This month, Wonder Woman, the fictional Amazonian princess and superhero turns 75. Few female superheroes are as iconic as Wonder Woman in the comic book universe and even fewer are regarded with the same reverence as Batman and Superman are. Since her creation in 1941, Wonder Woman has been continuously published by DC Comics in a male-dominated comic book world and is largely regarded as the first feminist superhero and was perhaps the only one for the longest time. Before Wonder Woman appeared in December 1941, female superheroes mainly played the roles of sidekicks while other female characters in the comic books assumed the roles of helpless women in need of saving.
The character was the brainchild of American psychologist William Marston, who believed that women were “motivated by love” whereas men were motivated by “appetite”, “selfishness and greed”. The dominant thought during that time was that women’s roles were essentially that of wives and mothers and Marston wanted to challenge that thought to give women more authority in public space and positions in political, social and economic institutions.
Wonder Woman was unlike any other female character to have been created in American popular culture. She was introduced to the world in All Star Comics, Volume 1, #8, as Diana, the Amazonian princess from the imaginary Paradise Island. Diana was stronger than men and had “a hundred times the agility and strength of our best male athletes and strongest wrestlers,” according to her introduction in the comic.
Wonder Woman’s appearance coincides with the United States’ entry into the Second World War and she embodied many characteristics that women at that time aspired to have and were inspired to have with the men away at war. The Wonder Woman comics were filled with references topical to that time and they continue to remain so. In an acknowledgement of the war, the introductory comic also serves to explain how the Amazonian princess end up in the United States.
The comic opens with US Army Intelligence pilot Steve Trevor who is seen flying his fighter plane across the Atlantic in search of a Nazi spy. After his jet runs out of fuel, he crash lands on the imaginary Paradise Island. Diana and Mala, two Amazonians, help him to a hospital where Diana continues to take care of him, falling in love in the process. Queen Hippolyta reminds her daughter Diana that men are forbidden on Paradise Island and that Trevor needs to be returned to the United States when he is fit for travel. While Trevor recuperates, Queen Hippolyta using powers of divination, learns of Trevor’s history and his mission to fight the Nazis. The queen then decides to aid America in its war and declares her intention to send an Amazonian to the United States to fight against the Nazis. Although Diana wishes to participate in the tournament that will decide who gets to fight for the country, her mother refuses. Diana participates under a disguise and wins the tournament. Queen Hippolyta relents and provides her with her now iconic costume and bestows upon her the name Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman’s origins are integral to the development of her character and the progression of the comic book plots because they hint at Marston’s emphasis on women being motivated by love and affection. Wonder Woman is a character who keeps reminding the other female characters who appear in the comics to believe in themselves and to be confident, qualities necessary to become leaders.
Hence, in the early 1970s, the character was adopted as a feminist icon for being a strong, positive role model for the feminist movement. However, what solidified Wonder Woman’s identity as a feminist icon was when she was featured on the cover of Ms. magazine in 1972 under Gloria Steinem’s editorial leadership.
A few years prior to Wonder Woman gracing the cover of Ms. magazine, the character underwent a drastic change. On the cover of Wonder Woman #178, the character had transformed into her alter-ego Diana Prince, wearing a purple dress with leather boots, with a psychedelic background behind her, holding a can of blue paint which she had used to cross out a poster of herself in her old Wonder Woman costume and her old military uniform. The cover was meant to indicate that Woman Woman was moving in a new direction and that Diana Prince would be featured in her new avatar. The changes in the character were a result of flagging sales of Wonder Woman comics. In Wonder Woman #178, she accidentally sends her boyfriend, Trevor to jail. Considering the situation, Wonder Woman decides that she needs to change because living with her superhero alter ego was causing problems for the two of them. She sheds her Wonder Woman costume and transforms to a new, more chic look. Perhaps even more significant is Trevor reconsidering Wonder Woman, causing her to realise, “I’ll lose him forever if I don’t do something to keep him interested in me! Wonder Woman must change.”
A critic of the new avatar of Wonder Woman and a fan of the original version of the character, Gloria Steinem decided to put Wonder Woman on the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine. In the magazine was an essay by Joanne Edgar, “Wonder Woman Revisited” that denounced the changes that DC Comics had brought to the character. The criticism led to the reinstatement of Wonder Woman’s original traits and costume and on the cover of Issue #204, she returned in the familiar avatar.
Wonder Woman’s physicality has often been questioned by critics as being overtly sexual, in addition to the kind of costume she wears. However, Marston explained that he had wanted the costume to be more functional than anything else, given her crime-fighting storyline. Themes of bondage in the Wonder Woman comics have also been criticised and Marston’s response to it was straightforward— it was meant to show how Wonder Woman was able to overcome and break the chains that had been used by her evil adversary to tie her up, purely through her will and determination. It was, in a way, meant to symbolise women breaking the shackles of male domination and oppression.
Although other superheroes had already gotten television time, Wonder Woman’s chance came in 1973 in an animated cartoon version of Justice League of America called Super Friends. The concept of real individual portraying Wonder Woman on screen came about in 1974, with a film made for television called ‘Wonder Woman’, starring Cathy Lee Crosby. The film tanked, but that wasn’t the end of Wonder Woman on screen. The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) picked up the concept of Wonder Woman and broadcast a pilot episode in 1975, starring Lynda Carter, a former Miss World USA. Although ABC dropped the series after one season, CBS (another American broadcasting company) picked it up and modernised it. Lynda Carter retained her original role and now remains forever associated with the character.
In June 2017, Warner Bros. Entertainment and DC Entertainment will release ‘Wonder Woman’ starring Gal Gadot in the title role, to celebrate the Amazonian’s birthday and history. On October 21, the United Nations designated Wonder Woman as it’s honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls and the decision to appoint a fictional character has caused the organisation to face immense criticism. However, the selection of Wonder Woman could not have come at a worse time for the United Nations. Recently, the position of secretary general of the United Nations went to António Guterres of Portugal although five female candidates were being considered for the top job, disappointing many who wished to see a woman at the helm of the organization.
The timelessness of Wonder Woman perhaps lies in the innate characteristics that Marston wanted to bestow upon her when he created her —characteristics that girls and women still aspire to have. Perhaps Wonder Woman will continue to adapt to the changing times as she always has, an unwavering symbol of feminism and female strength.