Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Making your hero a sexist is not brilliant characterization

I wasn’t at all a fan of the New 52 Wonder Woman, but the book’s handling of Orion brought it to rock bottom

When Orion shows up to join forces with Diana, he has nothing in common with the character Jack Kirby created. Which might be okay if Azzarello had done anything interesting with him. Alas, despite saying he wanted to make Orion a “three dimensional character,” Azzarello gave us Orion as a surly, sexist frat boy who can’t see Wonder Woman as anything but a piece of ass — which he slaps the first time they meet. He leers at her. He makes sexist double entendres. When Diana criticizes him in one scene, she worries she was too harsh. Not to worry, Orion says — he never listens when she talks.

I’ve been seeing characters like this since modern feminism became a thing. The sexist cop paired with the feminist firebrand. Black Canary sputtering at Green Arrow’s sexism (even when he was far left on almost everything, he was still a sexist jerk). It’s an easy way to generate conflict or sexual tension (opposites attract!) or for the female lead to prove herself by putting the guy in her place (which Diana does with Orion a couple of times). It’s also a big pile of bullshit.

In the first place, Wonder Woman’s been a superhero longer than I’ve been around. She doesn’t have to prove herself to this jerk version of Orion. Like Carol in Captain Marvel she has nothing to prove to anyone. Even if she were a spanking new character I’d sooner see her proving herself by, you know, doing cool, amazing stuff than dealing with a jerk who’s supposedly on her side.

It’s true that the Wonder Woman issues show Orion’s sexism is wrong (so do most such stories). But I already know that; lots of readers do. Having someone mouth sexist bullshit and then have to eat their words isn’t enlightening or liberating, it’s just a character mouthing sexist bullshit. It’s hard to imagine saddling T’Challa with a racist sidekick or ally (“Sorry, I never listen when a black guy speaks.”) and expecting readers to find it amusing. No, not even if T’Challa proved them wrong. If anyone treated John Stewart or Cyborg with as much racism as GA had for Black Canary back in the day, they’d be written as a villain. So let it be with misogynists.

Part of the problem, I think, is that discussions of feminism and sexism frame the poles of the debate as “full equality” and “Men control everything.” By the default assumption that the truth is in the middle, the truth must therefore be “well women should have some rights but full equality? Too extreme” That makes sexism look reasonable. As long as it’s just Orion grabbing Diana’s ass or a cop who doesn’t think his female partner should be in police work, hey that’s not so bad! It’s not like they’re the kind of creep who thinks marital rape should be legal or women shouldn’t have the vote (both depressingly popular viewpoints in conservative circles), just a little bit sexist.

The thing is, though, that equality isn’t an extreme position. It’s the middle ground between women having all the power and men having all the power. Presenting characters who can’t grasp that as likeable, albeit mistaken heroes, is never going to sit well with me.

#SFWApro. Cover by Cliff Chiang.


  1. Darthratzinger

    I´ve read Azzarellos run in collected editions and I remember absolutely nothing of it (like I unfortunately did with most New 52 runs). Judging from Your article that´s probably for the better.

    1. Orion aside, I think I would have enjoyed the reboot if it had been a new character — a woman who suddenly discovers she’s one of Zeus’ by-blows and gets embroiled in Olympian power struggles. But as WW, not so much. And less and less as it went along.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    “Make Orion a 3 dimensional character?”

    Someone already did that. His name was Jack Kirby. Perhaps someone should have told Azzarello that.

    There was nothing one dimensional about Orion. He was a warrior who was in constant turmoil between his instincts and the teachings of Highfather. He was “nature vs nurture,” writ large, in a single character. At first, he seems to be another noble hero; but, Kirby slowly peels away the layers, revealing that Orion hides a monstrous appearance behind both his helmet and an illusion, created by Mother Box. He then reveals that without his full power held in check, he is the most destructive force this side of Darkseid. Then, he reveals that he is Darkseid’s son, given up as a hostage to broker a peace between Apokolips and New Genesis, to give Darkseid time to rebuild his war machine, fro a second strike. However, Highfather had a more subtle plan, to turn his own passive son into a warrior to help fight the coming future war and to tame the wild nature of Orion, and turn him into a weapon, against his father. Thus, the balance is tipped to New genesis and Darkseid’s fate is sealed.

    If you actually read Kirby’s 4th World, his characters are very layered, with motivations that make sense. You just have to approach the work with an open mind and see beyond the fights and basic good vs evil theme. You soon learn that it is not so simple as light and dark, good and evil, and that there is a ton of philosophical musing about the nature of evil and how mankind creates evil, and how fascism grows and what Anti-Life truly is: the absence of free thought.

    Kirby came to understand that the true evil of Fascism was not in the atrocities committed but in the bending of people to Hitler’s mindset, so they became willing accomplices in his horrors, at the worst, and willfully disinterested bystanders, at best.

    1. Jazzbo

      Simonson also made Orion a 3 dimensional character in his run. So it’s been done at least twice before already. Azzarello wasn’t doing anything new or different trying to claim that was his motivation with the character.

      1. It reminds me of when Geoff Johns and whoever he was writing Justice League with announced that their League would have distinctive personalities, unlike Gardner Fox’s writing. Which ignores that in the 40 years since Fox left DC, Englehart, Conway, Morrison and others have done plenty of character work.

  3. Thad

    > It’s hard to imagine saddling T’Challa with a racist sidekick or ally (“Sorry, I never listen when a black guy speaks.”) and expecting readers to find it amusing.

    …that’s…the Priest run, isn’t it? “Hangs out at the Avengers Mansion — orders up some ribs.”

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