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 at Sarah Lawrence College.  

Since her creation in 1941, Wonder Woman, also known as Diana Prince, has become one of 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

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