Wonder Woman’s Bisexuality, Speech Acts, and Disclosing Queerness

In case you haven’t heard, Wonder Woman writer Greg Rucka confirmed in a recent interview that Diana Prince is, in fact, bisexual. Since then, there have been a number of blog posts and articles celebrating the confirmation, including support from comics writer Gail Simone, while also expressing the need for Diana’s sexuality to be more than just implicit. Donna Dickens for Hit Fix writes of the pushback from LGBT+ readers on Twitter, saying that “Words matter. Saying them out loud gives them weight.” Elle Collins writes for Comics Alliance, “If it’s not a big deal, then put it in the comic. If DC doesn’t care if she’s queer, then put it in the comic. Whether you want Wonder Woman to be queer because it makes her a better hero (as Rucka said in his interview), or because it makes sense due to her origins, or because we need more queer heroes and she’d be the most high-profile one ever, the way to let Wonder Woman be queer is to put it in the comic, not to state it in an interview.”

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These writers (among others) have done a brilliant job pointing out the importance of Wonder Woman’s sexuality and its significance for bisexual visibility. I’m not going to repeat those arguments here, only say that I 100% agree with them. My task is instead to think about the implications of saying the word “bisexual” or “queer” in the comic, mainly by using a bit of speech act theory (sorry, guys) and a bit of queer theory/film studies. Next, I’ll interrogate the need for these declarative statements in order to legitimize LGBT+ identity in texts, especially for straight audiences. Last, I’ll ramble. In short, this post less interested in the symbolic significance of saying “Wonder Woman is bisexual” in the comics and more considered with how words create meaning and realities.

 

Theoretical Setup (*groan*)

 In 1962, John L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words uses the term “speech act” often to mean the same thing as the term illocutionary act, which basically is any utterance that is a declaration, command, or promise. These types of utterances are important because they make things. To simplify, here’s the Wikipedia explanation (I’m a bad scholar) of how these things work: “By uttering the object—for example, “I hereby declare,” or “I command,” or “I hereby promise you”—the act has taken place. That is to say, in each case a declaration, command, or promise has necessarily taken place in virtue of the utterance itself, whether the hearer believes in the declaration, command, or promise or not.” For example, saying “I now pronounce you man and wife” at a wedding actually makes the husband and wife a married couple (I know about marriage licenses – humor me. It’s not my example).

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If we apply the above theory to Wonder Woman and the hypothetical scenario in which she says “I am bisexual” in a comic, the result is the actual making of Diana’s sexuality. Until now, Diana’s sexuality has been implicit – her actions have quite obviously pointed to her bisexuality for those who know how to read them, but DC writers’ hesitance to actually write the word have allowed the comics to keep her sexuality a mystery. What is obviously bisexual for some may be interpreted as titillating for others, and these kinds of mixed readings make her sexuality essentially formless. She could be this, she could be that. We can only guess, but many people come down on the side of straight because of course they do.

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By saying “I am bisexual,” Diana will pin down her sexual orientation and, from that point forward, create a reality. Her utterance will be performative: “I am bisexual” will give her identity a kind of form and remove the mystery that the comics have presented since the early days. This isn’t to say that Diana will only be bisexual from this point forward – stating it will work retroactively as well. I only mean to say that anyone who comes to the comics, new or old, following such a declaration will be able to see Diana as bisexual without question.

But why isn’t it enough to simply say “Diana is bisexual” in the interview? If it’s only in the interview and not in the comic, a split forms between the reality outside the comic and the reality inside it. Rucka may say Diana’s bisexual, but deniers and homophobes will continue to interpret the character in whatever way they want. After all, creators change, stories are retconned, and the opinion of the reader is more important than the statements of the writer (I mean, creators can say what they want and try to make meaning, but ultimately, readers believe what they want – it’s just more difficult to believe Wonder Woman is straight if the character herself has said “I am bisexual.”). Take Deadpool as an example. For years, straight male fans have insisted on Wade’s straightness by pointing to his romantic and sexual relationships with women while treating his flirty remarks with men as a joke. When Tim Miller, the director of the Deadpool film, actually went on record saying that Deadpool was pansexual, fanboys lost their minds. However, their interpretation can still be considered valid without verbal confirmation from the character himself – if Deadpool doesn’t say it, people can deny it, essentially. The movie itself didn’t even present Deadpool as overtly or strongly pansexual, so Miller’s words are just words for some audiences. In the case of Diana, proclaiming her bisexuality in the comic will create that reality in the comic. Stating it inside the comic makes it true in Diana’s world, not just ours.

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How do Labels and Sexuality Work?

For LGBT+ readers, asserting Diana’s sexuality can be seen as confirmation of the views they’ve held all along (and I say “can” and “they” because I don’t want my words to be interpreted as speaking on behalf of all LGBT+ readers) as well as a step forward in bisexual visibility and acceptance. Confirmation of one’s own thoughts and beliefs is great – it feels good, and there’s a sense of validation and pride that accompanies it. Likewise, acceptance is important for obvious reasons. Nerd and fan culture has always been a place for the “outcasts” or people on the general fringes of mainstream society – and to deny that acceptance in comics would be the opposite of what comics is all about.

But there’s also the question of whether this kind of proclamation is reflective of how identity, disclosure, and sexuality work, especially in popular media. On the one hand, Wonder Woman proclaiming her bisexuality is for the benefit of queer readers (and I use “queer” in this post in the academic sense) – it’s a kind of statement that promotes bisexual visibility and pride. On the other hand, if potentially straight audiences require that a character says, “I am gay” or “I am bisexual” in order to be seen as legitimate, it almost seems as if they are saying (in my friend Logan Middleton’s words) “queer people have to announce / disclose / proclaim their queerness for the benefit of normative audiences.” It’s not a bad thing, exactly. More straight audiences should see and accept more LGBT+ characters in comics, and I’m no subscriber to the thought that “gay people shouldn’t shove their sexuality in my face – why can’t they be gay and just not say so?”

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But things get more complex the more we look at the history of queer film and pop culture. Modern queer theory in academia will point to multiple ways in which labels and names are functioning: while some LGBT+ people find power in reclaiming the word “queer” (or even “gay,” “lesbian,” etc.) for themselves, some scholars will argue that labels are on their way out. Some queer audiences will reject the need for specifying and disclosing queerness, insisting that the pleasure of a queer reading comes not from its explicit announcement that a piece of media is a “gay film” or “LGBT+ comic,” but in the subtle hints that lead the audience (who knows how to read them) to interpret the media as a queer one. For example, in her book The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television, Maria San Filippo describes the 1994 film Go Fish, which contains a scene in which two women “prepare to consummate their romance by clipping each other’s fingernails,” a scene that left lesbian viewers in hysterics while straight viewers were more than a little confused. That this scene was made by and for lesbians without bothering to explain its significance to straight viewers is what made it so attractive to lesbian viewers, and that only lesbians could understand the joke made it feel like a queer film (to some) – something made exclusively for them and not for heteronormative audiences.

The question then becomes whether it’s productive/inclusive/right to write Wonder Woman as a character who can be enjoyed by everyone but who also says and acts in ways that are significant for LGBT+ readers specifically (in keeping with the history of queer media reception). I don’t think that answer can be answered satisfactorily – some LGBT+ readers will want Diana to be open and direct with her sexuality, while others might want a reading that’s intended just for them.

There’s also the pushback against using labels and words that will allow straight creators and large companies to capitalize on and monetize queer narratives without acknowledging queer experiences. For example, think back to the “controversy” surrounding Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise. Rowling insisted that she didn’t make Dumbledore’s queerness explicit in the novels because it wasn’t relevant to the story. As a result, there’s no engagement with LGBT+ issues in the novels, and for some readers, the impression was that Rowling was trying to take advantage of the push for more inclusion without actually taking the time to explore what being gay actually means. (I myself am making no claims on that – just pointing out some readings of the situation.) Something similar even happened after the release of the Deadpool film, with critics remarking upon how Deadpool’s pansexuality wasn’t really present in the film (though, to be fair, it’s up in the air: Deadpool can easily be read as being a pansexual man in a relationship with a women and erasing Vanessa would be a form of bi-erasure; though also to be fair, Deadpool doesn’t exactly read differently than a crass fanboy; to also also be fair, Ryan Reynolds wants Deadpool to have a boyfriend in the sequel). There’s also the case of Loras Tyrell in Game of Thrones, who is explicitly gay, but is written as the embodiment of every lazy trope and stereotype under the sun; his queerness is thus less for the benefit of representation and more for shock value and a kind of “perverse pleasure” for straight viewers.

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Of course, these examples and theories are about gay and lesbian media. Bisexuality and bisexual people have vastly different experiences, given that they are arguably the most frequently marginalized and erased within both heteronormative culture and the LGBT+ communities. As San Filippo writes, “it is now overwhelmingly bisexual rather than the homosexual impulse that threatens heteronormativity’s armature” (12). San Filippo uses this background to describe bisexuality as threatening to both straight audiences (for obvious reasons) and gay/lesbian readers because “homonormativity is… complicit in compulsory monosexuality – the ideological and institutional privileging of either heterosexuality or homosexuality as the two options for mature sexuality that are socially recognized and perceived as personally sustainable” (12). What, then, is the best way to capture bisexuality in a piece of media? Is it by saying the term “bisexual?” And do we need to use the term “bisexual” in order to legitimize bisexuality?

And here’s where I undo the first part of this blog post (a little).

There’s no right answer, I think, both because different individuals will have different opinions and because the term “bisexual” is slippery as hell. Bisexuality, according to San Filippo, is not easily pinned down with a term. She writes, “It is precisely bisexuality’s epistemological and textual polysemy that generates its subversive potential to lay bare the mutability, contingency, and inherent transgressions of desire. This complex, queer understanding… construes the ‘B word’ as a pluralistic construct rather than a totalizing essence… bisexuality’s ongoing necessity as a term stems from an insistence on bisexuality’s historical and idiomatic specificity” (16-17). In other words, her book argues that bisexuality encapsulates a multiplicity of identities and experiences, and the term itself can reflect a presumably straight audience’s desire to pin down a singular, cohesive view of bisexuality that simply does not exist. (I mean, look at graph #9 in this article by Buzzfeed, for Pete’s sake. People are thinking about it.) “Bisexual” as a term cannot give an accurate, pinpointed picture of bisexuality, so as a word alone, it is important, but can’t necessarily stand alone. Neither should we require characters to proclaim their bisexuality in order to consider them as legitimate or the only instances of legitimate bisexuality. “To limit the focus to characters who proclaim their own bisexuality,” San Filippo writes, “would overlook the ambiguous and liminal spaces that alternatives to monosexuality actually inhabit” (18).

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Get Back to Wonder Woman, Please

Your opinion of San Filippo’s book as a whole may vary, but here’s my main point and how it relates to Wonder Woman.

If Wonder Woman says, “I am bisexual,” she creates a reality – but what reality is that and how can creators make it reflective of an actual bisexual experience? If she says, “I am bisexual,” what images and assumptions are straight audiences calling up versus what images and understandings should they call up?

The desire for Wonder Woman to say the word “bisexual” in the comics is a valid and necessary one. With bisexual erasure being a real and prevalent phenomenon, having Diana own her sexuality puts forth a powerful statement: that bisexuality is real, it’s its own identity, and it isn’t something to be ashamed of. In today’s cultural climate, I think it’s more beneficial for Diana to own that name/label than to leave it implied.

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But in using the word, writers need to be sensitive to what bisexual experiences actually mean (not that Greg Rucka doesn’t). Likewise, fans need to require not just the name/label, but an active engagement with LGBT+ culture(s). Creators and fans also need to realize that characters aren’t by default straight until a word, name, or label makes them otherwise. It’s not enough to require the word “bisexual” to be in the text – it’s important, certainly, but the work is not done once Diana utters the term.

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