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October 30, 2014

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The Legacy of Wonder Woman

An enlightening look at the feminist ideals that informed this American icon

By Philip Charles Crawford

This year marks the 65th anniversary of one of comics’ oldest and most enduring characters, Wonder Woman. For over half a century, she has entertained and inspired millions, appearing in comic books, newspapers, novels, television, and cartoons. Her image is known throughout the world, licensed on everything from Halloween costumes, Kraft brand macaroni & cheese, and Underoos, to cookie jars, toothbrushes, and the American Library Association (ALA) poster, “The World’s Greatest Heroes @ your library.” Along with Batman and Superman, she shares the distinction of having been continually published in comic book form for more than six decades. Like Snoopy, James Bond, Superman, and Tarzan, she has entered the collective consciousness of 20th-century pop culture.

In the early 1970s, she was adopted as a role model by the feminist movement and appeared on the cover of the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine. Yet few know that Wonder Woman was created as a distinctly feminist role model whose mission was to bring the Amazon ideals of love, peace, and sexual equality to “a world torn by the hatred of men.”

While Wonder Woman is one of the most fascinating comic book characters ever created, she is seldom mentioned in professional books, Web sites, and ALA lists about graphic novels. Perhaps many see her as too “old school,” no longer relevant in a world among such kick-ass, girl-power heroines as Buffy, the Birds of Prey, Electra, and Manhunter. Maybe, in a world dominated by pastel, tartan, and lollipop-colored “chick lit,” Wonder Woman’s overtly feminist message has no bearing on a readership who seems to prefer (and adore) consumer-driven, self-obsessed heroines. For whatever reason, our most enduring feminist icon of American popular culture seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. A brief exploration of Wonder Woman’s history will, I hope, demonstrate why this heroine is important and deserving of a wide readership and a prominent place on the library shelves.

When superheroes first began to appear in comic books of the late 1930s, the genre was ostensibly an “all-boys club.” In fact, prior to Wonder Woman, there were very few costumed heroines of any kind. Among the hundreds of comic books published during the 1930s, only a scant few featured stories about costumed women heroes such as Black Widow, Invisible Scarlet O’Neil, The Woman in Red, and Miss Fury. More common was the depiction of women as evil seductresses, as the hero’s girlfriend (Lois Lane), or as his “help mate” (Bulletgirl and Hawkgirl). In general, superhero comics of this era reflected and reinforced cultural norms about gender. Images of male superheroes celebrated brute strength, physical perfection, male bonding, and phallic imagery, while women were typically portrayed as helpless and in need of rescuing, or as sexy, buxom pin-ups models, often in provocative bondage poses. Moreover, most superhero comics were also violent and the hero resolved any and all conflict with physical force. For example, in the earliest Batman stories, the caped crusader was a ruthless vigilante who carried a gun and even murdered a couple of his adversaries.

In the early 1940s, a psychologist and feminist, Dr. William Moulton Marston, sought to change this paradigm. Writing in The American Scholar, he discussed the negative effects of gender stereotyping in popular culture: “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power…. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

Marston wanted to create a positive role model for girls that would serve as a counter to the high level of violence and the “blood curdling masculinity” he felt pervaded superhero stories. At the time, he was already famous as the author of several best-selling books on psychology (and for inventing the lie detector). As a columnist for Family Circle, he wrote an article extolling the merits of comic books. In 1941, he was hired by M. C. Gaines to serve on the advisory committee for DC Comics where he would further develop his ideas and create the first major and important female superhero–Wonder Woman.

In late 1941, Wonder Woman made her debut in the pages of All-Star Comics and became the lead feature in Sensation Comics #1 the following month, written under the pseudonym Charles Moulton and illustrated by H. G. Peters. From the beginning, Marston infused the series with a feminist ideology. Wonder Woman was an Amazon princess who had been sent by the goddess, Aphrodite, to aid America in the war effort and to spread the Amazons’ message of love, peace, and sexual equality. One of the central ideas of the strip was that through hard work and discipline women could become strong and independent and free themselves from their economic and psychological dependency on men.

Wonder Woman’s approach to crime fighting was different than male counterparts as well. Where they used force to defeat the villain, she tried to reason with them and often convinced them to reform. Only when this failed did she use force, or her magic lasso, which, like Marston’s own lie detector, forced anyone bound by it to tell the truth.

However, like all superheroes Wonder Woman has her Achilles’ heel; if her bracelets are bound together by a man, she loses her powers. In countless stories, she is chained and bound by male villains, only to break free and triumph. The ropes and chains are symbols of patriarchy and the drama is her ability to break the shackles of male domination they symbolize. Unfortunately, most comic historians have ignored the feminist elements of the series, and focused on these elements of bondage, reducing the complexity of Marston’s Wonder Woman mythos to little more than a thinly disguised sadomasochistic sexual fantasy.

Dr. Marston’s heroine proved to be a tremendous success. At the height of her popularity, Wonder Woman had a readership of 10 million and appeared in a total of four comics and a daily newspaper strip. Unfortunately, this success would be short-lived. In 1947, Marston died, leaving his heroine in the hands of writers who didn’t seem to understand or care about her. In the postwar era of the 1950s and 1960s, Wonder Woman would lose much of her trademark feminism and become more conventionally feminine with her adventures focusing on two central topics: marriage anxiety and battling duplicates of herself.

By the late 1960s, DC Comics scrapped Marston’s concept entirely: they killed Steve Trevor, got rid of Amazons, and stripped Wonder Woman of her superpowers. This “new” Wonder Woman was Diana Prince, an ordinary woman who ran a mod-clothing boutique and fought crime in her spare time. For many she was a thinly veiled imitation of Mrs. Emma Peel from the British TV show The Avengers. Feeling that the character had been stripped of her power, Steinem and others pressured DC Comics to bring back the original character. With some reluctance, they agreed. Wonder Woman got back her powers, her costume, and her Amazon sisters, but the series lacked the complexity and feminist flare of Marston’s original stories.

During the 1970s, Wonder Woman entered America’s living rooms in the Saturday morning cartoon Superfriends and in her own prime-time show. Meanwhile, the comic book series suffered from constant changes in direction. Creatively, the Wonder Woman book was dying a slow and painful death.

With nowhere left to go but down, DC Comics decided to give the character a new start. They cancelled the original and launched a brand new series with help from Gloria Steinem. Beautifully written and illustrated by George Perez, this new series splendidly updated the original while staying true to the concepts established by Marston. This new Wonder Woman provided readers with the best and most faithful version of the character since Marston’s original.

For anyone interested in reading the original stories, I would recommend Wonder Woman Archives series (DC Comics), which collects the first four years worth of strips. These stories are some of the most unique of the 1940s, featuring a complex blend of feminism, wartime patriotism, Greek mythology, and bondage imagery in stories that move seamlessly through the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and mythology. The best stories from Perez’s tenure have been collected into a four-volume series that begins with Wonder Woman: Gods and Mortals (DC Comics, 2004). Other volumes such as Paul Dini’s Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth (2001) and Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman: Land of the Dead (2006, both DC Comics) provide a thoughtful analysis of Wonder Woman’s heroism.

The best Wonder Woman stories inspire us to imagine a more equalitarian world and encourage us to become agents of social change. They have the power to inspire girls (and boys) to become heroes in their own lives. In this era of books about gossiping, “mean girls,” and YA novels about distressed young women who starve, mutilate, and kill themselves, doesn’t Wonder Woman’s feminist message of peace, justice, and sexual equality need to be heard?


Author Information
Philip Charles Crawford is the Library Director for Essex High School (VT). His review of Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman: Mission’s End appears on p. 238.
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