Deconstructing Wonder Woman

Friday A/V Club: From video art to YouTube Poop



If you want to watch a Wonder Woman movie today but can't make it to a theater to see the new film, I've got you covered. Below you'll find Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, a piece of feminist video art from the '70s.

Let me clarify that: When Dara Birnbaum made this in 1978 and '79, it was feminist video art. And you can still read it that way if you want. But in 2017 this video—a piece of certified High Culture that I first encountered in a museum—is pretty much indistinguishable from the pop-culture remixes that crop up on YouTube every day now.

I'm hardly the first person to notice this. Visit that Algonquin Roundtable of our time, YouTube's comment threads, and you'll find Birnbaum's video sparking reactions like this:


And this:


And this:


I should probably explain, for those of you who don't follow such things, that "YouTube Poop" isn't a putdown; it's a genre.

So here's the video. Once it would have struck most viewers as highly weird; today it's almost ordinary. That's the sort of thing that happens when a technology gets democratized.

By the way: If you're curious about Birnbaum's original intent, here's how Electronic Arts Interface sums it up:

Explosive bursts of fire open Technology/Transformation, an incendiary deconstruction of the ideology embedded in television form and pop cultural iconography. Appropriating imagery from the 1970s TV series Wonder Woman, Birnbaum isolates and repeats the moment of the "real" woman's symbolic transformation into super-hero. Entrapped in her magical metamorphosis by Birnbaum's stuttering edits, Wonder Woman spins dizzily like a music-box doll. Through radical manipulation of this female Pop icon, she subverts its meaning within the television text. Arresting the flow of images through fragmentation and repetition, Birnbaum condenses the comic-book narrative—Wonder Woman deflects bullets off her bracelets, "cuts" her throat in a hall of mirrors—distilling its essence to allow the subtext to emerge. In a further textual deconstruction, she spells out the words to the song Wonder Woman in Discoland on the screen. The lyrics' double entendres ("Get us out from under…Wonder Woman") reveal the sexual source of the superwoman's supposed empowerment: "Shake thy Wonder Maker." Writing about the "stutter-step progression of 'extended moments' of transformation from Wonder Woman," Birnbaum states, "The abbreviated narrative—running, spinning, saving a man—allows the underlying theme to surface: psychological transformation versus television product. Real becomes Wonder in order to "do good" (be moral) in an (a) or (im)moral society."

Now head over to a bona fide YouTube Poop video and post an analysis like that in the comments.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)