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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

March 3, 2021: Superhero Comics: Wonder Woman

[In March 1941, DC Comics published Captain America Comics #1. So for Cap’s 80th birthday, this week I’ll AmericanStudy him and a handful of other comic superheroes, leading up to a post full of student responses to one of our most complex comics.]

On the ambiguous creation, evolution, and cultural images of our first female superhero.

Wonder Woman was created only a few years after Superman and Batman, debuting in the December 1941 issue of All Star Comics; but this superhero was hugely distinct from those and other contemporaries, and not just in the basic and obvious fact of her gender. For one thing, her creator, William Moulton Marston, was a Harvard-educated psychologist who was hired first as an educational consultant for comics companies before he developed the idea for this new character. And the circumstances behind that creation were particularly complex: in terms of the inspiration for the character, who was based partly on Marston’s impressive wife Elizabeth (who also, at least according to one article, suggested the character’s gender in the first place) and partly on a young student with whom the couple were supposedly having a polygamous relationship; and in terms of Marston’s stated goals, which included both giving young women a sense of their “force, strength, and power” but also molding them into adults as “tender, submissive, [and] peace-loving as good women are.”

As Wonder Woman evolved over the next few decades, she similarly shifted between more and less progressive and traditional roles and characteristics. For example ,when she joined the Justice Society of America, the first comics super-group (created to help America fight Hitler and the Axis forces in World War II, a complicated echo of Captain America’s origin points about which I wrote on Monday), she did so in large part to serve as the group’s secretary (I suppose a super-group needs a super-secretary); similarly, in a late 1960s storyline she retired the Wonder Woman identity in order to run a mod clothing store as Diana Prince (although she still fought crime on the side). Yet despite such connections to entirely or somewhat traditional women’s worlds, Wonder Woman’s mythology was similar to Superman’s—she came to our society from a distinct and superhuman race and world, in her case as an Amazonian princess, and so her human identity as Diana was the creation and mask—making her at her core a larger-than-life and particularly strong and powerful woman. And I would argue that the 1970s Lynda Carter TV show engaged with both sides of this coin: using skimpy costumes to capitalize on Carter’s physical appearance; yet consistently portraying her strength and toughness against any and all adversaries.

So how do we analyze this character and her social and cultural images and meanings? A historicizing answer doesn’t seem sufficient, since in each era and stage Wonder Woman has had both progressive and traditional, boundary-pushing and stereotypical, sides (the recent films have certainly emphasized the former in each case, but I’d say the duality is still present). Given Marston’s own double-sided quote about what he hoped to convey to young female audiences, a reader-response analysis would also be problematic—that is, while we could argue that readers would emphasize one or another aspect of the character, depending on their own perspectives or goals, Marston seemed to be arguing that both ends of the spectrum were part of his explicit purposes. In both cases, and perhaps in any analysis, the baseline truth seems to be that Wonder Woman has been a multi-layered and contradictory character, one who can reinforce some of our culture’s attitudes and identities while at the same time taking them in distinctly new and radical directions. Not much that’s more AmericanStudies than that combination!

Next SuperheroStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other superhero contexts or analyses you’d share?

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