Published on October 4th, 2013 | by Heath McCoy


Is Feminism Weakening Wonder Woman?


We live in a time when the pop culture world is packed with ass-kicking heroines, from Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow and The Walking Dead’s Michonne to Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and Hit-Girl from the Kick Ass flicks. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess aren’t that far in the rearview mirror.  Wonder Woman is the original Queen Bee prototype for all of the above, and easily the toughest of the bunch — so why is it that Hollywood can’t make her fly?

A vague casting call for Warner Bros’ eagerly anticipated Batman vs. Superman movie – which sounds like it could be for the role of Wonder Woman, possibly (but not necessarily) – has geekdom buzzing about this very question. But we’ve heard this buzz so many times before.  A Wonder Woman movie was said to be in the works around 2007, with none other than Buffy creator Joss Whedon attached to the project, but ultimately that fell through. Meanwhile, snickers can still be heard over the never aired, but notoriously embarrassing NBC pilot episode of a planned Wonder Woman TV series back in 2011.

Then the comic world’s strongest sister was denied another shot at TV screens again this year. It was reported that The CW Network, home of the hit Green Arrow adaptation, Arrow, was planning a spinoff series based on Wonder Woman, to be called Amazon. But, alas, the original Princess Diana was elbowed aside, in favour of The Flash, whose own series is now being CW-fied instead.

Wonder Woman is one of the most recognizable, iconic super heroes in the world. Today, when comic book culture has thoroughly invaded the entertainment mainstream, it makes no sense that she has yet to take her rightful place of prominence on the TV or movie scene.

And yet, the character struggles to do so.

Some would argue that, despite the warrior women revolution in pop culture, female-led super hero movies simply do not draw an audience. We’ve seen this, they would say, given the box office bust of movies like Supergirl, Elektra and Catwoman. But that’s a cop-out, because it fails to acknowledge that those movies were simply horrible.

The biggest obstacle Wonder Woman faces is that the character suffers from an image problem. This has been clear enough in the DC universe where her story has been rebooted a number of times in recent decades.

One issue would seem to be Wonder Woman’s costume as artists are constantly tinkering with it. The classic Wonder Woman garb is, essentially, a one-piece bathing suit with star spangled short shorts. This was a perfect fit for Lynda Carter in the campy Wonder Woman TV series of the 1970s, but by today’s standards it’s just too cheesy. Indeed, the traditional spandex super hero costume is always tough to pull off with any semblance of cool in live action features. Hollywood has found a way to make super hero costumes work with a sort of leather-armor look, and this suits itself particularly well to Wonder Woman, given the character’s Amazonian origin. A TV or movie Wonder Woman shouldn’t be in a swimsuit. Rather, she needs to be in battle gear — sexy battle gear, of course — which we’ve already seen in all of the body hugging, carved-muscle getups worn by the male super heroes in so many comic book movies.

But I suspect the biggest hot button issue with Wonder Woman that’s making the studios hesitant is the character’s close association to the feminist movement.  Wonder Woman was co-created in 1941 by a psychologist named William Moulton Marston who felt that comic books lacked a strong female role model. That said, many feminists would no doubt carve Marston a new one for some of his ideas. For one thing, he was in a polyamorous relationship with his wife Elizabeth and one of his students, Olive Byrne (said to be the physical model for Wonder Woman). It’s been suggested that both women had considerable input into Wonder Woman’s creation (and should probably be credited for that).

As well, Marston seemed to idealize women as being morally superior to men, writing with great admiration of their tenderness and maternal instincts. Hence, Wonder Woman was created to have the strength of Superman, but also all the qualities of the ‘good woman’ that Marston envisioned. Some feminists, however, might take issue with Marston’s version of what a ‘good woman’ ought to be. Plus, Wonder Woman’s look was clearly that of the ultimate pinup girl, and the idea of women as sex objects has been known to bring out many a feminist dagger.  Then there’s the fact that Marston was really into bondage and some rather kinky images to this effect frequently found their way into the pages of Wonder Woman comics in the early days.

After Marston died in 1947, Wonder Woman’s adventures lost that subversively erotic charge and the comic book lost its charm, by and large. Then, in the early 70s the character was essentially hijacked by the feminist movement when Gloria Steinem championed Wonder Woman, writing essays praising her as a feminist icon and placing her on the cover of the first issue of Ms Magazine. When the Wonder Woman TV series emerged a few years later, the show’s Helen Ready-ish theme song was an extension of this sentiment.

Though this brought Wonder Woman to a place of prominence once again, in the long term, the association — which was more or less thrust upon DC’s premier heroine — took its toll on the character’s appeal. It’s well documented that, for a lot of people, feminism truly became an ‘F word’ over the years. Feminists like Steinem were often perceived, by men and women alike, as a shrill, militant, humourless lot, and the movement came to be a turnoff for many. It’s probably safe to say that was the case for some in the comic book demographic, which is still quite male heavy.

Wonder Woman’s very roots, both on the fictional and non-fictional side, are feminist by nature. The trick, for whoever does bring her to the screen, is to celebrate that important side of her, without preaching Steinem-style to the audience. The key to Wonder Woman’s appeal is that she’s the mythical, Amazonian warrior who could go toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel if the chips were down. What could speak to the character’s iconic feminist status more powerfully and more entertainingly than that?

Let’s hope that the creative forces that finally do shine this spotlight on Wonder Woman don’t play it too politically correct, because that will ruin everything. The character is the ultimate model for feminist strength, but she’s also a fantasy co-created by a male intellectual with a taste for the kinky. This dichotomy is too deliciously rich not to be exploited, at least teasingly.

Consider the character’s origin story. Wonder Woman hails from an all-female Paradise Island of statuesque beauties with the power of Greek Gods and a deep suspicion of warring mankind. One day their mightiest daughter bodes farewell to her ‘paradise’ — which, let’s face it, could well have been envisioned by Hugh Hefner, Steinem’s cultural enemy — venturing forth to our so-called ‘man’s world,’ to teach us a lesson.  It’s both sexy and silly, when you think about it, and there’s no reason why that sense of playfulness should diminish the potency of the character in any way.

Played right, a Wonder Woman feature will capture the character’s feminist power while regaining those unique, titillating qualities that pop culture’s greatest Amazon lost decades ago.

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About the Author

is a journalist, author, pop culture/trash culture junkie, and communications pro. Former music critic/pop culture reporter for the Calgary Herald. Wrote Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling. TV show host and movie critic (seriously, once upon a time, a show you've never seen). Lover of comics, pro wrestling, and metal. He also enjoys scotch.

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