Sprung from the mind of psychologist William Moulton Marston who believed that one day women would seize economic and political control over the world, Wonder Woman was hailed by many as a step towards woman’s liberation (O’Reilly 274). Marston’s intent was to create a strong, matriarchal figure that would bring peace to the violent, male dominated world through a combination of sexual dominance and a nurturing approach (DiPaolo 152-153). Wonder Woman, Marston believed, could provide a strong, sexy, assertive figure of emulation for females while simultaneously stimulating adoration in males, thereby inspiring a shift in the established patriarchal system (DiPaolo 153). Unfortunately, Marston’s dream was never realized. He died, taking his vision with him, and his Wonder Woman became a limited agent of the super hero world, held back by the very traits that were supposed to lift her up. As a result Wonder Woman is half of what she was meant to be; she is strong and beautiful, but without Marston’s ideological message, these qualities create a character that is little more than an idealistic object for the male gaze. Some believe this created a precedent. Female superheroes following in the shadow of Wonder Woman have been defined by their position as other, and have yet to escape their explicit role as providers of visual pleasure for the primary, male. But did Wonder Woman create this problem or did she simply fail to cure an already existent disease? Though many things about a woman’s role have changed and adapted through the 70 plus years of the American comic book’s history, the position of women has never ceased to be defined in relation to the position of men. As a highly visual medium, comic books lend themselves to the scopophilic fetish prevalent in American society much more readily than they function as agents of radical social modification. By viewing comic books as a mirror, through which society’s triumphs as well as shortcomings are replicated, it becomes clear that it isn’t Wonder Woman that has failed, but her readers and perhaps the nation at large; as long as American society views women as submissive others, only capable of action in context to their relationship with men, comic books will continue to reflect that viewpoint.
Though there were other females in comic books before her, the true genesis of the female superhero occurred in 1941 with the birth of Wonder Woman (Robinson 27). She is an indisputable icon of the genre, partially because of her longevity, but also because of her unique origins, both inside and outside of her comic books. This is because creator Marston uses his eccentric feminist belief in her creation, a belief which was loosely based on Freud but was combined with Marston’s own strong belief in women’s innate superiority to men (Robinson45-46). He stated in an interview that, “not even girls want to be girls, as long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power…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” ( Robinson 46). Marston identified what he thought was an inherent social problem, he believed women to be the superior sex trapped in the inferior role. And he believed that he could make a difference by giving girls a positive female role model and writing comics that portrayed her changing society in positive and distinctly female ways. He also believed though, that in order for women to be the agent of change he thought they could be, men had to willingly submit to them (Robinson 51). Women, Marston asserted, would rule through the power of love, but what he meant was that women would be able to keep men in check through the men’s desire to have sex with them (Robinson 53). This is where the need for superior physical attraction enters the equation; because for Wonder Woman, and the regular girls she was meant to influence, power comes from their relation to men.
Marston may have, as he claimed, created this wonder of a woman to empower. However, on the page she had the opposite effect. He placed his princess in the position of object, and he emphasized her position in the patriarchal hierarchy as one of other, albeit a physically ideal version of other. Perhaps Marston had some grander plan that he never had the chance to execute. Perhaps it was his untimely death that left Wonder Woman in the hands of DC craftsmen more interested in selling issues than espousing feminist ideals that changed the trajectory of the female superhero. Or, it could have been the result of the images being more vital to the message than the words that framed them. Either way, Marston’s feminism soon gave way to “themes of heterosexual romance” (Robinson 65). Her message of self-empowerment was slowly etched away, while the other part of the essential Wonder Woman, the physical, which was “coded as being as close to perfection as the female body can get” remained (Robinson 62). And it is that physical ideal, rather than her superiority as a female, that remains as her legacy.
Comic books are, above all else, a visual medium, and so it should come as no surprise that the most influential element of Wonder Woman has been the flawlessness of her physicality. But, it was as a result of placing Wonder Woman’s body “at the center” (Robinson 62) that Marston, whether he intended to or not, set a precedent that would always call for this objectification of the female, and furthermore, would always place her in relation to the male. In her article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey applies the idea of Sigmund Freud’s notion of scopophila, “the taking of other people as objects,” and applies it to cinema which, because of its highly visual nature, places great emphasis on the human form. This theory, as Mulvey modifies it, is also highly adaptable to the comic book form. Mulvey states that in a patriarchal culture, woman is “subjugated to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound. She can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it” (59). In other words, women can only operate in regard to their lack, their otherness, their relation to men, and they are therefore dependent upon men for their position and agency. It is this position that continually perpetuates the female superhero’s objectification. Furthermore, this position of other can be seen as something that does not have its origins in the comic book genre, it is instead a reflection of the larger society which the comic books are in the business of reflecting upon. In this sense, Wonder Woman is an adaptable construct, but only insofar as the scopophilic nature of her audience will allow her to be.
The physical form clearly plays a crucial role in the medium, whether male or female centric. But, it should also be mentioned that the comic book industry is quick paced, and highly reflective of the society and times. As a result, history in regard to the various ways in which women of this society have been viewed, can be revisited within the histories of various comic books’ stylized pages. As comic scholar Lillian Robinson states in her book, Wonder Women, comic creators during the 40s and 50s “were uncritically echoing social norms and attitudes it never occurred to them to challenge” (76). Once can see this working in the themes wartime effort comics of the 1940s juxtaposed against the postwar comics of the 1950s. When strong women were necessary, a strong and hard-working Wonder Woman was needed and encouraged, but when the men came home and a female workforce was not only unnecessary but unwelcome, Wonder Woman, like other women of the time, acquiesced. Suddenly Wonder Woman was more interested in catching herself a man than she was in catching crooks and her “pro-female persona” all but joined its creator in the grave (Madrid 51). After the war, society wanted women to reclaim their femininity, and Wonder Woman played along. She received a makeover, which gave her a softer look; her costume became more girlish and her face more glamorous (Madrid 189). And this was only the beginning for Wonder Woman. Throughout her life, the Amazonian princess has “started her life over” nine times according to Madrid (183), and her makeovers are always indicative of her eternal battle to remain physically perfect. Most important of all is the changes that occur through the years in regard to the body of Wonder Woman. As the “ideal objectified body” has changed in the eyes of society, so has the body of Wonder Woman (Robinson 62). She has become taller, thinner, and bustier over her lifetime, reflecting the changing societal ideals. Her costume has also become more revealing. As women in society began to be led up to higher and higher standards of beauty and perfection, so was the bar raised for Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman had fallen victim to what Mulvey calls fetishistic scopophilia, which “builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying” in order to cope with what she refers to as the discomfort which men feel as a result of their objectification of the “castrated female” (65). Wonder Woman is still living in a patriarchal society and therefore she is still a representative of the castrated other. Because of this, she must suffer the fate of all the other females that lay within the male gaze. She is the most iconic and enduring female comic hero in existence, yet the most memorable thing about is her gold-plated, eagle-adorned halter top.
By the time the 90s hit, and Supermodel culture hit America, superheroines had their work cut out for them, in terms of maintaining their status as the ideal form. As a result, their bodies began to be drawn in highly sexualized and extremely unrealistic ways. Plastic surgery chic began to be worn by more and more of the comic heroines (Madrid 279). And yes, Wonder Woman succumbed to the pressure. Her 90s costumes remodel contained the latest trend in underwear couture, the thong. As Madrid points out, there were an overwhelming amount of titles featuring women during this time, but the cost was great; “they were so highly sexualized that it seemed to cancel out any of their power” (283). Despite living through war and women’s liberation, Wonder Woman’s cup size and her thonged costume now generate more attention than her weapons or powers combined. It is no small wonder that this reflection of femininity, in a society built on the patriarchal norm of visual objectification, when represented in a visual medium that seeks to reflect the patriarchal culture that inspired its art form, would lead to the evanescence of true feminine power in favor of the fun house mirror distortions of the female body.
What is surprising though is that avowed feminists are able to rationalize this hyper-eroticized depiction of the female form in the context of the comic book genre. Yet that is exactly what they do. When Gail Simone took over the job as Wonder Woman scribe, she claimed that “the revolution [was] happening” (Anders 73). The revolution, as Simone sees it, involves bringing more women into the comic industry. Yet this self-proclaimed feminist, who got her start in the comic book, industry by garnering attention through her blog “Women in Refrigerators,” which questioned the violent treatment of women in comics(Yarbroff), continued to expand on the patriarchal paradigm of objectification. “Part of her appeal is that she makes your eyes pop out of your head,” Simone stated in an interview conducted right before she was set to start her work on Wonder Woman (Yarbroff). Simone was the first female writer allowed to grace the pages of the princess’ comic, and she had no discernible interest in challenging her character’s status as object. How can Simone still claim to have the credibility to empower their female readers to become more than other when she herself is perpetuating the system which places them in the position of other? What kind of revolution is this? A woman can only wonder.
However, can writers like Simone, perpetuators rather than creators of the problem, be blamed? Or, are they only guilty of giving the comic book audience exactly what they want? Simone stated of her newest endeavor, Birds of Prey, that girls love these comics for the same reasons as their male counterparts do, they are investing in the fantasy (Anders 72). This is a dangerous excuse however, when one thinks about the ramifications. Most know of the dangers of having young girls admire the photo-shopped perfection they see in fashion magazines, but isn’t it worse to have them idolizing the super-heroine form, a form in which perfection is only limited by the confines of the human imagination? The overdone, exaggerated female form of the comic super-heroine is ultimately unattainable. But, what makes it damaging is the ways in which this form claims to be a medium of empowerment. Feminist writer Simone claims that she is helping girls to “imagine rescuing themselves instead of waiting for a white knight to show up” (Anders 73), but because the form does not meet the content the message seems to be buried in an avalanche of exposed flesh and skin tight costuming. Yes, these female characters have proven themselves, over the years, to be just as strong as their male superhero counterparts. But why do they continue to be a physical spectacle? Why must they do their work in spiked heels and costumes that a real flesh and bone woman could not even walk across a room in? If this is what society wants, as the comic writers and artist claim, what does this say about the society the comics are reflective of ? Until the scopophilic fetishism of society is confronted, visual mediums, such as comics, will continue to cater to it. This fetish is what places women in “exhibitionist roles” which require them to submit to an act of spectacle, “coded for strong visual and erotic impact,” triggering, as Mulvey claims, connotations of “looked-at-ness” (62-63). Through this practice, the woman as other becomes an object on display, an object that can never escape her role as other because this very position, as object for the viewing pleasure of the male, defines her existence. Every action she engages in is secondary to this. This can be seen in panel after panel of comic book action which shows the female heroines splayed and displayed, the physical assets being primary, their ability to fight being secondary. But, how is this any different from a society in which women are now allowed to enter the workplace and do their jobs along side men, but in the objectified female costume of awkward pencil skirts and stiletto pumps? Comics might be distorting the image society reflects in them, but the original image can still be seen beneath the layers of masks and mayhem.
Wonder Woman and her successors who bravely march alongside her into the male gaze of objectification are, in fact, reflective of the views of the society which bares them. The comic book genre is highly responsive to the society from which it springs, and as a result, more often than not, the genre maintains the status quo. In the beginning, Marston attempted to aid what he believed was a flawed society through the creation of Wonder Woman. He hoped she would be an influence and an agent of change, but he did so without challenging the objectification paradigm. Wonder Woman became the model upon which other female superheroes would be built. But, because of a refusal to shift the gaze, and without the continuation of Marston’s well intentioned society-changing agency, these heroines were all doomed to the diminished role of object, long before they even began reflecting the society they sought to empower. Comic books are agents of change only if those that read them find inspiration and move to action. What values is a society really perpetuating when the thrust of a narrative can only be tolerated if it is packaged in a hyper-eroticized female form? How does this challenge the role of other, or encourage male interaction with women to be based on more than physicality? What is the real takeaway for young girls? Ours is a society built upon a fixation with visual aesthetics that is created and reflected by the visual aesthetic of one of its most innovative art-forms. The heroes are not going to jump from the pages to save us, they are only a mirror through which we should see the change that we wish to be. Still, perhaps the comic world could best elicit change by inspiring society, rather than simply distorting its reflection.
Works Cited and Consulted
Anders, Charlie. “Supergirls Gone Wild.” Mother Jones 32.4 (2007): 71-73. Academic Search Elite. Web. 21 Nov. 2010.
DiPaolo, Marc Edward. “Wonder Woman as World War II Veteran, Camp Feminist Icon, and
Male Sex Fantasy”. pp. 151-73. Wandtke, Terrence R. (ed., introd., and afterword) The Amazing Transforming Superhero! Essays on the Revision of Characters in Comic Books, Film and Television. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. x, 244 pp. Web.
Madrid, Mike. The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines. Ashland, Or.: Exterminating Angel, 2009. Print.
Marston, William Moulton, and H. G. Peter. The Wonder Woman Chronicles. New York, NY: DC Comics, 2010. Print.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP,1999: 833-44. Web.
O’Reilly, Julie D. “The Wonder Woman Precedent: Female (Super)Heroism on Trial.” The Journal of American Culture 28.3 (2005): 273-83. Print.
Robinson, Lillian S. Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Yabroff, Jennie. “Holy Hot Flash, Batman!” Newsweek. 14 Jan. 2008. Web. 29 Nov. 2010. Web.