Content note: There are NO spoilers for the Wonder Woman film in this article.
People...I used to hate Wonder Woman. I always saw her as a slightly kitschy counterpart to Superman. She was another big blue boyscout with an invisible jet and way too many primary colours on her costume. I was into female heroes who kicked ass and wore leather. Wonder Woman just wasn’t interesting to me; she didn’t seem to have any real suffering, she didn’t punch enough people and she just seemed happy all the time. These were not things I could relate to on any level.
Incidentally, all of the things I couldn’t relate to when I was younger are the exact reasons that I adore her now. So, if you’ve been thinking of going to see the Wonder Woman movie, or reading her comics, or just generally want to know more about her, allow me to tell you why she’s about to become your new favourite hero.
Wonder Woman was created by a dude called William Moulton Marston in 1941. Marston was a Harvard educated scientist, born in 1893. He was practicing psychiatry at a time when we were still coming to terms with what the human mind really was. This was before the debunking of Freud and Jung, and in the midst of the second World War; Marston, like many of his contemporaries, was looking to make sense of what was happening and how it could be stopped.
Marston famously conceived of D.I.S.C theory; a psychological theory still in practice within the corporate sector today. D.I.S.C was a theory about sexuality and dominance 20 years before the creation of the Kinsey scale. It stood for Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance and more or less helped to gauge how you interacted sexually with those around you. He was also a co-creator of the original lie detector (not to be confused with the polygraph).
He was married to a woman who should have also attended Harvard (but wasn’t allowed to because of her pesky vagina). Elizabeth Holloway Marston should, in all likelihood receive a co-credit on everything William did. William valued her opinion so much that she collaborated together on almost all his projects.
Not content with just one badass science lady in his life, Marston went on to fall in love with Olive Byrne, a student of his. Her mother and aunt were the co-founders of Planned Parenthood, and she was an intelligent and capable scientist in her own right.
He advised Elizabeth of his newfound love, and she went and had a long think about it, came back and said “Fuck it, the more the merrier” and they entered a polyamorous relationship. Olive and Elizabeth both had two children to William and raised them all together, commenting that this structure made it easier for them to continue their own scientific achievements since there was always someone around to care for the kids. The two women stayed together until they died (William having died 20 years earlier).
Marston was a firm proponent that men had cocked up the world pretty spectacularly (and we haven’t exactly done much to prove him wrong since then). He was of the opinion that men should hand the reigns over to women and let them fix the world. To be more specific, he insisted that it was important for men to “lovingly submit” to a woman (you might remember this as being every woman's wedding vows to her husband for most of history). His work on the lie detector, combined with the horrors occurring in Europe at the time helped to cement his opinion that women were the more honest sex and most likely to save the world.
All of this was happening in the years leading up to the creation of Wonder Woman. Come October 1941 and Superman has been around for three years, Batman for two years, and Captain America six months. In this time, these characters have proven to be incredibly popular with school children, but Marston was concerned about the message they were sending. Not from any puritanical or McCarthyist perspective, but he believed that comics could be used to educate children. So he was hired by the company that later became DC to pen his own comic book, one that he hoped would prove to be more valuable to young minds.
Marston had noticed that Superman, Batman and Captain America all behaved like thugs. They were cruel, unfeeling and often homicidal. There are countless panels where all three of these heroes either actively or through inaction allow people to die. They show no remorse, and often make quips about it. They solved problems with their fists. Marston didn’t want his hero to be like these characters and was discussing this with Elizabeth when she declared, “Well whatever you do, for god’s sake, make her a woman.”
And so Marston employed the services of artist H.G Peter to help his creation come to life. Peter got his start drawing propaganda for the women’s suffrage movement. Together they modelled the character after Olive Byrne, and gave her the costume and appearance you’re more or less familiar with today (give or take a few tweaks over the years).
The important thing for Marston was to ensure that her powers and strengths were ones that complimented her sex. He didn’t want her to be just another brawler who beat people into submission. He wanted her to use the qualities of a “good woman” to her advantage. While this might sound sexist, it was actually feminist as fuck.
Today we’re plagued with the “Strong Female Character” trope, where a woman is implied to be badass purely because she possesses the qualities of a man; she doesn’t talk a lot, doesn’t have feelings or emote at all, she solves her problems through violence, she isn’t interested in love or romance (or at least not until the leading man is interested in her). Or we have the “cool girl” who uses misogyny against other women to deflect it from herself and to fit it with the boys. But Marston didn't believe that femininity equalled weakness.
In a 1943 issue of The American Scholar, he wrote:
“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don't want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving...Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”
So yeah, in 1943 Marston was addressing the issue of toxic masculinity and the fact that young girls were already learning that what made them women made them weak. So he decided to create a character to address that.
Marston saw Wonder Woman as the opposite of everything currently happening in the world of men. She would use her diplomacy and her words to try and resolve conflict before it escalated. She would carry defensive tools, not offensive weapons (she originally only carried her tiara, bullet-deflecting bracelets and lasso of truth). She would never kill anyone, or hurt them unnecessarily.
And when she captured her foes, rather than locking them up in a prison for punishment, she would return them to Paradise Island where they could be reformed and reintegrated into society. Despite having the strength, speed and flight capability of Superman, and the brains, combat skills and technology of Batman (for real, the Amazons are an incredibly advanced society), Wonder Woman would remain an icon of peace, love and acceptance.
Wonder Woman was a founding member of the Justice Society, proving that she was every bit as qualified as her male contemporaries. Some people will point out that her role in the Justice Society was as the secretary, and this is true but for the best reason. Marston was so busy penning all the different Wonder Woman titles on shelves at the time, that he literally didn’t have the space in his diary to be writing her Justice Society plotlines as well. So the Justice Society writers would always have Wonder Woman occupied with secretarial shit so she could continue her one woman superheroine empire that was dominating the comic stands.
And so, until the end of the 1960s Wonder Woman was a shining beacon of everything that women could be. She taught girls around the world that they could be brave as well as beautiful, strong as well as kind, intelligent as well as empathetic. She taught them that none of the things that made them “girls” were actually weaknesses, they were their greatest strengths.
Then there’s Steve Trevor. The “love interest” who was basically there to prove just how fucking awesome she was. See Trevor was a U.S Army man, and Wonder Woman won the Amazonian contest to return him to American shores. Trevor had been fighting Nazis and whenever Wonder Woman isn’t around we see how capable he is. He’s everything you’d expect from a fictional American soldier; brave, strong, clever and relentless. But he was Wonder Woman’s damsel. His competence as a soldier only went to further highlight how great she was. Because while Lois Lane was just a silly girl reporter getting kidnapped, Steve was a fucking war hero who regularly fought Nazis. And he still needed Wonder Woman’s help almost every issue. He was the ultimate damsel in distress and existed purely to highlight the magnitude of her strength. And he was a man. How fucking often do you see that these days?
Trevor lovingly submitted to Wonder Woman. She provided aid to him and he was never a dick about being rescued by a “girl”. On the contrary, he was in awe of her power. While Wonder Woman taught girls about how to be strong, Steve Trevor taught boys about how to be real men; by lovingly submitting to a woman. It never lessened Steve. He never looked pathetic or emasculated. He looked like a good human.
Also, there was a fuckton of lesbianism and bondage in the days when Marston was writing Wonder Woman. He was a massive kinkster and his whole “lovingly submit” thing wasn’t just lip service. There was rampant lesbianism and fetish imagery in every issue that he penned. This was why Wonder Woman’s only weakness was being bound; it gave him free reign to include bondage as a plot device. The Amazonians regularly played bondage games, and Wonder Woman’s plot was often driven by being captured and bound by a villain.
However, it also serves as a wonderful metaphor for female empowerment. Women are at their weakest when bound; when our autonomy is taken away from us and we're denied opportunity and equality, we aren’t at full strength. To really see a woman become a Wonder Woman, all you have to do is untie her, take away the societal bonds holding her back.
Wonder Woman is a rarity among superheroines even today. Most of our female characters are spin-offs from male contemporaries, and are created to support the plot and world of a male character (see every female character in Batman's universe). There’s also a pretty big trend of naming female heroes “girl” with the obvious implication of subservience and inferiority. Most male characters will have had female sidekicks at some point in their careers, (Artemis, Batgirl, Supergirl, Hawkgirl, Powergirl, etc) and sometimes these characters were fortunate enough to spin off into their own titles. But there were very few that began with standalone titles, let alone origins outside the scope of a male character. Even awesome characters like Starfire, Vixen, Zatanna, and Black Canary all got their starts in male titles. But not Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman has her own universe, her own rogues (villains) and her own origins. She didn't use an existing male character to launch herself, and she has her own origin story that doesn't involve existing to further a male plot line. Marston's origin story for her was created to be completely free from male influence. Her mother, the Queen of the Amazons, is so desperate for a child that she sculpts one out of clay and Aphrodite brings her to life. Her creation is literally brought about by two women and the power of love.
Wonder Woman is also unique in that she’s not bogged down by trauma. The hero-as-orphan trope is strong in the comic world, and Wonder Woman stands in magnificent contrast. She isn’t saving the world because she’s been hurt, because she’s trying to work through her emotions, or for any other reason than that she knows it’s the right thing to do. She hasn’t lost anyone but she can empathise with those who have. She helps people selflessly; expecting nothing in return and with no personal agenda. Because that’s what Marston saw women being capable of.
Now here we are. It’s taken 76 years for Wonder Woman to grace the big screen. We have literally, in that time seen 9 Superman movies, 9 Batman movies, 6 Spider-Man movies and 3 Iron Man movies. And those are just live action. If we take into account the DC Animated Movies, Batman has had 11, Superman has had 6 and even Green Lantern has had 2. Wonder Woman? She's had one animated film. People have argued that the reason she never got another one was because it just wasn't profitable. Bullshit. It's the fourth most profitable animated film that DC has ever made.
I've seen articles claiming that her lack of representation on the big screen is because of how difficult her origin story is. I mean all the gods and mythology behind it, how are audiences meant to understand that (*cough* Thor). Her story is way more complicated than say a rag tag team of variously superpowered miscreants in space (looking at you Star-Lord), or a dude who gets given a piece of jewellery by a dying alien that allows him to fight intergalactic crime, but only if he whispers the magic words and remembers to keep it fully charged, and has really strong willpower (seriously, Green Lantern before Wonder Woman?), or a...whatever the fuck Howard the Duck is.
Almost every single superhero has a weird and wacky origin story, that's kind of how comics work. And as far as they go, Wonder Woman is actually pretty simple and uses characters the world is already familiar with (Amazons and Greek Gods). Can't say that about the entirely different planet and alien race that Superman came from.
And there's that whole argument that there was never a demand or market for her. Yes, because the success of Linda Carter's series was a total fluke. And the unique combination of feminist warrior and greek mythology was proven to be such a failure when Xena did it.
Let's face it, the real reason we haven't seen Wonder Woman on the big screen so far is sexism, pure and simple. So, if you’re in a financial and emotional place to be able to go and see the film I REALLY encourage you to do so. Hollywood measures the success of these things in terms of how much money they return on investment. Warner Bros investment in this movie was poor; they provided practically zero marketing budget, and less money for production than they did for Suicide Squad. With their wallets, they said “Eh, whatever, we'll claim the loss on insurance”. Please use your wallet to tell them that a female directed, female led film featuring a feminist as fuck storyline is EXACTLY what you want. It's what we've always wanted. Tell the world that you want more movies like this, more heroes like Wonder Woman.
That is all.
You may go now.