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Disappointing Female Representation in Justice League: Gods and Monsters Chronicles

"A gimmick used to surprise viewers"

Though I had problems with the lack of anything truly disturbing in “Twisted” (and the insistence on character guilt in “Bomb”), I was pretty pleased with the first two episodes of Justice League: Gods and Monsters Chronicles. While “Twisted” didn’t acknowledge Batman’s usual no-killing policy in a way that might have been more satisfying, the series proved it was changing things up by having his else-world counterpart kill Harley Quinn. And rather than rescue a bus full of civilians in the episode “Bomb,” Superman prioritizes eliminating the source of the city’s destruction. Batman kills. Superman isn’t out to save everybody. Awesome. However, in comparison to her male teammates, I was disappointed when I saw what was being used to characterize Wonder Woman (and upon reflection, the treatment of Harley Quinn).

Defining Qualities

Through her dialogue and prowess in battle, Wonder Woman is shown to be a confident and sexually aggressive warrior in “Big.” But as mentioned before, this portrayal is only a problem when compared to the rest of the Justice League. To illustrate, “Twisted” focuses on building the unsettling atmosphere of the world to make the reveal of a vampiric and murderous Batman all the more surprising. The episode centers on the idea that this isn’t just a world we don’t know, but a character who won’t conform with our expectations. By providing a close-up of Superman passing an overturned bus filled with people, “Bomb” achieves a similarly disorienting effect. However, the first thing that marks this Wonder Woman as different is her overt sexuality. “You weren’t so quick to get rid of me last night,” she quips, in a relatively weak bit of characterization.

Justice League: Gods and Monsters - Justice League
Compared to her male teammates, Wonder Woman’s character is subverted in the least substantial way. (Image via Comic Book.)

Worse yet, her sexuality doesn’t represent just one aspect of a multi-faceted character. In place of Batman killing Harley, and Superman feeling the weight of his guilt for killing Brainiac, the episode ends with Wonder Woman initiating sex with Steve, leaving that as her defining trait. Of course, she also showcases her ability to wield a sword and use Mother Box in combat, but her origin as one of the New Gods isn’t directly addressed in the episode, and the ability to fight has always been a component of the title of Wonder Woman. As a result, her sexuality is what shows through as the key way in which her personality is subverted, which seems like a disservice to both her and the character she is based on.

Shock and Awe

It’s easy to guess why the writers made the decision to make her more sexual. Unlike Batman or Superman, the rules of Wonder Woman probably aren’t as clear to a general audience, and crafting her in this way is more likely to be registered as different and new. One of the developers of the series, Bruce Timm, basically confirmed this to Kotaku when he said that the series was intentionally “designed to be a bit shocking.” But this information makes Wonder Woman’s characterization even more troubling, as it doesn’t represent a thoughtful change to a storied character so much as a gimmick used to surprise viewers. On top of this, Steve and Wonder Woman’s banter contains the sexist line, “You listen better in the bedroom,” and while the intention behind this move was obviously to make the episode more playful, the insistence on her sexuality makes her saving Steve in a reversal of the damsel in distress trope seem like an excuse for her depiction. Justice League: Gods and Monsters, the film the Chronicles series leads up to, does a better job of exploring other facets of her character, but allowing the male members of the Justice League to be introduced independently of their relationships felt like a way of mitigating Wonder Woman’s importance.

A New Boob Window

As the only female hero in season 1, Wonder Woman was treated in ways that were problematic and unnecessary (seemingly all in the name of making her character more “shocking”), but joining a pantheon of heroes with impractical costumes, her attire represents another point of criticism. To exemplify, the winged “V” of Wonder Woman’s exposed chest serves the same purpose as Power Girl’s boob window, but while the boob window is just a hole in an otherwise sound costume, Wonder Woman’s “V” actually prevents her outfit from having firm purchase to her body.

Justice League: Gods and Monsters - Wonder Woman - 2
Seriously, how is that staying up? (Image via Infinite Comix.)

Granted, costume practicality isn’t always a valid criticism where comic book characters are concerned, but when two triangles of material touching a character’s breasts are all that functions as a bra, it becomes an issue of supporting unrealistic body standards. Not only that, but given her origin, the gap doesn’t even make sense. Characters like Red Sonja have a reason for wearing less clothing. As a barbarian, her core tenet of freedom means she hates being “encumbered” (as explained by Gail Simone to DC Women Kicking Ass). But in Justice League: Gods and Monsters, neither her male teammates nor the people she hails from are shown to wear fewer clothes. It’s not like there needs to be an explicit reason for a character to be dressed in this manner, but the desire to make it incredibly clear that the new Wonder Woman is more sexual (going so far as to make her costume completely unfeasible), feeds into the idea that her sexuality is all that defines her.

Steve “Masculinity” Trevor

Though my focus is on female characters in this article, I thought it interesting that they aren’t the only ones subjected to damaging stereotypes. At multiple points during the episode “Big,” Steve maintains his ability to take care of the situation without the intervention of Wonder Woman. “I don’t need any back-up…I am in control,” he says. And while he never actually references her gender, it’s almost implied this is the reason for his continued refusal.

Justice League: Gods and Monsters - Steve Trevor
Steve Trevor, clearly in control. (Image via Comic Books in the Media.)

In portraying him as laughably incapable of asking for help, the episode also upholds the notion that accepting help, especially from a woman, is a sign of weakness. And though Steve finally acquiesces to her coming to his rescue (again), the validation of his strong aversion to Wonder Woman’s support with comedy seems limiting to the possible reactions when in genuine need of assistance.

Twisted?

Similar to Wonder Woman being subverted in a comparatively insubstantial way, Harley Quinn suffers when juxtaposed with season 1’s other featured villains. A child Brainiac substitutes for the adult android hungry for knowledge, and Giganta is a robot instead of a superhuman with the ability to increase her size and weight. Though they’re pitted against their usual opponents (Wonder Woman vs. Giganta and Superman vs. Brainiac), these are characters fundamentally different to how we’re accustomed to seeing them. Meanwhile, despite wearing less clothing, Harley is pretty much the same old Harley. A little more proactive than she would be in the presence of a Joker facsimile, but not that far off.

Justice League: Gods and Monsters - Harley Quinn
Classic Harley, with one important difference… (Image via Movie Pilot.)

The possible rationale behind this decision is understandable. They probably thought Harley Quinn’s basic DNA was too good to mess with, leaving a costume alteration as the only way in which they could change her. And with Bruce Timm on board, they couldn’t very well do another head-to-toe outfit like the one he co-created with Paul Dini for Batman: The Animated Series. But I feel like this was playing it a little too safe with her character. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, another Bruce Timm project, achieved a similar level of disturbing in making Tim Drake “Joker Jr.,” and it felt like Harley’s “family” was just a recycled version of this dynamic. A sane Harley, fully clothed, who does the exact same things as the regular Harley, would’ve been much more striking, especially considering the recent trend of making Harley’s costume more revealing (most notably, in the Batman: Arkham video game series).

The Male “Twisted”

The issue of Harley Quinn’s outfit becomes more salient when compared with her insane male counterparts, who have never really had to remove more clothing in order to be considered disturbing. In Batman vs. Robin, for instance, the Dollmaker is infantilized in a similar manner to the Chronicles iteration of Harley Quinn, but rather than show his underwear, he’s adorned in the extra large clothes of a young boy. If his base of operations wasn’t in a snowy location, more skin might’ve been exposed, but regardless of the circumstances, the character designers don’t rely on him being more scantily clad to unsettle viewers.

Batman vs. Robin - Dollmaker
The Dollmaker in Batman vs. Robin. (Image via Elglado.)

Bruce Timm wasn’t the executive producer of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies line when Batman vs. Robin was released, but the film illustrates that a lack of clothing isn’t the only way for insanity to be conveyed. To draw from something Timm did have a hand in, the Cheetah seen in Justice League: Gods and Monsters isn’t covered in fur, naked, or female, as in the previous Justice League series; he’s a fully clothed man. And despite neither of these incarnations being as unhinged as the Cheetah from the comics, it demonstrates a hypocrisy when it comes to the treatment of female characters. Some might argue that Jared Leto’s bare-chested Joker represents a counterargument to my point, but men don’t have an equivalent history of being sexualized in comics, nor do they carry the same medical heritage.

The portrayals of Wonder Women and Harley Quinn in Justice League: Gods and Monsters Chronicles are clearly riddled with issues relative to their peers, but these problems are enhanced by the complete lack of other women in hero and villain roles. As Amanda Miller said, “when you have an entire team of girls…it makes the writer’s job easier because they don’t have to be as worried about playing it safe with their sole precious female character.” And certainly, though it wouldn’t solve the series’ problems with representation, it would help for Wonder Woman to not be the only female hero on the team, just as it would be nice to see contrasting versions of what female villainy can look like. Justice League: Gods and Monsters Chronicles is by no means the worst case of women being mistreated in entertainment, but it offers a chance to reflect on the artifice of telling compelling stories for female characters, not sidelining them as they are given more prominence, and making sure underrepresented groups get the visibility they deserve.

*Featured image courtesy of Tech Times.

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