Wonder Woman: Feminism in Superheroes World

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Today, Wonder Woman, to the world, is hailed as an icon for her power, strength, and female empowerment. But her forgotten history goes all the way back to the 1940s. When comics were just becoming popular, Wonder Woman was tangled in contradictions and censorship. Her journey was long and harrowing. Still, Wonder Woman’s intricate and significant history integrated her into a female powerhouse; the very definition of a feminist, even in the twentieth century. Comic books were invented in 1933 by Maxwell Charles Gaines, a former elementary school principal who went on to found the All-American Comics. At the same time, William Moulton Marston graduated Harvard student and went on to become a psychologist who, influenced by his personal experiences and inspired by the suffragettes, set out to set a standard for a kind of women who were strong, independent and courageous.

Thus, Wonder Woman entered comics in 1941; drawn by H.G. Peters, imagined by Marston. Wonder Woman was an Amazon, a female warrior and descendant of Ares who lived on an island with only women after their cruel treatment from Hercules in which they vowed to never let man set foot on their island. When Steve Trevor crash landed his plane on their island, Wonder Woman takes it upon herself to return him safely to “man’s world” and to fight injustice and women’s rights. Wonder Woman grew in fame and popularity among comic book readers. But it was not all a smooth journey; she experienced significant hurdles on her way to becoming a true superheroine. Despite the critical reception Wonder Woman comics received from the press since her creation in the 1940s, the superheroine still embodied an influential feminist figure through her trailblazing heroic endeavors and unique character.

In the Wonder Woman comic books, Wonder Woman’s heroic encounters during her adventures were trailblazing examples of her feminist power. Through her numerous comic book adventures, Wonder Woman’s demonstrated her feminism, manifesting from her physical strength and power. In “The Earl of Greed”, Wonder Woman #2 (Fall 1942), Wonder Woman plays baseball. In other of Marston’s stories, Wonder Woman plays ice hockey and tennis; she swims and dives. She also founds a chain of fitness clubs (Smithsonian). In addition to this, American went to war in 1941 so Wonder Woman is seen fighting in the war, side by side with the men to defend American democracy in World War II.

In her adventures, “Wonder Woman shut down Japanese bases all over the world. By herself, she seized a german U-boat, overturned a Japanese dreadnought, and captured an entire fleet of Nazi battleships. She fought Saturnian forces when necessary but ended conflict by negotiating peace treaty and trade agreement with the king of Saturn” (Hanley, chp. 2) Marston exhibited Wonder Woman’s athleticism on every possible occasion. It is significant because it sends a message to girls that they can be strong. It taught women that they could be just as tough as men. And more importantly, rather than looking down upon strength in women, Marston showed this quality in a positive light; unyielding and unafraid.

In addition to her incredible physical qualities, Wonder Woman’s more down-to-earth adventures demonstrate her mental determination that defines feminism in that time period. Wonder Woman’s adventure was inspired by real life events of the Progressive Era labor activism including a textile workers’ strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. In Sensation Comics #8 (August 1942), WW finds out women are being underpaid. She immediately changes that with her lasso and power (Lepore, pg. 213). Another example “in July 1973 issue of Sister: The Newspaper of the Los Angeles Women’s Center, a cartoon showed Wonder Woman snatching a speculum from a male doctor and announcing, “With my speculum, I am strong! I can fight!” (Hanley, chp. 9)

By addressing issues many women faced in the 20th century regarding birth control, taking control of your sexual health was an important principle in liberal feminist self-reliance, and Wonder Woman was right there, a role model leading the way. It shows a human side of her that is necessary for women and young girls to connect with her on a more emotional level. It provides a sense of protection in a familiar situation that common people are faced with. In “Sensation Comics #23, she stopped a gang who were picking on a young boy, showed the head bully his wrongdoing, learned about his home situation, spoke to his father about it abusive tendencies, and then helped the father get a job in a wartime factory” (Hanley, chp 2).

Wonder Woman always took the time to get to the root of the problem. Even something as seemingly insignificant as bullying was something Wonder Woman addressed. In this way, she was presented in a more human like matter, as bullying is a prominent issue many kids face. Finally, Wonder Women of History created by Alice Marble (a tennis star who became involved in comics after she retired from her sports career) profiled accomplished women in a four page feature in each issue (Hanley, chp. 3). Presenting real-life role models alongside Wonder Woman’s adventures showed that being a strong and successful woman wasn’t just for people with superpowers. Some have argued that she is too machine-like, never resting, which made her less a woman. Some writers wrote the Amazons as robotic warriors that expressed few emotions “She’s as tireless as a machine. She doesn’t need to eat–or drink–or sleep! WW’s not human!” (Kilkenny)

However, while Superman performed similar feats, he was viewed in an entirely different light. In fact, her actions more accurately reflect human responses. “For Golden Age comic book villains, there was only one way their felonious adventures could end. Violence was their only means of conflict resolution…Captain Marvel had a fondness for throwing people. Superman liked to mix in threats with his violence. Captain America’s primary weapon was a shield, and he could simply hit bad guys with it, throw it, or use it as a battering ram to plough through goons” (Hanley, chapter 1). This entirely refutes the idea that Wonder Woman is not womanlike enough because her endeavors indicated a more realistic response to bad guys rather than resulting to violence. In Wonder Woman’s comic books, her heroic encounters during her adventures exemplified feminist ideas both physically and mentally.

Though her appearance changed several times, Wonder Woman’s defining image is an important symbol of her feminist character. Wonder Woman’s dress represented a symbol of her patriotism and feminism. In an original design of Wonder Woman, it showed “notes by Marston and Peter…[where] the skirt was soon replaced with briefs and the sandals became boots” (Hanley, chp 6). Marston was extremely picky with his vision of Wonder Woman. This demonstrates not only the significance of her outfit but it reveals that there is meaning behind every single item of clothing. Her briefs and boots allowed her to move around more, enabling her to do her tasks to the best of her ability. Though it can often be overlooked, Wonder Woman’s dress is an important feature of her feminism.

Wonder Woman’s costume was also intentional in that it represented nationalism. “Queen Hippolyta designed [for Wonder Woman] a costume. With her strapless bodice emblazoned with the American eagle and star-spangled culottes” (Madrid, pg. 42). Wonder Woman’s costume to show that the Amazons supported the American cause of democracy. It represents her patriotism as she courageously fights to protect the country. Wonder Woman was like an allegorical figure of victory, charging across the battlefield to preserve freedom for womankind. Her bracelets were also a defining feature of her costume. The first issue of the 1942 Sensation Comics features the first cover appearance by Wonder Woman.

It depicts her fighting several bad guys using her bracelet cuffs to deflect their bullets. (Sensation Comics vol. 1, no. 1, 1942) In order to never forget the cruel treatment of Hercules, the Amazons adapted shackles they wore while imprisoned into bracelets. WW’s bracelets weren’t just a handy tool but a constant reminder of this injustice, and they turned an object of oppression into an object of strength (Hanley, chp. 1) Olive is often credited as the inspiration for WW’s appearance, most notably her bullet-deflecting bracelets. Olive was fond of large, metallic bracelets” Olive Byrne was a suffragette who had extremely close connections to the birth control movement Her mother, Ethel Higgins Byrne, opened America’s first birth control clinic in 1916 alongside Olive’s aunt, Margaret Sanger.

Another important aspect of Wonder Woman’s dress was that her image was not objectified as many past superheroines were. “Artist Harry G. Peter was 61 when he began drawing Wonder Woman. He drew Wonder Woman with a shapely, athletic figure, but not an exceptionally sexy one. She wasn’t especially busty, and her face had the round shape and bee-stung lips of a 1920s flapper. Wonder Woman was radiant, confident, and inspiring, but not as luscious as a Hollywood starlet or Vargas Girl pin up” (Madrid, pg. 49). Wonder Woman was unique in that she was not originally drawn to attract those who would objectify her body, like many of the supergirls in the past. She was drawn with the intent of appealing to young girls who would admire her. But in March 1942, the National Organization for Decent Literature put Sensation Comics on its blacklist of “Publications Disapproved for Youth” for one reason (because it violates Point Four of the Code): “Wonder Woman is not sufficiently dressed” (Smithsonian, par. 16). Though she did undergo several changes, for example the decades of the 50s and 60s that emphasized appearance over character in which Wonder Woman was drawn with less and less clothing, she was continually able to make a comeback and reemerge as her true self once more, even if it took ten years.

Wonder Woman’s feminism was also shown through her dialogue. Wonder Woman’s loud, unafraid voicing of opinions in her comic books were representative of the strong-willed and confident woman she was. When speaking out against the enemies she faces, Wonder Woman demonstrates strong beliefs in her view fighting for women. In a Wonder Woman episode, Dr. Psycho (her enemy) disguises himself as the ghost of George Washington in order to shut down the idea that women ought to be allowed to contribute to the war effort. ‘Women will lose the war for America! Women should not be permitted to have the responsibilities they now have!’ he warns. ‘Why that loose-tongued double-talking phony! I’ll stop him.’ WW cries out” (Lepore, pg. 53-54). In another instant, she says, “‘You’re a strong boy…it’s fun to defeat you!’ to a big bruiser gangster, as she easily disarms him” (Madrid, pg. 52). Women’s voices in history were often disregarded. Not until mid-1920s did women even get the right to vote. Wonder Woman proved otherwise that so much can be achieved when women have the power to speak.

On numerous occasions, Wonder Woman even voices out against her male colleagues of the Justice League, demanding the respect she deserves. In Justice League of America #143, WW snaps back at Superman who patronizes her and says, “It’s a Wonder Woman thing–! I’ve got my confidence back, Superman! I’m just as much a part of this team as anybody else…” (Madrid, pg. 207-208). Rather than succumb to the masculine power ever so present in the Justice League of America (consisted entirely of men, excluding herself), Wonder Woman addresses her own fellow superheroes in such a manner that reveals to reader the extent to which women are treated, even by those who appear to be on her side. It entirely debunked the common idea that women were better off as assistants and would cause more trouble than help. In the end, it is not just the “bad guys” who frown upon females but the general population as a whole experiences a certain stereotype towards women unknowingly. The creation of Wonder Woman helped to address this issue.

The creation of Wonder Woman itself proved to be a unique contrast to the supergirls of the past. Wonder Woman’s name was an important aspect of feminine power because of her use of the word ‘Woman’ instead of ‘girl’. “The superheroines who followed Wonder Woman into 1940s comic books tended to have ‘girl’ names like Sun Girl, Moon Girl, Hawkgirl, Bullet Girl, and Batgirl, were often merely sidekicks of the male heroes, whose names ended with ‘man’ rather than ‘boy’ — Hawkman, Bulletman, Batman — and were not as strong” (Robbins, pg. 5). Female superheroes were not allowed to reach their potential; they were given powers that are weaker than their male compatriots, and positions of lesser importance.

With Wonder Woman, finally there was someone who was equal or of higher status then the ‘men’. She was not a sidekick nor a secondary character. She was her own character, not supporting a more dominant man. She, even, at certain points, rivaled Superman and Batman in fame. However, it was not as easy for her as it was for the male superheroes. Even though Wonder Woman was the face of female power, she too struggled with reaching her potential and was inadvertently a victim to sexism. In 1942, Wonder Woman was inducted into the Justice Society of America, but still she was relegated to merely a secretary; left to record the adventures of men while she stayed behind in headquarters. However, after decades of this lull, this change in persona was recognized, and people felt Wonder Woman should return to the feminist glory she had once started out with.

Furthermore, Wonder Woman flipped the paradigm of a “damsel in distress”. Marston’s approach to gender roles was not only flipped but also more beneficial for everyone involved. Wonder Woman’s dealings with Steve created a stark contrast to the past superheroes. “Superman said “I’d advise you not to print this little episode” to Lois Lane, the reporter who was in love with him when he said her for the first time. If she asked Superman about himself, he’d say, “Save the questions!” He refused to help her and often sabotaged front page stories. When Wonder Woman, however, single handedly stopped the Japanese invasion of South America, Steve was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross, even though he showed up after the fact” (Hanley, chp. 2). Unlike Superman who was an antagonistic rescuer, Wonder Woman was benevolent, despite Steve’s inept capabilities. While Lois was suppressed in her relationship was Clark, Steve benefited from his connection with Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman was also created during the Progressive Suffrage Era in which her creator, William Moulton Marston, was significantly influenced by past suffragists and women he had close relationships with. This can be seen in the creation of his characters as well as setting. “Harvard not only didn’t allow women to speak on campus, it also didn’t admit women as students. But Wonder Woman can’t keep away. Much of the action in Wonder Woman comics takes place at “Holliday College” (Lepore, pg. 26). The name “Holliday College” is a mash-up of ‘Holloway’ and ‘Holyoke’. Elizabeth Holloway was a suffragist at Mount Holyoke College. Marston eventually married Holloway and she became an significant voice in the creation of Wonder Woman.

By incorporating these feminist characteristics into the setting of Wonder Woman comics, new details that may have been overlooked before in the past, now shine a light on female education. Elizabeth also insisted that the hero had to be a woman, declaring “Come on, let’s have a Superwoman! There’s too many men out there” (Hanley, chp. 1). So Marston created Wonder Woman, an Amazon. “Amazons” meant a woman rebel, which, to a lot of people, meant any female who left home to go to school. Marston emphasized the importance of education and study. He had a vision where women would receive the same treatment as men did. In his experience, his wife, Elizabeth Holloway was often more qualified than him and did better than him on exams.

Wonder Woman also differed from past superheroes in that secret identity as Diana Prince still played an important role in her character. In one comic, Diana straps Elva Dove, a secretary she suspects of spying, to a machine. “‘Answer truthfully or your blood pressure curve will go up. Did you take that rubber report from the secret files?’ ‘No, no!’ Elva insists. ‘Well, I’ll be jiggered,’ Trevor exclaims, reading the graph. ‘She is lying’” (Lepore, pg 36). Marston invented the lie detector test. A century on, it’s still in use. It’s also all over Wonder Woman. Diana Prince was a secretary for the U.S. military intelligence. Her disguise as Diana still played an important role in her character. Her lie detector parallels the golden lasso that Wonder Woman uses to suck the truth out of their victims. While superheroines in the past “had to be content to put on scanty costumes and assume a disguise in order to act like themselves (Madrid pg. 2), Wonder Woman was her own identity. The days of fearless women like Lady Luck or the Black Angel had to maintain a secret life in order to live with the same freedom that men enjoyed was over (Madrid. Pg. 30).


Cite this paper

Wonder Woman: Feminism in Superheroes World. (2021, Oct 30). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/wonder-woman-feminism-in-superheroes-world/

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