In a scene in the newest film adaptation of Wonder Woman, the heroine (Gal Gadot), dressed as her alter ego Diana Prince, comes to the aid of a friend by destroying a gunman’s weapon. She hurls the bully across the pub, where he lands in a hard crash. Watching the scene, Sameer, an associate of Wonder Woman’s comrade Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) exclaims, “I’m both frightened and aroused.”
Looking more closely at Wonder Woman’s 75-year-old history, it becomes clear that the heroine has consistently evoked mixed feelings—whether fear, awe, or attraction. Her body in particular has been a canvas upon which authors, artists, and audiences have negotiated women’s shifting gender roles and beauty standards from the 1940s through today. Tracing how Wonder Woman’s appearance has evolved in the comics and film and TV adaptations reveals the ways her creators tried to respond to anxieties about women’s independence; in playing with her proportions, skin color, and costumes, the architects of Wonder Woman’s image over time have both empowered and objectified her, though the line between the two is often blurry.
When Wonder Woman made her cover debut in January 1942, the superhero was modeled after a new feminine ideal. According to the scholar Jill Lepore, the Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston was inspired by the Varga Girl centerfolds in Esquire magazine for their “cosmopolitanism” and “exoticism.” For Marston, it was important that Wonder Woman have a sexy and feminine appearance to counteract what he called the “blood-curdling masculinity” of comics at the time. As a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for All-American Comics, Marston used his background as a psychologist to advise the newly formed D.C. Comics on how to fight accusations by concerned parents and culture critics about the medium’s violent content.
His solution was a female superhero guided by love. The final artwork by Harry G. Peter depicted Wonder Woman with white skin, her hair styled into impeccable 1940s waves. A red and gold corset with a plunging back was paired with star-spangled culottes that accentuated her curves. In a few months, the duo pushed boundaries of propriety and changed Wonder Woman into tighter, shorter shorts. Her strapless bustier began to expose varying degrees of cleavage.
Through the end of World War II, Wonder Woman’s brazen attire was coupled with plotting that promoted women’s social and economic freedom. For example, in Issue #5, the heroine advocates for mothers and wives to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACS) and the United States Women’s Naval Reserves in order to combat a “cruel husband’s domination.” Via these storylines, Wonder Woman adeptly married the message of women’s empowerment spread by war propaganda (for example, Rosie the Riveter) and the look of the pin-up girls adorning men’s barracks.
However, after the war, Wonder Woman’s salacious dress and independence came under scrutiny as gender roles were re-solidified. In the early ’50s, shortly after Marston’s death, the psychiatrist and author Fredric Wertham argued that comics were inspiring youth delinquency and that Wonder Woman, in particular, was espousing homosexuality. Wonder Woman’s storylines, which saw the hero frequently bound and punishing her female nemeses with a good spanking, had been accused of lewdness before, but because she was also an important tool in galvanizing a new work force during the war, this material was overlooked.
One notable cover, created a few years before the industry began regulating itself with the Comics Code, hints at changes to come that would give Wonder Woman more marriage-centered stories. In the 1950 Issue #97 of Sensation Comics, Wonder Woman becomes the editor of the Hopeless Hearts Department of a newspaper. The cover shows Wonder Woman (in costume) typing a response to Steve’s letter submission which reads, “Dear Wonder Woman, When will you marry me?” Steve is looking over her shoulder expectantly, just shy of looming.
Wertham’s outspokenness quickly drew a following, pressuring the comics industry to make changes.The Code, adopted in 1954, toned down the increasingly amped-up sexiness of women in comics including Lois Lane, Betty and Veronica of the Archie comics, and Black Cat. The Code prohibited “suggestive and salacious” illustrations, stressing that “all characters shall be depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society” and that women were to be drawn “realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.” Wonder Woman’s costume was adjusted to cover more skin. Wertham equated Wonder Woman’s lesbianism with misandry, and storylines about heterosexual love became more prevalent alongside changes that made her smaller.
In 1968, the editors made Wonder Woman younger and thinner. This ’60s rebranding was a crucial turning point in the history of the character. On the cover of her debut issue (#178), she is depicted literally painting over her past by defacing an iconic Wonder Woman poster. In this issue, the heroine gives up her warrior powers and decides to fight crime as Diana Prince, a small-business owner. Her costume was replaced by a series of swingy color-blocked dresses with leggings that could easily be acquired in Diana’s groovy fashion boutique and in stores across America.
Though The New Wonder Woman comics introduce Diana as an almost waif-like modern girl, as the issues progress, Diana returns to various states of voluptuousness and undress. This increasing departure from the rebrand maps onto the growing visibility of the women’s movement. The feminist and co-founder of Ms. Magazine Gloria Steinem lamented the New Wonder Woman and attempted to resurrect Marston’s original vision for the hero by compiling a retrospective of his work. That same year, Wonder Woman graced the cover of Ms. with the headline “Wonder Woman for President.”
During this time, DC Comics was trying to find a way to respond to the historical significance of the women’s and black-power movements. The introduction of Nubia, Wonder Woman’s black half-sister, was an attempt to introduce diversity into the DC universe and simultaneously create more feminist storylines. The cover of Issue #206 in July 1973 shows Nubia and Wonder Woman facing off, virtually identical except for skin color. In some stories, Wonder Woman was a “white savior” archetype, helping Nubia liberate African women, yet the artwork played with the shades of their skin, emphasizing their contrast or similarity.
According to Steinem, DC’s engagement with feminism and race was in part an effort to appease activists such as herself. The writer Laura Wolff Scanlan quotes Steinem, who remembers “the person in charge of Wonder Woman calling me up from DC Comics. He said, ‘Okay. She has her magical powers back, her lasso, her bracelets, she has Paradise Island back, and she has a black African Amazon sister named Nubia. Now will you leave me alone!’”
Wonder Woman got back her powers in 1973, and by that time, her first television adaptation was already in production. Largely influenced by the Diana Prince era of the comics, the 1974 ABC made-for-television movie cast a blonde actress, Cathy Lee Crosby, in the titular role. The actress most resembled Twiggy, the uber-mod British model who ruled the 1960s. The film premiered to dismal reviews, but executives still believed Wonder Woman was a franchise worth pursuing.
A year later, the Wonder Woman series debuted on ABC, starring Lynda Carter, who was the physical opposite of Crosby. Carter, a Latina actress and former model, had dark hair and an athletic, slim frame. Carter’s Wonder Woman was compatible with comic-book artwork that played with Wonder Woman’s racial and ethnic ambiguity and that would reach a height in the 1990s. The series kept Wonder Woman at the forefront of popular culture until it ended in 1979, but the comic book struggled to stay relevant in the following decade.
By 1987, Wonder Woman’s print comic sales were down, and a revolving door of writers and artists struggled to find a firm identity for the character. DC decided to rewrite Wonder Woman’s history and start from scratch. The writer and artist George Perez, a “staunch feminist,” created a new origin story influenced by Greek mythology. Perez also brought on Steinem as a consultant, resulting in plotlines that emphasized socio-cultural issues such as ageism, domestic abuse, and discrimination. Wonder Woman’s costume was more functional, and the covers rarely showed her in a suggestive pose. Instead, she has an active body, constantly involved in battle. This was aligned with Perez’s goal to redress the overly sexual representation of the heroine. However, when Perez’s run at the comic ended in 1992, artists and authors were quick to revert to drawing Wonder Woman for a male audience.
During the mid ’90s and especially during the tenure of the writer and artist Mike Deodato, comics became what the cartoonist Trina Robbins identifies as “not merely a boy’s club, but a Playboy Club.” Wonder Woman’s body was a spectacle, the physical ideal of the time. She had muscular arms and legs that ranged from gymnast-like to bodybuilder big; she also had a tiny torso, flowing raven hair, and large, round breasts. Her costume’s lower half changed to a high-cut, hipbone-exposing thong bottom.
The bad-girl art of Deodato, as it was called, aimed to be provocative and sexual, harkening back to “good-girl art” of the ’40s and ’50s in which characters such as Phantom Lady and Invisible Scarlet O’Neil were regularly depicted in bikinis or lingerie. This drawing style gained a new resonance in the ’90s as the Amazonian supermodel of the ’80s gave way to the “heroin chic” bodies of models like Kate Moss and Jaime King. As discussions about this gaunt body type (and the social transgressions it represented, such as drug abuse and eating disorders) came to the fore, Wonder Woman’s artists pushed back, appearing to mimic instead the voluptuousness of Playboy icons Pamela Anderson and Anna Nicole Smith. Though these women represented a hypersexuality that media outlets were quick to judge, it seems as though their bodies were still easier to understand as a feminine ideal than the rail-thin ones of models.
In the past decade and a half, Wonder Woman’s artists and writers have aimed to leave behind her sex-symbol image with varying degrees of success. The cartoonist Cliff Chiang, who drew Wonder Woman from 2012 to 2015, spoke to Nerdist about an artist’s responsibility to change the comics industry’s trend toward scantily clad and sexily contorted women: “It’s not like when I’m drawing [that] my hand slips and suddenly it’s sexy ... These are conscious decisions someone is making, and there are many of them. It doesn’t accidentally happen. As creators, it’s important for us to reign that in.” The stakes of Wonder Woman's representation becomes starkly clear when real women don the costume and become subject to the same objectification as the fictional character. A 2011 television reboot starring Adrianne Palicki never made it to air amid criticism based on leaked on-set photos. The first version of the costume consisted of a corset and tight, shiny blue pants and was slammed for being “too trashy, too bad porn-y.”
In a 2016 interview with Jimmy Kimmel, the actress Gal Gadot addressed initial reactions by some fans that she was not well endowed enough to portray the Amazon princess. Gadot, like the male actors portraying superheroes, underwent extensive training and “bulking” to look the part, yet slenderness, emphasized by the film’s much-criticized brand partnership with Think Thin protein bars, remains an essential aspect of the character. By Western standards, being “feminine” means being slim, taking up less space, and having less physical power. Whether her muscles are larger or smaller, or her body is covered or exposed, Wonder Woman’s thinness is the only consistent aspect of her look.
For too much of her history, Wonder Woman’s body has been modified to keep her from being powerful, physically and politically. Yet, for many, Wonder Woman endures as a feminist icon. For others, these contradictory characterizations of Wonder Woman are enough reason to dismiss her outright. However, these conflicting and seemingly incompatible versions of Wonder Woman are arguably what make her an exceptional character. Possibly more so than her male superhero counterparts, Wonder Woman is bound to history—and therefore bound to be ever-changing. But Wonder Woman also has immense powers for change, and her ability to galvanize women should not be underestimated.