aggressive response, produces an equally offended reaction. Many claim it’s the subtle misogyny of the comic book world being expressed – the fear of “icky” girls expressed through the threat of castration. Even if Cold’s sensationalist comment about literal castration (which, I’d argue, says more about him than the series) wasn’t present, people would be quick to suggest that the Amazons represent a metaphorical castration of phallocentric political structures (because, despite the Queen, British politics is still dominated by men).
None of this is to be snide, or to dismiss these suggestions. They are all valid, and they all would be valid, no matter what. Which is exactly the point. If writers can’t do anything to change the status quo of a particular bit of comic book lore, then perhaps it’s a sign that there’s something wrong with it. If Paradise Island were suggested today, I don’t doubt it would be hugely controversial. However, because it has existed for so long, it gets a free pass until something controversial happens.
The same is true of Gorilla City. In the fifties, Gorillas sold comic books. I mean, really, that’s why there are so many super-intelligent gorilla characters dating back to the Silver Age. I like to believe that it’s perhaps due to the relatively recent (at that point) discovery of the gorilla – long thought an urban myth of the African continent. Cynics might argue that the books were popular because they appealed to engrained racial stereotypes of the time. I honestly can’t make an argument either way. However, there’s no denying that the issue of super-intelligent gorillas living in Africa was potentially controversial – especially when it seemed “Gorilla City” was the only reason any superhero would ever go to Africa.
Again, this is an idea that – were it pitched today – would probably get shot down as two controversial. However, much like Paradise Island, it came from a different time, and it kinda escaped controversy because of its history. Like Paradise Island, it only becomes controversial when you try to shake things up.
So this is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. These are two fairly important parts of the mythos around Wonder Woman and the Flash, so DC can’t simply ignore them in the same way they ignored Hal Jordan’s rather racist nickname for his eskimo sidekick (“Pieface”). Even if they did re-write these elements to either change them entirely, or make them less controversial, the hardcore fans would be up in arms – accusing Johns of tinkering with continuity.
I don’t think that these new slants are the product of a racist or sexist thought-process. I do, however, think that they demonstrate the need to seriously re-think some of the “classic” comic book concepts that we take for granted.