Let’s Talk About Wonder Woman
The past 24 hours has seen Wonder Woman show up in multiple stories within my Google News feed. With Michelle MacLaren stepping down as director of the upcoming Wonder Woman film over “creative differences,” usually a sign of trouble in production, to Patty Jenkins taking over as director, and the auctioning of the first ever Woman Woman sketch both showing up in my feed, it seemed like a good opportunity to explore the character and why there seems to be so much trouble with how to handle or, either in comics or in other media.
Wonder Woman is an iconic character, one of the “big three” in DC Comics. Unlike Superman, her iconic nature is not linked to her origin. Describing Wonder Woman has always been an ambassador from the Amazons, a society entirely of women. Her creator William Moulton Marston intended to use her as an educational tool to demonstrate a powerful, liberated woman. A 1943 article in The American Scholar quotes Marston, “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.” Marston also used bondage themes, part of his use of the character to educate readers in the role submission played in a peaceful society and to curb self-destructive qualities, but feminism was the quality that made Wonder Woman stand apart from all of the other female characters from the Golden Age.
Unfortunately, over time, while feminists have maintained that aspect of Wonder Woman’s character, many creators that have followed have lost the character to her origins and to treat her as any other female character. Wonder Woman becomes a damsel in distress, the warrior woman, cheesecake, another bad girl, or Superman’s girlfriend. A lot of this misuse was that Marston was an anomaly in the 1940s, and we wouldn’t get comic book writers that understood feminism until well after the movement had achieved the height of its influence. Everything seemed to culminate with Wonder Woman getting de-powered and turned into a white jumpsuit-wearing secret agent and her series failing to recognize any of her iconic status.
Wonder Woman attained new heights of popularity in the late 1970s with the television series starring Lynda Carter, but as time went on, we saw her portrayed less as the heroine as more as the sidekick to Lyle Waggoner’s Steve Trevor. The message gets lost as people get involved that don’t understand the creator’s vision, much less share it.
After the restructuring of the DC Universe in the 1980s, we see George Pérez emphasize the Greek elements of the Amazons and tie Wonder Woman’s origins there. Rather than a superior society, we get a race of warriors that were shaped by Artemis out of the souls of women who had been killed by men. Every Amazon, except Wonder Woman, owed their origins to being a victim. As time progressed, with the popularity of the comics “bad girl” the Amazons’ warrior nature was emphasized and Wonder Woman’s role as an ambassador of peace took a back seat to her role as a princess of a society of warriors. Her weapon of choice ceased to be her lasso of truth and went to a sword.
Part of this transformation could stem from the cultural popularity of Xena, Warrior Princess, and the demand from a comic buying public for adventure over plot. The development of Wonder Woman’s warrior temperament coincides with the television series, and much of the clamoring of the time for a Wonder Woman film centered around the casting of Lucy Lawless as Wonder Woman. However, Xena’s character was a warrior on a path of personal redemption and Diana is a ambassador of a superior, peaceful society on a mission to redeem all of the world.
In the late 1990s, we saw Wonder Woman’s outfit become smaller as artists sought to emphasize her sexuality, ultimately culminating in Diana’s replacement with Artemis, a stereotyped Warrior Woman in the style of the “bad girl” phenomena. While Artemis wore the traditional costume, Diana got a new outfit consisting of bike shorts and a halter top with a bolero jacket. It definitely didn’t scream feminist, and it missed the mark entirely of being something Wonder Woman would wear. The storyline would conclude with Wonder Woman being revamped by John Byrne, who proceeded to kill Wonder Woman so she could be resurrected as the Greek Goddess of Truth, with her mother travelling in time to be the Golden Age Wonder Woman. His was the unenviable task of restoring the character after she’d been taken so far from her roots. Unfortunately, it was also an effort that fell into some of the same pitfalls, as the iconic nature of the character got lost in the heavy backstory woven into the character’s background. The character saw a resurgence in her visibility afterwards when her series got Adam Hughes as a cover artist, but despite its iconic representations of Wonder Woman, the stories are often forgettable.
Even when DC tries to treat Diana with respect, it falls flat. Efforts to visually portray her more respectfully by changing her costume from its traditional “one piece swimsuit” style to long pants got met with derision to the point that her New 52 revamp saw her pants doffed for a more traditional style at the last minute, especially after a failed pilot featuring a pants wearing Adrianne Palicki was ridiculed for its lack of respect for the character. In the New 52, although the run by Brian Azarello and Cliff Chiang is regarded as a fantastic interpretation of the character, she has been cast as Superman’s girlfriend, and recent portrayals by David and Meredith Finch are more reminiscent of her time in the 1990s than just two years ago.
So how should anyone handle Wonder Woman? Diana must never stray from the basics. She is an ambassador of peace, and an example that women are, at least, equal to men. Her weapon of choice should be her lasso. Symbolically, a sword is a phallic object which signifies male aggression. Wonder Woman should never, ever be rescued by a man, and the word “girlfriend” should never be in a description of her. There have been highlights over the years, such as the aforementioned Cliff Chiang and Adam Hughes depictions, and elements of different runs over the years, especially since the George Pérez revamp of the character. Unfortunately, the character goes wrong far too easily. As always in art, the standard remains in the principle “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Do not waiver from the basis for the character’s real origin and you essentially can’t go wrong.