The Ages of Wonder Woman: Essays on the Amazon Princess in Changing Times – ed. Joseph J. Darowski
A Golden Thread: An Unofficial Critical History of Wonder Woman – Philip Sandifer
The Secret History of Wonder Woman – Jill Lepore
Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine – Tim Hanley
All four of these books address one central issue: what is it to be a heroine and a woman? We’ve had the philosophical take on both Superman and Batman, as well as Batman on the couch. (Hell, the philosophers even had a bash at Green Lantern.) With Wonder Woman, it seems that books are like buses – you wait for ages and then there’s four at once.
Three of these books take a fairly sociological approach, the pop culture method where your hook is the larger relevance of your subject. The fourth book is by a historian, and concerns the hidden links between Wonder Woman and the women’s movement.
The first thing that strikes me when I look at these four titles is that 3 out of 4 are by men. (To be fair, Darowski is the editor, rather than sole author, of his book, and the contributors are pretty evenly balanced: 10 men, nine women, by my count.) Still, if you look at writing about comics generally, it’s still a man’s game, so perhaps it isn’t as odd as it seems. (Even my beloved Supergirls was written by a guy.)
All four of these books tend to agree on the basics, although there are some controversies. These include just how kinky William Marston, WW’s inventor, was, the awfulness or otherwise of love interest Steve Trevor, and whether the period in the 60s when WW lost her powers was a waste of time.
Not all the books cover the whole of our heroine’s career: Lepore’s book focuses on the early stages of her evolution, and is just as interested in how WW interacts with the feminist movement as her adventures inside the comic-book pages. It has an epilogue that covers the 60s and 70s, but the main text stops with the end of the second world war and the return to domesticity.
It’s very hard, in fact, to discuss WW’s career without mentioning feminism. She was conceived as a feminist icon, albeit a specialized sort of feminism. William Marston, who invented and developed the character, believed in that society would be improved by male submission to women. Wonder Woman and the Amazons live on Paradise Island, a tip-off that their world is supposed to be a utopia.
It is by now well-known that William Marston lived in a polyamorous household with Elizabeth Hollaway Marston and Olive Byrne, and that they were probably into S&M. (Lepore tells us that the two women lived together after Marston’s death, up until their own. Also, Olive’s preference for heavy metal bracelets fed into Wonder Woman’s attire.)
There certainly is plenty of bondage in the early WW stories – Wonder Woman Unbound even includes a mathematical analysis of her comics versus Batman and Captain Marvel, two very popular titles at the time. The Amazons of Paradise Island seemed to spend their days in bondage games of one kind or another. That WW herself has a golden lasso that compels the truth from whoever she snares gives the bondage an interesting spin.The comic series began with the arrival of a stranger who lived by a different set of values, a common trope in utopia stories. In this instance, test pilot Steve Trevor crash-lands on Paradise Island.
This intrusion of man’s world into the Amazons’ world leads to a declaration from an oracle that one of the Amazons must return with him to fight for freedom. (World War II was just beginning, and the Nazis were definitely anti-feminist.) Princess Diana, despite being forbidden to join in the contest to determine who goes, competes and wins. She heads off to America and, like Steve Rogers, joins the war effort.
Enter Wonder Woman’s secret identity, secretary Diana Prince. She is the third angle of a love triangle that involves Wonder Woman, Steve Trevor, and her alter ego. Steve is attracted to the powerful, beautiful superheroine, while scorning the mousy office worker. As for Diana, she feels the pressure of being her own rival, but insists that Steve must love her for both her identities. In the older comics, we are also told that she will lose her powers if she submits to a man; this serves to keep them apart.
Later, in the 1950s, Steve is so obnoxious that you wouldn’t think that WW needed any other inducement to stay away. As all the books point out, he keeps trying to trap our heroine into domesticity and devalues her super-abilities.
The comics abandoned the earlier confrontations between our heroine and the sexist world for a more romance-comics approach. There was even a storyline in which Lois Lane had to compete with WW for Superman’s affections, which was prescient, considering that the two are now together. (This has been resolved by having Lois not interested in Clark or Superman, leaving him free for a super-matchup.)
The other major issue in the Wonder Woman canon was a run in the late 60s in which she lost her powers, and went out to fight crime as plain Diana Prince. Most dismiss this as a truly dire episode, best forgotten.
Diana seems to be operating strictly out of her emotions, as she herself acknowledges, and when she isn’t seeking vengeance for Steve Trevor’s murder, she’s running around with one man after another having clothes bought for her and inevitably being betrayed by these same smoothies. As Hanley puts it: “Diana Prince was a startlingly pathetic depiction of a modern woman.” (Loc. 2588)
This period is so universally despised that some, including uber-fan Carol A. Strickland have mounted defenses. Peter Lee’s essay (in Darowski) contrasts socially-engaged Denny O’Neal’s superficial treatment of Diana Prince with Samuel Delaney’s scripts, in which Prince is brought up against feminism in her own life. At first she refuses to join with other women, not seeing any point, but personal experiences change her mind. In a foretaste of groups like the Birds of Prey, her encounter group goes crime-fighting.
In the early 70s, Diana Prince was ditched, and Wonder Woman was back. Fans like Gloria Steinem were delighted, although as Handey points out, her version of WW is pretty selective as well. They soft-pedaled the bondage and other, odder elements of the Marston legacy, preferring to focus on the Amazons as proto-liberal feminists.
Of course, the grumpier sort of feminist pointed out that Wonder Woman could not be a feminist icon because when you have superpowers and an invisible plane, what do you need with equality. The less said about people like that the better, except to hope that they get a big shiny lump of coal at Christmastime.
The next high point for Wonder Woman was the Lynda Carter show. Full disclosure: I loved this show as a child. I’m not sure I’d want to watch it now, in case I hate it, but I twirled around and bounced imaginary bullets off my bracelets just like everyone else. It was the girl equivalent of pinning on a towel.
Living in the north, I didn’t get the Super Friends, but those two shows probably set the image of Wonder Woman for decades to come. While Hanley dislikes the Wonder Woman show as fake feminism, Sandifer sees a light irony in Wonder Woman’s bemusement at man’s world and its sexism. He sees the statuesque Carter conveying the idea of a powerful, beautiful woman who isn’t from around here.
Darowski’s book, with its focus on the comics, doesn’t really engage with the TV show, except to reiterate the point that it probably formed most people’s mental image of WW. (DC is currently cashing in on nostalgia for this and the Batman show with the Wonder Woman 77 and Batman 66 comics.)
All the books under review agree that in the 80s and 90s WW went through a rough patch. Highlights of her new millennium include the Maxwell Lord storyline in Justice League, and Kingdom Come, in which she and Superman pair up.
Then came the New 52, and as I mentioned before, only two of the books take on the newest Wonder Woman. Sandifer is unimpressed by the storyline, especially when it turns out that far from being molded of clay, Diana is yet another of Zeus’s children. This leads to a scene where Diana’s mother has to plead for her life in front of vengeful Hera.
He reserves his real ire for the twist that he describes as the Amazons raping and murdering men and enslaving their male offspring. It is about as far from the ideals of Marston’s creation as you might expect. He does admire the revamping of the Olympians, which is truly wonderful. Also, the series does not worry about where Diana fits into the DC universe, instead focusing on the Amazon in her own context. (As Sandifer notes, that is the Justice League comic’s problem.)
(In actual fact the Amazons don’t “rape” anyone; they do, however, kill the men who fathered their children, and trade the male children for weapons, as we learn in WW #7.) As Sandifer puts it, “instead of coming from a fundamentally noble culture to help improve man’s world, [Wonder Woman] comes from a bunch of murderous psychopaths.” (264)
In the new version, the god Hephaestus rescues the rejected male children of the Amazons and makes them his craftsmen. WW frees them, as she thinks, only to learn the ironic truth that they were really happier before. This goes back to ancient myth, in which the Amazons exposed their male children, and also to the darker side of Marston’s vision. (In several early stories we find that the Amazon utopia, Paradise Island, has its own female slaves. They are said to be happy with their lot, but readers may draw their own conclusions.)
The final essay in Darowski’s book compares Wonder Woman to the hero of Joseph Campbell’s meta-myth. He and Virginia Rush point out in their New 52 essay that while traditionally heroes have been male:
Azzarello [writer] is able to circumvent this because a) there is greater gender equality in the twenty-first century, and b) Wonder Woman is Princess Diana of the Amazons, a matriarchal society where she can aspire to rule.*
They, too, are impressed by the new take on the Greek deities. And, unlike Sandifer, they see the reboot of her origins and those of the Amazons as part of a discussion about the nature of family, and how she deals with her new, extended, dysfunctional family. Also, they see her more warlike persona as reflecting social changes in America since 2001.
So it’s clear that Wonder Woman is still causing debate. These latest discussions of her God of War role, the de-idealizing of the Amazons, and bringing a Y chromosome into Diana’s creation are an ongoing discussion over what a heroine is, and does. (And her origin story.)
It’s not surprising that in a period when Batman rather than Superman is DC’s flagship character, Wonder Woman was going to have some definition problems. There will always be tensions between those who like the idealized version in which the Amazons are better than us, and those who like the new version in which Paradise Island fails to live up to its name.
With the Justice League movie coming up, as well as a stand-alone Wonder Woman movie, it will be interesting to see what changes they ring on the Amazon princess.
* I like the way this statement leapfrogs over the whole debate about women and heroism; while books like The Heroine’s Journey take the “difference feminism” route of finding a different, feminine way to be a heroine, Darowski and Rush simply suggest that she can do exactly the same things male heroes do, because she’s exceptional like them, and lives in an age that can accommodate heroines.
Old vs. New Wonder Woman image from here.