Who Does Wonder Woman Belong To?

Posted in The Screening Room by - November 03, 2017
Who Does Wonder Woman Belong To?

I’ve been trying to figure out my feelings on the Wonder Woman movie since the day it came out. There are parts I like, there are parts I don’t like, and there are parts that I just don’t know how I feel about. There’s plenty to talk about where it comes to the critical side of the filmmaking and storytelling behind it, everything from the clever use of color (and lack thereof) to the internal contradictions of the third act, but ultimately my struggle with the film comes down to its adaptation of a character who ranks among my favorite superheroes. My problem is that no matter which way I cut it, I feel like the version of Wonder Woman portrayed in the movie is not my version of Wonder Woman, but the more I think about this, it has led me to a bigger question: is there one version of Wonder Woman?

Now, with any character who has existed as long as Wonder Woman, there’s bound to be a great variety of stories and interpretations, many of which will resonate with one particular audience or another. Every die-hard fan of Wonder Woman or Superman or Batman has stories they don’t like, and that may even include some of the characters’ most famous and otherwise popular stories. But Wonder Woman goes beyond this; more than Superman, more than Batman, Wonder Woman is a character built on a series of internal contradictions, and over the years it has become increasingly difficult to come to any conclusion on what her central focus is. This is due to some factors, ranging from poor recognition of her history to the at times questionable feminism of her creation. There have been good and bad stories of Wonder Woman from nearly all of the perspectives that she is associated with, so let’s take a look at how many versions there are of this character, where they all come from, and where that leaves us today.


 

Ambassador of Peace

The easiest place to start is the earliest idea at the core of the character; a superhero who was supposed to fight crime not with fists, but with understanding. There are a couple of important things to note about William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman. The first is that he wasn’t a writer, he was a psychologist, and his background in this profession influenced his work in comics in a variety of ways. As a psychologist, he had created the systolic blood pressure test, an early progenitor of the modern-day lie detector, and it’s easy to see the connection between that and Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth, but perhaps the biggest influence on his writing came in the form of what he wanted his superhero to represent. He looked at the comics of the early 1930’s and saw a “great educational potential,” but he noted that the superheroes of the day mostly ran around punching out the bad guys, conquering evil with brute force. He wanted to create a superhero who would fight evil not simply by threatening or enacting violence, but who would talk to the villains, figure out what was leading them to commit crimes, and find a way of resolving those issues, stopping crime by helping the criminal. Early Wonder Woman stories focused in large part on this idea, with Diana frequently seeking out the reasons why her supervillain enemies were doing what they were doing, and trying to focus her attention on that. Case in point, consider one of Wonder Woman’s greatest enemies of the time, Baroness Paula Von Gunther, scientist, and agent of the Nazis. Wonder Woman eventually figured out that Gunther was working with the Nazis because they had captured her daughter, who Wonder Woman then rescued. Von Gunther then became an ally of Wonder Woman’s, at one point saving her life and eventually living on Paradise Island to undergo Amazon training.

It was these ideas, along with influence from his wife Elizabeth, who would also write many early Wonder Woman stories, that Marston would use to create his character and pitch her to Max Gaines, co-founder of All-American Publications, the company that would later become DC Comics. Now this is where Wonder Woman’s themes as a character start to get complicated, as Marston’s lack of writing experience could be seen in the mythology that he then created: to wit, Wonder Woman was 1. a peace-seeking, nurturing superhero, 2, a representation of female empowerment, and 3. tied to Greek mythology by being a member of the all-female warrior race, the Amazons. These three elements, peaceful ambassador, feminist icon, and warrior princess, are all present from the very beginning and modern day writers still struggle trying to figure out which facet to emphasize the most, but when you look at the early stories, it is absolutely clear that the priority was on this first aspect of peace. Where contradictions rise between these facets, there’s always a caveat that places the emphasis back on Wonder Woman as a peace seeker. Real life mythology recognizes the Amazons as an island nation of warrior women so devoted to their military training that they would mutilate their bodies to be better at combat, but Marston’s interpretation of the Amazons was pointedly different, presenting them as a nation of loving, peaceful women who had been slandered by patriarchal societies as being barbarians. This interpretation even went so far as to present their modern day society as scientifically advanced, possessing futuristic technology for travel and healing. Not only did this element serve as a constant reminder to the audience that these were not the Amazons of traditional Greek mythology, but it also answered the idea of what a Utopian society could accomplish if they truly devoted themselves to the feminine ideal of peace.

And, yeah, that’s the other big thing to note about Marston: he was not a feminist. Feminism is about equality between the genders, the idea that men and women are not inherently different and everyone should be treated equally and have equal rights. Men are not inherently smarter than women, and therefore women should have just as much an opportunity in the workplace as men; women are not inherently better parents than men, and therefore men should have equal opportunity for parental leave and family care. This was not quite Marston’s belief system: he did believe in an inherent difference, that men represented a more anarchic and violent form of freedom, while women represented a more loving form of freedom that was achieved through a state of submission to a loving authority.

So there’s the rub with this interpretation. The idea of a superhero who tries to save everyone, even their enemies, is a wonderful one that has a place right alongside Superman and Batman as the top tier characters of DC Comics’ mythology. The importance of this aspect of her character has fluctuated at times, but over the years it’s never been completely lost; a 2008 Gail Simone issue involving a rogue Green Lantern, for instance, involves one of the single best reiterations of this character thesis. But at the same time, at least at the beginning, it was based on an inherently flawed psychological theory. And the questionable gender politics of Marston’s belief system also complicate the second major interpretation of Wonder Woman, that of a…


Feminist Icon

Again, let’s point out that this is an interpretation rooted right there in the initial conception of the character. When Marston was coming up with his idea of a superhero that fights crime with love, it was his wife Elizabeth who suggested the character be female. William’s love of Greek mythology led to the inclusion of the Amazons, complete with a female-centric reinterpretation of their infamous run-in with Hercules during his twelve labors. And throughout all her adventures, Wonder Woman was surrounded by powerful women of all kinds, be they Amazons, college sororities, or supervillains. Despite certain weird ideas about the nature of femininity and masculinity, William Moulton Marston was a forward-thinking writer who sought to give women a, to this point, unprecedented amount of representation in comics and to champion women’s rights and issues within the pages of his stories. Feminism and gender equality were at the heart of many early Wonder Woman stories, and even some of the stranger reoccurring elements like bondage served as metaphors for the struggles that held modern women in social captivity.

This depiction of Wonder Woman as a strong female hero is arguably the element that has kept her the most relevant over the years, and this has been both a boon and a challenge to her role as a character. On the one hand, she is the representation of women in comics, and her world-wide fame has made her relevant far beyond the pages of superhero magazines. Wonder Woman is comics’ great big “We Can Do It!” for all the little girls out there who love superheroes, and she’s been doing this since some of the earliest days of the industry. You know who wasn’t actually in 1960 The Brave and The Bold issue that introduced the Justice League of America? Superman and Batman were not, but Wonder Woman was. Who was the first superheroine to star in her TV show? In 1975, it was Wonder Woman as played by Lynda Carter. When the Justice League was first adapted to animation, Wonder Woman was front and center in 1973’s Hanna-Barbera Super Friends. When the Justice League was brought back for the big animated series in 2001, Wonder Woman was there. Her ever presence in the industry and our pop culture is inspiring, and it’s what keeps us asking for more.

On the other hand, her gender being such a major facet of her personality can be a limiting factor as well; she isn’t just a superhero who happens to be a woman, she is the superhero for women, and as such she has a huge and constantly evolving ideal to live up to as a character. She needs to be strong, but she also needs to feel human; she can’t be too perfect, but she also is expected to represent the best of women; she is supposed to represent femininity, but without leaning too hard into stereotypes. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if DC had, over the years, promoted more of their superheroines to top-tier status, but the company rarely has. Black Canary, arguably the second biggest superheroine of the Golden Age, has remained a relatively low tier character in DC’s pantheon over the years; Hawkgirl, who predates Wonder Woman by about a year, remains a character forever tied to her male counterpart, Hawkman. The closest DC’s come their recent consideration of Harley Quinn as the fourth pillar of DC’s characters, but that’s only after the massive runaway success of Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s Harley Quinn solo series. From 1941 on, Wonder Woman has been the only consistent female character operating at her level in the DC Universe, and that’s taken a toll on how the company is willing to treat the character. Case in point, it’s easy to see Marston’s ideals of a love-based superhero as leaning too far into stereotypes about femininity. Again, Marston’s stated goal was to “to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman,” so archetypes of femininity are the intention here. From this perspective, and especially after the post-Marston Wonder Woman comics of the Silver Age relied heavily on the romance drama traditionally associated with female audiences, you can see where more modern writers were coming from when they started to transform Wonder Woman into a…


 

Warrior Princess

Now to be clear, Wonder Woman being a powerful warrior with great training and skills is something that goes back to her origins. To become Wonder Woman, Diana had to compete against her fellow Amazons in a great tournament, after all. Wonder Woman also fought the Nazis in WWII throughout the Golden Age stories written by William and Elizabeth Marston, even if she more often fought to rescue or even redeem her enemies than she did to overpower them simply. There are moments throughout Wonder Woman’s history where we are constantly reminded of her ability to be a great warrior. But to understand the more modern interpretations of Wonder Woman as a sword-wielding Amazon soldier, you have to understand the modern DC Universe’s transition to more traditional Greek mythology and to understand that you need to take a look at George Perez’ 1988 Wonder Woman reboot.

The 70’s and 80’s were the early days of DC trying to reinvent themselves as a more adult company who wrote more mature, artistic stories. After 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted the DC continuity, they had an opportunity to retell the origins of their major characters to create a new identity for this new era. George Perez was tasked with writing and drawing the new Wonder Woman #1, and creating the version that would be used for decades to come. Where Batman had lost a lot of his zanier, Silver Age adventures, and Superman’s powers and supporting cast were slimmed way, way down, the updates made to Wonder Woman were mostly to make her fit more realistically in with the Greek mythology everyone is familiar with. All the weirder aspects of the Golden Age that differentiated Marston’s Amazons from traditional Amazons, from the advanced technology to the Astral Plane to the space-traveling kangaroos, were all stripped away, and the Amazons were altered to more or less the image that immediately comes to mind when you ask someone to think about Greek mythological Amazons: an island nation of all women, skilled in the art of war, worshiping the ancient Greek gods, wearing togas and surrounded by marble pillars and temples. Now to his credit, Perez was very intent on keeping the original intents behind Marston’s Wonder Woman. The version of Greek mythology that he incorporated in Wonder Woman’s background was an alternate take, Wicked-style, where the Amazons had been the good guys all along, and patriarchal Greek society had slandered them over the years into the barbarians we sometimes think of them as today. An emphasis was still placed on the Amazons being peaceful and good, and the very first story arc involved Wonder Woman having to stop Ares from destroying humanity in a global war which she solves by convincing him of the wrongness of his path, rather than fighting him. Despite the aesthetic changes, Perez kept the ideals of Golden Age Wonder Woman fully intact.

But that aesthetic ended up being a hurdle too great for many writers and audiences to get past. I’ve discussed this many times before, but comic books are equal parts visual and textual storytelling; how a superhero and their world is designed is a part of the storytelling that expresses just as much to the audience as the words they are reading. The other part of this is that the visuals frequently come first, so the first impression of a comic book is always going to be the initial imagery the reader is confronted with, not the dialogue that explains it further. When the aesthetic of Wonder Woman is telling the audience “this is an Amazon society, exactly as you’ve always pictured it,” then no matter what the words are saying, the reader sees a traditional Amazon society, exactly as they’ve always pictured it. When DC’s Amazons are running around in togas and armor, you’re thinking an Amazon warrior, not an ambassador of peace; when Wonder Woman adds a sword to her ensemble, she no longer represents solving problems through love.

And this is how Wonder Woman has been, more or less, for the last 30 years. As much of a deal as we make about DC’s major characters having this 75+ year history, what large-scale audiences recognize are the stories that most reflect the period and social norms they are most familiar with, and the stories that DC is promoting and distributing. When people talk about the Flash, right now they are most often going to be referring to Barry Allen with the dead mom, despite the fact that that arc is only a plotline that was retconned into the comics in 2009. Regardless of how recently that element was added, it’s been the focal point of the most recent comics, the most recent TV show, the most recent animated movies, and the upcoming live-action film. Comic books are like a Wiki page; they’re constantly being updated and added to, and the stuff at the top of the page is what most audiences are familiar with. The stuff at the top of Wonder Woman’s page is no longer the stories where she’s figuring out how to reach through her villain’s tough exteriors to find the hurt human deep within; they’re the stories where she blinds herself with snake venom so she can kill Medusa to save the world.  Wonder Woman has become, in the public memory, a badass warrior with a sword.

So which version of Wonder Woman is accurate? Is it the one most in the public memory? Is it the version she was created to represent? This is a difficult question to answer, and this is in no small part due to DC as a company’s inability to maintain a consistent idea of Wonder Woman’s basic identity. Think about the briefest ways you can sum up the major superheroes. Batman can be described as “traumatized kid vows to prevent trauma by becoming the world’s greatest ninja detective”; Superman is essentially the answer to the question, “what kind of person could have absolute power without being corrupted?”. Throughout the years, whether rendered in fantastical or “realistic” versions, these identities have more or less stayed the same. But Wonder Woman has not been granted the same level of care and maintenance. Where Marston’s initial vision could be broken down as, “a representation of the power of the feminine traits of love and understanding,” DC let that identity fall away pretty much as soon as Marston wasn’t directly involved with the character anymore. Even when George Perez tried to restate a very similar, if updated, version of this identity, it hasn’t been kept up with on the same level as characters like Superman and Batman. Many modern interpretations place a stronger emphasis on Wonder Woman’s ability to overpower an opponent and force a resolution, and of the three members of DC’s trinity, she’s the one who was allowed to completely ditch their “no kill policy” in the comics, which in many ways is the opposite of what she was intended to represent.

On some level, as with many evolving and multifaceted characters, each version is at least partially right. Ultimately, it comes down to individual audience members to decide which version they prefer, but if you’re looking for a more official version of this, you can look at how individual writers have handled this. Arguably, the most popular runs of Wonder Woman in the modern history of the character are the George Perez, Gail Simone, and Greg Rucka runs. It’s worth noting that all three of these runs attempted, on some level, to cover all three of these aspects of the character at the same time. The way they avoided the contradictions inherent to these aspects was via prioritizing them: Perez leaned Peaceful Ambassador first, Feminist Icon second, and Warrior Princess third; Simone seemed to line them Feminist Icon first, Peaceful Ambassador second, and Warrior Princess third; Rucka felt like he was going Warrior Princess first, Peaceful Ambassador second, and Feminist Icon third. On some level, each of these interpretations was seeking to resolve conflicts, peacefully if at all possible; at the same time, they each were fully capable of bringing the pain if they needed to; finally, all of them recognized the importance Wonder Woman has to female representation in superheroes, comics, and popular culture as a whole. Each version took a different approach to what facet of Diana was the most important, but they maintained a consistency to the writers’ preferred vision.

And this is probably my biggest problem with Wonder Woman of the 2017 film. Say what you will about the technical and critical aspects of the film, of which there are both good and bad parts; my biggest issue is that I don’t know that the movie had a clear idea of which aspect of Wonder Woman they wanted to highlight. The script is trying to tell me peace, considering the whole point of the story is to deglamorize war, but the cinematography, with the slow-motion pans across badass warrior posing, tells me it wants to revel in how awesome Wonder Woman looks while slaying her enemies. She can announce to the audience that she believes in love, but she does so while she is obliterating someone with a laser blast. You could argue that the feminism of the lead is meant to be the outstanding highlight, but they take too many opportunities to give her power over to men, like attributing her abilities to her father, Zeus (a huge change from the comics’ traditional origin of Wonder Woman being a clay baby brought to life by Aphrodite or a group of goddesses), or giving the act of stopping the war (aka, the main conflict of the film) to Steve Trevor. For all the important things that this movie does, from putting Wonder Woman on the silver screen in her own story for the first time to putting a woman behind the camera to tell it, what the movie never seemed to figure out was which version of Wonder Woman they wanted to celebrate. All of these visions are important to the character’s history, and all of them are equally valid, but to make a strong version of Wonder Woman, you’ve got to pick one and explore it.


 

When a character is around for 75 years, there’s going to be a lot of variety in what they represent, not just in what writers want to express through them, but what they mean to individual audiences. Wonder Woman has a lot on her shoulders, arguably more than any one fictional character needs to have, but if there’s a character out there who can handle it, I’m pretty certain she’s up to the task. So pick your version, pick your personality, pick your Wonder Woman. She’s just as much yours as she is mine, and she’s just as much ours as she is DC’s. Hers is an imaginary story. After all, aren’t they all?

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He is a staff writer for Kulture Shocked, specializing in comic books and superheroes. Part-time web comic writer and full-time insomniac, he lives in Texas and writes think pieces for fun. Approach cautiously; he is usually very tired and probably isn’t paying attention.

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