Written by Jonathan Zackor
Content Warning: mentions traumatic events relating to death.
Trauma often refers to something unspeakable, something that cannot be named. It constitutes an “event outside the range of human experience”, per the definition of the American Psychological Association (1987: 250, through Brown). Trauma disrupts, invades, alienates, haunts. It poses a threat: the fearful anticipation of losing control, for example over personal safety; and has an immense impact on everyday life, relationships, and self-image. Vulnerable or affected people, therefore, might try to hold onto the few fragments that offer to counter this threat, and might even use coping mechanisms that are, upon first look, detrimental to well-being (maladaptive). Furthermore, it is quite common to obsess about means to take back control, for example by utilizing a self-written narrative that re-establishes boundaries (Caruth 1995, King 2000). To help manage overwhelming emotional experiences, people might also regress into ‘safe spaces’ that can take on many different forms: holding on to fictional narratives that allow an escape from the present reality might be one of them.
This essay explores a text from popular culture that fits into the space of specifically female trauma, pain, and the attempt to rebuild a life’s narrative: Marvel Studios’ WandaVision (2021). Its main protagonist Wanda Maximoff, situated in the American town Westview, is forced to deal with her violence- and grief-related trauma. The narrative of the series plays out in the space of the American suburb and is furthermore anchored onto popular culture sitcom narratives ranging from the 1950s up until 2010. This text investigates the following: With the help of superpowers (telekinesis, energy projection, hypnosis) that Wanda possesses, she equipped her environment with an array of fictional narratives and is, therefore, the driving force behind it. This enables her to act out a safety fantasy that is assumed to be related to the traumatic events that she endured. Trauma, and especially female trauma, is rarely part of the popular media discourse (Ahmed 2004, Brown 1995). Yet, it is pertinent to WandaVision. This TV series is situated in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (a superhero film franchise that is from here on abbreviated as MCU). MCU films usually follow a strict formula of fast-paced action and are centred around influential male characters. Conflicts that obstruct a character’s happiness and their eventual solution are often paired with at least one epic fight scene. WandaVision, while somewhat relying on previous MCU material, now takes a different route. The focus on a female heroine makes space for the portrayal of a narrative that relies on the female sphere.
WandaVision takes place in a constructed sphere can be assessed from two perspectives: the inside and the outside. Within the diegesis of the series, a certain sense of reality is established and the outside space only serves to call attention to the indeed “constructed fictional space” of Westview. The inside is characterized by its suburban space and sitcom narrative, which draw heavily upon cultural intertexts. As the series’ narrative progresses, it is made clear that the environment is protected from threatening outside forces through a boundary force field. The ‘living’ characters appearing in this space consist of the members of Wanda’s little family: her husband The Vision who also appeared as her partner in previous MCU material, and in later episodes their two children. Some recurring ‘neighbourhood characters’ also appear. While the former drive the series’ narrative forward, the latter only appear to fill up the suburban space to establish and resemble a form of reality. Throughout the series, it is revealed that Wanda is in fact in control of the boundary and the environment. She furthermore is in full control of the actors in the space; she can manipulate their emotions, thoughts, and actions. In the constructed fictional space of Westview, Wanda can live happily and peacefully in the bubble of a suburban home with her husband The Vision. They both have the desire to live out the full range of human experience, and to “grow old together” (Episode 8 “Previously On”). While in the past her time with The Vision had always been restricted by time and outside responsibilities (see Infinity War 2018), Wanda deliberately adds another component to the constructed space that allows for an illusion of time passing: the sitcom narrative, embedded in the suburban environment.
In some contemporary cultural media texts, suburbia is far more than a setting or backdrop but rather emphasized so much that it becomes the subject of the story” (Coon 2014, Huq 2013). Coon formulates suburbia as “a concrete spatial arrangement that shapes the everyday lives of the majority of Americans and expresses many of the hopes and fears embedded within American society.” Furthermore, the idea of a perfect suburban life exists in the collective imagination of millions of Americans. With the trauma that Wanda endured in the past, it seems likely that this space might serve as a means to re-establish boundaries in the fight of managing overwhelming emotional experiences. It finds social recognition, is made stable through all sorts of rules that govern behaviour, and outlines a certain way of living, which is described by Betty Friedan in her feminist work The Feminine Mystique (1963). Friedan talks about the restricted lives of women living in the domestic space of suburban homes: having to give up on personal dreams and careers to serve their husbands and bear children, and getting married early. While being occupied all day, every day with various tasks to be done around the house, the unhappiness of women comes from a place of unfulfillment. This, however, creates a stable narrative for Wanda. Her mental space that is desperate for stability and a peaceful, strictly regulated environment, can thrive in the strict role that she assumes, simply because it does not require her to make independent decisions. Wanda only needs to follow rules, without a Self to maintain. Furthermore, Wanda with her ‘superhero’ powers and her synthezoid husband need to fit into Westview’s society. Revealing their ‘outside-ness’ is not only a cause for concern, but the consequential pressure that comes from having to fit in becomes a recurrent theme throughout the series – which can only be countered with strict adherence to established norms and the alignment with the shared values and identities of their community (Coon 104, 109). When Wanda seals herself into this mind-numbing, but safe space, she can disavow and reject all negative and traumatic thoughts (Caruth, King). Which is exactly what Wanda longs for.
“When episode 1 begins we’re immediately thrown straight into WandaVision’s sitcom format. Therefore, as the audience, we’re completely sealed into this world as if the rest of the MCU doesn’t exist” (ScreenCrush 2021). This quote points towards the stylistic break with previous MCU material, but also towards WandaVision’s exceptional intertextual layers that contribute to its immersive power. The narrative of (almost) every episode grafts onto sitcom narratives that have been part of popular culture (Black 2021, Dalton and Linder 2005). Together with the characters, the audience travels through a history of sitcoms on the screen, starting in episode 1 with the 1950s sitcoms Leave It To Beaver (1957-63) and I Love Lucy (1951-57), up until sitcoms like The Office (2005-2013) and Modern Family (2009-2020). The inspiration of these shifting sitcom intertexts is reflected in every episode in a distinct vibe and narrative style. It also serves to show Wanda’s environment as being constantly in flux: characters have diverse fashion styles, the living environment varies, and most notably there are profound changes to the stylistic mise-en-scene that includes framing and colour. | In the past, television was often considered to offer escapism from the shackles and troubles of everyday life, while also reflecting on prevalent social norms. The portrayal of a specific image about gender roles, for example, consolidated it into a social practice (in this instance, Haralovich describes the female ‘homemaker’ of the 1950s). Therefore, similar to the suburban discourse adhering to the “reality of the illusion”, one must once again follow the rules and consequently give away control. As the form of the narrative changes in each episode, characters gain different agencies. Most visible is the process of our heroine from being the constricted housewife to openly talking in an interview format similar to Modern Family about themes like depression and relationship troubles. As alluded to in a previous paragraph, the sitcom narrative also serves as the illusion of time passing. Over the course of nine episodes, the characters are made to live through seven decades, which are indicated by the sitcom narratives.
The typically American core substance of the series brings an interesting angle to Wanda’s persona. Episode 8, for example, reveals that Wanda has a deep emotional connection to sitcoms. During her childhood in the fictional country Sokovia, she and her family would often watch American sitcoms together to improve their English-speaking skills, before a bombing destroyed their home and resulted in the death of the parents. By anchoring her constructed environment of Westview onto sitcoms, Wanda allows herself to look back to a time and place where she felt safe and loved, and finds comfort in that place of the past. She imagines, and from there on, creates the utopian world where she is safe, protected, and reunited with deceased loved ones, such as her husband. In the land of sitcom narratives, where, no matter what, episodes end happily, every confrontation or conflict is resolved peacefully, and there are no major threats, Wanda has the ability to construct her peace. As she says herself as a child: “At the end of the episode, you realize it was all a bad dream. None of it was real” (Episode 8).
In the almost Lacanian imaginary of Wanda’s safety fantasy where she shuts out reality to avoid facing her trauma, the audience is curious about pulling away the curtains to reveal the coherent picture behind. In the eighth episode (“Previously On”), Wanda is forced to work through her memories by an outside threat, and has to relive her trauma. While the series is already saturated with cracks that disrupt the illusion, there are two instances with significant, intended shock moments for both Wanda and the knowing audience that serve as painful reminders of past traumatic deaths of her loved ones. This episode then delves even deeper and allows an intense perspective into the pain and grief upon losing the people closest to her. Wanda suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the psychiatric syndrome that arises out of the experience of trauma. She experienced the death of her loved ones: both of her parents, later her twin brother Pietro (Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015), her husband The Vision (Avengers: Infinity War, 2018); and she is also responsible for multiple deaths due to not being able to handle her incredibly intense powers (Captain America: Civil War, 2016). Her husband was there for her when she was working through the grief caused by her brother’s death. But after the Vision was murdered, Wanda has nothing and no one, except the massive wound caused by her many losses.
The testimony that is embedded in the series’ narrative is situated in a feminine sphere, as WandaVision’s story is told from her point of view. The immersive atmosphere of the series itself and the “show” Wanda puts on, allows for the engagement of the audience with her trauma and even creates a space for self-identification and self-insertion. The whole series is saturated with Wanda’s pain. In Ahmed and Stacey’s text about Testimonial Cultures (2001), they describe a recent trend or even a “desire to testify (that) now pervades contemporary culture”, that the series follows. This includes the desire of wanting pain to be recognized, even felt by others. Elaine Scarry, furthermore, suggests that pain is a bodily trauma that resists or even ‘shatters’ language and communication. Recalling trauma’s disruptive nature that was mentioned in the introduction, the moments of impact and its consequences are painfully inscribed on the body (Ahmed 23). In the last episode, it indeed becomes visible that the inhabitants of the suburban sphere (that act out desired scenarios), experienced Wanda’s pain with her. This pain literally haunts their thoughts (Caruth, Brown).
The series’ narrative, however, also demonstrates that Wanda’s pain and trauma act as agents and motivation of her extraordinary abilities. Precisely because of the trauma she experiences, and having no one to help her with the “endless nothingness” that she feels, she finally exerts control over her powerful abilities that cause harm to people before. The fact that Wanda’s control over her powers apparently grows stronger through the traumatic events that are inflicted upon her but that she manages to live through, suggests that one can grow stronger and more resilient despite traumatic events. One might find something positive in a world that otherwise seemed hopeless and empty. While WandaVision is part of popular culture – therefore, its narrative is clearly dramatized for the sake of entertainment – it still might give hope and power to trauma survivors.
The original version of this essay was handed in for the course American Popular Culture that is part of the BA-Programme of Arts and Culture Studies.
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