If one day someone was to ask you to think of a known superhero, would think about characters like Batman, Superman or Spiderman. But what if you were asked to think of a heroine? How many women have conquered the pages of comics to match or surpass their male companions? Although they are increasingly strong, interesting and complex characters who break stereotypes of damsels in distress, heroines have come a long way to get where they are right now. A road that started with Wonder Woman.
The third leg (in order of arrival) of the Trinity of DC Comics, Diana de Temiscira is the first superhero in history in her own right and the first to have a series of her own. Born under the signature of Charles Marston (pseudonym), the Amazonian princess constructs her very essence around values and principles that sought to turn her into that enduring symbol of female empowerment that has proved so important throughout the 20th century.
The doctor and the Amazons
William Moulton Marston, the real name of Charles Marston, is as interesting a character as he was multifaceted and controversial for his time. Academically speaking, Moulton earned two bachelor’s degrees and a doctorate in psychology, all from Harvard University. He developed much of his work in aspects such as truth and lying or social behaviour and with his environment. His two best known works are Emotions of Normal People (1928) and Integrative Psychology: A Study of Unit Response (1931) and the invention of the polygraph or lie detector, a device that bases its functioning on the changes in blood pressure that a person undergoes when questioned.
A renowned feminist and defender of women’s rights, William Moulton was a controversial figure for his time for openly supporting women’s suffrage and stating, amongst other things, that women would be “the leaders of the future” and that they were mentally and morally stronger as well as more resilient than men. He also claimed that people were happy in states of submission. Moulton was involved in a polyamorous relationship with his wife Elizabeth Holloway and one of his students, Olive Byrne, and it is believed that it was the influence of these two women that encouraged him to design a female character. Apart from trying to attract female audiences to the world of comics, he sought to convey feminist values and represent a strong female icon.
Although Moulton didn’t have much faith that the editorials wanted to his character, Wonder Woman was presented at the end of All Star Comics no. 8 (December 1941) with a story of origin that related it to the world of classical mythology (a field in which Moulton had extensive knowledge) and World War II. Diana of Temistila was said to be beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, strong as Hercules and fast as Hermes. It was intended to remove the image of hyper masculinity that so befits Superman and Batman by presenting a powerful heroine who was at the same time compassionate and good-hearted.
The character was so well liked that by January 1942 he had completed the second appearance in Sensation Comics no. 1 and his own series Wonder Woman no. 1 (June 1942).
Women in times of war
The early years of Wonder Woman would be overseen by William Moulton himself and, as was the case with Captain America’s comics, they used the context of World War II as the main plot. In that first appearance of 1941, the pilot Steve Trevor crashed on Paradise Island while chasing some Nazi aircraft and Wonder Woman travelled with him to the United States and Europe to help him in his fight against Hitler’s armies. The relationship between Diana and Trevor was very interesting because it presented a situation inverse to the usual one: Trevor assumed the role of damsel in distress and it was Wonder Woman who took the lead role and went to rescue him.
By 1942 the United States had already entered the war and the number of men on the front increased every week. Wonder Woman then emerged as an inspiration to those women who had stayed in the United States and had to take responsibility for keeping the country’s economy and production active. By the end of the war, Wonder Woman was a true icon for society as a whole, but her golden age was coming to an end. The first factor that accelerated her fall was the death of William Moulton in 1947, without his supervision the message of female empowerment was watered down.
Wonder Woman under the CCA
The second factor that made Wonder Woman lose relevance was a change in American society itself. The end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War gave rise to a wave of reactionary conservatism and a kind of sedation brought about by the ideal American life establishment based on consumerism. With this paradigm shift, the idea that a woman did not need a man to overcome her problems began to be seen as strange and repulsive. It added to the custom that Moulton had, given the aforementioned thought on the advantages of submission, of putting Wonder Woman in situations where she was chained or tied up, which was considered by some sectors as an incitement to “perverted” behaviour like bondage.
Things got even more complicated in 1954 when Dr Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a book in which he exposed a series of pseudo-scientific reasoning in which he blamed comics for promoting violent behaviour, sadists or homosexual tendencies in young people. The impact of this book, which would later prove completely unfounded and falsified by its author, and the pressure exerted by certain sectors of society and the government itself would cause great losses in the sector and would have the publishers approve the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a kind of body that self-censored its own contents. This measure put an end to monster comics, noir comics or Wild West comics and caused superhero stories like Batman to become an absurd parody of what they had been.
Wonder Woman was one of the characters that came out but stopped. The brave and powerful warrior who equated in her adventures with a titan like Superman suddenly resumed the role of damsel in distress that so many women occupied in the comics. Her appearance was changed to dolled-up, with large eyelashes and a beautiful hairstyle, and began to worry about issues that society associated with femininity such as fashion, decoration and household chores. She was given a job as a sentimental counsellor in which she responded to the love letters of so-called followers and it became increasingly common for Steve Trevor to rescue her and not the other way around.
During this time period, Wonder Woman was ridiculed. She had completely lost the essence and character of the character that had made her a successful heroine, and her arguments were increasingly closer to those of a bland soap opera than to those of a superhero story. One of the facts that best prove this new situation to which the Amazon was subjected is that, despite having appeared several times with Batman and Superman, Wonder Woman only entered the Justice Society (antecedent of the Justice League) as secretary and honorary member.
But the most surprising fact of this dark period came in 1968: Wonder Woman decides to give up her powers and her mission of fighting for good to live happily with Steve Trevor, even abandoning her iconic costume. Shortly after this situation, Trevor dies in an accident and Wonder Woman stars in a tacky and extremely sesame series in which she was more of a spy crying in the corner for her lost love than a mythological warrior. Naturally, it turned out to be a failure.
Rebirth and brighter times
In the second half of the 1960s and 1970s there was a real shake-up of social values in the United States. The post-war model did not fit a youth that demanded change and more freedom and it was precisely in this youth that Wonder Woman would find her saviour.
In the early 1970s, Gloria Steinem was a young journalist and women’s rights activist who had come under the spotlight for her continued struggle for the second emancipation of women. Steinem had grown up reading the original stories of Wonder Woman and considered the Amazon princess as an inspiration to be returned for the new generations to know. In 1972, the first issue of Ms. Magazine, a feminist magazine of which Steinem was director, comes out, with an imposing Wonder Woman wearing her original costume on the cover. A collection of the pre-CCA stories of Wonder Woman that would become a hit amongst the new comic book readers would be published shortly, also by Steinem. The society’s response was so clear that DC Comics had no choice but to listen to it: Wonder Woman had come back to stay.
This second advent was reinforced by the successful TV version of Wonder Woman by actress Lynda Carter. First in the ABC and later in the CBS, the series was broadcast between 1975 and 1979 and is remembered as one of the most successful and iconic of the time. Both in comics and in the audio-visual media (it began to be included in cartoon series and movies), the audience saw a warrior Wonder Woman, who believed in herself and her convictions and was ready to face any challenge. The return of his classic costume, with bullet-proof bracelets and tiara included, was a reaffirmation of that empowerment as, although considered sexist, it was his armour and a clearly recognizable element of his most successful stage.
Since then, many authors have passed through the pages of Wonder Woman adapting the tone and complexity of the stories to the demands of each historical moment but without these changes affecting that essence that was inseparable from the character.
In 2016, coinciding with its 75th anniversary, the UN appointed Wonder Woman Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls but the title was withdrawn two months later after receiving thousands of reviews for considering the character of DC Comics too sexualized. The publisher responded to this by arguing that "Wonder Woman represents peace, justice and equality, and for 75 years has been a strong motivation for many and will continue to be so long after he finishes his Honorary Embassy at the United Nations.” The following year, the film Wonder Woman became the first solo superhero film starring Gal Gadot and directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins). Both the audience and critics praised the work of both and, in fact, Wonder Woman became the biggest blockbuster film in the so-called DC Extended Universe with $412.6 million in the United States.
Protagonist of comics and films, subject of analysis in essays and books and icon of popular culture; Wonder Woman continues to defend the values and causes that made her an inspiration and role model for the new and old generations.