Wonder Woman Shouldn't Be a Sidekick

Originally conceived as Superman's superior, feminist replacement, the character has become a second-stringer over the years—including, unfortunately, in her forthcoming big-screen debut.
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Flickr / JD Hancock 

Various Wonder Woman movie projects have been stuck in development hell for more or less forever, but it looks like we'll finally be getting to see an on-screen Amazon princess in the near future. Zack Snyder is including the character in his Batman vs. Superman film; Gal Gadot has been cast. Wonder Woman fans rejoice!

Then again, maybe not so much. Wonder Woman as add-on bit player to the manly conflict on the marquee is a sadly familiar scenario to anyone who has subjected themselves to DC comics superhero product over the years. Batman and Superman are both very popular properties. Wonder Woman is the highest-profile female counterpart, but one who has had much less success in the last few decades (at least since the 1970s Lynda Carter television show).

As a result, she has become a perennial bit player — a kind of super-powered cheerleader for one or the other of the big two tight-clad boys. In Darwyn Cooke's much acclaimed 2004 comic New Frontier, for example, the main story is about Superman needing to accept and embrace his awesomeness; Wonder Woman is mostly there to advise and comfort and tell him his values are great before giving him the kiss that awakens him to his destiny. Similarly, in the 2001-2002 Frank Miller/Lynn Varley series The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Wonder Woman's main function is to inspire Superman … though this time by having sex with him.  In Kingdom Come, from 1996, Wonder Woman has to convince Superman to come out of retirement — leading you to say, you know, why couldn't he have to get her to come out of retirement? Why's she always the one telling him how the world needs him, rather than vice versa?

This is especially frustrating because, initially, the whole point of Wonder Woman was that the world needed her and not Superman. William Marston, who created the character in the 1940s, was a psychologist and a committed feminist, and he conceived Wonder Woman as a superior replacement for the Man of Steel. In a 1944 article for The American Scholar, he noted that, "Superman and his innumerable followers satisfy the universal human longing to be stronger than all opposing obstacles."  He added that "the wish to be super-strong is a healthy wish, a vital, compelling, power-producing desire." However, there was one problem:

It seemed to me, from a psychological angle, that the comics’ worst offense was their blood-curdling masculinity. A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to a normal child as the breath of life. Suppose your child’s ideal becomes a superman who uses his extraordinary powers to help the weak. The most important ingredient in the human happiness recipe still is missing — love. It’s smart to be strong. It’s big to be generous. But it’s sissified, according to exclusively masculine rules, to be tender, loving, affectionate, and alluring. “Aw, that’s girl stuff!” snorts our young comics reader. “Who wants to be a girl? And that’s the point; not even girls want to girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power. Not wanting to be girls they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peaceloving, as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weak ones. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman. This is what I recommended to the comics publisher.

Marston's goal with Wonder Woman, then, was to create a figure who would convince both girls and boys of the value of women and femininity. The whole point of the character is to present a female icon as heroic. Wonder Woman is the most important person in the world for Marston in part to inspire girls (and boys), but also mostly because the feminine virtues of love, affection, and strength are really important.

Marston's gender essentialism can be off-putting to contemporary readers, and his complicated equation of femininity with both submissiveness and strength — and his consequent compulsive use of bondage imagery throughout his work — discomfited readers at the time and ever since. But the fact remains that Marston was able to imagine a woman as not just a superhero, but as the superhero. Marston's Wonder Woman didn't spend her time encouraging Superman to be awesome, because she was way to busy being awesome herself.

And just as Superman's awesomeness is linked, none too subtly, to that "man" in his name, with all its blood-curdling, bigger-muscles-than-yours masculinity, so Wonder Woman's awesomeness was, for Marston, linked to that "woman" in her name. Her lasso (which initially made people do whatever she said before later writers downgraded it to a lasso of truth) was, as Marston put it, "symbol of feminine charm, allure, oomph." Her powers and skills came from Aphrodite, and were cultivated in the all-female community of Paradise Isand. The message of Wonder Woman, then, was not just that a woman could be the most important person in the world, but that the most important person in the world had to be a woman. But the underlying message you get when you watch Wonder Woman defer over and over to Superman's awesomeness is that the most important person in the world has to be a man.

Wonder Woman certainly has superhero heirs; popular characters like Sailor Moon or Buffy the Vampire Slayer are both female superheroes who, in various ways, present femininity and being female as central to their specialness and heroicness.  Wonder Woman herself, though, seems to have lost that vision. Originally, the fact that Wonder Woman was a woman was the reason she was the hero. Now, on the other hand, the woman in Wonder Woman tends to relegate her to being a bit player in some guy's superstory.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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