Wonder Woman: She’s Always A Woman To Me

Who Is Wonder Woman?

Image via Wikipedia

This is another in my series taking about superhero characters. In my kickoff post I explained how in some ways they are the modern Gods – created in our image to put into stories to help us understand ourselves better. This time I’m looking at Wonder Woman, the Amazon princess who was crafted from clay to become a symbol of freedom and female strength.

The Hero

Wonder Woman has had a wide range of backstories, but what has remained consistent is her status as a princess of the Amazons, a group of warrior women with little or no need of Men.  Diana is endowed with incredible strength, breathtaking beauty, and a deep compassion. She ventures into the world of Men to help them and further the cause of peace and equality.  Her weapons are indestructible bracelets which she can use to deflect bullets, a lasso of Truth that no human can resist, and sometimes a quite silly invisible jet. Her sheer strength puts her on par with Superman, but she would much rather find a peaceful solution to a battle than resort to blows.

Why we love her

She’s a woman, she’s unapologetic, and she holds her own with the most testosterone laden of males in the world. She is dead sexy and supremely competent. She stands out in a crowd, and underestimate her (especially as a Her) at your own peril.

Yet she doesn’t work the same way as her contemporaries. Wonder Woman is more of a defender than an aggressor as she deflects bullets and subdues people with her lasso. She’s here to protect us, and keep us safe even in the face of our own stupidity.

Part of her different approach is because Wonder Woman fights for more than Justice. She fights for Truth. We love to see the villains wail as their plans collapse in on their heads, but having them face their own demons and hidden truths is a defeat even more basic. It’s a blow in support of the feeling we all have (or want to have) that there is an underlying Truth to the world that we can find if we just scratch deep enough.

As A Character

DC Comics' Wonder Woman

Image via Wikipedia

Wonder Woman is a woman, and unfortunately that aspect of her character overshadows everything else.  William Moulton Marston was only considering a new hero that fought not with fists, but with love. The idea to make the hero a woman was tacked on the end of the process. As if being female was one of her super powers. An afterthought.

Unfortunately, the result was that Wonder Woman’s gender became not just a part of who she was, but her defining trait. It is easy for even casual fans to picture Superman’s or Batman’s personalities, but Wonder Woman?  Sometime she is portrayed as curious and helpful, trying to learn about the world of mortals. Other times she is angry and scornful of males everywhere. There is little consistency, and what is there isn’t very crisp. Many young girls who cite Wonder Woman as a role model couldn’t tell you what she stood for, or know that this feminist icon’s original role in the Justice League of America was as its Secretary.

This is one of my key issues in discussions of equality – if people are truly equal should the traits in question really matter?  If you point out someone’s race in trying to ensure they are treated equally, doesn’t the very discussion create a distinction that now dominates the conversation?  If Wonder Woman is really “just as good” as a male super hero in ever respect, why does her gender ever get held up as a defining trait?  She is just good at what she does, end of story.

Couple her over-emphasized gender with her history of not-so-subtle bondage references and her staggeringly patriotic bathing suit outfit and you have a legacy of issues that only super strength could shoulder. None of the other popular female heroes over the past 70 years have had anything even close.  The superhero genre is still dominated by white, heterosexual, muscular males, but thanks to Wonder Woman that ultimate Boy’s Club was cracked open. The price she paid is that she will always be known, defined, and limited, but what – rather than who – she is.

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I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar (Archetypal Women “Fighting the Man”)

Jeanne d' Arc, by Eugene Thirion (1876). Late ...
Image via Wikipedia

They are the women we admire: strong, intelligent, determined, resourceful. To their opponents, they are gadflies. To the oppressed, they are cherished protectors. They stand alone against the world—and often pay the price for it. These feminine crusaders spend their days fighting the powers that be in order to bring about change, and stories of their exploits abound.

Two of the earliest examples of civil disobedience in literature involve crusading women: Esther and Antigone. Both of these ladies put their lives at risk by openly defying their kings’ laws for religious reason; Esther desires to save her fellow Israelites from annihilation, whereas Antigone feels that she is obligated by the gods to put her brother’s soul at peace. So in a time when women had very little real political power, they used the only means at their disposal to affect change—namely, themselves. A comic take on this approach is when Aristophanes’ heroine, Lysistrata, urges the housewives of the Athens to withhold sex from their husbands in order to force the men of the city to make peace with Sparta.

History is replete with examples of courageous women working to sway the affairs of men. The French maiden, Joan of Arc, and the ancient Hebrew prophetess, Debra, lead their respective armies to victory. Likewise, the legendary Celtic warrior queen, Boudica, dies trying to drive the Roman legions from her homeland. England’s Queen Elizabeth I spent much of her early reign battling the power-brokers who questioned the legitimacy of her succession. (She survived more than twenty assassination attempts).

In more recent years, figures like Harriet Tubman and Corrie ten Boom show how far women are willing to go to rescue the oppressed and the persecuted. Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks were arrested for their political and ideological stances, and the Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali continues to receive death threats because of her outspoken criticism of the Islamic treatment of women.

Aside from history and literature, crusading women are also a regular staple at the movies. Sally Field’s portrayal of Norma Rae (an Alabama textile worker fighting to form a union) and Edna Spalding (the matriarch in the film Places in the Heart who struggles to keep the bank from foreclosing on her family’s cotton farm after her husband’s death) provide inspiring examples of women who do battle against the system. And who could forget Erin Brockovich’s real-life experiences fighting corporate greed?

A question remains, however, regarding a particular category of crusaders who are reflected in the classical character mentioned earlier, Antigone. Antigone fights “the man” (her uncle/king) and is vindicated by the gods for her actions. Yet in the end, she takes her own life. Is this act heroic? What about other suicidal heroines who follow Antigone’s path, such as Ophelia, Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, or Edna Pontellier? Are their deaths courageous or cowardly? Perhaps that is a topic for another day.

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