Revisiting Video Artist Dara Birnbaum’s Feminist Wonder Woman Remix

When video artist Dara Birnbaum first exhibited
Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-79),
it was seen as a “paragon of
feminist critique.” The work was an explicit feminist critique
of Wonder Woman, a character uniquely overburdened by political
representation.

The video features edited footage from the Lynda Carter-helmed
television show that aired from 1975-79. Birnbaum has spliced
the show into a series of repetitive moments, distilling the
genre of the superhero to its basic elements: Wonder Woman runs
in between trees; runs through a field; she spins over and over
again, transforming from alter ego Diana Prince to the titular
heroine at a dizzying, repetitive pace; she spins in a hall of
mirrors, her image reflected in multiples; she deflects bullets
with her shiny bracelets. The looped vignettes, many of which
are taken from the show’s opening credits, are punctuated by
explosions and the original theme song—a disco-infused, upbeat
song that, by the show’s third season, was largely just the
words “Wonder Woman” on repeat.

After nearly three and a half minutes of the disorienting
repetition—the looping of video combined with the array of
reflective surfaces (a self-referential gesture if there ever
was one), explosions and funk sounds—Birnbaum includes one
final explosion before rolling credits, of sorts. Traditional
film credits have instead been replaced by a blue background on
which the lyrics of The Wonderland Disco Band’s Wonder
Woman Disco
(1978) projects. The effect is almost
hypnotizing after the disjointed, convulsive loops that precede
it—the stereotypical bouncy beat of disco and the sweet vocals
disrupted by gimmicky lyrics like, “shake that wonder maker.”

Birnbaum’s Technology/Transformation was in many
respects a response to feminist literature in the 1970s,
particularly Laura Mulvey’s assertion that female figures on
the screen, no matter how seemingly powerful, necessarily
succumb to the male gaze. By removing the narrative context of
the scenes—simply by showing Diana Prince’s transformation as a
series of reflections that ultimately lead nowhere—Birnbaum
creates what Pamela Lee describes as “naturalization
through repetition.”

Technology/Transformation points to the Wonder Woman
conundrum, one particularly reiterated by the Carter-helmed
television show: that the character has, since her introduction
in 1941, morphed into a feminist icon while still weighed down
by the gendered (and often sexist) politics of the body. Of the
show and Birnbaum’s critique, Lee notes that the “televisual
incarnation of the comic-book persona gets to have it both
ways. While on one hand, she ostensibly caters to an image of
power, a mainstreaming of second wave feminism of the 1970s as
so much entertainment, in actuality (and unsurprisingly) she is
little more an object of male fantasy—again so much
entertainment.”

Birnbaum suggests that gender is an ideology best served with
the spectacle of mass reproduction. Distilled into repetitive,
visually assaulting segments, the artificiality of the
“empowerment” message is laid bare. Wonder Woman may be
powerful, but she is still a series of images—a series of
reflections born of repetition. Ironically, as Birnbaum shows,
not even Wonder Woman can fracture that mirrored prison.

Wonder Woman trapped by her own image. Still from
Technology/Transformation.

While Birnbaum’s original intention might today seem like an
outdated observation unreconciled with the complexities the
gaze, Technology/Transformation’s deconstructive urge
still seem surprisingly relevant. The mirroring of a series of
prescribed images, combined with the pre-release chatter about Gal Gadot’s
body
, is a persistent reminder of the conundrum presented
in Birnbaum’s work. There is also Birnbaum’s own 2008 nod to an alternative
interpretation of the work. “If you’re feeling insecure, whom
are you going to run to for help or support?” she said during
an interview with BOMB Magazine. “A super-mother, an
Amazonian super-woman: primitive, moral, and ethical.”

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