Wonder Woman: Feminist icon, or one man’s fantasy of what a woman should be like?

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Wonder Woman (2017) film poster, DC films, featuring Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot)

Like many comic book superheroes, since Wonder Woman’s creation in 1941 by US psychologist Dr William Moulton Marston, the image and storyline surrounding this female superhero has had many different manifestations over the years. Looking back in time, the history of Wonder Woman seems to be as complex and nuanced as the feminist discussions surrounding the character at the time.

The story of Wonder Women is also interlaced with the history of comic books and regulations of representation in America, specifically during the Second World War. According to some sources:

‘Comic books were more or less invented in 1933 by Maxwell Charles Gaines, a former elementary school principal who went on to found All-American Comics. […] But at a time when war was ravaging Europe, comic books celebrated violence, even sexual violence. In 1940, the Chicago Daily News called comics a “national disgrace.” “Ten million copies of these sex-horror serials are sold every month,” wrote the newspaper’s literary editor, calling for parents and teachers to ban the comics, “unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one.” (Smithsonian Magazine, 2014).

As an attempt to avoid controversy and assure his critics, in 1940 Gaines hired a respected psychologist, with three degrees from Harvard, and creator of the lie detector, Dr William Moulton Marston as a consultant, who later created comic book superhero Wonder Woman.

It later become obvious that Dr William Moulton Marston’s creation of Wonder Woman reflected his own eclectic lifestyle and interests (which he kept hidden for many years). Marston was in a polyamorous relationship, married to both lawyer Elizabeth Holloway, and also in a relationship with Olive Bryne, a senior at Tufts University, who he met in 1925. The three of them lived together (with the cover story that Olive was Marston’s widowed sister-in-law, who the family took in out of kindness), and both women had two of his children. As a psychologist, Marston was interested in the power dynamics between people, and also was openly interested in bondage and BDSM.

Sensation Comics (1942-1952) #1 - Comics by comiXology: Web UK
Wonder Woman comic, 1941. Image source: comixology.co.uk

His creation of the original comic book superhero Wonder Woman reflects his own fantasy about women, and he based this character on both his wife and his life-partner. You can also see references to his interest in bondage, with Wonder Woman’s unbreakable bracelets round her wrist – which some report he argues as being a feminist statement:

‘Taking inspiration from Greek myth, she and her fellow Amazonian women were once enslaved by the male demigod Hercules, chained at the wrists as part of their servitude. Eventually they broke free of their chains, and started their all-female society, although continuing to wear bracelets on their wrists as a reminder never to let men enslave them again.’ (BBC, 2017).

Wonder Woman’s ‘lasso of truth’ references not only bondage, but also Marston’s belief that women tell the truth more than men.

Marston’s feminist influences included both the suffragette movement that was around him at the time while he was a student, and also a significant figure Margaret Sanger, who was aunt of his life partner Olive Byrne, and who opened the first birth control clinic in the US.

In Marston’s words: Frankly, Wonder Woman is a psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.’ (BBC, 2017).

A key theme of the Wonder Woman narrative is that it’s set during war time – perhaps a reflection of Marston’s hope he had for women to save the world, especially as he created this character during the Second World War.

Wonder Woman on the cover of Ms. magazine, 1972. Image source: msmagazine.com

It’s difficult to go through every single writer’s newly imagined version of Wonder Woman in any amount of detail here, but a common theme (and also sometimes viewed as a common ‘burden’ for writers) is Wonder Woman’s character trait of being designed to save the world from the ‘bad guys’ with her strength, representing her incredible beauty (with references to bondage), whilst also navigating discussions around gender, and what a woman ‘should’ be in society at the time.

Following Marton’s death in 1947, Wonder Women was rewritten as giving up her powers to marry the male lead Steve Trevor. Then later in 1972, Wonder Women re-emerged as a feminist icon, appearing on the Ms magazine cover, with Feminist icon Gloria Steinem explaining:

“Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values of the women’s culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women; sisterhood and mutual support among women; peacefulness and esteem for human life; a diminishment both of ‘masculine’ aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts.” (Vulture, 2017).

From one extreme to the next, Wonder Woman seems to fit (not always that comfortably) along a feminist narrative of the time it’s (re)imagined, the character being oscillated between conservatism and progression. I would argue it also doesn’t neatly ‘fit’ into either one of those narratives, as it stems from a creation of one person’s fantasy of a woman, which even at the time, didn’t easily ‘fit’ into either of those categories.

Wonder Woman ‘damsel in distress’ scene at the end of the film. Image source: Wonder Woman (2017), DC films.

For example, how do you make bondage look ‘progressive’ without going in to so much detail, it would never be talked about? There’s moments in the comic book Wonder Woman where her one ‘weakness’ is when she’s tied up as a ‘damsel in distress,’ and even her immense superpowers fail her. As Wonder Woman’s superpowers seem to be so entrenched in sexual innuendo, it’s no wonder that Super Woman’s character has been rewritten many times, to adapt to its audience.

She’s powerful, she’s sexual, and she’s sexy. How are you meant to talk about that in a time of conservatism? And how are you meant to explain that to kids (who make up a large proportion of comic book readers)?

For the next part of this blog, I will consider the representation of Wonder Woman in the 2017 film adaptation by DC films, directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot as Super Woman, and Chris Pine as Steve Trevor.

Wonder Woman (2017)

It’s difficult for me to really say QUITE how I feel about the representation of Wonder Woman (character known as Princess Diana of Themyscira) in the 2017 film adaptation, without erupting into a huge amount of rage.

Is it feminist? Is it really, REALLY feminist? Or is it just that no-one else can be bothered to write a female lead role in a superhero movie, and that’s the best we’ve got? I’m not the first person to critique the level of progression in this film, nor (hopefully) do I imagine I’ll be the last.

That being said, this is not an ‘anti-men’ blog. REPEAT. THIS IS NOT AN ANTI-MEN BLOG.

I’m saying this because I really mean this. I respect men, to the point where I think they’re just as diverse as women. I think everyone’s different, and I think that what I’m talking about here is representation, it’s not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ critique of a masculinity in general. You could argue this critique is more personal than that, and I’m not going to hold back.

Pictured: Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and Super Woman (Gal Gadot). Image source: Wonder Woman (2017), DC Films.

Critique number 1: Female agency (or the lack of)

As I was watching this film (through half-closed eyes, as I winced every time another clanger of a line was dropped) I began to notice a bit of a beat to it… a bit of a rhythm developing, a bit of a message on a loop, which I was tempted to put to a funky beat.

‘No, Diana, you can’t do that’

*imitates scratching records on a mixing desk*

*QUEUE THE REMIX*

*Wonder Woman tries to walk through revolving door*

No, Diana, you can’t do that’

*Wonder Woman tries to wear clothes that she chooses in public*

‘No, Diana, you can’t do that’

*Wonder Woman tries to wear what she wants to the dance*

‘No, Diana, you can’t do that’

*Wonder Woman suggests she turns left*

‘No, Diana, you can’t do that’

*Wonder Woman suggests she turns right*

‘No, Diana, you can’t do that’

*Wonder Woman suggests she kills the ‘bad guys’ (which is the whole point of the f*cking plot*

‘No, Diana, you can’t do that’

*Wonder Woman suggests that kindness is useful*

‘No, Diana, you can’t do that’

*Wonder Woman suggests that love is real*

‘No, Diana, you can’t do that’

*Wonder Woman suggests that femininity and motherhood is important*

‘No, Diana, you can’t do that’

*Wonder Woman suggests that she’s Wonder Woman*

‘No – n-n-n-no no—n-n-no Diana, you can’t do that.’

*mic drop.*

If there was a montage of every time that happened, it would have taken up about 70 minutes of the film.

I was so angry, I had write a remix about it. I was REMIX WRITING LEVELS OF ANGRY. (If anyone now feels inspired to take soundbites from the film and create this remix for themselves, you would be MY superhero).

I’m now just going to use some buzzwords here, which I think can be applied to the male main character, Steve Trevor. I’m so seething, I can’t even be bothered to explain them in that much detail, but I’m sure you’ll get the gist..

Domination. Control. Being a bit of a twat. Manipulation. Infantilising femininity. Top-notch idiot.

The amount of scenes where she’d taken on over 400 people, single-handedly, and he’d come along with gun and his mates about 10 minutes later, and shoot 1 or 2 bad guys, and then look at her like he’d saved the day…. I just don’t get it, I’m not going to pretend that I do. Did Robin ever take the credit for Batman’s work? Just saying.

Until I watched this film, I’d never seen a superhero bumble around aimlessly, waving a sword in the air, and not be able to walk through a door before. Here femininity is depicted as lacking the agency of walking through a building. I know things were different for women during the Second World War, and I know she was raised on an island, but I’m pretty sure she could still handle walking through a door.

This kind of male ‘picking on everything she does’ for want of a better word ‘move’ on their love interest, is something I’ve seen in films like When Harry Met Sally, in You’ve Got Mail… with the male lead trying to tease the female lead into thinking she’s not worthy of being herself anymore. It’s so conditioned that in some ways, we’ve forgotten it’s actually bullying. Women are adults.  

Ok, I think that’s point one covered, moving on to point two, for sake of diversity…

Critique number 2: Female agency (or the lack of)

Take me to church!!

Or don’t bother, just take me to the cinema, it’s the same thing.

Statistically, the number of regular church goers in the UK were very low (before the pandemic anyway). There was a time where it felt like a genuine choice whether I listened to this horsesh*t or not.

If I ever wanted to be taught that I was born from original sin, then I’d simply walk down a gravel path of my local ministry, passed the neatly trimmed hedges and freshly mown lawn, and sit myself on a pew, while some person in a dog collar told me I shouldn’t have been born. It’s easy to do, I have attended in the past occasionally (but those days are long gone when I actually just realised it was about domination, and I couldn’t be bothered).

Instead I find myself sitting in cinemas (or in pandemic times, just on my sofa), being sold the idea that what I’m watching is entertainment, but what I’m actually seeing is church, except I’m eating popcorn.

The male lead role… Steve Trevor… it’s like we’ve met before. It’s like I’ve read about you many times. It’s like I’ve been told that you’re more important than most in the past.

Your martyrdom at the end really did save humanity, you’re right. Your promotion of heterosexual monogamous marriage as the only way to live really did ring a bell. Your ability to watch women do all of the work, and take all of the credit, really did sound like something that was straight out of a book.

Do I really need to see another priest or preacher on screen, telling an adult woman to dress appropriately, refusing to let a woman listen to her own intuition, and causing a vast amount of devastation and harm, that is simply ignored… by a cheeky smile?

Do I really… really need that, Steve Trevor?

I’m just kind of done with this, I’m not going to pretend I’m not.

‘Conversion by nachos.’

I’d love to say I doubt this will ever catch on, but unfortunately I think it already has.

Man-splaining isn’t sexy. It’s so yesterday. And by ‘yesterday,’ I mean it’s 2000+ years old.

Please Hollywood… PLEASE… spare me the priesthood.

Right, well I think that’s the second point explained. On to my third point (variation on a theme).

Pictured: Ares, God of War’ (played by David Thewlis). Image source: Wonder Woman (2017), DC Films.

Critique number 3: Female agency (or the lack of)

The use of ‘love.’

This is what this point’s about.

Or do I actually mean (as this film implies) domination?

Do I mean an ‘education’ that domination is the ‘same’ as love?

This is a common theme in Wonder Woman’s upbringing, and also her relationship with every other characters.

She’s trained harder than the others, with her aunt being incredibly tough with her in warrior training to make her ‘stronger,’ implying that others dominating her is for her own good.

She’s never met a man before (obviously, she was made from clay, and given life by the God of Zeus, on an island inhabited by (the culturally sensitively named) Tribe of the Amazons – a women only community- so naturally it has to be a man who sets her boundaries, not her.

All her superpower is thanks to men. Her special powers were given to her by male Gods. Women were created, in order to be a ‘bridge to a greater understanding’ for men. All logistics planned in the fight for peace is orchestrated by Steve Tevor, (or occasionally, she ‘breaks the rules’ and goes another direction, only to be saved, by the one and only, Steve Trevor).

Pictured: Super Woman holding up a tank (Gal Gadot). Image source: Wonder Woman (2017), DC Films.

Fighting with ‘Ares, God of War’ (played by David Thewlis), Wonder Woman goes from superhero, to being dominated by this character’s super powers, because she refuses to see the evil in human beings. Ares suggests that if she cooperates with him and uses her power to wipe out humanity, then heaven will be restored on earth. She refuses, because she believes she’s seen ‘love’ in Steve Trevor (cut to flashback scene where Diana remember Trevor say ‘I’ll save the day, and you’ll save the world.). Based on this, instead on throwing a tank on the head of ‘Doctor Poison’ (played by Elena Anaya), the cyborg queer-coded evil female scientist (staple of the genre) she spares this villain’s life, and tries to throw the tank to the side instead. I think this is the closest this film gets to ‘morals.’

Ares, God of War, then attacks her with superior superpowers (even though we now find out they’re both Gods), and wraps her in the metal wheels of a tank, where she lies, defenceless – all her self-defence training now forgotten in these times where she’s met a male version of herself. Or are they?!

Luckily for her, Steven Trevor has caught the last plane to infinity – i.e. highjacked a plane full of explosives, and shoots his gun at the dynamite, which then explodes the whole plane, the debris then landing over ‘baddies’ HQ and on Ares, God of War.

Diana, so IMMENSLEY INFURIATED by watching her one-true-irritating-twat in her life blow up in flames, suddenly remembers, that actually, SHE IS A SUPERHERO, and finds the strength within to bust her way out of the metal ties, and eventually kills Ares not through her own power, but by deflecting his own lightening force back onto him.

In this film, Diana is only allowed to be powerful when she’s angry, because someone’s bullying her.

And TAKE ME TO CHURCH! Ares, God of War just wants Diana to believe in original sin. And she’s a ‘fallen woman’ in his eyes, that she doesn’t (completely) agree with him.

Ares, God of War: ‘Look at this world. [points to surrounding destruction] They [human beings] did this, not me. They are ugly, filled with hatred, weak, just like your captain Trevor.’

Wonder Woman: They’re everything you say, but so much more.

Ares, God of War: They do not deserve your protection!

Wonder Woman: It’s not about ‘deserve.’ It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.

This isn’t the snappiest script, but I think that pretty much sums up my point.

Conclusions

Honestly, where do I start with this.

The opening scenes and closing scenes are the ONLY reference to Wonder Woman being a superhero where she demonstrates her power without anyone ‘telling her off,’ the rest of the film shows her awkwardly wielding her power, whilst being in the confines of the patriarchy (or militarised matriarchy on her original island), where her power is either over-protected, or shamed.

It’s a story about domination. I’m aware that (as I said in the introduction of this blog) Wonder Woman was created as an image of the creator’s ‘ideal woman,’ by someone that was interested in bondage.

However, I think you’re on seriously thin ice if you combine BDSM references, with the church’s attitude to shaming any talk or reference of sex.

As with any intimacy (bondage included) it relies on consent, it relies on healthy boundaries, on communication, on mutual respect. It relies on a mutual acceptance that sex isn’t ‘wrong.’ I would argue the depiction of the God of War, Ares, tying up Wonder Woman, was not balanced. Without trust, communication and boundaries, it’s nothing but violence.

Like the 50 Shades of Grey story line where BDSM was treated as a kind of drop of boundaries all together, I think Wonder Woman risks teaching audiences that treating women like that (i.e. being dominated, and not respecting her boundaries) as acceptable, which I think it never is.

It was obvious that this character was rooted in one person’s fantasy. It was obvious that it *might* have been sponsored by the church. But it wasn’t obvious (to me, anyway) that this had anything to do with feminism.

I think to be more accurate, ‘Wonder Woman’ could be rebranded as ‘niche fantasy woman, who’s unfortunately also quite repressed’ and the post of empowered female superhero with her own agency, needs to be rewritten, urgently.

About the Author Anna Frances – LGBTQ+ merchandise

I’m a Bristol, UK based artist, poet, blogger and holistic healer, interested in the role of gender in popular culture.

As an artist, I have created art that gives an alternative narrative to LGBTQ+ themes often presented to us in mainstream media and culture. I identify as female, and I identify as bisexual, so that’s the context of my art, and the artwork that I’ve created covers themes of LGBTQ+ representation and universal love. You can check out my Bi in the 2000s™ merch at anna-frances.com/shop, or click the ‘Shop’ button in the left hand menu of this blog.

In terms of LGBTQ+ representation in film and tv shows, I’ve noticed some improvement in some areas (i.e. smaller budget films and tv series) and very little movement (if at all) in the bigger budget mainstream films and entertainment (for adults and for kids). I’m hoping for change.

Even with the increasing use of the ‘rainbow’ Pride flag (now often co-opted for commercial purposes) and even with the best intentions of many, homophobia does still exists in society. With bullying in schools and in the work place still common, I think that the representation of LGBTQ+ in the mainstream could really help prevent things like this from continuing to happen. I’m really proud of the Bi in the 2000s™ art and merchandise range, and I think these designs tell a really important story about LGBTQ+ and universal love.

Find out more:

Merch: anna-frances.com/shop
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