It is a commonly accepted fact that there are few female superheroes, especially in comparison to the number of male superheroes. Most of these female super-beings tend to be part of a team or created as a counter point to a male hero. Jean Grey, Storm, Kitty Pryde and Rouge were members of the X-men, Wasp was the partner of Ant-Man, and Sue Storm was but a quarter of the Fantastic Four. For that matter Batgirl was originally developed as a counter point to Batman and Robin and Supergirl to Superman. In fact there are only two female superheroes that existed as solo entities and have existed almost as long as Superman. One such character is the Amazonian Princess, Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman first debuted in the comic books in 1941, three years after Superman, and two years after Batman. Much as they had their basis in the fear and anxiety of the era of the Great Depression and World War II, so too did Wonder Woman. When she entered the comic book scene, it was also a time when the expectations of women were changing. Women were working outside of the home in factories and offices, trying to keep the country running. Wonder Woman is not that dissimilar from the character of Rosie the Riveter who appeared on the war time propaganda posters, flexing a muscle and reminding women, “We Can Do It.”
She is also part of a long and rich tradition of strong women that appear in mythology, literature, history and the Bible. Consider Antigone in the play by Sophocles who was willing to defy the inane commands of the king and burry her brother, thereby obeying the higher laws of the gods. Think of Penelope in the Odyssey, holding down the fort at Ithaca, waiting 20 years for her husband to return home, and using her intelligence to forestall the advances of the suitors who want nothing more then to seize the throne and kill her and her son.
There was also St. Joan of Arc, who led the French people in war against the British, and Harriet Tubman leading the salves northward to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Even the Bible, despite what some may say about it has strong women. Consider Jochebed, the mother of Moses, risking her life to save her son from being slaughtered as a baby. The Book of Judges features two strong women, Deborah who led the Israelites to victory in war when a man refused, and Jael who slew the king by lulling him to sleep with milk and driving tent peg through his head.
Author Brian K. Vaughen has pointed out that Wonder Woman is a character of many contradictions. She is a warrior who believes in seeking peace, and like Superman and Batman works for a world where they are no longer needed. She can be immensely compassionate, especially when girls are getting harassed, demeaned or abused, but she has her own vulnerabilities, largely stemming from living in a world she doesn’t fully understand. Even learning that humans fear and hate her because of her strength causes her to shed a tear in private. Where she comes from there is nothing wrong with her way of solving a problem, not so much in Western culture.
Physically speaking, is also a very beautiful woman, one of the most beautiful in the world. Aquaman finds himself strangely attracted to her, so much so that if he requests any Justice League aid he does not want her to come alone as his attraction is just that strong he cannot control himself. In their first meeting Superman thought to himself, “I will always remember my first sight of her. Lois ( Lane) you’re the most compelling woman I’ve ever met. But this… is the most magnificent.” In a tussle with the villain Psycho Pirate who can bring out their hidden feelings, Batman mocks Superman for his “obvious school boy crush” but relishes the fact it appears she is more interested in him. In fact on their first adventure together, Batman spies her bathing in a lake, and the grim Dark Knight, who is at times as emotional as a rock, is so over come by passion for her that he kisses the Amazonian Princess, an act that quickly gets him punched in the face. Her frequent paramour, Steve Trevor finds her so beautiful that he gives her the nick-name “Angel” upon their first encounter.
Wonder Woman was created by Dr. William Moulton Marston, largely because of the popularity of Superman. He noticed how successful the Man of Steel, and other heroes were becoming and decided to create his own hero . He told his wife of his notion, and she told him, “Fine, just make it a woman.” Marston came from an older tradition of literature and had a strong love and passion for Classical mythology, and as such Wonder Woman’s origin drew from the Greek Myths.
She was born Princess Diana of Themyscira the hidden paradise of the Amazons. For centuries they had been known as fierce warriors, often times liberating women from slavery or rescuing them from abusive husbands in Greek culture. However, because of the societal norms myths and legends spread about them, these being the stories we are familiar with, namely that they were ruthless, blood thirsty savages. The bloodthirsty savages as it turned out were but a separate sect, hailing from Egypt called the Bana-Migdahl. The Amazons of Themyscira were about seeking peace and democracy for all, in particular women and children.
This would not be forever as they would soon be cut off from Greek culture for over two thousand years. In the animated movie Wonder Woman, it was because they found themselves fighting for freedom from Ares the god of war. The war ended with the death of one of Ares sons, and just as Hippolyta was about to finish Ares, Zeus and Hera intervened. Zeus forbids her from killing Ares, and to this she yields. However Hera knows Ares must be punished and as such he is to be imprisoned within their new home. She sends the Amazons to an island paradise of Themyscira, and it is there that they will reclaim their purity of heart and soul.
There on the island they were sheltered from the ravages of time, and as long as they remained out of contact with the outside world they would never die. Then the gods would grant them their greatest blessing, the Princess Diana, who would become known as Wonder Woman. The story of her birth is one that Princess Diana of Themyscira can relate all to well:
“Centuries ago, the gods of Mount Olympus created the Amazons to lead humanity in the ways of virtue. And when the Amazon queen Hippolyta prayed for a daughter. The gods blessed her with a child possessing the wisdom of Athena, the grace of Aphrodite and the swiftness of Hermes. A child who would become the gods own champion in the world of Men.”
The daughter was formed from clay and brought to life by the power of the gods, like Galatea in the story of Pygmalion. Diana became all the more reason or Hippolyta to be so protective. As is the case for any mother, Hippolyta didn’t want to see her daughter harmed in any way shape or form, she had been taken advantage of, not only by Ares in the movie, but by Hercules in the comics. Having been used by men herself, she didn’t wish to see that happen to Diana. However as the Princess grew she also became curious about the outside world. Many centuries passed by and she continued to ask questions about man’s world, and even urged her mother to reach out to the world they left behind.
In the pilot movie for the 1970’s TV show, she says, “It’s been over a thousand years. Perhaps men have changed now.”
Hippolyta would not yield to her daughter’s request, and things would have continued on Paradise Island as they always had if fate hadn’t intervened. US Airforce pilot by the name of Steve Trevor and his squadron was flying by when they fell under enemy fire. Steve was shot down and crash landed on the island. Due to the Greek Customs ingrained into their culture they could not just kill him. Athena and Hera encouraged Hippolyta to reach out to the Old World, in particular America as it was to them the last bastion of freedom and democracy. Hippolyta eventually agreed to have him returned home, in order to do this, one of them would escort him to the outside world. The matter was to be settled in the way it always had been among their people. A contest, much like the Olympics, was to be held to determine the bravest, strongest and best fighter of all of Amazonians. In winning this contest, that woman would be given this privilege to journey to the outside world. Diana begged to participate but her mother refused. Like any head strong daughter she rebelled, donning armor and entering the contest in secret.
The final round came, and only two remained standing, Diana and one other Amazonian. In the original comics, this tie was to be settled by the very anachronistic “bullets and bracelets” challenge. More recent comics have altered this challenge, dropping the guns and bullets and instead using bows and arrows, and deflecting them with bracelets. The other contestant lowered her guard and was shot in the arm, drawing first blood. Hippolyta ordered the victor to step forward. She removed her helmet and revealed who she was. Since rules were rules, Hippolyta had no choice but to let her go.
She was given her familiar costume, as it was their custom to adopt the flag of the culture they were visiting, bullet proof bracelets, an invisible jet, a girdle that was none other then the fabled Golden Girdle of Hippolyta that Hercules attempted to steal from her and tiara that could even be used as a boomerang. Last, but not least is her magic lasso of truth that can be used to make any person tell the truth. In many instances it can lead to humorous results, such as Hippolyta in the animated movie forcing Steve Trevor to admit he has been checking out Diana out during interrogation, or Diana getting him to admit his most intimate feelings when his foot gets caught in her lasso while they are flying.
She arrives in “man’s world” and because of her great strength and speed is given the name Wonder Woman. Much as the shield on Superman’s chest is a Kryptonian symbol (usually the equivalent of a family crest) mistaken for the English letter “S”, the crest upon Diana chest, which is a stylized Eagle is interpreted as the letter W. She is allowed to stay among men as an ambassador of Themyscira to help promote peace between the two worlds.
She finds comrades among the members of the Justice League, and develops a deep sense of respect for Superman and Batman whom she reveres as equals. At times these three can butt heads on the issues of how they achieve justice, but in the end they are always willing to die for each other. However, Wonder Woman is willing to go further and kill for them. This leads to massive rift between them when a man named Maxwell Lord takes control of Superman’s mind through telepathy. Just as the mind controlled Superman was about to kill Batman, Wonder Woman intervened, killing Lord. It was an action that earned her the scorn of Superman and Batman, but one she deemed necessary as she was not only saving her friend, but the world. An action she said was permissible as she would tell Superman, “Sometimes you have to kill the monsters.”
This also caused her to have a falling out with her fellow Amazons as they were trained to seek peace before anything else, and it also had major repercussions on her life. The public came to fear her and mistrust her and other superheroes as well. The courts cleared her of the crimes, but it took a toll on her soul as she began to question herself and took some time off to do some soul searching. She gave her mantel to her sister, Donna Troy, for a time.
In order to help her, Batman set her up with a job at a government agency so she could still do some good, and when Hercules and several of her enemies teamed up she rose to the occasion and got back into action. In the process she saved the life for her dreaded enemy, Circe. As a thank-you, Circe granted Diana her hearts desire. Diana admitted to her, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the blessings I’ve been given. But I’m a not a real person. I’m a golem, a clay statue brought to life.”
Circe places a spell on her so that whenever she is out of costume in her civilian disguise she is mortal, but when she is in costume, she is immortal. At long last, the Amazonian could finally taste what it was like to be human.
Because of this sheltered life, and her Amazonian background, it takes a greater effort for Wonder Woman to maintain a secret identity and to blend in with society, and not just because she is at least 6 feet tall. Part of this is due to her unfamiliarity with Western Civilization. Aside from the rolls of men and women in society even the littlest things can at times seem confusing. For example in the pilot episode of Wonder Woman, she foils a bank robbery. The arresting officer is insistent that she fill out paper work. She exclaims, “He commits the robbery and I have to fill out the paper work?” A woman who owns a dress store tries to sell her a dress that in her own words has way too much fabric, and she can’t seem to understand why women seem so angry at her and men stop and stare at her while she walks down the street. In an episode of the Justice League cartoon when a talk show host slams her for being a bad roll model for girls and questions her outfit she punches her fist through the TV screen and turns to Green Lantern and Flash,
“And what is wrong with the way I dress?”
She admits to herself:
“I am Wonder Woman. The gods sent me to the Themyscirans. The Themyscirans sent me to the humans. I am here to protect them. I understand that. What I don’t understand is how to be one of them. Maybe that is what I was born for .To protect them. Not understand them. But how can I? They don’t even understand themselves.”
Further, her occupation has changed over her 70 year history. Clark Kent has always been a journalist, whether it was with the news paper, or for a brief time during the 1970s and early 1980s TV. Bruce Wayne has always been wealthy, with his net worth varying based on the decade. Wonder Woman however has changed with the times blessed on the cultural views of what women could and couldn’t do. She has been everything from a nurse, to a secretary to a secret agent. She was for a brief time a museum curator, and for a while had no civilian disguise at all, but was simple Princess Diana of Themyscira, Ambassador. It was at this time she was able to do the greatest amount of good.
This is perhaps her greatest contradiction. She is a warrior, but she believes in fighting for peace and wants nothing more then to bring it about, not just between nations but between men and women. How could someone who believes in peace, be a warrior? Many mistake pacifism and peacemaking for being a pushover, and that is far form the truth. As another strong woman warrior, Eowyn in Lord of the Rings, says, “Those who do not use swords can still fall by them.” In the culture Wonder Woman came from, it would not be uncommon for invaders after they slew the men, and even the children to have their way with the women. A woman knowing how to defend herself, like Diana, can give her, other women, and children a fighting chance to survive an invasion. In many ways the women in America who were working the factories and offices during World War II were helping give the nation that same fighting chance.
At the same time because she has shed blood, and fought in many battles, she knows the importance of avoiding conflict. She has seen the final outcome and knows it must be avoided. She knows that true peace comes from trying to make the world a better place by doing good deeds. During the time when she had to civilian identity she was able to do far more then she could by operating in secret. Lois shadows her and sees that in her daily life she did as many good things as she did in costume.
Diana went to a youth center in Atlanta where she mentored the street kids. Then she went to went to Indonesia to teach women some basic self-defense moves. She spoke at the UN, worked on a cancer cure with a fellow superhero and even helped with an AIDs walk fundraiser .The most heart wrenching moment came when she went to Rwanda to care for the children. Four of them were dying of malnutrition and she would just take them in her arms, cradle them and sing them to sleep as they passed away.
She knows full well that any hand can pick up a sword or a gun and kill someone .Any one can make a fist and punch some guys lights out .But it takes a stronger hand, and even stronger heart to open those hands to help make the world better. It takes hand that is connected to a heart of compassion and filled with strength of character. Think of Mother Theresa caring for the orphans in Calcutta, or Rosa Parks quietly refusing to leave her seat on the bus.
With her status and influence how can she not try to? As Steve Trevor tells her in the Wonder Woman animated movie when she demands to know why he saved her instead of making sure Ares couldn’t get free, “Because maybe I decided the world wasn’t worth living in with out you in it.”
We need more beauty. We need more grace. We need more people who are willing to help others and defend the cause of women, children and the oppressed. Most importantly we need warriors who are ready to advance the cause of peace. It was the very thing that Dr. Marston knew when he created Wonder Woman and it is the same thing she still reminds us of today.
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*First Appearance of Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston
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[i]This story was not given a title originally, but was given one for reader’s references in the DC Archive Editions”