Wonder Woman – feminine throwback or modern feminist icon?

Following the success of the 2017 blockbuster film, Rachel Harris reviews a recent edited collection about the feminist politics of Wonder Woman.

Jacob M. Held, ed. Wonder Woman and Philosophy: The Amazonian Mystique (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 2017). RRP $26.95 AUD (hardback). ISBN: 9781119280750.

I have to admit, before heading to the cinema earlier this year to see Wonder Woman (2017) I had never watched a superhero film or read a DC comic. But commentary on the film intrigued me, not least because, as a Guardian reviewer suggested, it was a “masterpiece of subversive feminism” and a “big step forward for womankind.” Indeed, reviews hailed Wonder Woman as the first woman-centric superhero film in over a decade and the first of such directed by a woman. Once I also discovered it was set during World War I, the history buff in me just could not resist. Although Wonder Woman and Philosophy: The Amazonian Mystique (2017) does not cover this latest adaptation, in which Israeli actress Gal Gadot gives an outstanding performance as the Amazonian princess, it provides a timely and thought-provoking insight into whether Wonder Woman really is a feminist icon for the modern age.

This collection, edited by Jacob M. Held, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Central Arkansas, draws together the views of scholars and writers with interests in philosophy, popular culture, literature and humanities. It is divided into five sections that consider different aspects of Wonder Woman’s meaning and construction. The essays employ a wide variety of philosophical theories to discuss the gendered, ethical and symbolic dimensions of her character, both as they apply within the DC Universe and as a reflection of broader real-world changes, particularly regarding women’s place in American society across the 75 years since her creation.  The collection mostly draws on analysis of DC comics, but also film and television, particularly the successful ABC/CBS series Wonder Woman (1975-79) starring Lynda Carter.

The origin, legacy and usefulness of Wonder Woman as a feminist icon are central contentions of the book. In the introduction, Held states its aim is “appropriately ambiguous” because Wonder Woman is an inherently complex character. She at once embodies and rejects traditional gender norms; a sex symbol for men but also celebrated by women as an exemplification of feminist ideals (1-2). While J. Lenore Wright argues in the opening chapter that Wonder Woman’s “overt femininity [coupled] with her Amazonian strength and speed crosses gender and generational divides” the ambiguity surrounding her suitability as a feminist role model has not resolved over time (5).

For example, the 2016 decision to adopt Wonder Woman as an honorary UN Ambassador in an empowerment campaign to “challenge female stereotypes and fight discrimination and violence against women and girls” was axed after just two months, in light of a petition signed by 44,000 people which argued it was “alarming that the United Nations would consider using a character with an overtly sexualised image at a time when the headline news in the United States and the world is the objectification of women and girls.” This suggests a limit to which Wonder Woman can be conceived of as a feminist icon, something that is indeed questioned by many contributors of Wonder Woman and Philosophy in their discussion of whether she upholds or rejects the concept of the ‘Other’ woman as defined by Simone de Beauvoir in her seminal feminist philosophical work The Second Sex (1949).

Wonder Woman graffiti, 2015. Photograph by Ivan Martins Cintra. Image via Flickr.

As an historian, however, I primarily considered Wonder Woman and Philosophy through a historical lens. How has Wonder Woman reflected constructions of American womanhood since the 1940s? To my delight, the majority of the collection’s 18 chapters engage with how changing depictions of Wonder Woman can be used to chart women’s history across the twentieth and twenty-first century United States. Wonder Woman was created by American psychologist William Moulton Marston in December 1941 as feminist propaganda in aid of the war effort, a “freedom fighter [who] empowered women to leave the domestic sphere for the public sphere and take control of their lives and livelihood” (5).

The World War II origins of Wonder Woman are detailed extensively throughout the book, but particularly in chapters by J. Lenore Wright and Andrea Zanin, who individually examine Wonder Woman as an antithesis to the “blood-curdling masculinity” associated with total warfare. Indeed, Zanin makes the interesting suggestion that the matriarchal world of the Amazons, the mythical race from which Wonder Woman originates, is comparable to the home front; with fighting men overseas, women left behind were free to take up physically arduous work that challenged gender norms. In this sense, Wonder Woman and Rosie the Riveter were the same, although, she argues, with a key difference: Wonder Woman, unlike Rosie, transcended her wartime context to be “hailed as an evangelistic icon for a new breed of female” (62).

The creation of Wonder Woman, and particularly the personal history of Marston, has been previously examined by historian Jill Lepore in The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014). But as this collection also reveals, the historical context that underpins Wonder Woman predates World War II. Marston, likely inspired by his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and their domestic partner, Olive Byrne – both heavily involved in the feminist and birth control movements – drew on the ideals of the British and American suffrage campaigns, which Marston himself was also a supporter. Wright argues that Marston directly “tethered” Wonder Woman to this earlier feminist philosophy in his decision to give her Amazonian origins, not just because of its association with physical female prowess: in the 1910s the term ‘Amazon’ was applied to women who “rebelled against social norms, left home and attended college” (9). Indeed, as Steve Bein indicates in his chapter on care ethics, Marston’s Wonder Woman acted well before her time in support of “mortal” women’s causes: she established fitness clubs and a woman’s college, and led demonstrations against overpriced milk and unequal wage rates for female textile workers (122).

But discussion of Wonder Woman’s post-war incarnations further elucidate on the ambiguity of her character. Removed from her World War II context, and following the death of Marston in 1947, Wonder Woman drastically lost her feminist edge. Trip McCrossin and Andrea Zanin cover this Diana Prince era – which ran parallel to the broader reassertion of domesticity during the 1950s – that saw her lead a “vapid life of romance and fashion in Manhattan” (50). As love, marriage and family became central themes of the comics during this time, Wonder Woman’s cultural significance waned: “she gave up her powers, left the Justice League (which she had founded), turned into a fashionista, married Steve Trevor … had a kid, and became a housewife” (63-64). Although Zanin argues that Wonder Woman fundamentally remained a superhero during this period, the softening of her feminist resolve nevertheless turned her into a “sad cliché” at a time when the Women’s Liberation Movement in the United States was beginning to gain momentum (66).

Wonder Woman and Superman graffiti, 2008. Photograph by Tianmu peter. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Although some of the 1970s and 1980s comics continued to lack strong feminist discourse – hitting a low point when Wonder Woman got a job at a Mexican fast food joint – the contributors to Wonder Woman and Philosophy concur that Wonder Woman has now largely returned to her feminist roots. Steve Bein, for example, notes the 2004 DC: New Frontier comics exemplifies the notion that she is a “vehicle to address sexism” through its focus on her quest to liberate abused women in the aftermath of the Korean War (115). The idea of Wonder Woman as a wartime liberator, of course, has been carried over into the 2017 film.

Many of the remaining chapters consider how Wonder Woman feeds into contemporary debates. These include gender fluidity and her status as an LGBT icon, increasingly unrealistic beauty standards, and the expectation that working women should be able to juggle social and economic commitments with ease. If, as Zanin argues, Wonder Woman herself struggles to “have it all,” what hope is there for us mere mortals (66-69)? However, reflecting the ambiguous theme of the collection, not all contributors are in agreement. Jill Hernandez and Allie Hernandez conclude in their chapter that despite the increased sexualisation of Wonder Woman in the 1990s, she has emerged in recent years as an exemplary moral hero, conveying to viewers and readers that ability and grace, rather than sex appeal, lead to one’s efficacy in the world (31-43).

Overall, this collection provides an engaging set of arguments about the meaning of Wonder Woman in a philosophical, feminist and cultural context. Accessible both to academic and general readers, it offers a useful introduction to an array of philosophical theories ranging from Aristotle to Foucault. It also does not presume readers have an existing in-depth knowledge of the DC Universe, instead acting as an introduction to the world of Wonder Woman rather than a ‘mega-fan’ companion. Also noteworthy is that its analysis covers the visual, as well as the discursive. Dennis Knepp’s interpretation of Wonder Woman’s costume as an artistic representation of American triumph over Germany for the “control and freedom” of the ideals of Classical Greek democracy is a particularly compelling historical argument (151-161). And, most importantly, proves one of the overarching themes of the collection: Wonder Woman has, and always will be, much more than just a superhero.


image1-copyRachel Harris is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Adelaide. Her thesis considers the lives of civilian women in South Australia during World War II. Rachel was the recipient of the 2015 Wakefield Companion to S.A. History Essay Prize for her work on the experiences of female munition workers and members of the Australian Women’s Land Army in South Australia between 1940-1945.

Follow Rachel on Twitter @racheldharris_.

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