As usual, I’m just a bit behind on my movie watching: In the weekend that Wonder Woman is just coming to theaters, I just got out to see Guardians of the Galaxy. I haven’t seen every superhero movie in the theaters—and there are a few I haven’t seen at all—but I plan to see Wonder Woman, and I hope I enjoy it, despite my conflicting feelings for the character.
Wonder Woman is an odd character by my measure, owing to the many odd circumstances surrounding its creation. Most important to be clear about is that WW was created, not as the female idea of a superhero, but as a male idea of a female superhero. On one hand, she is all about truth and justice; but as the character has evolved, she’s become a badass warrior, an ultimate dominatrix. Where she used to be wise, now she’s as often depicted as being ignorant of the ways of the world, which sometimes makes her a bully (or, again, a dominatrix) that muscles through the crap to get her way. And she’s supposed to be a princess; so, possessor of an anarchic title that isn’t supposed to mean anything in America; and often displays the air of superiority that Americans assume always goes with the title.
And, of course, she’s a beautiful woman. This, alone, isn’t something to criticize, especially in the superhero world where very few heroes have ever been shown to be ugly. But where male heroes tend to be covered neck to toe in costumes, armor or leather, Wonder Woman traditionally wore a bathing suit that accentuates her bust and bares her arms and legs. She originally sported a star-spangled skirt, but that was replaced years later with the skimpiest of briefs. (And must we mention the stars below the waist? Particularly the one that exactly marks that spot most men love to stare at? Yeah, I know you looked… so I’m afraid we must.) Wonder Woman wears no mask, because who wants to cover up a pretty face? And for a girl supposedly from a Greek island, her traditional outfit is clearly based on the American flag with a golden eagle on top.
The only popular male hero in the DC comics roster to wear such a revealing and non-protective costume was the original Robin—coincidentally, known as the Boy Wonder!—and his outfit was mostly considered a joke by comics fans. (Yes, there were a few others with bared arms and legs, like the original Atom and Black Condor—one of the few male superheroes to wear a more revealing outfit than WW!—but those heroes’ outfits didn’t transition beyond the “silver age” era of comics, as Wonder Woman’s did.)
Most of this can be clearly attributed to the fact that Wonder Woman was conceived of by a man, William Marston, and not a woman. And Marston had his own unique ideas about things: For instance, that bondage was a healthy play activity. He also shared that typically male conceit that, at heart, men are all aggressive and basically assholes, and that all women embody strength, intelligence, reasoning and nurturing traits, as well as beauty (again, based on a male standard of female beauty). And Wonder Woman was created for American comic books, written by adult males, for a mostly young male audience.
But though her early adventures were about proving the power of Woman to overcome all obstacles, generally through disarming, non-threatening means, in recent years the Amazon warrior has become dominant; she is more likely to be literally disarming an opponent using a sword than using her ubiquitous lasso now… and considering she’s supposed to be about as powerful as Superman, the need for such a deadly weapon is questionable at best. As other characters either stay the same or modernize, Wonder Woman is somehow devolving into the turn-of-the-millennium centurion and fish-out-of-water depicted in the latest movie.
A while back I lamented the loss of Marvel Comics’ Ultimates line, an attempt to bring their heroes into the 21st century that did not turn out to be popular, sales-wise, as the traditional (20th century) versions of their heroes. Just as I thought updating the Marvel heroes was a good idea, I’ve always thought the concept of Wonder Woman needed a healthy update to bring it in line with 21st century heroes.
Starting with the origin of the character: Altering her origin from a mythical island of Greek demigods, having her come instead from a private settlement of intelligent women who, using SCIENCE, created a superbeing to take their message of peace to the world. Have her be wise to the ways and history of all the world again, including understanding men. Give her a uniform that doesn’t look like she’s sunning on a beach instead of fighting bad guys… a uniform that covers her body. If she’s supposed to be an ambassador to the world, lose the color schemes that suggest the United States, or any other nation for that matter. And lose the sword: We’re not barbarians, and if you’re that powerful, you hardly need it.
In fact, there’s a character that looks like a 21st century Wonder Woman should look, more or less: Jakita Wagner, from the comic Planetary. In many ways Jakita is a Wonder Woman analogue, encompassing great strength and a warrior’s passion, ready to act as a protector to those who need her. Her character was born to a super-advanced society, and raised in Europe by kindly parents who taught her the ways of the world. If I was going to update the Wonder Woman mythos, this is the direction I’d be pointing.
(For comic books, anyway. For movies, I’d probably expect her to look more like the oft-catsuited Emma Peel of The Avengers fame, but… 6 of 1.)
I also wouldn’t have this character’s attitudes and behaviors revolving so tightly around the differences between men and women. I’d like to see a modern character who was more interested in stemming conflict and reasoning with people to avoid violence; but when she has to, she should be able to fight anyone to a standstill in unarmed conflict. And if she comes from a super-scientific world, she should have some unique tools that help her in her mission to bring peace to the world; the modern equivalent of a “magic lasso,” say, a universal translator, a portable (or maybe innate) lie detector, and something that doesn’t deflect bullets, but neutralizes firearms…
Well, anyway. Yes, I see Wonder Woman as the embodiment of many of the twentieth century icons and attitudes of the USA, and its reflections in the genre of superheroes. But I would love to see those attitudes and icons evolve and join us in the present century. It’s especially important, because if we want our youth to be able to deal with today and tomorrow’s problems, we ought to be giving them better role models than those who dealt with the world of the last century.