Wonder Woman and the Importance of Female Comic Book Characters

By Katie Swartwood
Katie is a second year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program.  

Since her creation in 1941, Wonder Woman – real name Diana – has become the most pervasive female comic book characters of all time. She’s been an inspiration for generations of women. This can be specifically traced to how the creator, William Moulton Marston, envisioned the character. He held a particular reverence for women and crafted Wonder Woman to be a powerful female force based on the women in his own life. He intended for Wonder Woman to be intelligent, independent, strong, and unwilling to submit to men’s power. The themes of Wonder Woman’s origins include an island without men, men as oppressors of women, and female independence, which are significant signifiers of Wonder Woman as a feminist icon.

The original Wonder Woman refused to marry her male co-star, an American pilot named Steve Trevor. She lived on the island of Themyscira which contained no male inhabitant and instead was reared by fearless, warrior women. Prior to meeting Steve Trevor, the only stories of men Diana knew were those of oppressive, slaving owning men that forced the Amazonians into submission. In fact, Wonder Woman’s iconic golden bracelets are worn as a reminder of the Amazonian’s time enslaved by men, and if any man is to connect chains to them, the powerful Amazonians will lose their strength. (1) This could explain Wonder Woman’s aversion to marriage, as she might have feared the idea of men controlling her. This directly contrasted to the customs of the 1940s when many women saw marriage and family as their main aspirations. For young girls and women to see Wonder Woman thrive in her independence, they could understand that women could maintain lives outside of marriage, as well as understand that men’s control over them could be devastating to their own power.

However, after Marston died, so did his vision for Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman’s new writer, Robert Kanigher, dismantled Marston’s feminist Wonder Woman vision. Instead of fighting bad guys, she was reduced to movie star, model, and babysitter; she even wanted to marry Steve Trevor. (2) In this instance, Wonder Women did not only reflect the positive advancements for women in America, she reflected the subservient role they were forced to take after men returned from World War II and demanded their jobs back. Instead of standing tall as an icon for the women’s movement, like she had in the 1940s, her entire character was compromised so that she could fit one man’s ideal of women’s role in the 1950s.

As the 1970s fell upon America, feminists looked to reclaim Wonder Woman from her new roles. In 1972, the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine plastered a towering image of Wonder Woman on their front cover. Early second wave feminists used Ms. Magazine to publish their concerns and radical ideas for women in America. They generated an ever-growing reader base that was dedicated to the emerging women’s movement. Of all the strong females throughout history, they chose to place Wonder Woman on their first cover, even though at that time she had transformed into the antithesis of the feminist movement.

The iconic feminist leader herself, Gloria Steinem, is largely credited with playing a major role in Wonder Woman’s 1970s reincarnation. In a 2017 interview with Vanity Fair, Steinem explains her role in Wonder Woman’s feminist return. She discusses how she both privately and publicly lobbied D.C. Comics to replace this new Wonder Women with the original. The Ms. founders wanted women and girls alike to understand what they had been missing. By featuring Wonder Woman on their 1972 cover, they hoped to accomplish this. Privately, they lobbied Dick Giordano, who headed D.C. Comics at that time. They encouraged him to replace those who painted Wonder Woman as an ordinary, subservient woman with those who would do her original character justice. (3) As a result, Wonder Woman regained her powers and her conviction to fight for justice. From this moment on, Wonder Woman regained her rightful place as a feminist icon.

Wonder Woman was not just any run-of-the-mill comic book character. The young girls that grew up reading the original Wonder Woman comics saw her as a inspiration- as an example of the great things that women could accomplish in a time when women weren’t allowed very many opportunities. She encouraged these women to grow up and fight against the injustices that hindered women’s advancement. And women like Steinman understood the importance of such a character and made sure that little girls in the future could have the same role model she had growing up.

Even as recent as 2017, Wonder Woman was getting her own major film directed by a woman. While many expected Patty Jenkins to fumble with the big Hollywood production, she proved that having a strong female presence behind the screen is just as important as having them on the screen. Jenkin’s Wonder Woman character lacked the hyper sexualization that many female comic book characters suffer from. Even with her short skirt and corset like armor, none of the shots focused on her ass or her cleavage. Instead, they portrayed her a strong, capable hero- someone that little girls everywhere could aspire to be.

One of the greatest things about Wonder Woman is that she is a character that anyone can see themselves in. As Shelly Eversley and Michelle Habell-Pallán stated in 2015, “…she stood for all of us: Wonder Woman the Chicana, Wonder Woman the South American Amazon.” (4) Wonder Woman’s image has been reproduced to fit the image for every woman and every version of feminism. She represents black women, Latina women, lesbian women, trans women, disabled women, girls, women, seniors, and so many more. Wonder Woman is an icon for every girl that has felt powerless; throughout her history she has embodied the true goals of feminism: equality, love, and acceptance. As a 2017 Party City Halloween commercial portrayed various women in a multitude of Wonder Women costumes and said, “What’s better than Wonder Woman…? Wonder Women.” (5) 

Sources:

 

  1. Jill Lepore. Secret Life of Wonder Woman. (New York: Penguin Random House, 2015), 12-14.
  2. Jill Lepore. Secret Life of Wonder Woman, 271.
  3. Yohona Desta, “How Gloria Steinem Saved Wonder Woman,” Vanity Fair. October 10, 2017. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/10/gloria-steinem-wonder-woman
  4. Shelly Eversley and Michelle Habell-Pallán. “Introduction: The 1970s.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 43, no. 3/4 (2015): 14.
  5. “Wonder Women,” Youtube. October 4, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UcgBszNWcVU

Creating a Creature: Millicent Patrick and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

By Marian Phillips
Marian is a first year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program.

On March 5, 1954, Universal International Pictures released the groundbreaking Science Fiction film Creature from the Black Lagoon across the United States. The film details a scientific exploration of the Amazon River when the discovery of the prehistoric fossils of the “Gill-Man” are found in the Black Lagoon. Returning from his ancient sleep, the Gill-Man resurfaces and falls in love with Kay Lawrence (played by Julie Adams). With its intricate costume and make-up design for the Gill-Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon impacted the future of Sci-Fi b-movies, and creature features. Often, George “Bud” Westmore receives credit for the entirety of the design efforts that went into creating the creature. In recent years, fans of the feature demanded that Millicent Patrick receive credit where credit is due, and where Westmore denied it.

Born in El Paso, Texas, Millicent Patrick (born Mildred Elizabeth Fulvia di Rossi) became a talented make-up artist, actress, and costume designer in Hollywood, California. During the 1940s, she began working in the animation department at Walt Disney Studios. Patrick was the first woman hired to the animation staff at Disney, and her credentials continued to flourish as a designer and animator. There is heavy speculation as to specific times and dates that she worked at specific studios, as well as which films she worked on. For this reason, writing a fully developed history on Millicent Patrick is difficult, but also necessary. She was a pioneer for women working or wanting to work in animation, and set a precedent for the future of the Science-Fiction genre as a whole.

In the early 1950s, Universal International Pictures (better known as Universal Studios) sought out designers for their upcoming feature length film, Creature from the Black Lagoon. With her talent and credentials, Millicent Patrick was an undeniable choice for the design team that the famous Bud Westmore was head of. As a member of the design team, Patrick designed and created the head for the Gill-Man suit (Jack Kevan created the body). When the film was ramping up to hit theaters, the Studio requested that she go on a promotional tour called “The Beauty who Created the Beast.” During the tour, Westmore sent letters to Universal objecting to the idea of a woman receiving credit for the creation of the creature. As the head of design department, he had the power to make or break her career. Westmore threatened to fire Patrick during the tour, and true to his word, did so a year later.

Westmore’s tirade impacted the way that Patrick and her design work is or is not accredited on films produced through Universal. Rumors that she worked on more than twenty films in her career have spread rapidly online, and have created cause enough to call for the studio to give her the credit she deserves. Patrick is known for other popular Sci-Fi films such as It Came from Outer Space (1953), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), and The Mole People (1956). These are only three films (not including Creature) that she undoubtedly worked on the design team for, and it is indisputable that she deserves credit for them; as there is photo evidence of her creating the costumes. This raises the question, does the studio only give her credit for features that there is physical proof of? Or would they give it to her regardless?

While some may not know the name of Gill-Man or Millicent Patrick, more than likely they’ve seen a film or a television show that was influenced by her creation and/or the film itself. Guillermo del Toro’s award winning 2017 film The Shape of Water is notably inspired by Creature from the Black Lagoon and is considered to be a reworking of the love story within the original. Other works such as Monster Squad (1987) features the Gill-Man rising from the Black Lagoon, Stephen King’s novel IT (1986) mentions Gill-Man, and The Munsters (1964-66) features Uncle Gilbert, a man who claims he has risen from the Black Lagoon. If one takes a trip to Universal Studios’ park in Florida, the Gill-Man is one of the first creatures you see at the Classic Monsters Café. The creature is one of the most popular Sci-Fi characters in cinematic history, and is making a big return.

Universal Studios has recently been given the green light on creating the Dark Universe, a planned cinematic universe that will feature Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, and of course, Gill-Man. As a longtime fan of Creature from the Black Lagoon, I can only hope (if there is a remake) that somewhere in the credits, Millicent Patrick’s name will be there, and that future audiences see her name attached to the films she made possible. As Patrick was the first woman hired to the animation department of Walt Disney Studios, and the creator of famous creatures in Sci-Fi features, leaving her name out of the credits erases the magnitude of her existence in the drawing room, and in the history of women in Hollywood. I urge you to consider where names of women may be missing or erased from popular culture, and to attempt to make their names just as popular as the creatures they created.