There are few characters in comics that have experienced as much change to their identity as Wonder Woman has. Over the course of the last 60 plus years, Diana has been written in a plethora of different ways -- not all of the good. Still, the character with such a convoluted history has come to represent strength, independence and feminism. The question is not only whether she should, but also who is she?
Wonder Woman: The Feminist Icon?
Before you ask, the question mark at the end of the header above is there for a reason. I think a lot of people who read or have read Wonder Woman in the past have an opinion on whether or not the character is or should be considered a feminist icon. On the one hand, Wonder Woman is this embodiment of female empowerment. She is depicted as being as strong and as capable as Superman, particularly when the character was first introduced in William Moulton Marston's original series. She's been shown to be a proponent of equality on many occasions and has stood for the rights of women to be seen as equal to men. On the other hand, as time went on, Diana's character changed. There were moments where she was seen as more pin-up girl than ass-kicking super heroine in her later, Silver Age appearances.== TEASER ==
It can be argued that Diana's progression as a character didn't quite match up with the progression of second-wave feminism which lasted (globally) from roughly around the 1960's to the 1990's, but that her series and her character did address a lot of second-wave feminist issues (sexuality, family, workplace, etc), even if she may not have always fallen on the side of the movement itself. In issue #203 of WONDER WOMAN Diana and her friend Cathy deal with one of the largest second-wave feminist issues of the 1970's: equal pay and equal treatment for women in the workplace. In this issue, Diana reveals that she is "all about equal pay," but that she "isn't a joiner." Meaning, she doesn't want to "join" her good friend Cathy's women's liberation group. You might recall an editorial Tony wrote about the issue from last year, here.
It's certainly interesting that the creators behind this issue chose to present Diana in this way considering she grew up on an island full of women and would therefore have had some understanding of "sisterly bond." In fact, one could argue that the fact that Diana "is not a joiner" is a far cry from what her heritage as an Amazon represented and depicted in her early appearances. Yet, regardless of whether you agree with Diana's characterization here; her comic was still addressing a major socio-political issue at the time. This is a good thing, even if it did sort of make Wonder Woman's character look bad.
Who is (or was) she? What defines her?
Although her series was dealing with feminist issues, was she a feminist at all? Who was Wonder Woman really? I think we all know the origin of Wonder Woman; birthed from clay and molded by her mother the Queen of Themyscira, Diana grew up on an island full of Amazon warriors and was trained to be a warrior herself. Yet, that doesn't exactly tell us who the character is, does it? Especially not now. One of the major problems with Wonder Woman's character is the fact that not many writers who have had the opportunity to mold her have had a cohesive vision for Diana's identity. So, who is she, really? It's not exactly an easy question to answer. Coming up with adjectives to describe Wonder Woman isn't as easy as it is to describe her male counterparts, Batman and Superman.
You can say that Diana is (or at least was in her early appearances) defined by strength and confidence. In a panel from WONDER WOMAN #16 (which you can find in the reprinted WONDER WOMAN ARCHIVES v.1), Hippolyta mentions to Diana that the young Amazon warriors in training lack confidence. Diana responds to this by demonstrating her physical strength and giving the girls words of encouragement.
You see girls, there's nothing to it -- all you have to do is have confidence in your own strength.
Although this is just one example, in many of Wonder Woman's first appearances she would give speeches about the role of women in society. She would talk about how they should be strong, independent and look for strength within themselves. Much of the dialogue found in her early appearances implied that with confidence, young girls can achieve a lot. This type of commentary coming from a female character (albeit a completely fictional one) is very progressive, particularly for that era. Keep in mind that when Wonder Woman was first introduced the majority of women were confined to traditional gender roles; they stayed in the kitchen and raised the children while the men went out and worked.
William Moulton Marston first created Wonder Woman to be the "counter" to male characters like Batman and Superman. Marston didn't just introduce Diana as a female warrior birthed from a warrior clan of women, he also flipped the gender roles in his series rather frequently. In virtually every superhero book at the time women played the part of damsel in distress or girlfriend to the hero of the story. In WONDER WOMAN, however, it was often Steve Trevor who played the "damsel in distress," as you can see above.
There is a saying that behind every great man is a great woman. You can argue that Superman is a "great" man. He is, in comics, considered the ideal, and was created as a symbol for the ideal man. Protector of justice, peace and the innocent. Behind Superman, there is a great woman -- Lois Lane. So could the same be said for Wonder Woman? Just as some part of Superman is defined by his love for Lois, a great part of Wonder Woman is defined by her love for Steve Trevor.
Steve plays a very important part in Wonder Woman's comics. He, like Diana's mother, is a character that can be traced to her very first appearance. He is also the very reason why Diana opted to forgo her heritage on more than one occasion.
In the first issue of Wonder Woman, William Marston reveals that Diana saves Steve Trevor's life after the character crash lands on Paradise Island. In the panels that follow, Diana does not want to leave Steve's side at the hospital and later reveals to her mother that she is in love with him. She later fights for the opportunity to leave the island and escort Steve back to the United States, giving up her immortality in the process. Later, Diana trades places with a young woman, taking the girl's identity in order that she be by the "man she loves."
It's interesting that Marston -- a progressive a thinker focused on creating a strong independent female character -- would make love the motivation that would prompt Diana to leave Themyscira. It sort of makes me wonder how different her character would have been if she had made the decision to stay in America because she wanted to make a difference in society, and not because she wanted to be close to Steve. The decision to stay was, ultimately, because of a man. In a sense, that defines a huge aspect of her character.
This is not the only time that Diana gives up aspects of her own life in order to be closer to Steve Trevor. In the 1970's, Diana gives up her powers in order to be with Steve.To say that Steve has been a big part of Diana's history is a huge understatement. Wonder Woman has more than once given up her own happiness for a chance at greater happiness and a life with him. What is debatably the biggest decision her character ever made (the decision not to return to Themyscira) was due largely to Steve Trevor.
Who is she now?
When she was first created by William Marston, Diana's origin was the only one in comics not defined by a patriarchal society, in that her origin was not influenced by a father figure at the head of her household, tribe, or government until she was re-introduced a year ago in her latest self-titled series by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang. Prior to the 'New 52,' Diana was not a descendant of a male lineage. Now she is a descendant of a male-centric dynasty (Zeus) and has also been trained to be a warrior by one of that society's most prominent male figures (Ares). So what does this change signify? Well, you can argue it changes a lot of things. One of the things that made Wonder Woman different as a character was the fact that she was raised in this matriarchal society. The notion that a matriarchal society could train a woman to be as strong physically and as fearsome as the most powerful character in the DC Universe (Superman) is a pretty empowering notion since women (for a long time) were referred to as "the weaker, gentler sex."
Post "New 52," Wonder Woman is a far cry from who she was in her early appearances written by Marston. This Wonder Woman's builds a relationship with a man (Ares) as a young girl. This Diana has a father-figure who would visit her once a year, train her and mold her. It's clear Diana respects Ares, and both characters feel -- dare I say -- love, for one another. And although it is clear that she is still trained to be a warrior by her sisters, she undergoes additional training by the God of war. However, Azzarello doesn't show us scenes of Diana's training under her mother's tutelage in this issue. It's implied that this happens off panel, but isn't something we really get to see. While this might make any long standing Wonder Woman fans a little bit uncomfortable, I think the issue redeems the character in its final pages when Diana reveals that although she's learned to be fearsome and ferocious at the hand of Ares, she's also maintained a level of compassion derived from her mother and the Amazons. As endearing as that notion is, it does imply that the Amazons could not mold a fearsome warrior on their own; as Marston originally intended. Looking back at Marston's own analysis for Diana's character in a 1943 issue of AMERICAN SCHOLAR, you see that this is actually a pretty big change.
"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."
One could interpret her new origin implies that her strength and power was not derived from the Amazons, but from Ares. In a sense, that sort of takes away from the vision Marston may have originally intended for the character. Yet, you can argue that this change is simply the progression of Diana's character following the death of the man who created her.
Marston technically only wrote Wonder Woman for six years. The character was first introduced in ALL-STAR COMICS #8 in 1941, and Marston died shortly after in 1947. Suffice it to say, even though Marston only wrote Diana for a few years, he still managed to leave a considerable mark on her identity and her character (and I don't even want to go into the bondage stuff). Not too long after Marston's death and Wonder Woman acquired a new writer, Frederic Wertham published his 'Seduction of the Innocent,' (1953), an attack on the comic book industry. In it he called Wonder Woman a "morbid ideal for young girls" and a "threat to masculinity" because she was a strong woman who defied the social norm of the place of women in society. The book eventually led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority which in turn led to the gradual changes made to the character.
Regardless of how you might view the character (and disregarding Marston's bondage undertones found in many of the character's early issues), the intention behind her was always good. For Marston, Wonder Woman was the solution to an industry that presented its female characters in predominantly subservient roles. Wonder Woman was created to be the counter to characters like Batman and Superman which is why Marston likely stressed that Diana come from a matriarchal society; establishing this idea that women too, without the help of men can be "strong and powerful."
There's no question that DC has developed an interesting story over the course of the last twelve months, but do the changes made to her character alter what some people feel she should represent? What do you think? Are you enjoying WONDER WOMAN?
If you enjoyed this article, I've listed some supplemental reading that helped me shape my argument, below.