Chapo Traphouse, Masters of Clintonian Triangulation

"They're right to like it" one of the Chapo hosts says in the episode of their left podcast devoted to the Wonder Woman film. Wonder Woman, the Chapo hosts argue, is a regressive call to imperial war, and right wingers who have expressed fondness for the film (like the Washington Free Beacon's Sonny Bunch) have accurately understood that the movie is intended for them. 

The podcast makes a strong case for Wonder Woman as imperial propaganda. But Chapo also wanders into a number of conservative talking points itself. If conservatives are right to like Wonder Woman, they would also be right, for different reasons, to like Chapo. The left podcast is famous for roasting Clintonian triangulation. But the Wonder Woman episode  has more than a whiff of Clinton-era hippie-punching about it.

The podcast certainly rejects Clintonian hawkishness. The (very strong) central thesis of the episode is that Wonder Woman is organized as an apology for overseas intervention. The hosts argue that the film  is encouraging the U.S. to commit to ongoing war in Syria specifically, which is a bit of a stretch. But the general point that Wonder Woman embraces interventionism is solid. 

As the Chapo hosts say, though the film is set in World War I, it repeatedly evokes the Nazis of World War II. The podcast hosts argue that many viewers probably didn't know that the film was set in World War I rather than II, and I can testify that I was confused for the first 20 minutes of the film at least. The historical setting is not presented strongly through set design, in part because the early scenes are on the fantasy Paradise Island. Add to that the fact that Wonder Woman was originally set in World War II, throw in the presentation in the film of Germans as stock nefarious bad guys, and most people are going to be unsure what global conflict they're watching.

As Chapo argues, the blurring of World War II and I results in a warped ideological justification for war. Wonder Woman runs around the screen killing German soldiers left and right. If they're Nazis, that might be justifiable. But supposedly they're  just German conscripts, and Wonder Woman is slaughtering people in the name of a completely pointless conflict over colonial possessions.  Similarly, the film reveals that the peace-loving dude in the House of Lords is actually the evil Ares. The God of War functions as a kind of Neville Chamberlain stand-in; the pacifist doofus whose weakness ushered in apocalyptic violence. In punting Chamberlain back to World War I, the film implies that any appeasement in any war is evil. World War II analogies are always used to justify other interventions; we're always going after the next Hitler. Even by those standards, though, Wonder Woman's cavalier use of World War II to make a case for the righteousness of any imperial idiocy is striking.

Given the film's combination of feminism and imperialism, you would think that the Chapo podcast might talk about the powerful historical links between the two. White, upper-class feminism, especially, has often been leveraged in order to justify violence against marginalized people. In the United States, many white feminists supported lynching, claiming that it was an understandable response to threats to white womanhood. Women like Florence Nightingale, stymied in Britain, often were able to find scope for their talents by traveling to the colonies as teachers or nurses. More, discrimination against or violence against women, real or imagined, was used to justify Western adventures abroad. The effort to stamp out suttee provided moral force for Britain's continued occupation of India, just as the Taliban's treatment of women has given a moral cast to America's endless drone strikes in Afghanistan. Finally, and so close to home it's hard to believe Chapo doesn't mention it, the main leaders of the suffragette movement in Britain enthusiastically supported World War I. Women received the vote following the war as an explicit thank you for the feminist movements patriotic cosigning of the bloodbath. War—senseless imperial war—empowered women during World War I. You'd think Chapo would talk about that.

There are a couple of reasons that Chapo doesn't discuss the suffragettes, or the feminist history with imperialism, I think. The first is that none of the hosts seem knowledgeable about, or interested in, feminist history or theory. That's not a dig at them; you can't be interested in everything. The points Chapo makes about Wonder Woman and imperialism are worthwhile on their own merits. More background reading could have deepened their discussion, but the lack of it doesn't invalidate what they had to say. (Update: Chapo fans have pointed out that Amber A'Lee Frost has written on feminism frequently. My apologies for lumping her in with the other hosts here.)

There's another, less innocuous reason that Chapo doesn't seriously engage with feminist history, though. Seriously engaging with feminist history means taking feminism seriously as a liberation struggle. If you talk about the ugly relationship between the suffragettes and imperialism, you have to acknowledge that women did not in fact have the vote. If you talk about women leaving England to teach abroad and aid the imperial project, you have to think about the fact that those women faced serious, miserable restrictions in the imperial center. Talking about feminism—even about the major intersectional failures of parts of the movement—means talking about women's oppression. Chapo is fundamentally unwilling to do this.

That reluctance can almost be comical. At one point in the show, Amber A'Lee Frost, the one woman host, notes that the evil Dr. Poison in the film is scarred. "That's how you know a woman is bad; because she's ugly," Frost notes with acidity. It's a fine point—but one of her co-hosts quickly interrupts her to assure her that ugly men in films are also considered evil. There is no further discussion of how disability, gender, and stigma might interact; the potential feminist lens is hurriedly discarded. Heaven forbid anyone make a feminist point in a discussion of Wonder Woman.

The dismissal of feminism is consistent throughout the podcast. Chapo doesn't treat feminism as a valuable movement or analytic framework. They treat it as a boondoggle, a distraction, and a joke. They argue that Wonder Woman's feminism is simply a way to sell imperialism through identity politics. Or they argue that William Marston, Wonder Woman's creator, was just a horny guy; the supposedly irreverent Chapo dismisses Marston's feminist commitments via prudish kink-shaming. At no point do the hosts ever admit, or entertain the idea, that women might legitimately lack heroic role models. They don't discuss the possibility that women are often excluded from lead roles in Hollywood, and that Wonder Woman in that way might address an actual inequality. They don't talk about other problems with representation either. The vigorous criticism many black women have made of the film isn't broached.

Instead, Chapo devotes its energy to presenting feminism as useless and worthy of mockery. They discuss the Ghostbusters reboot and suggest that the sexist backlash to the film was just part of the girl-power marketing—as if the female stars of the series wanted massive amounts of sexist bile directed at them. They make a crack about "give your money to Wonder Woman"—referencing the "give your money to women" hashtag, which was an effort to highlight disparities in women's pay. The low point is when a guest blogger named Matthew Brady pops up briefly to sneer at his ex-wife, and then cracks "oh this film taught me jokes like that are wrong." His entire segment could have been lifted, virtually without alteration, from an MRA Youtube video.

This isn't an accident. Katie Halper on twitter called Chapo "the viable alternative to the #altright" and said that the Chapo hosts "offer something that liberals don't." Halpers suggested that the "something" on offer is irreverence and honesty. And of course the Alt right likes to say that they are irreverent and honest about feminism, and about "identity politics" in general. That irreverence and honesty mostly consists of saying that women and black people, as women and black people, are not actually oppressed, and that the claim that they are is just a way to oppress white people. Chapo varies the formula slightly; they say that identity politics are a distraction from class oppression. Chapo is a "viable alternative" to the Alt right because they do not challenge the central ideological commitment of the alt right—that commitment being hatred of marginalized people.

The left tactic of kicking certain oppressed people in order to appeal to the voters who hate them isn't new. Bill Clinton, who Chapo loathes, was a master of the tactic. Chapo sneering at feminism is just an updated version of Bill Clinton sneering at Sister Souljah, or Clinton racing back to Arkansas to preside over the death of a mentally disabled black man. Clinton believed that cultural signals could show he was on the side of Reagan voters, rather than on the side of marginalized people. Similarly, Chapo and the dirtbag left are obsessed with white Trump voters, and believe cultural signals can show that they are on their side, rather than on the side of supposedly elite feminists. 

The Wonder Woman podcast spends a good bit of time mocking Gal Gadot's accent; the hosts even compare her to Arnold Schwarzenegger, because he also has an accent, get it? They go after Sonny Bunch not just because he is a conservative who says stupid shit, but because he is fat and looks funny. And Chapo is notorious for sneering at autistic people, The podcast's humor targets the different in numerous ways. That is considered "irreverence" and "honesty." Accents are funny. Feminism is a crock. Fat people and autistic people are ludicrous. Join us, alt right brothers; we'll all be cool kids together in a socialist utopia, where no elitists will stop us from spitting on the self-pitying marginalized folks who are oppressing us.

I'm sure Chapo and its fans will be displeased at the suggestion that they are in any way Clintonian. To be fair,  it's worth pointing out that the Clinton administration were centrist squishes on economic issues and on intervention, not just on the treatment of marginalized people. And Chapo has on occasion repudiated their own worst excesses. Last week Felix Biederman, one of the hosts, apologized for mocking rape victims on social media, as well as for using homophobic terms like "cocksucker" to taunt critics. (Update: Melissa McEwan, the woman Biederman attacked, has said on twitter that he has made no effort to contact her personally, claimed she had blocked him when she had not, and that she believes his apology is inadequate.)

Not mocking rape victims is a good first step for Biederman and Chapo. Ultimately, though, a left podcast, in my view, needs to recognize that marginalized people are oppressed, and commit itself to fighting that oppression, rather than dismissing it in order to score points with Trump voters, or the alt right, or regressive bigots by whatever name. Chapo makes a fine case that Wonder Woman is a bad, imperialist film. But when it presents feminist desire for representation as ridiculous, and sneers at women hungry for heroes, it isn't showing a commitment to honesty and irreverence. It's triangulating.