Sunday, 16 May 2010

Etta Candy - the disappearing woman

There's a lot written about the way female characters are portrayed in mainstream comics and, for the most part, it's pretty negative and very confused. The most common complaint is that the women all tend to have idealised body-shapes, conveniently glossing over the fact that the male heroes also have physiques that look as if they'd be very comfortable on the set of a porn movie. Since she was first created as Wonder Woman's loyal sidekick in the 1940s, however, Etta Candy has been a notable exception to the rule.


As created by William Moulton Marston, Etta was plain and ... well, not to put too fine a point on it, fat. She was seldom seen without a box of chocolates (candy) under her arm and much of her dialogue consisted of saying she'd much rather be eating candy than ... well, whatever it was she was actually doing at the time. She was the comedy sidekick.

But she was also much more. She was courageous, bold and fiercely loyal. Her more attractive and slimmer companions at the Holliday College readily accepted her leadership and frequently followed her into danger. While Steve Trevor regularly needed saving by Wonder Woman, Etta Candy was far more likely to be leading a charge of her own, beating up Nazi spies and helping to thwart their evil schemes. Yes, as the title character, Wonder Woman was inevitably the ideal of feminine beauty but with Etta Candy, Marston was telling us that ordinary women could also be just as brave and resourceful - inspirational even.

Following a confused series of reinventions through the 1960s, the character became known to people outside the closed little community that is comic fandom, as a result of Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman TV series of the 1970s. The TV version of Etta (played by Beatrice Colen) was plump rather than fat and, although she was still clearly there to provide comic relief, the show decided not to make fun of her weight. Instead, the writers portrayed her as a woman of very limited intelligence, presumably in the belief that - in an age when women's rights were the order of the day - ridiculing women for being stupid was more acceptable than mocking their size! The saddest thing about the TV version, however, was that she was completely stripped of her bravery and willingness to stand at Wonder Woman's side in battle. She was still a likeable character but there was little to her other than the comedy trimmings.

With George Perez's relaunch of the Wonder Woman title in 1987, he re-established Etta Candy as a courageous, resourceful woman every bit as willing and able to fight side-by-side with the rest of the Wonder Woman cast. She was still plump and was described as unattractive, but these traits were no longer used as a device to elicit cheap laughs. She worked for the military, no longer obsessed over chocolate, and was comfortable with who she was. She had, in effect, come of age.

Apparently, however, the powers at DC now believe that Marston and Perez both got it wrong. In the Wonder Woman animated movie, Etta is a slim and attractive secretary who gets what she wants by using her feminine allure rather than her own abilities while, in her latest comics incarnation, Etta has been recast as a super-spy, complete with stereotypical porn-star physique and spray-on cat-suit.

Now, I've nothing against idealised women in comics, any more than I have anything against idealised male characters. They are and, as in any other mass medium, probably always will be the norm. If DC had wanted to create a new female super-spy and had made that character drop-dead gorgeous, it would have been pretty unimaginative but I'd have had no complaint. The shame here is that someone has made a conscious decision to take an existing character who did not fit the standard mould and has deliberately changed her into something bland and derivative. The message, it seems, is that the feminist critics were right all along. DC really does have no place for heroines who aren't beautiful and brimming with silicon-enhanced sex appeal.

The most surprising aspect of this change, however, is that it's happened on Gail Simone's watch. When it was announced that Simone would be assigned to the Wonder Woman title, much was made of the fact that she was the first woman writer to be given the post on a permanent basis. Implicit was the idea that only women could really understand how to write female characters. As laughable as that argument was even at the time (just imagine the outrage there'd be, if anyone dared suggest that only men could write male characters!), Simone had built up a strong reputation on Birds of Prey and so hopes for the future of the title were high.

Now, I don't claim to have read everything Simone has written for Wonder Woman but, from what I have seen, she's done a good job. Nothing to justify the wild optimism that followed her appointment, perhaps, but certainly as good as anything produced by the other writers assigned to this title in recent years. The glamming-up of Etta Candy, however, stands out as a huge step backwards for female characters and, given the writer's credentials, is especially ironic.

We'll probably never know whether it was Simone's own decision to rob Etta of her individuality, or whether it was yet another decision forced on a writer by an imagination-impaired editor. Either way, if you're a female reader whose body-shape fails to match up to the Amazonian ideal, you're no longer going to find a kindred spirit in the pages of a Wonder Woman comic. And, if you can't find one there, I guess you're going to be hard-pressed to find one anywhere within the DCU. She's just ... disappeared!

5 comments:

  1. That's very interesting! I have to admit, I don't know much about the classic Wonder Woman supporting cast, and one weakness of the new Wonder Woman series connected to that is that they obviously didn't make them interesting for people who hadn't known about them previously. At least, that's what I infer from my not caring about them, even though I'm certainly more than willing to. (I know the basic stuff about Paradise Island, Hippolyta, Artemis, Ares and Circe, but that's about it.) I was ready to embrace the new Wonder Woman title as an A-list title, which the character deserves, but it turned out to be an OK title in the long run (not considering the bumpy start with its great art and bad writing - now we get solid writing and solid writing, ho-hum).
    That said, you might like (or even love) the Wonder Woman strip from DC's recent Wednesday Comics line (which was great all around). Etta Candy is more than true to her roots here, and it's probably the most imaginative and gorgeous WW comic I've ever read. It's even a bit hard to read, the layouts are THAT imaginative :P

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  2. *of course I meant "solid writing and solid ART" :P

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  3. Thanks, Abt. I've heard about the Wednesday Comics but I've never actually seen them. They're discontinued now, aren't they? I'm sure they'll pop up somewhere on the web eventually. I'll keep my eyes open!

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  4. They were a 12-issue maxiseries to begin with; Now available in a gorgeous oversized (or is that overpriced?) hardcover.

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  5. Ah, yes. I've found it now. It's due to be released here at the end of May. It looks like it's going to be available in hardback only at first. Full price is £37 but Forbidden Planet is selling it for £25. I'll probably try to wait until a paperback version is released, but I must admit that £25 price tag is already starting to tempt me!

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