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, 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

Spider Woman, the Contortionist?

By Kaitlyn Kohr

There is a trend in comic book art to make women look as sexy as possible: from their clothes, to their hair, to the very position of their bodies. The most famous of the poses women are contorted into is called (and pardon the language): the “tits and ass” pose. This form is exactly what it sounds like. The female body is twisted so that the breasts and butt are both on display for the viewer’s gaze. To achieve this stance and many other “sexy” poses, however, anyone with an understanding of how the human body is constructed will notice that comic book artists have deleted some key parts of the human anatomy, such as: spines, ribcages, internal organs, and hipbones.

If the problem with this transformation of the female body is unclear, allow me to explain. While these are superheroes and there is a certain amount of creativity that artists can take with their renderings, male superheroes are not intentionally drawn in this manner. Spider-Man, Superman, Iron Man, and Captain America are drawn, for the most part, anatomically correct. Unless it is a recent update that I have missed, Cat Woman, Storm, Wonder Woman, the Scarlet Witch, and other super-heroines do not have super-bendy spines and disappearing bones in their cache of superpowers. The only character that should be drawn in Exorcist-like poses is Reed Richards aka Mr. Fantastic, whose superpower allows him to stretch and contort his body. The distortion of women’s bodies feeds the unrealistic ideals that their bodies are held up to in western society, and is a major source of disenchantment for female fans (who make up the comic book industry’s largest growing consumers).

A recent and prime example of this distortion is present in the variant cover art for the upcoming new title Spider-Woman #1. When Marvel announced that in November of this year, they would be releasing a new solo comic for Spider-Woman (Jessica Drew), female comic fans were elated.[1] This comic emerges as a part of Marvel’s equality initiative (the same campaign that the new female Thor and black Captain America formed from) in an effort to be more inclusive toward their non-white, male, cisgender, heterosexual audiences. With Marvel being so keen to appeal to women, it confused many people when the variant cover art for the first issue was released and viewers saw this:

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In case it is not clear, in this image, Spider-Woman is meant to have just leapt onto the roof of a building, one leg hanging still over the ledge. Why is her butt in the air for this maneuver? Why is her suit digging into the crack of her butt? Why is her head tilted backwards at an impossibly acute angle? Well, according to the artist, that is just how the female body works.[2] Milo Manera, the artist in question, was an odd choice to begin with for a comic meant to appeal to feminists, as his usual work is drawing for erotic comics with male audiences. The image made women everywhere wonder what in the world Marvel was thinking when they allowed the image to be released. But do not fear. Women did not simply let the ridiculousness of this drawing go unnoticed. Instead, they got creative.

Among the litany of critiques that emerged on the cover art, which ranged from memes, tweets, and parodies, to a horrifying 3-D rendering of the pose; is a video by Alice Dranger, a gymnast.[3] Dranger and two other female gymnasts attempt to recreate Spider-Woman’s pose by leaping onto a faux-skyscraper ledge made of floor mats and freezing in the position they land in to see if women’s bodies do in fact work in the way that Manera draws. To no one’s surprise, not a single gymnast landed in Manera’s stance. If three adult, trained female athletes cannot replicate the pose, it seems highly unlikely that any woman, including a super-heroine could either.

Another response came from artist Karine Charlebois, who runs a tumblr blog, Less Tits N’ Ass, More Kickin’ Ass, and uses her artistic skills to transform women’s unrealistic poses in comic books into the anatomically possible.[4] Charlebois’ blog and other blogs like it are different from the “Hawkeye-Initiative,” which draws the superhero Hawkeye in the poses and outfits of super-heroines to note their absurdity, and has received backlash for mocking femininity.[5] Charlebois does not alter the women’s costumes (no matter how impractical they may be), and she keeps the poses as similar to the original as possible, only altering them so that they correctly reflect the flexibility of real human bodies. Her alterations show women can be drawn in ways that are anatomically correct, yet still display plenty of the breast and butt areas of which comics seem to be so fond. Her re-imagining of the Manera cover loses none of its eroticism, yet puts Spider-Woman in a stance that is physically possible:

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It seems that this bombardment of criticism may have made Marvel see the error of their ways. Manera was scheduled to do two upcoming variant art covers for X-Men and Thor (the new, female one). Yet, as of September 23rd, Manera has been conveniently removed as the artist for these covers due to scheduling errors.[6] The removal of his art from these future comics gives hope that female comic fans have the ability alter the superhero landscape one pose and cover critique at a time. Above all else, one thing stands to be glaringly true, women comic book fans refuse to be silent in both their passion for the genre, and their criticisms.

*Kaitlyn Kohr is a second year student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College. After Sarah Lawrence, she plans to go to school for a Doctorate in Art History and one day work in an art museum. Her hobbies include becoming overly invested in the lives and treatment of female comic book characters, exploring museums, watching British television shows, and reading about representations of women.

[1] Lucas Siegel, “SDCC 2014: Women of MARVEL Panel New SPIDER-WOMAN Ongoing Announced, More,” Newsarama, July 27, 2014, http://www.newsarama.com/21730-sdcc-2014-women-of-marvel-panel-live.html.

[2] Jill Pantozi, “Spider-Woman Cover Artist Milo Manara & Writer Dennis Hopeless Respond To Online Discussion,” The Mary Sue, August 22, 2014, http://www.themarysue.com/manara-hopeless-respond-spider-woman-cover/.

[3] Alice Dranger, “Opposing Images: Women Attempt Spider Woman Cover Art” (video), accessed September 27, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7aQKFPJX4o.

[4] Kanthara (Karine Charlebois), “It’s a two-fer! Courtesy of…,” Less Tits N’ Ass, More Kickin’ Ass, August 20, 2014, accessed September 27, 2012, http://lesstitsnass.tumblr.com/post/95253962172/its-a-two-fer-courtesy-of-dcwomenkickingass#permalink-notes. Another great blog that is conducting similar work is Ami Angelwings’s tumblr: Escher Girls (eschergirls.tumblr.com).

[5] Chris Hall, “The Hawkeye Initiative Pokes Fun at Sexist Comics, but Is It Backfiring?,” SFWeekly, January 8, 2013, http://www.sfweekly.com/exhibitionist/2013/01/08/the-hawkeye-initiative-pokes-fun-at-sexist-comics-but-is-it-backfiring.

[6] Jill Pantozzi, Marvel’s Editor in Chief Says Missing Manara Variants Are Due to a “Scheduling Problem”,” The Mary Sue, September 24, 2014, http://www.themarysue.com/marvel-manara-variants-scheduling-problem/.