Supergirl, Batgirl, Stargirl, Wonder Woman. Even her name illustrates that her character is more than most of DC’s super heroines. Wonder Woman really should have been the first female superhero I wrote about in this column. After all, she is the premiere super heroine and even Wikipedia will tell you that she is widely considered a feminist icon. Every book I’ve ever read on female superheroes starts the discussion with Wonder Woman. Now that DC is launching Sensation Comics featuring Wonder Woman a “digital-first comic that features standalone, out of continuity Wonder Woman tales” and that the first issue is written by one of my favorites, Gail Simone, featuring Wonder Woman in this month’s article was no contest. Issue 1 came out August 20th.
Wonder Woman has been around since 1941, appearing in comics, cartoons, and soon a movie. Wonder Woman is the matriarch of all female super heroes. She is the first. She is the most widely recognized. Her costume, even more than Superman’s, embodies America and many readers believe that the manner in which Wonder Woman has been portrayed reflects the manner in which women have been perceived.
I have to admit that I have read a limited number of Wonder Woman comics. Most of what I’ve read with Wonder Woman has not featured her as the central character. So before I started researching her, my opinion of the character based upon this limited sample size was that she comes across as very stoic and basically two dimensional. While she is touted as one of the trinity of DC, whenever she is with Batman and Superman she is often very obviously the third. But from what I had read of her own title series, Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia by Greg Rucka and the first half a dozen or so issues of the New 52 relaunch by Brian Azzarello, I found she is portrayed with much more agency and is much more admirable.
It’s because of these issues and watching the gorgeous Linda Carter on Saturday mornings that has fueled my belief that Wonder Woman is best fit to be the feminist icon that she can be. So, with my limited readings I needed to search this character out and discover both the iconic and embarrassing of the Amazon Princess.
Wonder Woman first hit the pages of All Star Comics #8 1941. Creator William Moulton Marsten, who invented the polygraph, wanted to create a superhero that didn’t just solve problems with “fists or firepower, but with love.” Interestingly it was his wife, Elizabeth, that suggested he make the character a woman. Marsten, through his work with the polygraph, that women were more honest and better workers. So he sought out to portray a woman who embodied what he once wrote “the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” Pretty progressive talk for a man in the 1940s.
In a 1943 issue of American Scholar Marston wrote, “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”
While the phrasing of that statement might solicit criticism from many feminists (especially the word “submissive”), Marsten reveals the core of Wonder Woman’s purpose. It’s the patriarchal society that deems physical strength and other masculine traits as preferable while tenderness is considered both feminine and weak. Wonder Woman is a character that can embody strength and tenderness and portray them both as desirable traits. As Linda Carter states to her Nazi captors in the television show, Wonder Woman is able to surpass misogynistic expectations because she was raised on an island of women and thus “unhampered by masculine destructiveness.” At her core, Wonder Woman stands for peace, love, equality, and strength of will. She has both gone toe to toe with Darkseid and comforted a young woman who has been traumatized.
As a feminist icon, I consider Wonder Woman on par with Rosie the Riveter.
While Rosie is one image in history, Wonder Woman continues to change significantly over the years. Thus there have been times where her portrayal has only played lip service to women’s rights or has even outright embarrassing.
Even in her inception, Wonder Woman was limited by patriarchal constructs. Initially, Wonder Woman was an Amazon champion who wins the right to return to Steve Trevor to “Man’s World” and to fight crime and Nazis. So some might interpret (and some versions of the origin have) that basically she does all of these amazing feats because she’s trying to impress a man. There are a significant number of storylines in the 1950s where Wonder Woman is trying to win Steve Trevor’s affections much like Lois was always trying to marry Superman. What makes it worse is that Steve Trevor is a buffoonish and Wonder Woman only seems to be in love with him because he’s the first man she’s ever seen. So while early on it seems that Marsten’s intentions are good but his execution is lacking.
Then there is all the bondage imagery that makes an adult reader raise an eyebrow and even chuckle with slight embarrassment. First there is her lasso of truth, which not only compels the prisoner to tell the truth but puts him or her (usually him) under Wonder Woman’s complete control. If you don’t think that’s evidence of a submission fetish, consider that Wonder Woman’s strength would be removed in accordance with “Aphrodite’s Law” if she allowed her bracelets to be bound or chained by a male. One comic contains twelve incidents of bondage.
I feel it’s an oversimplification to reduce Marsten’s intentions for Wonder Woman down to a sadomasochistic fantasy. But it’s hard to see an early Wonder Woman as progressive when I discovered that removing her bracelets would temporarily augment her power tenfold, but cause her to go insane in the process. Um, can anyone say “hysteria?” Apparently, it’s ok for women to be strong but only if that strength is restrained. Too often super powered women in comics are portrayed as having incredibly power but being unable to fully control it (see also Storm and Jean Grey).
A few more examples of cringe-worthy moments in Wonder Woman’s early years include her enlistment in the Justice Society of America only to serve as the team’s secretary and this little segment where Wonder Woman is not only restricted by man-chains and her own bracelets, but also her “feminine vanity.”
So many of this can be explained away with “Well, that was the 1940s and 50s.” While it is true that Wonder Woman certainly isn’t alone in such misogynistic portrayals of women in these decades, there are several embarrassing examples in more modern comics.
In the early 70s Wonder Woman sheds her power and dresses in jumpsuits. Many feminists at the time, including Gloria Steinem, criticized DC for doing so. While there are some attempts at portraying Diana Prince as an independent woman by having her face the struggles facing many modern women, there are some pretty blatant misfires.
In 1972, issue 203, Wonder Woman tells some women’s liberation protesters “I’m for equal wages, too. But I’m not a joiner. I wouldn’t fit with your group. In most cases I don’t even like women.”
It’s not just the 70s either. In a 1993, issue 73, Wonder Woman gets a job at Taco Whiz and becomes obsessed with money: “I am supposed to help the poor, the powerless, to show women how to be strong without violence. But now all I can think about is money, money, money, and how to get a job!” The artists of the 90s seemed only capable of portraying Wonder Woman voyeuristically (although the same can be said about many books in the 90s). While I disagreed with the premise of Rob Bricken’s article “10 Reasons No One Cares About Wonder Woman” and feels he makes some blanket statements, he makes some very valid criticisms. None more so than this: “In the ‘40s, a woman in short shorts was telling you she was no housewife! [. . .] In the ‘90s, a woman rolling into battle in a leotard resembles … um … nothing so much as an extremely angry underwear model.
I am not a fan of Frank Miller’s portrayal of women in general so I shouldn’t be surprised when he portrays Wonder Woman like this:
Finally, some readers might find that killing Maxwell Lord makes Wonder Woman ruthless and thus strong. I strongly disagree. Wonder Woman isn’t about being ruthless, she’s about compassion. Sure, she’ll be violent when necessary. For example she kills Ares before the villain can so that she will become War instead of him. For some reason, killing Lord seems so much more out of character. It makes you wonder if just making him unconscious would have worked. Instead, it serves as the foreshadowing of Zack Snyder’s Superman murder. It’s just too much.
Awesome Moments justice, love, peace, and sexual equality
Ok. So now that I’ve basically raked her over the coals (S&M pun). Let me tell you about Wonder Woman at her best. Even in her early years Wonder Woman often times flipped gender expectations. This is especially obvious when Steve Trevor is the damsel in distress and Wonder Woman rides in to save the day.
When George Perez rewrites her origin story as having been made from clay, he completely takes the necessity for a man out of the picture. Then Perez has the gods gift her with all of the following: beauty (Aphrodite), strength (Demeter), wisdom (Athena), speed and flight (Hermes), Eyes of the Hunter and unity with beasts (Artemis), and sisterhood with fire and the ability to discern the truth (Hestia). This puts her on par with Superman and Shazam in the DC universe. It’s also important to note that Wonder Woman chooses to be a super hero and does so out of selflessness and righteousness, while Batman and Superman are the results of family tragedy and somewhat predestined to become super heroic. Another important part of her origin story is that Wonder Woman defies authority and escapes the sheltered life amongst her Amazon sisters.
It should be no surprise that more modern writers are writing better Wonder Woman stories and thankfully so.
Kingdom Come provides readers with a Wonder Woman who dons majestic armor of war and sword, while also giving Superman advice on many occasions. In this book, Mark Waid does not treat Wonder Woman as the third best of DCs trinity. In JLA: Tower of Babel, Wonder Woman is shown to have no weakness except to be tricked into killing herself through exhaustion because she’s fighting a battle she cannot win but she never gives up. Basically, her kryptonite is her own tenacity. In The Hiketia, Greg Rucka shows Wonder Woman, who has sacredly vowed to protect a woman who has killed sex-slavers, as caring and even humorous. The cover of Wonder Woman’s boot on Batman’s neck is priceless. Where other writers struggled to reconcile the roles of warrior and ambassador or peace without showing Wonder Woman to be aloof and/or naïve, in The Circle Gail Simone finally finds the perfect balance and portrays a very sympathetic character. Wonder Woman shows physical strength and compassion. She even empathizes with the sorrowful life of Captain Nazi. Even Nazis are human beings after all.
In the New 52 reboot, Brian Azzarello turns Wonder Woman into a demigod. I absolutely love his reincarnations of the Greek gods and his portrayal of Diana is right in line with Rucka’s and Simone’s. She’s perhaps a little more fierce (although Rucka has Wonder Woman blind herself to save the world) and Azzarello refers to Wonder Woman’s compassion as both a strength and weakness.
But if you want to see the Amazonian just open a can, then you should look no further than Christopher Moeller’s JLA: A League of One where Wonder Woman defeats the entire Justice League in order to save them. My favorite though is when Wonder Woman calls Superman, Spaceman while attempting to awaken him to the reality of the Korean war. The best part is that Wonder Woman is drawn as taller than Superman (New Frontier). I agree that she should always be taller.
While many writers have depicted Diana in different personalities and with varying degrees of powers, “what has remained constant is her ability to feel compassion and give love without discrimination.” This is probably most true in Wonder Woman vol 3, issue 37. When Ares tries to defeat Diana by exposing her weakness as her love for her friends and family, he sets her in battle against a possessed Donna Troy (Diana’s sister). Trying to free Donna from his control with her lasso, Wonder Woman only causes Donna pain. So she throws her lasso into the ocean. This act of selflessness is what awakens Donna. When she asks Diana why she would throw away a gift from the gods, Diana replies “But it is still a possession. You are my sister.” They end with a sisterly embrace.
Still not convinced that compassion is strength? Watch Wonder Woman allow a Green Lantern rage away on her face and still offer an open hand of truce. Or how about when she asks that a child who was turned to stone be returned instead of having her sight returned.
Basically, Wonder Woman’s awesomeness can be summed up as follows. In an industry dominated by masculine power fantasy where women are typically portrayed as sexual objects, the best writers demonstrate that Wonder Woman’s femininity is just another of her strengths. She can swing a sword while coddling a baby.
Waiting for Gadot (One thousand points if you got that pun)
It will be interesting to see how Gal Gadot will portray Wonder Woman or perhaps more crucially how Zack Snyder will write her. Regardless, it would be a shame if Wonder Woman isn’t the first successful solo super hero film. But I’m not holding my breath for Hollywood.
Want to know where I got my research? Here ya go:
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