Here’s to Hoping ‘Wonder Woman’ Lives Up to Its History
I am definitely not a “superhero movie person.” Some are good, sure, but most are bad. Sorry, people who love those movies, but they just don’t do it for me on the whole. That said, I am so excited for (and profoundly nervous about) 2017’s Wonder Woman.
The history of Wonder Woman is complicated to say the least. The creator of the character, William Moulton Marston, has been both lauded as a feminist pioneer and criticized for his treatment of women on the page (and in his home) in turn. Marston was a professor of psychology, the pioneer of the technology that led to the creation of the polygraph, and an early adopter of a polyamorous lifestyle—though perhaps, polygamist is a more apt description. Marston had multiple wives living in the same home at the same time and, despite describing himself as a staunch feminist and heavily criticizing violent masculinity, he often failed to understand the ways in which he, personally, reinforced those values and roles in his work and his home.
But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. While tensions between someone’s work and their personal conduct can create issues in circumstances like this, I think it’s unfair to detract from the character of Wonder Woman—the icon she’s become and the special place she’s held in history—just because we’re not a fan of how Marston conducted himself. It’s pretty safe to say that Diana Prince has become an icon in her own right, removed from her association with Marston in the cultural lexicon—and that is what we’re here to talk about.
First of all, Princess Diana a.k.a. Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman herself was based on Marston’s two wives, Betty Marston (neé Holloway) and Olive Byrne—both of whom had a feminist legacies of their own. Betty was a career woman… Well, as close as she could be in the early-to-mid-1900s. Olive, on the other hand, was the daughter of Ethel Byrne, which made Olive the niece of Margaret Sanger—the women’s rights activist responsible for the popularization of modern birth control and the founder of the organization that would become Planned Parenthood. Although Olive did not grow up with her mother and aunt, it became clear that activism and a rejection of the status quo was, to some extent, in her blood.
That’s all pretty awesome, but most important is Wonder Woman, herself. While her early story lines did include quite a lot of depictions of women in bondage scenes, it was also women who broke free of those bonds. Her exclusively female homeland of Themyscira offered a softer (but still fierce) alternative to our own culture (dubbed “Man World”). The thing about Wonder Woman, though, was that Themyscira was part of our world—it was an island on Earth. She was both of our world and removed from it. She’s a warrior of Greek Myth, a demi-goddess—in later canon (including the upcoming movie) she’s the daughter of Zeus and Amazonian Queen/demi-goddess, Hippolyta.
In short, Wonder Woman was a special kind of superhero.
Not only was she among the first female superheroes to gain notoriety in comics, but she was a hero intrinsically rooted to humanity—truly it’s hard to fined a more potent link to western history than they mythos of ancient Greece. That link, though, was shown not just in her origin story, but in her characterization as well. For those of you know don’t know, Greek mythology features plenty of gender-bending, patriarchy perplexing, crossdressing, free-loving, characters. With that in mind, Wonder Woman’s origin story is not only clever, but perfect. She is a hero who purposefully exhibits both traditionally masculine and feminine traits with equal value placed on them—much like her counterparts from legitimate myth.
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 as good women are. 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.
While I don’t love the specifics of Marston’s explanation of why he thought that Wonder Woman should possess the traits that she does, he doesn’t completely miss the mark on all of it. That said, his poor understanding (or inability to fully grasp the full scope) of why that portrayal matters culturally does not change the fact that it does matter. Before Wonder Woman, superheroes were aggressively masculine, in the traditional sense of the word. Often purposefully unfeeling (or unable to feel), stoic, stunted by trauma (looking at you, Batman), physically strong, imposing, and most importantly, violent—and that violence is ultimately what makes them heroic.
On the other hand, Wonder Woman was strong, but not silent. She was heroic, but not violent. She came by her desire to help honestly. She was intended to be, as Marston put it, “a new kind of superhero, one who would triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love.”
This representation of Wonder Woman as “beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, as strong as Hercules, and as swift as Hermes,” as she came to be described in the Silver Age of Comics, mixed with her focus on love as motivation, is important. While gender-based archetypes are still shockingly (and upsettingly) common in popular media, the idea that such an early and deliberate subversion (or blending) of those traditionally gendered traits could make for one of the most beloved and consistent superhero franchises of all time proves a point. Despite the fact that Marston found success with his mythologically inspired heroine in the early 20th century, Hollywood would still have us deny the obvious truth that Wonder Woman made giant steps towards proving: well-written, bad-ass, amazing, awesome, balanced, subversive, feeling women can sell.
It’s this legacy and prolonged skepticism about that legacy that makes the success of 2017’s Wonder Woman so important. Despite the fact that female-driven television shows (even superhero shows) have shown time and time again in the past few years that viewers don’t just like women superheroes, we love them (Jessica Jones and Supergirl spring to mind), this movie has a lot to prove… Because apparently Hollywood hasn’t caught on yet.
Tangibly speaking, it needs to prove that:
1. Female-fronted superhero movies can sell: look if the move is worse that average superhero movies when it does come out, you won’t see me defending it, but if the movie is good and does well at the box office that will go a long way for on-screen representation as Wonder Woman marks the first (yes, first) female-led DC Universe film since 2004’s Catwoman.
2. Women can direct superhero movies: Wonder Woman’s director, Patty Jenkins, will be the second of only two women to direct a superhero movie in America (according to this list of Hollywood superhero films) since 2000—the only other being Lexi Alexander all the way back in 2008. Not to mention that there are only a handful of other women on the list at all and it starts in 1920.
Mostly, though, it needs to uphold the bad-ass history of Wonder Woman. She has meant so many things to so many people over the years. Despite her at-times-problematic creator, she has taken on a life and a legacy of her own. She has become a gay icon (yeah, she’s bisexual, it’s canon), a model for empowered women, as well as a model for a more balanced type of hero.
Here’s to hoping that the live action version can honor all of that and Wonder Woman can change the world once again.