Wonder Woman and Feminism
Wonder Woman’s Historical Background
Wonder Woman in the 1950’s
Wonder Woman in 2009 and Comparison to 1950s
Anti-Feminist Components in
Wonder Woman and Feminism
For years, films and theatrical works have been used as a mirror of the society, to show or influence the behavior of people. Films depicting heroes and heroines are used to represent an ideal world and to project fantasies. The comic world is filled with male heroes who either fight crime or are patriots fighting for the nation. The first comic heroine to make an appearance in a DC Comic book was Wonder Woman, created in 1941. Wonder Woman is one of the most visible and powerful superheroines. Born out of feminist ideals and concepts, she represents and embodies feminism and the strength of women. Also, her creation at the height of the turn of the 19th/ 20th century during an intense feminist movement was meant to resonate with women at a time when they were first beginning to get out of the kitchen to join the workforce. Although Wonder Woman’s story has changed over the years, her feminist background and ideals are still evident. There is no question that the 2009 film, when compared with the 1950s version, displays a story shaped by feminist ideas; however, the 2009 version of Wonder Woman also has a strong anti-feminist component.
In this essay, I will discuss the feminist components in the Wonder Woman story in the 1950s and compare it to those depicted in the 2009 animated film featuring Wonder Woman. I will also look at the anti-feminist ideas incorporated in the animated film. This analysis is divided into six sections: the Introduction, Wonder Woman’s Historical Background, Wonder Woman in the 1950s, Wonder Woman in 2009, Anti-Feminism in 2009 and Conclusion.
Wonder Woman’s Historical Background
Wonder Woman was created in 1941 by psychologist William Moulton Marston. She was created to be an Amazonian warrior, in line with Greek mythologies. The Amazonian background story has changed severally in the past. However, according to the original story, Wonder Woman comes from a feminist utopian fiction, on an island known as Paradise where her and her people, the Amazonians, have lived for centuries. The Amazonians are athletic, beautiful and have lived without the male influence for centuries. Before then, they were enslaved by Hercules, but their Queen Hippolyta freed them with the help of Aphrodite. Aphrodite insisted that they would bracelets made of Amazomium metal, the strongest metal on Earth, as a reminder that they should never submit to men’s domination and to always be aware of their deceit (Bunn, 107). When Captain Trevor crashed into Paradise, the queen held a contest to choose a Wonder Woman, who would ensure the safe return of the man into man’s world. Her daughter, Diana won the contest and assumed the role of Wonder Woman (Delaney, 3). She was given a costume with stripes and stars of the US flag, the Lasso of Truth and a tiara. Some of these costumes and indeed their designs and powers changed over the years.
According to Marston, Wonder Woman was created to establish a standard among children and young people of a courageous woman. Marston believed that women had a greater competency to rule a peaceful society as compared to men due to the former’s nature of affection and inclination to love and therefore, would use love as a weapon rather than those that would result to war and violence (Delaney, 3). According to Marston, these attributes of love and affection were not to be equated with weakness but instead to strength. The message was particularly targeted at young boys and girls to inspire self-confidence and achievements in traditionally male-dominated professions in the latter and to combat the notion that women were inferior to men in the former. Hence, Wonder Woman is widely perceived to be a psychological propaganda tool, for the growing feminist movement of the 1940s. She was to be strong, independent, patriotic and beautiful, according to the beauty standards of the time. While still retaining her warrior traits, Wonder Woman was also supposed to have socially accepted feminine traits such as love and loyalty.
To understand why Wonder Woman was to be designed as described above, it is important first to understand the era in which she was created. In the 1940s, World War II was ongoing. Many men were fighting in different places in the world, and there was a call for women to join the workforce and, in particular, the industries, military, and other traditionally male professions. Working in the army, farms, as well as industries, meant that the women left their household work that had been traditionally assigned to them and joined masculine jobs. Hence, there were fears that the women would ‘dominate’ men or trigger a reversal of the traditional gender roles. Also, there were concerns that women at the time would not be capable of both working and taking care of their children. Consequently, Wonder Woman's masculine traits of strength and the feminine traits of hard work and empathy worked together to inspire the 1940s woman.
Wonder Woman’s history was also influenced significantly by Marston’s life. His inspiration for Wonder Woman was from both his wife and girlfriend. The bracelets Wonder Woman wears resembled those of Marston’s girlfriend. Marston, his wife Elizabeth Holloway and his girlfriend, Olive Byrne all lived together and were considered sex radicals at the time. Marston, a feminist, believed in the ability of women to work while they managed their families as well as have feminine traits while working in traditionally male professions. Hence, Wonder Woman fared well in masculine activities without compromising her feminine side that included love, loyalty, truth, and honesty. In Marston’s ideologies, it was imperative that Wonder Woman should have the “strength of Superman plus the allure of a good and beautiful woman” (Dunne, 3). Wonder Woman was different because she broke away from the tradition of blood-spilling nature of other superheroes and heroines. She gave her enemies time and opportunity to recognize the wrongness of what they were doing and change their habits. Additionally, the Lasso of Truth that she carried was also influenced by Marston’s work as a psychologist and inventor of the lie detector machine (Matsuuchi, 124).
In these ways, the suffragist movement, the social pressures of post-World War II and Marston’s life were significant influences on the Wonder Woman’s narrative, design, and construction. Perhaps the most admirable trait of Wonder Woman is that she is not only an influence in the society but also in war, government, economy, and the workforce. Throughout her representations in the early 1940s, Wonder Woman was a champion and an icon for female equality throughout America. She was depicted in the war, in the feminist movement, in the workforce and equal pay movement while embodying patriotism and a belief in peace, love and justice (Delaney, 8). However, after Marston’s death in 1947, Wonder Woman’s story was changed to what can only be described as an image to fit a chauvinistic society. The new writers domesticated her by getting her married, stripping her of superpowers and cutting links with her Amazon sisters. Therefore, in most of the 1950s’ and before intervention by Gloria Steinem in the 1970s, Wonder Woman was depicted as juggling marriage life, work life and fighting crime only in her spare time (Matsuuchi, 129). This was a drastic change from Marston’s ideas of Wonder Woman and feminism in general. The new changes are perhaps are attributed to the establishment of Comics Code Authority created to regulate comic code content. Distributors shied away from carrying comic books without the body’s seal of approval and therefore, Wonder Woman comics no longer contained strong feminist messages (Dunne, 4). Her transformation of her storyline, costume, and background continued through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s to the present, each time reflecting the ideals that the society considered acceptable.
Wonder Woman in the 1950’s
Wonder Woman was first debuted on the cover of Sensation Comics #1 in 1942. In the cover, she is seen in a running pose with several men below her. She dodges the bullets shot at her by the men using her bracelets. There are two buildings in the background: the Temple of Justice and the Washington Capitol building (Delaney, 4). The strong imagery in her first comic show aimed to portray Wonder Woman in striking contrast with the common woman of the time, who was most probably a homemaker and dependent on the husband. The arrival of Wonder Woman was a sign that it was time for women to be strong and proficient and a message that females could take the roles of men, despite them being referred to as the superior sex.
However, post-World War II Wonder Woman was a shadow of her former self. According to Munford & Waters, by 1949, Wonder Woman was truly domesticated and was depicted as subordinate to ‘romantic adventure’ (4). She was often represented as ‘helpless and simpering’ while with her love interest, Captain Trevor (Munford & Melanie, 4). According to Lepore, Wonder Woman followed other American women who had worked during the war back into their kitchens when the war was over because “their labor was no longer needed and threatened the stability of the nation by undermining men” (283). Lepore associates the changing Wonder Woman to the Comic Code that outlawed “scenes of horror, lust, sadism, masochism, violent love scenes, sexual abnormalities and encouraged love-romance stories to emphasize the sanctity of marriage” (Lepore, 282). As a result of the code, most superheroes did not survive, and the Justice Society closed in 1948, and Sensation Comics canceled later in 1953. Hence, after that, Wonder Woman became a babysitter, a movie star, and a fashion model. She was often occupied with the idea of marrying Steve and often gave advice on romance in a newspaper advice column (Lepore, 284). It was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that the almost-original story of Wonder Woman was reprinted after the intervention of Gloria Steinem.
Despite her appearance as primarily a feminist icon, Wonder Woman was cast in various scenes when bound. For example, in Sensation Comics #9, Steve Trevor is depicted punishing a woman through bondage, who is understood to be Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s alter ego. According to Delaney, these images represent a powerful denouncement of the kitchen roles associated with women at the time (5). However, the same images and others where Wonder Woman or her alter ego appears bound raised controversies because female submission is seen as anti-feminist. Bunn argues that Wonder Woman’s moral universe was constructed between dominance and submission and therefore, the fact that she was constantly being chained, blindfolded, handcuffed or imprisoned should not be surprising (108).
Wonder Woman’s Amazonian roots are also controversial and considered anti-feminist. According to Pollack, the creators of Wonder Woman retained traces of the misogynistic beliefs and practices widespread in ancient accounts of the Amazons. The Amazons are a mythical race that was considered enemies of the Greek state. The Amazonian people are represented in Greek mythology as Other because they are separated in time and space from the Greeks. In addition, their dress, customs, beliefs, and practices are different from those of the Greeks. For example, they removed the right breast in rejection of femininity, from the masculine part of their body (right side was associated with masculinity in Greek mythology). Representation of the Amazons as Other serve to reinforce the Greek’s sense of identity and their defeat in battle also reinforces the claims of superiority of the Greek state (5). Pollack argues that in stories about their battles with the Greeks, the Amazons were never allowed to win but are defeated and killed to bolster the superiority of men and the Greek state. In addition, they were frequently raped by the Greeks as was Hippolyta by Theseus. Hence, use of the Amazonian roots as the background story of Wonder Woman brings forward anti-feminist concepts because it was an oppressed community.
Wonder Woman in 2009 and Comparison to 1950s
Wonder Woman is cast in an animated movie produced in 2009. Her voice was played by Keri Russell alongside Nathan Fillion as Captain Steve Trevor. In contrast to the 1950s Wonder Woman, the woman depicted in the 2009 animated film is very much feminist just like inMarston’s initial version. Various feminist perspectives have been portrayed in the movie and serve to remind the audience of not only the original Wonder Woman but also of the women's movement in light of modern portrayal of women in film and television. Wonder Woman is different from other comic books', film and television women because she does not need a man to qualify her. She is not built on the legacies of male superheroes, protagonists or antagonists like most other women; she is a legend in her own right. Her background of a feminist world and her ideals as a woman are unique, especially in a film industry where women are cast as either damsel in distress or girlfriends (Delaney 4). Wonder Woman is unapologetically feminist. She enables the modern society to see their own struggles with the place of women in the society and also understand the power dynamic between the male and female gender. Casting Wonder Woman as an outsider helps understand the misogynistic perspectives of the man’s world. Being of a matriarchy nation, and coming into the nation of men, she is the ideal figure to help point out the gender problems in the modern society. Hence, the 2009 animated Wonder Woman film contains numerous feminist messages that the community can identify with and also use to criticize their own perspectives about sexism.
In the 2009 film, women of the American society are portrayed as dependent on men for qualification and permission. Wonder Woman’s first encounter in man’s world is a young girl who is crying because the boys would not allow her to join in the game of Pirates because they "need someone to save." Wonder Woman encourages her that she does not need their permission to participate in the game and trains her how to use a ‘sword’. The young girl joins the boys and defeats them. This was a very powerful message to women that they need not wait for men’s validation, permission or qualification to pursue their interests. In the modern world, women forego numerous opportunities to pursue their passions and even succeed because they are waiting for the men to allow them. The young girl felt disillusioned but really it was not necessary because she should joined the boys regardless of their stance or perhaps asked one of them to be saved instead. This scene shows that Wonder Woman advocates for defiance from the status quo and oppression. This message and portrayal of Wonder Woman is in sharp contrast to the 1950s portrayal of her. In the 1950s she blends in and does not want to defy the status quo. She follows women back into their homes when they are asked to go back to give work opportunities to men returning from war. Wonder Woman does just that but in 2009, she defies these expectations of women to give opportunities to men at the expense of their personal interests.
Relationships between men and women are revealing of the power between the two genders. Feminism advocates for equal power between men and women in a relationship. In the 2009 film, the relationship between Trevor and Wonder Woman is significantly different from their relationship in 1950s. In 1950s, Wonder Woman was desperate for marriage to Trevor and was often disturbed by it. She took to the background while Trevor took all the power. Wonder Woman was giving love and romance advice to other women in a relationship advice column in a newspaper. Their relationship although typical of that era, was anti-feminist and controlled only by the man. However, in 2009, Wonder Woman is depicted as one who is in control of her body, sexuality and relationship with Trevor. Nothing happens between the two that Wonder Woman has not agreed to or initiated herself. Trevor takes her to a pub, perhaps with the motive of getting her drunk and having intercourse with her. When he tries to kiss her, Wonder Woman violently refuses because she is aware of Trevor’s aims. When they kiss at the end of the movie, it is Wonder Woman who initiates it. In the 2009 film, Wonder Woman appears as a bold woman, in charge of her body and charts the direction the relationship with Trevor is to take. Again, this is a profoundly feminist message in a society where men amass all the power in a relationship and women let them.
The strength of the sexes is a concern of the society and is also depicted in the 1950s and 2009 versions of Wonder Woman. In 1950s, Wonder Woman, like other women, is portrayed as weak, in need of saving and rescuing by a strong male such as Captain Trevor. In the comic books of that era, Trevor comes to her rescue numerous times but in the 2009 film, Wonder Woman saves the man and carries him back to his homeland. In addition, she fights the men trying to steal from them outside the pub and even demands for an apology. On the other hand, Trevor is terrified and wants to oblige to the thieves' demands. This contrast is not standard on regular film because sexist societies understand a weak female and strong male and do not think that these roles are reversible or that at least, both of them would be strong. Hippolyta, the Amazon’s Queen is, keen on selecting only the strongest person for the critical mission of taking Trevor back to man’s world. Indeed, this is an exceptionally strong feminist message, that women too can save the day. Chivalry and power dynamics are other themes related to strength of the sexes that the creators of the 2009 film have significantly explored. Wonder Woman is greatly puzzled when Etta Candy cannot lift the table and pick her pen and asks Trevor for help. She says “remarkable, the advanced brainwashing that has been perpetuated on the females of your culture. Raised from birth to believe they’re not strong enough to compete with the boys, and then as adults, taught to trade on their very femininity.” Additionally, Wonder Woman is uncomfortable when Captain Trevor opens or holds the doors for her or comes to her rescue instead of helping defeat Ares, the god of war. Studies show that the line between chivalry and chauvinism or sexism is usually very thin. According to a study by Greenwald and colleagues (2002), women who linked male romantic partners with heroism and chivalry were less likely to have any interest in gaining personal power in relationships, high-paying jobs, volunteering for leadership roles or advancing their education. Hence, by denouncing chivalry, Wonder Woman reinforces the belief in self-power, independence and desire to not rely on Captain Trevor. Although technically chivalry and feminism are not entirely mutually exclusive, the fact that Wonder Woman does not expect Trevor to save her (though he takes her to the hospital when injured) and does the saving herself says a lot about the kind of feminism that modern Wonder Woman believes in compared to the one in the 1950s. In 1950s, Wonder Woman expected and was desperate for Trevor to come and save her from loneliness. In 2009, she is her own source of strength, happiness and love and whatever else she needs, her Amazon sisters are available. This is particularly a strong feminist message for modern women especially due to the confusion that surrounds feminism today.
The relationships between Wonder Woman and other women are positive and built on feminist ideals. Artemis is protective of Wonder Woman when she tells Trevor “Her deal is that I will personally castrate you if you come within five yards of her.” In addition, Wonder Woman can rely on her Amazon sisters to help fight Ares, the god of war. They are dependent on each other, support one another and wish the best for each other. Throughout the film, Sisterhood and the bond between women is portrayed in a positive light. Sisterhood is a feminist ideal because women are taught by a patriarchy society to fear, envy and negatively compete for the male’s approval and attention. According to bell hooks, one of the most prominent feminist writers of modern times, women are taught to internalize sexism by seeing the other woman as the enemy (hooks 14). The author argues that women are socialized to see themselves as inferior to men and “always and only in” competition with themselves and therefore, to look upon each with jealousy and hatred in a bid to secure patriarchal approval (hooks 14). The message of sisterhood spread by feminism helps breaks free of the patriarchal hold on women that discourages female bonding although it has no problems with male bonding. Therefore, the strong female relationships and friendships that are depicted in the film are transfused in feminist concepts and ideology.
Besides Wonder Woman, Artemis and Queen Hippolyta are also icons of feminism in the 2009 animated film. Artemis is a warrior woman by all right but thinks that a woman’s strength can only come from the sword and how well she yields it. Alexa, one of her Amazonian sisters, is not a good warrior but is a good reader and helps save them from the undead through chanting the words of a famous philosopher. This greatly influences Artemis because she comes to understand that a woman’s strength can come from other sources and also begins to read herself. Artemis’ transformation throughout the film represents growth and change that every woman should go through with the aim of getting better and becoming a better version of herself. Additionally, Hippolyta is a strong, intelligent and a visionary woman. She owns her body and sexuality as is revealed in the first fight with Ares when he jokes that she is pursuing him with the same aggression she did in the bedroom. She allows her daughter to leave Amazon land twice (the second time her mission to America had been over) to allow her to follow her passions. This is a powerful feminist message that women can break away from their traditional gender roles, follow their dreams and achieve much more.
Anti-Feminist Components in 2009
Although various feminist themes have been explored in the 2009 Wonder Woman animated film, numerous other anti-feminist components can be found. One of the most prominent anti-feminist perspectives that Wonder Woman struggles with is objectification and her portrayal as a sex symbol. Indeed, her entire persona and character have been created for the male gaze. The male gaze is a term frequently used by feminists to describe the role of women for the sexual objectification of a male audience (Mulvey 59). The male gaze is commonly used in relation to the portrayal of women in film and media. On the other hand, sexual objectification refers to looking at a person as an object for sexual pleasure (McKay 54). Sexual objectification and male gaze are comparable because they reveal what is wrong with the depiction of women and men in film and modern day culture. However, they are different in that sexual objectification goes a step further to destroy the person’s personality for her sexuality. In the 2009 Wonder Woman animated film, she is depicted as large breasted, scantily dressed has blue eyes and long curly hair and wears two bracelets that some interpret to be symbols of submission. This is not the typical woman but the media, and indeed, the creators of Wonder Woman including Marston would like to present it as so. Her representation does not look like the average woman and therefore, contributes to the body image issues plaguing many American women today (Berberick 4). This message is not feminist at all because her body and figure are objects of sexual pleasure and desire for the male gaze. Indeed, her dress and body are constantly gazed upon by the male characters. For example, in Captain Trevor’s first encounter with Amazonia women, he is staring at them while they are taking a bath at the river. When he is captured and brought back to the Queen, Captain Trevor says to Queen Hippolyta of Diana “God, your daughter has a nice rack.” A rack is traditional slang for breasts and Wonder Woman’s breasts are subject to continuous objectification. In another scene, after the arrival of Wonder Woman and Captain Trevor in America, he says to her, “First let me get you into something that won’t have you arrested for solicitation.” This statement shows that the society associates provocative dressing with prostitution. It is anti-feminist because a dress should be a woman’s choice and not a man’s or the community’s. However, women continue to be restricted in what they can wear because of the negative notations associated with some types of dresses. This is particularly aggravated in some cultures where a woman cannot choose what to wear, eat or when to go anywhere without the male’s opinion or company.
Another anti-feminist perspective explored in the 2009 Wonder Woman animated film is that of the relationship between males and females and how they contribute to feminism or sexism. Queen Hippolyta secludes the Amazonian women from the world of men because she does not want their ‘deceitful’ or ‘evil’ nature. Although segregation of the sexes is thought by radical feminists to be the only solution to the imbalance between the sexes, others tend to believe it does not and would not work. Although not considered a feminist, Captain Trevor also wonders why the Amazonian women decided to segregate themselves. He considers it elitist, as the elitist, patriarchal perspective of man’s world that they are rejecting. Radical feminists believe that patriarchal systems and institutions are the cause of women’s oppression and exploitation at home, at work, in the society and just about everywhere they. They also argue that patriarchy is difficult to eradicate because it is based on the belief that women are inferior to men, a belief rooted in the innermost consciousness of men. Therefore, they suggest that the best way to resist the oppression of this kind is to form non-hierarchical and woman-only systems where women can be supported and allowed to think and act by themselves, avoid sexual harassment, rape, violence and all forms of oppression (Lorber 18). Radical feminism is what the Amazonian women practiced, but various authors think that radical feminism in itself is anti-feminist because it disregards other sources of oppression for women. Pitting women against men is also discriminatory, especially to minorities especially women of color and working-class women (Lorber 19).
Although the female-male power has been mostly portrayed as feminist, there are a few instances when it is sexist. A few characters including Captain Trevor and Persephone, the woman who betrayed her fellow Amazon sisters have displayed varying feminist stereotypes during interaction with other characters. For example, when Queen Hippolyta asks why Persephone has betrayed her sisters despite being given beautiful land and peaceful existence, she says, “And denied one of families and children. Yes Hippolyta, the Amazons are warriors, but we are women too.” These statements by Persephone play right into the stereotype that women are nurturers; they love to have children, husbands, and families. This would not have been the case if it were men being referred to in the context because traditionally, men are associated with heroism and not families. In addition, the statement assumes that men do not like families, children or wives, which is also not entirely accurate. Hence, this is a huge antifeminist component in the movie. The writers should have substituted the word women for human because the desire to have children is not exclusive to women; it is human nature.
The film also advances other stereotypes through other characters. For example, Captain Trevor ridicules the relationship between Queen Hippolyta and Ares in a classic stereotype that portrays women to be attracted to ‘bad boys.’ Trevor says “Your mother and Ares? Really? The whole God of War thing didn't raise any red flags? I guess it's not surprising. Women always go for the bad boy.” Bad boys are described as insensitive, unkind and emotionally unavailable while the nice guy is kind, sensitive and emotionally expressive (Urbaniak & Kilman 413). According to the bad boy/nice guy stereotype, when presented with both choices, women choose the insensitive and unkind man because he is more fun. However, this is inaccurate because studies have shown that mate preferences may depend on numerous factors that are primarily personal rather than what the whole group would prefer (Urbaniak & Kilman 415). It is not clear why Queen Hippolyta chose Ares as her lover, but whatever the reason was, it is not because he was a ‘bad boy.’ Hence, saying that women always go for the bad boys was stereotypical and meant to discredit the entire female population and portray them as easily swayed, non-assertive and unsure of what they want.
Additionally, some of other utterances by Trevor are meant to destroy and belittle Wonder Woman’s feminist background, ideals, and principles. When Wonder Woman complains of how brainwashed women are that they trade on their femininity, Trevor brushes it off by reminding her of the other work he was going to help her do. He does not respond to any feminist utterances and when he does they are not positive. For example, in the hospital scene when Wonder Woman says that she is Amazonian and has no problem with dying in battle, and therefore, did not need saving, Trevor counters this with an emotional message meant to disarm her. He says that the only reason he rescued her was because he likes her and Wonder Woman ends up apologizing! Captain Trevor also disarms Wonder Woman in another scene in the film when as Diana, Wonder Woman first finds him lost in Paradise Island and she tries to fight him, but his first reaction was to make advances at her. This move is meant to disarm her so that she appears harmless, like a little girl. It is a powerful anti-feminist component that is also widely applied in the modern society. Girls and women are thought to be soft, harmless, nurturers, caregivers, honest and almost every other trait associated with femininity. Hence, by making advances at her when she hits him, it is no different than telling her to take a step back as this was not her role, position or work; but a man’s world. It discredits and ridicules Diana as a woman warrior as well as the ideals of the entire Amazon tribe.