The character, or rather caricature, of Wonder Woman is fraught with questions and dichotomies. Is she a representation of a strong, liberated female embodying feminist ideals, or rather a representation of the regression and repression of women that still permeates in this day and age? A movie adaption of Wonder Woman will finally be released in cinemas in 2017. Coupled with increasing social commentary on female role models for youth, an analysis of the history of Wonder Woman is timely and insightful.
It is generally accepted that the creator of Wonder Woman was a man, William Moulton Marston. His own back story sheds light into the conflicted and backward society of the 1930s that was in need of a female icon. One could argue Wonder Woman was this icon, a bridge between first wave suffragette feminism and second wave 1970s women liberation feminism.
Wonder Woman’s creation was inspired by the women in Marston’s life: his wife Elizabeth Holloway, and ex-student Olive Byrne whom he lived in a polyamorous relationship, with “love making for all”, Holloway later said. Both Olive and Elizabeth were strong women; Elizabeth being a qualified lawyer and psychologist (a rarity in those days), and Olive a staunch feminist, the niece of Elizabeth Sanger (the woman who first coined the term ‘birth control’ and founded Planned
Parenthood in the US). The metal bracelets worn by Wonder Woman are modelled on those worn by Olive instead of a wedding ring, depicting the commitment Marston had to Olive. And the crucial decision whether the new superhero would be male or female was made by Elizabeth, thus making Wonder Woman a collaborative creation by a polyamorous family.
Marston’s own academic theories focused on matriarchy and masochism. These theories are realised in Wonder Woman with continual references to ropes and chains and Wonder Woman repeatedly tied up in the comics. Wonder Woman’s golden ‘Lasso of Truth’ is modelled on another invention of Marston and Holloway (though she was never formally credited for) – the polygraph. Apparently during studies with the lie detector, Marston found women to be typically more truthful and reliable.
“Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world” Marston wrote, and the masochism depicted merely reflected the emotional and social chains women were victim to in reality.
Wonder Women first appeared in the December 1941 issue of ‘All Star Comics #8’. She has an alluring back story a ‘la Superman. Her alias is Diana Prince, and she hails from a paradise island populated by immortal female amazon warriors. She left after rescuing and falling in love with Steve Trevor, an American airman, to fight against the evil axis forces and promote peace, justice, and women’s rights. How these women came to live on Paradise Island is explained by Wonder Women’s mum Hippolyta in the character’s debut comic, “In the days of ancient Greece, many centuries ago, we Amazons were the foremost nation in the world In Amazonia, women ruled and all was well”. However, men conquered and made women slaves. “The Amazons escaped, sailing across the ocean to an uncharted island where they lived in peace.” Wonder Woman was not conceived but born out of parthenogenesis, Queen Hippolyta carving her daughter out of clay (truly women doing it for themselves.)
Wonder Woman was super strong, fast and wielded weapons. She’s intelligent, impervious to harm, and could fly in her invisible airplane. The influence and forward thinking nature of Wonder Woman is truly astonishing in the context of her creation, an era where women were heavily restricted – she even ran for president, which is only now becoming a reality. Included in the original issues of Wonder Women, with Marston at the helm, was a regular feature, “The Wonder Women of History”—a four-page centrefold, containing the biography of a woman of achievement. Wonder Woman was also a founding member of the ‘Justice League of America’, and is often thought to be an equal to Batman and Superman – some even argue her strength is superior to them.
After Marston’s death in 1947 the feminist ideals of Wonder Woman drastically changed. Robert Kanigher was hired as writer (despite Holloway requesting the role) and Wonder Woman was degraded to the secretary of the Justice League, no longer employed in roles that may threaten the patriarchy but instead as a babysitter, fashion model, a lonely-hearts newspaper advice columnist, and a movie star. In the 1960s Wonder Woman even lost her powers all together and regressed to being Diana Prince, a trendy fashion boutique owner in Greenwich Village. The empowering centre fold column was replaced with wedding information – representing a patriarchal view of the aspirations of women.
Wonder Woman popped up again in the 1970s in the pioneering feminist ‘Ms.’ Magazine, but was largely ignored in favour of other superheroes- (to date there has been no solo female superhero blockbuster). Next year this changes with the release of the first part of a Wonder Woman movie trilogy.
Looking back on Marston’s press release for Wonder Woman; “to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity”. One can ask, has the equal world pioneered by Wonder Woman been realised? Certainly not in Australia. Women make 83¢ for every $1 a man earns, mothers spend twice as many hours looking after children compared to fathers, and domestic and family violence is the leading preventable cause of death, disability, and illness in women aged 15 to 44. It’s a wonder you would want to be a woman. But maybe, just maybe, with strong role models such as Wonder Woman, the next generation may be able to break free of the chains of patriarchy and live in paradise.