During one of my quarter bin dives, I unearthed this curiosity: A manga allegedly written by 1940s Batman ghost artist Jerry Robinson.
I bought it because the art looked nice (it is, by the way) and because it’s about a woman from an all-female planet sent into space to find men. I figured that even if its gender politics were disagreeable, they would at least give me a chance to think critically about a subject that I care a lot about. For better or worse, I was right about that.
This potentially cheeky, ribald concept – a princess from a planet of women sent to find a man – is presented with a leaden earnestness, inviting serious inquiry into its plausibility. The explanation of how men faded out of living memory on Astra’s planet, but her species still needs male sperm to reproduce, is so flimsy the whole premise falls apart. “All the men” on Astra’s home planet “died in an interplanetary war.” And then, evidently before any other males could be born, Astra’s people then “evolved” into “a race of beings that only bears female young.”
First of all, why would an army fighting an “interplanetary war” leave no forces to defend their home turf? That’s just poor strategy. Never mind the implausible conceit of a military that was exclusively male, and seemingly encompasses the planet’s entire male population.
The fact remains that there was a window of millions of years in which Astra’s people were capable of bearing male children. While male gender identities might survive among children born after the war, surely they would be changed by the experience of growing up in a world where every living adult was female.
It’s possible that such a society might reject the male identity entirely, regardless of sex. The trouble here is that from the perspective of a cisnormative audience, Astra’s people would then no longer qualify as all-female. To validate the perception of sex as the provenance of gender, the improbable occurs and Astra’s people bear no male-sexed children for millions of years.
The purpose of these conceptual gymnastics, of course, is to affirm cisgender, heterosexual identities as natural, irrepressible, timeless. Even after “generations upon generations” of exclusively female society, where the distinction of female in relation to male is meaningless, Astra’s people still present and identify like Earthly women who live among men.
Even after “millions of years” of evolution, Astra’s people look exactly like Earthly women, and reproduce in the same way. Neither evolution nor the science of a futuristic, space-travelling society can find a better way – or even any other way – for life to go on. The message seems to be that if cisgender, heterosexual human reproduction became impossible on Astra’s planet, that would not be an acceptable variation in a literal universe of biological possibility, but an imbalance that must and will be corrected by the power of love.
Astra isn’t going to hurt anybody who doesn’t go out of their way to find it. The problem is not this one obscure example of bias-reinforcing narrative, but how utterly conventional it is. Genre fiction often sacrifices logic in this way to preserve the ideal of cis- and hetero- normativity as an objective, universal truth.
Likewise, audiences and creators have struggled to acknowledge that the expression of sexuality might simply be different among the all-female population of Wonder Woman’s island home. Writer Greg Rucka caused controversy by suggesting that, logically speaking, Wonder Woman would have had romantic relationships with other women in an exclusively female society.
This force of resistance to recognizing difference extends to traits beyond sex, gender, and orientation. Consider this typical depiction of the magical island inhabited only by women that Wonder Woman calls home:
Everyone looks pretty much the same, right? Even granting the barriers to depicting diversity at this time — in addition to the difficulty of showing people of color, the presentation of disability was actually discouraged by the original Comics Code – this group of Amazons is virtually identical. No one is taller or shorter, wider or skinnier.
Maybe you know of some comics, Wonder Woman and otherwise, that depict all-female societies more diversely. Maybe some novels, movies, and TV shows as well. Surely they can’t all be like this. But I invite you to consider that those exceptions stand out in your mind for a reason.
If they are the exceptions, this is the rule: When an entire community in a work of fiction has one thing in common, such as gender, the purpose is almost never to show the many ways in which that shared trait can be expressed, but to show that everyone of such a type is basically alike. A uniform population – a crowd of copies, in which a single representative can be trusted speak for one and all. A place where intersections and divergences of identity are virtually non-existent. The group, and its unifying trait, are reduced to shallow abstractions. The audience’s understanding of what this group looks like – who truly represents them – who can be counted among them at all – is narrowed.
But remember, noticing this does not have to be idle agitation. The path to conceptualizing the new and the different can begin by familiarizing ourselves with the familiar. By studying its contours and limitations, we can better consider the possibilities it does not encompass. We must first understand the box before we can think outside of it.
Casey Bohn is a writer and illustrator from Nashville, Tennessee. She has written for Broadly, The Mary Sue, and Birth.Movies.Death, and published comics through Charles Forsman’s Oily imprint.