I was given a Wonder Woman calendar as a holiday present. It contains 12 months of vintage comic book covers featuring our heroine in various pulse-racing scenarios. February has her slowing a torpedo with her bare hands as a flock of flying ladies – “The Winged Maidens of Venus,” we’re told – prepare to catch it with a net. “CAN THE MIGHTY AMAZON STOP THE THUNDERING TERROR OF THE GHOST TRAIN?” asks the cover for May, and the answer is, presumably, yes. September shows her lifting a car in the air with her Lasso of Truth, and shaking its four villainous passengers to the ground. In each of these images, she has her signature onyx hair with blue highlights, eagle-embellished Americana leotard, and crimson stiletto boots. And let’s not forget her golden tiara with its star in the centre: a crown fit for a being that’s supposed to be of a divine, royal line. Everything about her is meant to be inspirational. She’s a woman who can do anything: fight evil, be fashionable, and defy the laws of physics, all without breaking a sweat.
When I was coming of age in the ‘90s, I was vaguely aware of Wonder Woman thanks to reruns of the 1970s show starring Lynda Carter, but at the time my comic book protagonists of choice were the glittery gloom-mongers of DC Comics’ more gothic Vertigo imprint. Back then, Wonder Woman seemed too one-note optimistic, too corny and old-fashioned for an oddball like me. I preferred stories of magical teens and Dream Kings to whiz-bang superheroes, shadows over shine.
It wasn’t until I got much older that I learned of the radical, feminist origins of Wonder Woman – both in terms of her character and her makers. According to her story, she was sculpted out of clay by her mother, the Amazon queen Hippolyta. This can be seen as a matriarchal spin on the story of Genesis, wherein the Creator forms Adam from earth, and as such is a subversive choice: Hippolyta needs no man to procreate, and her powers are quite literally godly. Mother and daughter live on Paradise Island – or Themyscira – leading a community of Amazon warrior women. There are no men here, and their culture has distinctly pagan Greco-Roman influences. “Great Hera!” and “Suffering Sappho!” are two common proclamations amongst the group. Wonder Woman’s own name, Diana, is an allusion to the Roman goddess of the moon and the hunt – a later permutation of the Greek goddess, Artemis. Like the goddesses from whom her name is derived, superhero Diana is a symbol of female independence. She is strong and powerful, and when she travels to America to fight for justice, she thwarts evil men and women in equal measure.
The real-life creator of the 1941 Wonder Woman character was a psychologist and screenwriter named William Moulton Marston. He’s been credited with helping to create the polygraph, or “lie-detector test,” which became inspiration for Diana’s Lasso of Truth. He also came up with a means for categorising human emotion and behaviour called DISC theory (the acronym standing for Dominance, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance), and he became fascinated by how this played out in the bedroom, which led him to explore S&M and bondage in his personal life. Perhaps most surprisingly, he was in a long-term, polyamorous relationship with his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston (a brilliant psychologist in her own right), and their partner, Olive Byrne, who was the niece of birth control activist and Planned Parenthood founder, Margaret Sanger. William, Elizabeth, and Olive lived together in secrecy as a family and had four children between them. Their lives were an unconventional testament to feminism, free-thinking, and free-love.
Marston intended for the Wonder Woman character to be, as he put it, “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” This woman was a mighty leader, but a deeply compassionate one. She was also, it must be said, often engaged in bondage, and much of Diana’s early exploits involve her being tied up or chained, or doing so to her enemies. However, she always breaks free – a metaphor, Marston believed, for the ultimate liberation of women.
Wonder Woman has gone through many iterations over the years from being an invincible heroine with godlike abilities, to a shop-girl with no powers at all, and back again. She has outsold even Superman comics at times, and she has been seen in print and on merchandise for decades. Hers was the face that Gloria Steinem chose to put on the cover of the 1972 inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine beneath the words “Wonder Women for President.” (Back then, the idea that 47 years later the US would still not have had a female president would have no doubt been a depressing one). That she would not become the star of her own film until 75 years after her creation is both frustrating and sadly typical, and its vast success was sweet. This 2017 cinema version is an amalgam of many prior storylines, and Gal Gadot’s Diana is fit for feminism’s 4th Wave. She is ingenious and kind, shamelessly sexual without being objectified, and she kicks massive amounts of ass. She eats ice cream with relish and rejects the notion that clothing should keep women restrained and encumbered: “How can a woman possibly fight in this?” she asks when trying on a “fashionable” dress. And unlike most female protagonists, she is supported by good men who cheer her on, acknowledge her excellence, and quite literally propel her upward.
In 2018, I got to interview the legendary comic book artist, Nicola Scott, who has worked on the Wonder Woman series in recent years. I asked her what made this character so important, and she told me,
“It’s not just that she’s physically powerful, and it’s not just that she’s beautiful. She is this incredibly powerful centuries-trained warrior, so there is that 100% confidence and self-assuredness, but it’s tempered by the fact that she’s incredibly compassionate. Wonder Woman is calm and wise, and her compassion for even the worst of humanity and the worst traits of humanity is what separates her from pretty much everybody. She’s the beacon of truth, and sometimes that truth is understanding how muddy and messy the human condition is. That’s what really cuts through to the compassion.”
As I write this, women’s freedom around the world is still being denied. In my own country, the Equal Rights Amendment has still not passed, women are paid 80 cents on the dollar compared with men, and the right to female reproductive healthcare is constantly under threat. It’s a lot to be angry about, consumed by. But Diana reminds me that I should not let my rage burn me up. She shows that we can fight for justice and have fun while doing it, and that even if it takes longer than we’d like, change eventually does come. There are now more women in Congress than ever before, and five of them have announced their candidacy for the 2020 presidential election. The #MeToo movement has raised awareness about the flood of sexual abuse that women regularly face, and our understanding of human sexuality and gender identity has evolved to be more complex and more compassionate.
Wonder Woman is a centuries-old being sprung from a 1940s vision of female liberation. We may finally be ready for her.
Illustration by Nina Cosford.