What is a woman's place in the Marvel universe?
The subtly retrograde message of WandaVision
It was television all along.
In Friday's penultimate episode of WandaVision, Wanda Maximoff excavates her memory with the witch Agatha Harkness to discover how she ended up living with Vision, who is supposed to be dead, inside of the "Hex," Wanda's self-created world inspired by classic sitcoms. It turns out that Wanda, like many Eastern Europeans, grew up on a robust diet of American television shows. Much later, in a burst of unimaginable grief after seeing Director Hayward dismantling Vision's body, she unknowingly creates a "perfect" world around her inspired by her favorite shows — a feat of magic so incredible that, for the first time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Agatha uses the name "the Scarlet Witch" to identify Wanda.
Wanda unquestioningly embraces her new life in the Hex, because being inside a sitcom allows her to escape her (considerable!) trauma by occupying a world where, "by the end of the episode, you realize it was all a bad dream, none of it was real." But Marvel doesn't seem fully aware that their quirky "love letter to the golden age of television" also essentially relegates Wanda to aspiring to a life of unambitious domesticity — in part because sitcoms themselves have long functioned to define for women what a desirable life should look like.
As far as television genres go, sitcoms are "innately conservative," film educator Roy Stafford explains, because "the situation never changes and any conflict must be resolved in such a way to reproduce the potential for further conflict." Following World War II, as television sets became a fixture in households across America, TV shows served to create "an immediate 'mainstream' through which notions of proper behavior and desirable lifestyle were represented," Tufts University professor Tasha G. Oren writes — a fact that was particularly true for domestic comedies, like the ones spoofed on WandaVision. Though there are of course numerous examples of subversive entries and episodes in the genre, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Wanda's favorite, illustrated the perfect nuclear family; Leave It to Beaver literally coined the phrase "a woman's place is in the home"; and though Lucille Ball's character had dreams outside of her home in I Love Lucy, she repeatedly snapped back into her domestic role at the end of each episode, in order to reset the scenario for the next week.
To some degree, WandaVision is aware of this, and pokes fun at its dated influences. WandaVision's first and second episode, which pull inspiration from The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie, use the overtly sexist gender conventions of the time for laughs; Darcy, the sarcastic junk food-eating astrophysicist, even makes a comment about how often Wanda washes dishes in the early episodes ("barf," Darcy adds, a signal to the audience that Marvel definitely doesn't endorse women sticking to the kitchen). In the eighth episode, Agatha also expresses disgust that a sorceress as powerful as the Scarlet Witch would use her powers to "make breakfast for dinner."
But the gender commentary never goes deeper than this surface level. The second episode, after all, ends with Wanda "rewinding" to get away from a S.W.O.R.D. investigator and preserve her ability to keep playing the part of the doting housewife. And while riffing on Bewitched makes for a nostalgic episode of television, WandaVision doesn't quite capitalize on the parallel it's drawn: Bewitched is also a show about a witch who suppresses her powers to live as a suburban housewife, and reeks of sexism when watched today. Wanda's greatest wish — to play tradwife with her dead husband — has been shaped by what sitcoms told women they should idealize.
WandaVision isn't just inspired by sitcoms, then, but seems to unknowingly ape their message that the (white) nuclear family is the ideal pillar of society. Wanda fiercely defends her life in the Hex, snapping at Vision during a fight that "you are my husband. You are Tommy and Billy's father. Isn't that enough?" The implication is, of course, that being a wife and mother is enough for her. Wanda also tells the S.W.O.R.D. agents that her life as a stay-at-home sitcom mom with Vision is "what I want, and no one will ever take it from me again." Vision, the red synthezoid who could conceivably appear however he wants (and is a fictional character!), takes the form of a white guy who looks like Paul Bettany.
The genre has spent decades echoing this insidious message. It's easy enough to spot, and mock, the 1950s examples, but what about the Modern Family episode last week? Sure, sitcoms today have progressed to feature remarriages and families with two fathers, and barely-keeping-it-together moms — but even on Modern Family, the female characters are stay-at-home mothers. The male characters in Two Broke Girls, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, and Two and a Half Men are, for the most part, "professionally accomplished, while the female characters are almost all unemployed or financially struggling," The Christian-Science Monitor adds. Traditional family values remain a cornerstone of the genre, even if we don't always immediately recognize them in our entertainment.
By not commenting on the role of the sitcom in subduing the otherwise mighty Wanda, Marvel falls into the same trap. Wanda's unconscious instinct is to relegate herself to the role of a sitcom mother, where she has none of the problems she has in real life, and in doing so, the show reinforces the notion that the home really is where women are happiest. Of course, as viewers, we know the Hex will have to fall next week, so Marvel — just like a 1950s sitcom — can reset itself for future installments. Wanda will wake up to the truth, and go back to driving her shiny Buick Verano around New Jersey and fighting bad guys. Her life in the Hex will only be a suggestion of where she'd rather be.
There's nothing inherently wrong with women wanting to be mothers, or in finding fulfillment in domestic work and relationships. Certainly Wanda and Vision have an equal and respectful relationship. But Marvel's own conservative history makes it difficult to give them the benefit of the doubt in WandaVision. This is a studio that, in its first decade, gave its female characters only about 10 percent of screen time in roughly 40 hours of film. It also took 20 movies before a woman superhero finally got a stand-alone feature in the MCU. Taken with the studio's history of erasing LGBTQ characters and queerbaiting, it's hard to read Wanda's hyper-traditional fantasyland generously.
That the world Wanda escapes into is so limited is a failure of Marvel's imagination, and one that could be amended if the show looks at how sitcoms themselves are limiting. That's not as exciting or flashy as a battle between Vision and White Vision, but unexplored, it leaves WandaVision's entire concept feeling more gimmicky than groundbreaking — she could have been trapped instead in a world of police procedurals, or medical dramas, or Twin Peaks, if her tastes back in Sokovia had leaned that way instead.
Marvel, at least, is flirting with the idea of making sitcoms more consequential, and Agatha is clearly no fan of Malcolm in the Middle. But bringing it all home will require a little more than yet another throw-away joke about how old-fashioned Bewitched is. Director Hayward is a dull villain, but television itself is a more interesting one. And next week on WandaVision, Marvel will have a chance to show if it's really earned the request that we don't touch that dial.