Does Wonder Woman Matter?
Hi, everyone! My name is Laurie and this is my brand new column, “Does it Matter?” In it, I’ll be exploring beloved aspects of pop culture that may not be relevant anymore, based on the property’s history, impact, and current cache.
First up: Does Wonder Woman Matter?
This is the newly released promo shot of Wonder Woman in the upcoming movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Actress Gal Gadot is about to don the famous tiara for a new generation, and this version of the character might become its representative in pop culture from 2015 on… and I think that will make her irrelevant.
But before I can talk about that Wonder Woman, I have to talk about this one:
This is the Wonder Woman who became an American icon. She was created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston, the inventor of the lie detector. Devastated by the events of World War II, but inspired by his work in psychology, Moulston saw the possibility of a different kind of superhero – one who could “triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love.” He wanted to inspire audiences with hope and demonstrate peace as a viable alternative to the daily horrors around them. Add to that desire the suggestion that he make the character female and his belief that women were more honest and reliable than men, and he had the makings of a revolutionary hero on his hands.
And that’s what Wonder Woman was.
Marston made her an Amazon warrior, a princess both strong and gentle. She was a keen fighter and healed quickly, making her capable of taking on anything from Nazis to dinosaurs. Her weapons were a set of unbreakable wrist cuffs, a Tiara of Telepathy, a Lasso of Truth, and an invisible jet (until 1960 when flying was retconned into her skillset). He gave her characteristics and weapons that were defensive in nature, rather than offensive, enabling the character to subdue an opponent rather than blast them into oblivion… and enable them to face justice for their crimes.
Or naptime, depending on the offender.
To a nation wracked by war, Wonder Woman offered the very real alternative of peace. America needed that, and lauded her for it.
Then she changed.
From the early 1950s to the mid 1980s, Wonder Woman’s identity as a peacemaker fell to the wayside in favor of her identity as a feminist. Strong independent female icons are rare in American pop culture, so the ones that have staying power end up getting labeled as feminist, by sheer dint of being strong, independent, and female. It’s unfortunate, and reductionist, but it happens. In Wonder Woman’s case, being labeled as a feminist meant she became the face of the burgeoning feminist movement, and changed her identity to match whatever the movement represented at the time. Namely, renaming herself Diana Prince and relinquishing her powers to run a mod clothing boutique.
And shoot down Japs after learning kung fu. In one day.
I don’t know if this is the Wonder Woman America needed, but it certainly seemed to be the one it wanted. The 1970s idea of a feminist was a woman who could shoot down an airplane… which, you’ll notice, is both completely different from, and less special than, a woman who could walk into a warzone and broker peace with a lasso and a tiara.
Women who shot guns to demonstrate their power were everywhere in the 1970s: “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Bionic Woman,” Pam Grier’s whole oeuvre. You could plunk any one of them into that picture above and it would have the exact same impact. In other words, there is no reason for Wonder Woman to be on that cover.
And that made her just like every other hero.
Reducing Wonder Woman to a feminist flavor of the month took away not only her specialness, but her purpose. By the 1990s, she started regularly appearing on “Justice League,” and while the exposure made her a household name again her character was simplified even further. This time, she went from “strong independent woman” to “woman on the team.” Her past took a backseat to her powers and she was simply strong, smart, agile, and airborne. She became what she’d always managed to avoid: a Superman clone. With boobs.
And great hair
She became a revered member of The Justice League and the most famous female hero in the world… but she no longer had a personality. And she stopped being Wonder Woman. Her relaunch with the New 52 tried to fix that…
With a sword. And every single arrow they could draw.
… but ended up giving us the least personable Wonder Woman yet. This Wonder Woman is a full Greek Goddess, expanding the Greek mythology origins from the 1950s to make her remote and removed from humanity. Her main concern now is the nonsense the gods get up to here on Earth, and if that means protecting humans from Hellenistic power plays then so be it. She doesn’t really care about humans, and she’s not sure why she’s doing any of this. Granted, part of that is due to her struggling with her newfound identity as a daughter of Zeus. But still: this Wonder Woman is violent and angsty and broody. She’s Christopher Nolan’s Batman in a much less practical outfit.
And we don’t need more than one Batman.
That takes us right back here:
This Wonder Woman looks like she’s going to blend right into the pantheon of the heroes surrounding her. I don’t even see Wonder Woman here: I see a Xena clone with a sword, a low-rent Red Sonja. I do not see a woman who used her strength as a means to peace, or ended wars by taking away guns and putting herself between innocents and people with guns, or had a unique power and skillset that was never copied by another character, male or female.
I see a character that doesn’t resonate today.
Granted, she could resonate, if the writers updated her peacemaker roots. Winning a fight with love may not work in a post 9/11 world, but fighting for peace absolutely can:
Nifty scars notwithstanding
This is Prince Ashitaka, the hero of Princess Mononoke. He saves his village from a vengeful god and is cursed by the creature as it dies: may the same hate that consumed me consume you. Shunned by his people for being cursed, Ashitaka is forced to go out into the world and broker peace between gods and men in order to save his life.
And he does.
Rather than remove himself from his roots, Ashitaka embraces them and uses them as a lens to view the world objectively – or, as he puts it, “seeing the world with eyes unclouded by hate.” He engages both gods and men with an openness to learn, and gets up in their faces to shout those similarities when they’re about to kill each other. He doesn’t fight; he knocks out. He doesn’t maim, kill, or destroy; he distracts, disables, and disarms. Granted, his cursed arm does occasionally take over and cause him to decapitate bad guys with arrows, but he gave fair warning. And felt bad about it.
In short, Ashitaka gave a shit. He made peace a priority and shouted his appeal for it at every person he met.
Wonder Woman used to do that.
I don’t know what she stands for now. Right now, she’s just a woman blending into the background and becoming exactly what people expect of her rather than exceeding those expectations to become – and create – something better than the sum of her parts.
And if that’s what Wonder Woman is going to be, then I don’t think we need her.