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October 05, 2012

Wonder Woman: 40 years later, still a feminist flashpoint

Posted in: Comics

Wonder Woman graces the cover of Ms. magazine's first issue in 1972. (Ms. magazine)

Ms. magazine brought Wonder Woman back for its 40th anniversary issue. (Ms. magazine)

Soon after her All Star Comics debut, Wonder Woman was featured in Sensation Comics No. 1 in 1942. (DC Comics)

Wonder Woman in Sensation Comics No. 46. In this 1945 storyline, the baddies give Wonder Woman's boyfriend Steve Trevor special powers to be stronger than her, hoping he'll force her to marry and become a meek housewife. In the end, Wonder Woman sticks to her guns and Steve happily submits to being the weaker of the two. (DC Comics)

In this 1957 Wonder Woman No. 90, the Amazon princess has to babysit an elephant, a whale and a dinosaur in order to raise $1 million for charity. (DC Comics)

In 1959, Wonder Woman's origin story was revamped. Issue No. 105 reveals that the Queen of the Amazons formed Diana from clay, and that her superpowers are gifts from the gods. (DC Comics)

In the late 1960s, Wonder Woman gave up her powers, started a mod boutique and worked with her mentor I Ching to learn martial arts. Here, she is shown in the August 1970 issue Wonder Woman No. 189. Her powers weren't restored until 1973, partly at the urging of Gloria Steinem. (DC Comics)

Cathy Lee Crosby played Wonder Woman in a 1974 TV movie "Wonder Woman." In the film, the heroine has no superpowers, but rather is a world-traveling spy, inspired by the I Ching era of the comics. (Warner Bros.)

Wonder Woman teamed up with other DC superheroes in "Super Friends," a television series that ran from 1973 to 1977. (Warner Bros.)

Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman in "The New Adventures of Wonder Woman," which ran from 1975 to 1979. (CBS / Los Angeles Times archives)

Wonder Woman was rebooted once more in 1987. Above is George Perez's Wonder Woman No. 1. cover. (DC Comics)

Wonder Woman was a key player in the animated TV series "Justice League" and "Justice League Unlimited," which ran from 2001 to 2006. (Warner Bros.)

Wonder Woman was again rebooted in 2006. Gail Simone took over writing duties for the comic beginning with issue No. 14, and was applauded for her portrayal of the heroine. (DC Comics)

Wonder Woman got her own animated movie in 2009. Keri Russell voiced Wonder Woman, and Nathan Fillion voiced Steve Trevor. (Warner Bros.)

In the 2010 animated series "Young Justice," about younger heroes trying to prove themselves worthy of joining the Justice League, Wonder Woman takes on Cassie Sandsmark (Wonder Girl) as her sidekick. (Warner Bros.)

Adrianne Palicki played the title character in the never-aired TV pilot "Wonder Woman" in 2011. The show, from David E. Kelley, was never picked up -- effectively canceled before it even began. (Justin Lubin / NBC / Warner Bros.)

Wonder Woman got a makeover when DC relaunched 52 of its most popular titles in 2011. (DC Comics)

COMMENTARY

We’ve come a long way, maybe.

Although no doubt meant to inspire, and tap into the delectable demographic of  comic-book culture, the appearance of Wonder Woman on the 40th anniversary edition of Ms. magazine, available on newsstands this week, is just as poignant as it is empowering. For the official debut issue of the magazine, Gloria Steinem and the editors put her under the cover line “Wonder Woman” for president. Forty years later, we’ve had no woman president, the myth of the Super Woman continues to dog us and poor old Diana of Themyscira remains the only major DC Comics hero without a feature film to her name. (Seriously? Green Lantern before Wonder Woman?)

Although Joss Whedon thoughtfully included a gal in “The Avengers,” and Scarlett Johansson did a fine job as the Black Widow, the self-described feminist filmmaker kept the male to female ratio of the team five to one. Six if you count Samuel L. Jackson, who is a superhero in his own right. At 3 to 1, the Supreme Court has better odds, and those odds ain’t great either. (Granted, Whedon didn’t create the Avengers, but still.)

This time around, Wonder Woman is coming to the aid of her mortal sisters who are holding up signs calling for an end to the “war on women.” As unbelievable as it seems to someone who joined the Ms. staff in the mid-’80s, when it seemed we would have a woman president and a national childcare program any day now, our country is instead revisiting some of the issues that made Ms. a cultural and journalistic necessity. The legality of abortion, the equitable availability of birth control, even the definition of rape have fueled the political conversation during the past year.

Rush Limbaugh called a Georgetown law student who felt her insurance should cover her birth control a “slut,” NBC aired “The Playboy Club” and Rihanna sang a duet with Chris Brown. What year is it?

TV’s “Wonder Woman” Lynda Carter takes a more optimistic view. In the press release announcing the anniversary issue of Ms., she praises the magazine for its part in the great social and economic change she has seen in her lifetime. “When I started out playing Wonder Woman on TV,” she says, “practically everyone behind the camera was a man — and men were the acting leads in almost all series programming too. Today, women have broken through…”

Not every member of the entertainment community would agree–screenwriting and certainly directing, remain a man’s game, but no doubt things are better than they were in the 1980s. Which, ironically enough, is one reason Ms. has had such a rough time of it in the second half of its life.

Although it has managed to survive while many of its spinoffs (Working Woman, Savvy) have vanished, Ms. has struggled for years with economics and relevance. Once a steady if not ever precisely thriving self-supporting monthly based in New York, Ms. now operates as an arm of the Fund for the Feminist Majority with offices in Los Angeles and Arlington, Va. Much of the truth-telling work it did–it was the first national publication to address issues including abortion, domestic violence and gay and lesbian rights–has become fodder for mainstream television while the word “feminist” is considered by many either archaic or, once again, shorthand for hairy-legged, humorless lesbian  communists.

Wonder Woman is, of course, none of these things. She may stand for peace and gender equality but she wears hot pants and a vaguely fetish-like metal bodice. She also has a magic lasso, bullet-proof bracelets and an invisible plane. And unlike most of her male counterparts, she is not broken, did not emerge from a place of darkness–whether you go with the original creation (from the clay outside her city) or the later one that anointed her the child of Hippolyta and Zeus, Wonder Woman was raised as an Amazon, fierce as she is beautiful. Even her tiara is multi-tasking–one moment drawing the eye to her flawless forehead, the next taking out a bad guy at his throat.

That tension between image and ability has always been the biggest problem the women’s movement has faced, a tyrannical beauty ideal that corrupts all it touches–this is what a woman/man/married couple/family/president should look like. For better or worse, 40 years later, putting Wonder Woman back on the cover of Ms. still draws the eye, provokes thought and raises questions. Including: How far have we come if we still need our female superheroes to look this good in a bustier?

– Mary McNamara

Mary McNamara is the senior culture editor and television critic for the Los Angeles Times.

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