November 24, 2015

Classic Post: Wonder Woman & Feminism: A Troubled Icon

This post originally ran on May 27, 2014.

In 1941, William Moulton Marston wrote the very first issue of Wonder Woman comics. Since then, she has been continually issued, without interruption.

Today, Wonder Woman is like most other female comic book characters. She's been overtaken with the overly sexed up, distorted version that is consistently presented today.

On the flip side, however, Wonder Woman is strong and independent. She fights her own battles. She's really kickass. So there's a lot to love in the heroine.


So it may be surprising or unsurprising to see a book on the history of Wonder Woman that emphasizes her humble beginnings as a heroine crafted for a true feminist agenda.

Marston was a Harvard educated psychologist. He was also polyamorous and had a bondage fetish--but that's beside the point. Perhaps the most relevant title he could bear is feminist.

As Aimee Levitt states in "Feminism and Fetishism: The Origins of Wonder Woman", "Marston invented Wonder Woman to illustrate his vision of a better world for everyone...he truly believed if women ran the world, it would be a better place."

Wonder Woman was created as a strong woman, who usually rescued men, instead of needing to be rescued. She was her own protagonist, not a sidekick. She came from a community of women, one that arguably represented a "utopian prototype of a matriarchal society".

In "Comics and American Feminism: Wonder Woman", Stephanie Cawley points out that Wonder Woman emerged at a time when women were being encouraged to join work force to support the war effort. In Philip Charles Crawford's piece "The Legacy of Wonder Woman", he points out that:
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.
They were violent, and conflicts were resolved with physical force. Wonder Woman's power always came from love first--she would reason and try to reform her adversaries. She brought the Amazons' message of love, peace and sexual equality.

Crawford also says:
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.
At the back of every issue, the comics featured "Wonder Women of History", which highlighted women who did good in spite of sexism.

After Marston died in 1947, the feminist subscript was lost. Wonder Woman began to focus on marriage and fighting clones of herself. The storylines were, to borrow from Cawley, focused "more on domestic virtues and romance".

Today, I often see Wonder Woman mentioned in connection with criticisms of the hypersexuality of women in comics. What I don't see is the effort to reclaim her entire identity. That's a damn shame. Wonder Woman is more than her appearance. She's a vehicle for delivering a feminist message to so many young women--and men.

She doesn't need a wardrobe change, or a facelift. She needs her real message back.

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