Forty years after its initial publication, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (“VP&NC”) has been a useful theoretical starting point for my analysis of two, potentially feminist, representations of the 1970s television series, Wonder Woman (Warner Bros. Television, 1975–1979): Dara Birnbaum’s video art piece Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978) and the fanvid (vid) Titanium (by Gianduja Kiss, 2013). The former was explicitly guided by Mulvey’s essay in order to reveal structural failings in representing women in television (T.J. Demos 2010). The latter, released thirty-five years later, uses clips from the same series to construct a character study of its protagonist and suggests a different way to read the interplay of female spectatorship and fascination in relation to television.
Both works extract spectacular moments from the series—notably special effects and long shots in which the body of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Linda Carter) is on display in her iconic minimal costume—re-framing them away from their original narrative context. Both use Wonder Woman to construct arguments about how the series may be watched and interpreted. Technology/Transformation attacks it as an iconic example of the male gaze in action; Titanium articulates a feminist reading of the same source material. The fact that Titanium’s positive take on the series feels so radical is proof of the continued relevance of Mulvey’s observation about the female body on screen. My research on the vid (a subcultural form of moving image re-use dominated by women1) does not directly engage with psychoanalysis.
However, my return to “VP&NC” arose from my interest in gendered spectatorship and the role of narrative context in understanding screen representation. In the vid form, the clips’ utility as image is predominant: this removal of dialogue and other sound emphasises the visual, spectatorial, and representational aspects of a vid’s source material. A vid preserves vidder’s gaze by textually instantiating her interpretive “path through a text” (Jonathan Gray 2010, 161), predicated on an intense, scopophilic, and engaged form of viewership. Like Titanium, Technology/Transformation “draws on the imagery for its own deconstructive, analytical purpose” (Demos 2010, 48), taking special effects clips from the series to emphasise the cumulative impact of these sequences (Chris Meigh-Andrews 2006, 172).
In every episode the narrative must halt so Diana may fulfil a spectacular function: spinning in place to magically change from street clothes into her costume. Demos argues that Birnbaum’s purpose is to expose the betrayal of the series’ feminist possibilities: Diana spins in isolation and achieves nothing, in an illusion of emancipatory female power (2010, 21). In contrast, and at a time when the series has perhaps softened into nostalgia viewing, the vid presents this episodic repetition as an accumulation of Diana’s good works, using clips from different episodes as evidence of her dedication to fighting crime.
These clips start sequences which show Diana deflecting bullets, stopping moving vehicles, and other feats of strength. As with Birnbaum’s work, narrative context is removed; however, in 900 COMMENTARY AND CRITICISM Titanium Diana is not shown to be trapped in an endless cycle of exploitation. Instead, Diana spins in order to transform, in order to use her powers to help people. The sequences are structured such that her spin begins at the end of the chorus,2 just as the word “titanium” is heard, captioning this motion as the point where Diana is at her strongest. When re-presented for the vid’s predominantly-female audience,3 and when aurally captioned by lyrics that construct a version of Diana’s interiority, the vid form’s counterreading of the character reclaims these moments of spectacle as being integral to the pleasure of watching the series.
For a contemporary audience, Birnbaum’s piece arguably fails to convey its analysis: we see Diana but not her systems of oppression (Demos 2010). This is an issue with the contradictory signification of Wonder Woman herself, created as a female Superman, in an “attempt to join feminine strength and power with allure and beauty” leaving her a contested Figure (Demos 2010, 19). Titanium takes the same clips that Birnbaum argued were symptomatic of oppression in Wonder Woman, together with additional clips from the series, as an affirmation of independent female agency. The fascination of the image endures, not the anti-television criticism.4 In a post-feminist context, a vidder’s ability to selectively reframe Diana’s potential polysemy away from her narrative structure underscores the effectiveness of Mulvey’s thesis as related to the tension between narrative and spectacle. Presuming that Diana’s “appearance [is] coded for strong visual and erotic impact” (Laura Mulvey 1975, 11), the vid form constructs a viewing context that reclaims and embraces this character’s to-be-looked-at-ness. Mulvey calls for women’s avant-garde filmmaking to free the camera apparatus and the gaze of the audience from their subjection to the male-dominated gaze, in hopes that awareness of the filmic apparatus and critical readings would expose the illusion of conventional cinema.
Through home media technologies, the vid form lets vidders enact their own desiring gaze, and share these intensely pleasurable readings of media texts. Titanium concludes with an extended sequence in which Diana interacts with many other female characters; the vid argues that women within the series, upon meeting Wonder Woman, are inspired to fight alongside her. This sequence starts with a spinning transformation, but instead of “continually spinning around in circles but getting nowhere” (Demos 2010, 21) as in Birnbaum’s piece, she runs alongside Wonder Girl, trains with other Amazons, and enables other female characters to fight back. This vision of an inclusive female community opens up a space for the vid’s viewer to be similarly included in a potential identification with Diana. The vid shows a group of women free from narrative resolution that might restrict their independence, desirability, or suitability for identification (cf. Jackie Stacey 1988): they share diegetic looks, are reframed through a vidder’s selective re-presentation, and presented for the pleasure of a largely-female audience.
Visual pleasures without narrative structure create a problem of ambiguity: the final work shows only the image of Wonder Woman, not the oppressive narrative of Wonder Woman that inspired Birnbaum’s critique. Indeed, if creative re-uses of media can “reveal or release something contained, or latent, within the footage” (Michael Pigott 2013, 10), both works arguably release Diana. Titanium re-constructs this releasing Diana into a relatable character capable of self-reflection. Its editing takes the song’s metaphor literally—pairing lyrics “You shoot me down, but I won’t fall/I am titanium” with clips of Diana blocking bullets with her bracelets—turning these moments of spectacular special effects into moments of character development. The vid does not excuse the character’s contradictory COMMENTARY AND CRITICISM 901 representation, but it takes the pleasurable images and responds to the fascination such representations still hold for an audience. The vid form articulates a female gaze, arising from a female-dominated subculture, and implicitly presents an argument about the pleasures of viewing this character. Re-editing films and television series to remove narrative results in a concentration of bodily spectacle.
For Birnbaum, this concentration was intended to condemn the spectacular visual presentation of Wonder Woman. In Titanium, a similar concentration is not about erotics alone, but has a more comfortable approach to the fascination which arguably results in a spectacle of representational affirmation. Rather than a tension between desire and identification, vids are open texts in which the evacuation of narrative encourages a mobile relationship between the viewer’s potential desire for and/or identification with the visual spectacle they present. Vids demonstrate a mode of spectatorship that is media-literate and actively analytical, capable and willing to identify and share that which is pleasurable, spectacular, erotic, and fascinating in and about film and television. The fact that vids like Titanium can be read as articulating a female gaze is due to the groundwork laid by Mulvey’s theorisation of gendered looks. That Titanium feels like a refreshing intervention speaks to the continued relevance of interrogating the representation of women on screen.