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 Traditional film credits have instead been replaced by a blue background on which the lyrics of The Wonderland Disco Band’s Wonder Woman Disco (1978) projects.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.
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.”