Apr 10, 2015
This is not my Wonder Woman
So as you probably know by now, the image above is the new Wonder Woman, as she will appear in her first (official) theatrically-released motion picture role. It’s pretty much exactly what I expected her to look like. The design is focused predominantly on her Greek warrior origins. The image is meant to sell her first and foremost as badass and intimidating. Surprisingly, despite details like her bandolier leaning toward utilitarianism, Wonder Woman still apparently fights evil in high heels, which will probably rub some people the wrong way*. It’s hard to tell from this sepia-toned image, but it looks like there’s next to no color in the outfit; dark brown, bronze, and a dull silver seem to have replaced the traditional American flag color scheme, which is new. Presumably, the idea is to make her more in sync with the muted color scheme of the film, which will likely carry over from Man of Steel. Overall, it does nothing for me, but it’s not a horrible costume. Gal Gadot certainly looks the part, and it’s actually quite faithful to the spirit of who Wonder Woman has been for the last twenty years or so. The problem is, it’s not my Wonder Woman.
[*The high heels thing has never bothered me personally, and while I understand those who don’t like them, I wish we could steer the debate away from “high heels are impractical”, because that’s not really what this is about. Of course they’re impractical. So are capes, cowls, domino masks, and brightly colored spandex. The aesthetics of superhero fashion have never had anything to do with practicality. What’s bothering people isn’t that high heels are an impractical accessory, it’s that they’re a gender-specific accessory. People are upset because it’s bullshit that women in flat-soled footwear are considered less attractive, and hence rarely drawn. And yes, that is a problem. I get the complaint, and if it bothers people, they should absolutely speak up. But say what’s really on your mind, because “practicality” is completely beside the point.]
Wonder Woman, as a character and as an icon, means a great deal to me. She is by far my favorite comic book superhero, and has been for a long time, so much so I once made a makeshift costume of her to wear when I was five. Seriously, I did that. I was a weird kid.
So naturally, I have pretty strong feelings about Wonder Woman. Which is not easy for a character who’s had such a strange and tumultuous existence. One of the reasons I love her is that she has by far one of the most bizarre and fascinating histories and origins of any superhero. And while that’s a source of her charm, it’s also her greatest weakness. Despite being inarguably the most recognizable female superhero of all time, she remains strangely obscure for someone so iconic. Her image is universal, yet her character almost unknown. Her media presence is constant, yet strangely few adaptations of her comics exist compared to her male counterparts. She’s managed to stay in constant publication for 73 years now, yet unlike Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man, she’s almost never had more than one concurrently-running title at a time.
Why is this? Why has Wonder Woman traveled such a rockier path than other superheroes? Why does everyone know who Batman and Superman are, but know very little about Wonder Woman beyond her name and costume?
There are a lot of complicated reasons for this, but one way or another, most of them have to do with one simple fact: she’s a woman. No one likes to admit it, but even in this day and age, the comic book industry at its best has an… awkward relationship with women. Study the history of any female character who’s been in publication for a decade or more, and things get weird and often uncomfortable.
For example, Lois Lane, the most well known woman in superhero fiction outside of Wonder Woman, started out strong, willful, and career-minded, one of the first to break the mold of how damsels in distress were meant to act. She had agency and goals of her own outside of her relationship with Superman. And keep in mind, this was the 1940s. But then the ‘50s came around, and Lois’s character turned towards an outright psychotic obsession with marrying Superman. The pages of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane are packed with bizarre, misogynist stories that frame Lois as a shrill harpy constantly scheming to entrap Superman into marriage and failing, like some matrimonial version of a Road Runner cartoon. Things have gotten better for Lois lately, though they do have a tendency to write her as a gun-toting commando ninja, because that’s obviously the only way a woman can be empowered. It seems like the writers are constantly overcompensating for Lois’s perceived status as a damsel in distress.
What’s the disconnect? Well, for the majority of its history, comics books have been written, drawn, edited, and published almost exclusively by men, and while that’s becoming less and less the case, male attitudes still tend to dominate the industry. And male creators tend to overthink their female characters at best, and at worst, imprint their own warped views of the opposite sex onto them. This is especially true in Wonder Woman’s case. In fact, Wonder Woman comics are so predictably influenced by changing attitudes towards women that you can actually see the last 70 years of the feminist movement reflected in her publication history.
You remember the feminist movement, right? That thing that apparently we don’t need anymore? Yes, this is going to be a bit of a rant, but unfortunately there’s no way to talk about Wonder Woman without talking about feminism. The two are essentially joined at the hip. The character was created by a feminist based on his own radical gender politics, and essentially co-opted by the feminist movement as their mascot. Basically, as Wonder Woman is perceived, so is feminism perceived, and vice-versa.
Any given era of Wonder Woman comics in some way reflects what the popular image of a “strong woman” was at the time. The ‘40s through the ‘60s saw Wonder Woman’s alter ego Diana Prince as the mousy, secretly-overqualified secretary pining away for a man who barely notices her. You can see shades of everything from Bewitched to Woman of the Year in early Wonder Woman. The Robert Kanigher era especially was all about Diana apologetically emasculating her boyfriend Steve Trevor.
The ‘70s briefly saw her morph into a fashionable, liberated “modern woman”, a powerless kung-fu detective with more than a little of Emma Peel in her. 1980s Wonder Woman had more of a Princess Leia vibe, as a regal, dignified ambassador with no steady romance in her life. Finally, the ‘90s began the rise of “Straw Feminist Wonder Woman”.
What do I mean by “Straw Feminist Wonder Woman”? Well, do you remember that episode of The Powerpuff Girls called “Equal Fights”?
It was about a costumed lady bank robber named Femme Fatale, who justifies her crimes to the Powerpuff Girls by citing gender discrimination against women, and the fact that all men are jerks. She essentially has a persecution complex: as a member of an oppressed minority group, anything she does if justified in her eyes. Femme Fatale was designed as an archetypical Straw Feminist: man-hating, irrational, and abrasive. While not in the least bit subtle, “Equal Fights” was an admirable attempt to educate its audience on the true purpose of feminism. Unfortunately, the episode ended up being strangely prophetic. Except, in the real world, Femme Fatale won.
And this is where I get ranty. Feminism has had a bit of a PR problem over the last twenty years, which has recently come to a head. There’s a new online movement calling itself “Woman Against Feminism”, involving women declaring they “no longer need feminism”. In some ways, the movement has admirable goals. Many of its members clearly have their hearts in the right place. They want equality and understanding between the sexes, and simply don’t understand that that is exactly what feminism is about. (A few of them, of course, are just plain slut-shaming or belittling the suffering of others, but I’m just going to ignore them. Let’s talk about the actual problem here.)
This one image for me sums up the entire problem here. For some people, the word “feminism” has come to mean something else. What a “feminist” actually is is someone who believes in equality between the sexes. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. If you believe women should be allowed to vote, you’re a feminist. If believe women should have control over their own bodies, equal pay, and the right to make their own financial choices, then you are a feminist. It doesn’t matter if you choose to self-identify as one*, those are the ideals the movement is defined by. That has not changed. Only the popular conception of the movement has changed.
[*And since this always manages to come up, yes, there’s something to be said for the idea that we shouldn’t need the word “feminism” anymore. Yes, I also saw and agree with Joss Whedon’s excellent Equality Now speech. Yes, it would be great if gender equality was at the same place that racial equality is now in the national conversation, where we no longer need a word for “not racist” because not being racist is just assumed to be common sense. But for feminism, we’re not there yet. And as the video below points out, removing the word “feminist” from the discussion isn’t helping, because it’s not actually changing the public discourse. It’s just avoiding the issue, and steering the topic away from gender.]
Laci Green articulates things in this video far better than I ever could, but basically, society has somehow become convinced that feminism is some kind of extreme female superiority agenda rather than a simple call for gender equality. Feminism is a dirty word, conjuring up images of shrill, unattractive harpies who hate all men and shame good-looking women purely out of jealousy. People feel the need to distance themselves publicly from the movement in order to be taken seriously when speaking about gender issues. Celebrities like Katy Perry and Shailene Woodley and Lana Del Rey have gone on record claiming to not be feminists. Even Wonder Woman herself fell prey to this recently, when the new creative team set to take over her book said in an interview that they didn’t want her to be feminist.
If I may steer the conversation away from Wonder Woman for a moment: Whenever the topic of “when did feminism go so wrong?” comes up, people always want to play the blame game. Usually people fault the movement itself for going off-message. The notion is feminists let too many extremists join the movement and give it a bad name. And I really don’t think that’s true, mostly because there are so few actual well-known feminist extremists to point to. Usually Andrea Dworkin’s name gets thrown out, and people are always quick to pounce on the Tumblr community. But in my experience, feminist extremists are a very small minority, and not a very vocal one compared to the many, many positive feminist voices out there. No, the reason feminism’s image was so easily distorted is that as much as we hate to admit it, this is still a man’s world. The patriarchy is slowly losing its grip, but it’s still in power.
Men don’t like to admit how much we still benefit from a patriarchal society, and when confronted with reality, we become defensive. We’ve somehow convinced ourselves that sexism is more or less “over”. It isn’t. Not even close. Women still receive less pay for equal work because of their gender. Less than fifty years ago, it was still legal for men to rape their wives. Women still face constant obstacles when trying to make decisions about their bodies. They still (rightly) fear coming forward after being raped because of the likelihood they will somehow be blamed for it. And yet, we often manage to overlook all this.
We’ve decided things are more or less equal now, and anyone still fighting against sexism is perceived to be overreacting, and fighting a war that ended long ago. No one likes to be blamed for the sins of their fathers, but unfortunately, we’re living in a world still dealing with the consequences of those sins, and blaming the victims isn’t helping. It’s making us culpable, and it needs to stop.
But I was talking about “Straw Feminist Wonder Woman”, wasn’t I? As I said before, this image of feminism as bitter and anti-men has been the popular conception since the early ‘90s, and not coincidentally, this is roughly around the time Wonder Woman suddenly got very, very angry. To be fair, everybody was scowling in comics in the ‘90s, but Batman and Superman were scowling because “DARKNESS! NO PARENTS!” Whereas Wonder Woman started scowling because “Ugh, men are dirt, amirite ladies? I’m gonna go back to my island of butch militant lesbians because I hate men so much!”
As previously stated, comics have an awkward relationship with women, due to them being mostly written by men. Men, many of whom aren’t really feminists, and in the case of Wonder Woman, find themselves tasked with writing a character who’s almost literally the living embodiment of feminism itself. Therefore, they always find themselves falling back on what they think a feminist is. She hates all men, or at least looks down on them, and overreacts to every sexual or romantic proposition, because how else are we to know that she’s a modern, independent woman that doesn’t need a man? She’s extremely aggressive, and prone to anger and violence, because how else are we to know that she’s a strong woman who can kick just as much ass as a man?
Trying to distance Wonder Woman from feminism isn’t new either. In the late ‘80s, a new element of the Wonder Woman mythos was added: The Amazons of Bana-Mighdall, a splinter faction of Amazons living in secret in the mortal world. How they’re used varies from writer to writer, but generally their purpose is to provide deliberate straw feminists to contrast against the less extreme, accidental straw feminist Wonder Woman. They’re the man-hating extremists who want to reap bloody vengeance against anyone with a penis. They’re basically there to say, “See? Wonder Woman’s not that kind of feminist! She’s totally cool with dudes! These are the man-hating dykes you so fear and despise!” It’s understandable why the writers feel the need to include them, but they have the effect of delegitimizing Wonder Woman’s position rather than clarifying it.
It may seem like I’ve gone completely off-topic here, but the point I’ve been building towards is that people don’t understand Wonder Woman because people don’t understand feminism. Her comics have always been subject to the changing image of feminism and her writer’s skewed perspective on feminism, so much so that she’s never managed to remain consistent long enough for people to get to know her. Our site’s own Sofie Liv posted an excellent video essay to that effect, putting forth the well-reasoned assertion that maybe Wonder Woman just doesn’t have a character.
And I can’t really argue with that. If nothing important or character-defining about Wonder Woman remains consistent from writer to writer, then what argument can be made about her character? It’s a question I honestly don’t have an answer to. On the one hand, I believe in Death of the Author. I believe that characters in fiction take on a life of their own, independent of the influence of their creators.
Batman has evolved far beyond the original vision of Bob Kane and Bill Finger. The current Superman certainly isn’t what Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster first imagined. On the other hand, I also don’t believe characters are completely defined by popular perception. If that were the case, Batman would be a bloodthirsty Punisher knockoff, based on what a lot of his fans seem to want. So what really defines a character like Wonder Woman, who’s been around forever, but has had so many completely incompatible interpretations?
I don’t have an answer for you. I don’t know if there is a direct answer for that. Maybe it’s all subjective. Maybe who a character is to you personally is all that really matters, and if other people share and enjoy your vision, then great. I can only tell you what Wonder Woman means to me, and unlike Superman or Batman, it comes almost entirely from the mind of her creator.
Outside of Spider-Man, I’m not sure there’s a superhero as popular as Wonder Woman who was as fully formed as she was in her first appearance. William Moulton Marston was one of the most interesting men ever to write for comics, and his vision of Wonder Woman, odd as it may have been, was a fleshed-out, living entity all its own. The seven years’ worth of Wonder Woman comics he wrote before his untimely death remain the highlight of the Golden Age for me.
Wonder Woman was the first notable attempt (to say nothing of success) at creating a female action hero who didn’t need to sacrifice her femininity in order to be powerful. Wonder Woman got to save the day and be the hero with no qualifiers or concessions to male sensitivities. Her stories were almost a complete gender reversal of the superhero formula: In Wonder Woman comics, all the heroes, villains, and otherwise powerful and influential characters were women, including most of Wonder Woman’s rogues’ gallery, while men were usually limited to roles with less agency that were normally occupied by women. Steve Trevor remains one of the only examples of a male damsel in distress.
Marston’s comics were bold and groundbreaking, not to mention nutty as hell and immensely fun. The mythology of Wonder Woman’s world was unique and eye-catching in ways that few comics even today can match. Golden Age Wonder Woman rode giant kangaroos through space, fought seal men and fire warriors from the sun, and rescued WWII soldiers from evil valkyries, all in the name of love and peace.
After Marston left, things got a lot more shaky with regards to Wonder Woman’s “Girl Power”, but the comic itself got no less strange. It was the Silver Age, after all. A strange mix of science fiction and fantasy still remained, and Wonder Woman herself continued to be a mostly peaceful champion of love.
After the reboot in the ‘80s, however, things began to get a lot more conventional, and in my opinion, the poorer for it. Previously, Paradise Island was a wondrous mix of science and magic. They had ancient marble architecture, but communicated with telepathic radios. The invisible jet was one of many unique aircraft. Wonder Woman didn’t just journey through a greatest hits collection of Greek mythology; She travelled to other planets, subterranean worlds, and subatomic universes. The Greek gods themselves would occupy other planets instead of vaguely defined, seemingly earthbound realms. But all of that changed after the reboot.
No longer playing fast and loose with Greek mythology, the comics suddenly began valuing historical accuracy. Paradise Island became Themyscira, devoid of anything remotely fun or interesting. Gone were the giant space kangaroos, replaced with more conventional mythical creatures like pegasi. Gone were the strange space-age gadgets, leaving the Amazons still technologically primitive after thousands of years of immortality. Wonder Woman’s adventures lost their pulp sci-fi edge, confining themselves to the familiar world of Greek myth. Wonder Woman became almost completely earthbound, and those unique elements that remained, like her invisible jet, began to be downplayed.
One of the more subtly subversive changes was that the character’s patron goddess was changed from Aphrodite to Athena. It may seem insignificant, but whatever else she may be (Goddess of Wisdom, Justice, etc.), Athena was still a War Goddess. And war, even justified war as Athena was meant to represent, is not something Wonder Woman should ever be a champion of.
See, whatever else may have changed over the years about Wonder Woman, there’s one thing about her that’s remained consistent enough for her best writers to latch onto: She’s a peacemaker. Always has been. The Marston comics and the Lynda Carter TV show—probably the best and most defining versions of Wonder Woman ever—were both very clear on this. One of the best quotes ever made about the DC Trinity was when Gail Simone said, “When you need to stop an asteroid, you get Superman. When you need to solve a mystery, you call Batman. But when you need to end a war, you get Wonder Woman.”
That’s who she is. She never fights in the name of war, even a just war. War is her enemy. Literally. Her archenemy is Ares, God of War. If there’s one thing Wonder Woman has always been about, it’s preventing conflict. That’s why her signature weapons—her lasso, bracelets, and tiara—are nonlethal and defensive in nature, designed to defend and subdue but never harm. That’s why her patron goddess was the goddess of love. As her theme song says, Wonder Woman’s goal is to “stop a war with love”.
This subtle change in Wonder Woman’s ideology was immediately felt. Wonder Woman wasn’t exactly barbaric at first, but she was definitely more violent, frequently ripping her (admittedly nonhuman and monstrous) enemies apart. But the thing that really cemented Wonder Woman as warlike in readers’ minds was Kingdom Come.
That mini-series featured the image of a sword-wielding Wonder Woman who, at the book’s climax, murdered her human opponent by stabbing him through the chest. That moment was meant to shock and horrify, by showing how far the once noble heroes of the DC Universe had fallen, with the kindest and most nonviolent of them cutting a man in half. The image of Wonder Woman running a man through was meant to feel as wrong as Batman shooting someone. But in a bitter irony, from that moment on, that image would be what defined the popular concept of Wonder Woman.
She’s now frequently seen carrying a sword and other ancient weaponry, her lasso hanging unused from her hip almost as a formality. Heavy, stylized armor is often added onto her costume. Her sisters, the Amazons, have become almost unrecognizable.
Paradise Island was once essentially a highly sexual nunnery, an island of women dedicated to the way of Aphrodite, and the way of love. The whole reason they were on that island to begin with was to escape from the war and violence of Man’s World. Now the modern Themyscira is like an all-girl boot camp, filled with armored, battle-ready Amazons, constantly training and fighting. They act as if they enjoy war and conflict, which completely defeats the whole point of living on a isolated island in the first place. The great Wonder Woman, once a trippy, unique pulp sci-fi heroine, has been reduced to the generic Xena clone that Gal Gadot will apparently be playing onscreen. Because one warrior princess is the same as another, right? No need to go deeper into her character than that!
Look, I like Xena. I like Lucy Lawless. I like badass warrior girls in general. But that’s not who Wonder Woman is. It has never been who Wonder Woman is. Wonder Woman is as much like Xena as Ellen Ripley is like Buck Rogers. Yes, they both fight aliens in space, but that’s about where the similarities end. And giving Wonder Woman a sword isn’t just counter to her whole message of love and nonviolence, it actually disempowers her as a character, which is the opposite of what they’re presumably going for.
Giving Wonder Woman weapons and armor implies that she needs weapons and armor, which she never has before. She’s always been able to take on rogue gods with nothing but a lasso, a tiara, and a pair of bracelets. Giving Wonder Woman a sword and armor just because she’s a warrior princess is like giving Superman a raygun and a jetpack because he’s an alien.
But mostly, a lot of the problems with Wonder Woman stem from how every writer approaches her with the idea that she’s somehow broken and in need of repair. She’s too weird, or she’s too political. Whatever the reason, they all feel the need to junk everything and start over. But they never start by asking themselves who Wonder Woman is. They instead ask who she reminds them of. So not only does Wonder Woman become whatever the current version of a “strong woman” is, she takes on incongruous elements from other, more popular superheroes in the hopes that her books will sell. She reminds us of Superman, so let’s give her the power of flight, even though she’s already got that iconic invisible jet. She reminds us of Thor, so let’s put all the focus on her mythological background. She reminds us of Xena, so let’s give her armor and a sword, and have her take joy in battle.
Wonder Woman is not Superman. She’s not Thor, and she’s not Xena. She’s a wholly unique entity. She is Princess Diana, peacemaker, healer, ambassador. She’s the champion of Aphrodite, pledged to end humankind’s suffering and conflict by teaching them how to love. It’s Wonder Woman who won the Tournament of Grace and Wonder, and the right to bring peace and love to Man’s World. It’s Wonder Woman who reformed Baroness Von Gunther, a Nazi war criminal. It’s Wonder Woman who was so pure and honest of heart as to withstand the scorching breath of Drakul Karfang. It’s Wonder Woman who withstood blow after blow from an angry Green Lantern while continuing to hold out her hand in friendship.
She has the strength to crush armies and the heart not to use it. She’s a woman who’s never had to fear any man, and therefore never has reason to hate. She has the strength of women, yes, but also the empathy and gentleness of women. She fights not to divide or punish the sexes, but to unite them. She is kind, empathic, curious, fierce, loving, dominating, and utterly fearless. She’s the greatest superhero who ever lived.
Well, that’s who she is to me, anyway.