The Scarlet Mystique: WandaVision and the Second Wave of Feminism

CW: Contains spoilers for Episodes 1-4 of WandaVision.

So, let’s talk WandaVision. The long-anticipated series has been refreshingly avant-garde so far, partly thanks to the increasingly credible theory— pretty much confirmed beyond all doubt in Episode Four last week — that the whole thing is a total fantasy, created by Wanda’s reality-warping powers. Oh, and all the sitcom call-backs. Let’s not forget those.

And Episode Two, which had the late fifties/early sixties and Bewitched, is the one where we really start to see that something’s very, very wrong. Which made me think of a significant event from the real-life 1960s: Betty Friedan’s pioneering book, The Feminine Mystique, was published in 1963. But what do a 1960s housewife and a 21st-century superhero who (briefly) thinks she’s a 1960s housewife, have in common? A lot more than you’d think, as it turns out. 

The Feminine Mystique was born when in 1957, Friedan conducted a survey of her former college classmates, which eventually turned into a book. The title was her shorthand for the then-pervasive myth that all a woman needed to be happy was a full-time job as a wife and mother. According to Friedan’s research, though, many women were sick of domesticity but had difficulty articulating their disappointment, a dilemma which she labelled “the problem that has no name”. The book does have its flaws, namely its almost exclusive focus on white, middle-class women. Still, for it’s time, it was revolutionary, becoming the catalyst that kickstarted the Second Wave of Feminism. It’s widely regarded as one of the most influential books to come out of the 20th century (or, for hard-line conservatives, one of the most dangerous).

So where does WandaVision fit in? For starters, it opens in a picturesque suburb, an idealised version of Friedan’s married life. But for them, something was wrong. One woman claimed that she was so run down that, “By noon I’m ready for a padded cell. Very little of what I’ve done has been really necessary or important.” Which definitely makes me think of WandaVision— and not just because of the straightjacketed hellhole poor Wanda got shoved into in Civil War, or because her dangerously fragile mental state now. After all, Wanda and Vision are literal superheroes, not unlike all the awesome women who kicked ass during World War Two. But in WandaVision, what’s the schedule full of? Dinner parties, neighbourhood watch meetings, and I’m pretty sure Vision still has no idea what his company actually does. Not to mention the fact that they can’t remember basic details like how long they’ve been together. They’re thinking the same question that Friedan’s gal pals were afraid to ask themselves: “Is this all?”

From the end of Episode Two onwards, though, the characters start trying to put that constant sense of wrongness into words. Take Vision in Episode Three, finally saying the quiet part out loud and trying to tell Wanda that “there’s something wrong here”. Like Friedan and her friends, they’re stuck in a gilded cage, their perfect suburban existences built on a lie. And the more they start noticing the lies and calling them out, the closer they (hopefully) get to escaping. Hell, Monica is ejected from Westview through the towering wall of energy surrounding and protecting the illusion; how long until that wall literally comes crashing down?

But why would Wanda — either subconsciously or on purpose — create this trippy sitcom prison in the first place? Put simply, because her real life utterly sucks. Over the course of her life she’s lost her parents to a bomb, her brother to Ultron, and her partner to Thanos. In other words, all of her loved ones have died violently in armed conflicts, which looks scarily appropriate next to Friedan’s explanation for why fifties gender roles were so damn rigid. According to her, after the fear and uncertainty of World War Two and then the Cold War (constant threat of nuclear apocalypse, anyone?) Americans just wanted everything to be nice and comfortable and normal. Anything that threatened the status quo was presumably too scary and/or Communist, so they retreated into pre-war “traditions”. Unfortunately, this included the ideal woman being a beautiful, nurturing housewife, cooking and cleaning and popping out babies. Sound a bit familiar? 

Which brings us to the central problem in this whole mess: Wanda might be a prisoner but, as Monica discovers the hard way, she’s also the one who built the damn prison. And that’s where the really depressing parallel comes in: some of Friedan’s loudest critics were other women. Specifically housewives, who really took offence to Friedan’s calling out the sexism that put them in that job. Right now, Wanda’s closer to these women than to Friedan, because the problem isn’t that she has no agency; it’s that whenever Wanda gets some, she uses it to reinforce the prison and keep herself and everyone else trapped. She ‘rewinds’ Episode Two when she doesn’t like the ending. She appears to rewind Vision’s thoughts when he starts voicing his discomfort. And, of course, she outright banishes Monica when her ‘friend’ speaks up and challenges her new normal. If anything, Vision is the one with the most in common with Friedan and her surprisingly unsatisfied friends: he starts noticing “the problem that has no name” before anyone else, and by Episode Three he’s actively investigating it and calling it out. Except when he tries that in front of Wanda, she shuts him down because, as she tells him, “I have everything under control”. (Yep: in this reading, Wanda Maximoff = the patriarchy. Don’t ask.) Then again, Vision doesn’t seem to believe her — and judging by the latest trailer, he might be about to break free after all…

Of course, if all those predictions end up being wrong then I’ll look really stupid, but that’s a problem for another day. For now, that concludes my attempts to take a mid-20th century feminist text, and make it the theoretical basis for a critical analysis of a superhero show made almost sixty years later. (And people said an English degree would never amount to anything…)

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