Wonder Woman: 40 years later, still a feminist flashpoint

Oct. 05, 2012 | 7:30 a.m.
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Wonder Woman graces the cover of Ms. magazine's first issue in 1972. (Ms. magazine)

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

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

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.)

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

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

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

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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.)

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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)

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

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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.)

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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.)

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


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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20 Responses to Wonder Woman: 40 years later, still a feminist flashpoint

  1. Erik says:

    Mark are Super Heroes offensively or defensively physically violent. As someone that lives in an offensively violent country i think its time we start bringing a boatload of woman into the fold to help us lead the way towards a more compassionate society, for i fear we are pure evil, hell bent on ruling and overlording the world. the Defense Dept should now be called The Offense Dept.

  2. Bob says:

    Good article, but it's not as though male superheroes are flabby couch potatoes, so your point about what Wonder Woman's appearance is mostly moot, in my opinion.

  3. FYF says:

    "It seems to me that the "feminists" who are always complaining that women are being "objectified for their beauty" are quite often unattractive, fat, and envious… they only wish they could have such "objectification" attention for themselves."

    lol this myth has been debunked ages ago. I know beautiful people of many beliefs. I'm surprised people still push out this drivel. Beauty is subjective, so what you said can't really be a universal truth. Being fat doesn't mean unattractive. Being envious doesn't mean you're feminist or unattractive. Just because *you* don't find someone attractive doesn't mean no one else does. And is someone who is unattractive automatically unable to have opinions or are they automatically invalid? That would put a lot of male pundits out of the running for many, if that's the case.

    There are also countless feminists who are married and are housewives or support friends who choose being a housewife. I think you need to check your outdated false stereotypes of feminism – do a little research and you'll see that feminists come in all types of packages, in all walks of life.

    • JM says:

      I would love to know the Divorce Rate for feminists. As it stands, the overall divorce rate is at 57%.

      I find it hard to imagine that these “marriage-loving feminists” are faring much better.

      If anything, it’s worse. And so we get back to my main points about feminists…

      • SMP says:

        FYF makes a solid point. Also, while I really shouldn't feed trolls, I'm going to pretend you might actually be sincere. JM, three things:

        1. Men can be feminists too.
        2. Not all women automatically identify as feminists just because they're female.
        3. There are many kinds of feminism (and thus of feminists). Feminism at its core seeks the social, political, and economic equality of men and women, but there are lots of different groups with lots of different ideas as to how that needs to be accomplished.

        The divorce rate (which is a bit lower than you listed, by the way, if you trust the figures at divorcerate.org) is what it is for all kinds of reasons. I don't know when or why you decided some mythical monolithic version of "feminism" was your enemy, but man, just let it go.

  4. noelenecy says:

    Hey folks, seems we have a troll on the loose! Friendly reminder — we'll remove any comment that:

    * contains vulgar, profane, abusive, racist or hateful language or expressions, epithets or slurs, text, photographs or illustrations in poor taste, inflammatory attacks of a personal, racial or religious nature.
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  5. @GrayTee76 says:

    "How far have we come if we still need our female superheroes to look this good in a bustier?"

    It seems only fair that female superheroes are held to the same lofty standards of appearance as their male colleagues. I don't remember Superman, or any of his buddies at the hall of justice, having a receding hairline or large hairy gut.

    • Elle says:

      It’s not the same thing.

      The point is there are male heroes who are supposed to be average. Spider-Man for starters and he’s hugely popular.

      The male heroes are idealized but not objectified. Huge difference.

      We don’t insist that men have to be gorgeous to be heroic. But we do with women. We force them to be stunning to be worthy. Tell me who the female “average” “normal” heroine is in comics. You probably can’t think of one.

      Also, last I checked Superman doesn’t fight in a bathing suit. Yes, his suit is tight. But it’s not sexualized. It’s totally different.

      • brettc1 says:

        and yet now, apparently only Superman is good enough for Wonder Woman. Her own long time love interest doesn't make the cut. Neither does Lois Lane for Superman, apparently.

      • ViewtifulBass says:

        Spiderman isn't average at all, he's quite muscular, he just possessed a more slender physique.

        BTW both the Thor and Captain America movies featured the respective superheroes shirtless at some point.

  6. Elle says:

    I like Wonder Woman. I do think her costume compared to the male costumes is ridiculous and sends a mixed message.

    I do sometimes wonder why it’s so hard to ask that we have powerful women in these stories that aren’t presented as sex objects. The character has much value.

    Are there any powerful women in comics that don’t wear these degrading costumes? Any women in the medium that don’t run around in tiny costumes?

    • slb04 says:

      Off the top of my head: Batwoman, Huntress (both Helena B– before Jim Lee redesigned her costume– and Helena H), the n52 Power Girl,, Batgirl, Katana, Manhunter, Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers), Black Widow, Spider Woman (Jessica Drew) and yes Wonder Woman (depending on the situation). There are also a number of pseudo-superheroes, characters that don't necessarily have a "power"– like Renee Montoya, Cameron Chase, Maggie Sawyer, Lois Lane, Starling and Jessica Jones– who fight alongside powered superheroes or in their own right.

    • Robespierre says:

      "I do sometimes wonder why it's so hard to ask that we have powerful women in these stories that aren't presented as sex objects?"

      Answer: the male/female sexual dynamic in human biology. Live with it.

  7. Levana says:

    Ms McNamara, I wonder if you have read any of Wonder Woman's recent comic books. You list off several elements of her costume design but you do not describe the immense character development that Princess Diana has gone through over the decades.

    If you pick up Wonder Woman comic books by popular (female) writer Gail Simone, as well as the first collected issues of her newest series, by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang (and I highly recommend it), you will see that Wonder Woman is not simply an overly sexualized woman looking good in a bustier and magical tiara.

    Today, she is a warrior. That "metal bodice" you were talking about? That's armor. Because she goes into battle. In Simone's "The Circle", Diana wields a spear and shield, gets beat up and bloody, and her own mother dies in her arms. In the new series, she goes toe to toe with the gods. She unhesitatingly protects all people even at her own risk, has infinite compassion, and values honor and dignity above all else.

    She has become her own person.

    And yes, it's true, Joss Whedon made an incredible Avengers movie but couldn't get Wonder Woman off the ground. NBC cancelled their upcoming Wonder Woman series before even giving it time to breathe. And when it comes to the equality and non-objecitfication of female superheroes, not to mention equal representation among writers and artists…yes, the industry is still lacking.

    But you have to admit, we've also come pretty far. And I find it pretty disappointing that you do not seem to mention who Wonder Woman has become, at all.

  8. tapadance says:

    Your right Joss Wheden did not invent the Avengers, Stan Lee did. One of the founding members of the Avengers is Janet Pym, know as the Wasp. She was totally ignored by Marvel Universe. Sadly

  9. brettc1 says:

    It seems to me that the revision of the Amazons, turning then into man-hating sex pirates who take to the high seas to get with sailors for the purposes of pregnancy and then killing them, is a huge backward step to the comics message of female empowerment. It portrays the very worst idea of feminists mentioned in the article above.

    Also not a fan of the subliminals of Wonder Woman's new origin. Her mother didn't love the idea of a daughter now – she loved the idea of having sweaty sex with another woman's husband. I dont doubt that Azzarello has the idea that there is now a loving mother/daughter relationship, but he has devoted more page time to describing the relationship with her pseudo-parent Ares [who coincidentally looks a lot like the writer]. 25 years of reading the book had already shown me Wonder Woman and her mother's love was not in any way affected by her being formed from clay. The new story does not make her more human – indeed as a demigod she is arguable even more removed from humanity, which has been used in Justice League as an excuse for her new romance with Superman.

  10. Guest says:

    "Diana of Themyscira remains the only major DC Comics hero without a feature film to her name."

    What? Their are ONLY 5 major DC Comics superheroes with feature films to their names – Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Supergirl, and Catwoman (and look at that, 2 out of the 5 are women) – there are characters just as major as Wonder Woman who don't have feature films. The Flash, perhaps? Aquaman? Hawkman or Hawkgirl? Martian Manhunter?

    • ViewtifulBass says:

      I think by major they mean the top 5 as in Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash and Wonder Woman, Supergirl & Catwoman aren't considered a part of that. Besides their movies bombed big time along with GL.

  11. GLAU says:

    If the experience of Australia's first woman Prime Minister is any thing to go by it would take a Wonder Woman to take the treatment dished out simply due to being a woman.
    I may be naive but I would have hoped ability, intelligence and hard work should count far more than gender.

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