Wonder Woman: Ambassador For Women?

Lance David Fier Lance David Fier
October 30th, 2016

Horror & comic Geek from Minneapolis

Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot herself, has been appointed as the United Nations Ambassador for Women's Empowerment. In honour of her appointment, our Lance David Fier looks back at the history of the character and how her role as a female icon has evolved.

Wonder Woman: Ambassador For Women?

Wonder Woman Women

Credit: Warner Brothers

It's official!  In early October Wonder Woman, A.K.A. Diana Prince, of DC Comics was announced as the United Nations Ambassador for Women's Empowerment.  Our newly appointed cinematic Wonder Woman Gal Gadot was invited to the ceremony, along with director Patty Jenkins and the iconic Lynda Carter, which took place on October 21st.  This is great news for all comic book fans, especially female fans.  The news got me quite excited because, not only is Wonder Woman one of my favorite characters, but because women's rights in society and their roles in fiction have always been issues I take very seriously, as should all men.

This news is even more relevant considering the current U.S. presidential campaign which is so incredibly crucial to not just women's legal rights, but the overall treatment of women in a public forum.  Grotesque words and actions have taken center stage and therefore the timing couldn't be better for the world to be given a universal wake up call for the respectful treatment of women and give us all an ideal to strive for.

Throughout history ever since the first publication of the hero in All Star Comics #8 in 1941, Wonder Woman has been consistent as a positive role model for young women, even though there were times when the quality of her example has been brought into question.  I will not, of course, be pouring into every appearance of Wonder Woman in comics, TV, and film.  But there are important stages in her literary past to recall because of how they were perceived against the social climate of the time.  Mostly positive, but in some particular cases, also negative, despite the creators and publishers having the best of intentions in their message, but more on that to come.  Giving fictional characters with important duties to fulfill for their audience, such as being a positive role model, their proper due justice can be very tricky.  Art is all a matter of interpretation, and sometimes, how an artist's work is interpreted is never what they had intended.

With origins and abilities based on ancient Greek mythology, Wonder Woman first appeared in December of 1941, another somewhat more significant event happened that same month, the attack on Pearl Harbor.  This is the event that brought the U.S. into WWII and kick started possibly the most effective national war effort the world has ever seen.  While the men were overseas, Rosie the Riveter was the cultural icon that encouraged women to join the work force and produce military resources, becoming a symbol of a women's toughness and wider range of abilities than society previously dictated.  DC Comics, by coincidence, had already introduced their own Rosie the Riveter before war even reached U.S. shores.  This female cultural phenomenon however, could be right there on the frontlines beating up the Nazis, regardless of the gender restrictions of the 1940's military.  Just one month after Pearl Harbor, Wonder Woman was appearing on her own covers, the face of a woman's strength, intelligence, righteousness, and resolve.

A closer look however into the earliest publications of the greatest female superhero could give you pause.  The writing in 1940's comics is certainly outdated, but more questionable was Wonder Woman's one weakness, her version of kryptonite in other words.  The original Wonder Woman would loose her superpowers if she was ever bound in restraints by a man.  That's correct...tied up.  Apart from quite likely a direct effort to add a thrill by implying obvious BDSM references, which of course, was a much more taboo subject of the time.  This aspect of the character could very understandably be interpreted as something that is stemming from some very misogynistic principles.

So that's it then?

Wonder Woman is a fraud?

Well, not so fast.  William Moulton Marston the creator of Wonder Woman wasn't just a comic book writer but a psychologist and inventor who helped develop the polygraph test.  His experience with "lie detection" led him to believe that women were more honest in many cases and more efficient than men.  When commenting on Wonder Woman, he believed that she was the kind of woman that should rule the world.  When the opportunity came to create a superhero his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, suggested he make it female.  Sick of the same old "damsel in distress" stories, he wanted a female character that could escape from danger on her own.  Marston felt that this loss of superpowers at times of capture would actually further demonstrate a woman's strength and resilience.  Compared to her male counterpart Superman, who still needed his super strength in order to always simply punch his way out of trouble, Wonder Woman was strong and smart because she was a woman, not because of superhuman abilities.  From that perspective, this bizarre achilles heel of Wonder Woman's actually starts to make a little sense...a little.  William Marston passed away in 1947 so there is little way to know for sure how he really felt on the subject, or if his opinions are valid, but it's an interesting look into an awkward phase of Wonder Woman's early development.  This unfortunate issue she had with being bound hasn't been part of her character for over 60 years, an embarrassingly dated concept soon dropped even harder than her invisible plane.

Over the next 20 years Wonder Woman would continue to grow as a more influential and more positive role model for young girls, even in an industry who's demographic at the time was more boy readers.  That formerly discussed weakness to restraints wouldn't be the last time Wonder Woman would seem at odds with the female fans however.  In 1968, under the direction of Dennis O'Neil, Wonder Woman would get a re-invention.  In a storyline where the Amazons must journey to another dimension, Diana decides to stay and continue to help mankind, at the expense of her powers and her traditional costume.  Like always, the comics sought to reflect the social climate of the time.  This was at the peak of the massive women's liberation movement of the 60's and 70's, and so naturally it was essential for the greatest of all female superheroes to reflect that.  So they attempted to appeal to women's liberation groups with a storyline where Wonder Woman is completely stripped of her powers.

What were they thinking?

Despite the loss of her superpowers Diana Prince was far from helpless.  Seeking the guidance of Master I Ching she begins to train in Kung-Fu, which was also a popular theme of the late 60's and 70's.  She continues to battle crime and save the day, kicking ass and being beautiful while doing it just like she always has.  They even traded her arguably over-sexualized classic costume for a hip, feminine professional, 70's style pantsuit and martial arts training gi.  O'Neil has stated in interviews that this was meant to convey the idea that a woman could be strong, capable, and "super" without being blessed with superhuman abilities.  It seems however, that the majority of the feminist, and fan community in general, did not see it this way.  On the surface, it was the removal of Wonder Woman's superpowers that was unfortunately viewed as an assault on women's empowerment.  The backlash was fierce and within 5 years "Kung-Fu" Woman was gone and the classic Wonder Woman made her epic return much to the delight of all her admirers.  Top female activist Gloria Steinem was crucial in these developing events, launching a public campaign to reinstate our more familiar Wonder Woman.  DC Comics responded with a story arc which involved the death of Master I Ching, and Diana losing her memory of the entire ordeal.  Wandering back to Themyscira, she becomes reunited with the Amazons and was soon back to her Greek Warrior Princess mantle complete with powers gifted by the Gods.

Later that decade Lynda Carter wowed audiences with her Wonder Woman TV series.  Carter's sexual appeal was undeniable and undoubtedly aided in the popularity of the show, but the show focused more on her strength and intelligence as a crime fighter, mystery solver, and unmistakable Superhero.  The female superhero girls deserved, who was the ultimate embodiment of power, wisdom, love and compassion who served as the cultural phenomenon needed to help shape the face of women's liberation in the 1970's.  Now Diana Prince's status was further solidified as the voice of empowerment.  In the new millennium Wonder Woman was ably portrayed by voice actress Susan Eisenberg in the Justice League DC Animated Series.

Almost 40 years later, despite a few bumps along the way, Wonder Woman's importance has been officially acknowledged by the United Nations.  In addition to that, after all these years, we are finally getting a full length Wonder Woman Movie.  Meanwhile sadly, now in 2016, the approbation of women is once again in question in public discourse, luckily Wonder Woman is here once again as well to answer the call.

I must stress that it is not my place to state the true intentions of the talent behind these less than appreciated creative decisions, nor whether the opposition of them was justified or not based an their interpretation.  I do however, find it very difficult to believe that legendary comic book writer Dennis O'Neil intentionally set out to belittle women with his story, but that is in many circumstances beside the point.  Always in fiction the fans can become even more attached to stories and characters than the creators are, in a manner of speaking, taking partial ownership of them, and taking it very personally when these characters don't match the ideal the followers have attached to them.  This is normal and to be expected with popular works.  In these situation's, the fan's mass perception becomes more important than the artist's.  Creators must accept this, especially in the world of comic book writing.  Partially because if a creative choice in comics takes a turn for the worst it can, and will, be easily amended.  This, along with comics routinely reflecting social and political trends, granting Wonder Woman's voice the ability to change and evolve over the last 75 years to fulfill the needs of those she represents, are all factors that contribute to Wonder Woman's ever-growing role as The Ambassador of Women's Empowerment.

The hero of women and of all mankind, a title she is guaranteed to carry for decades to come.


Lance David Fier is a Contributor to ComiConverse.  Follow him on Twitter: @LanceDFier

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