Tuesday night my family sat down together to watch the new Wonder Woman animated movie (aptly titled Wonder Woman). When I told my daughters this plan I got two wildly different reactions. Aeris, my rambunctious child who will be four next month, who wants to be Iron Man when she grows up and thinks she already is Batgirl (honestly, I can see Barbara Gordon growing up to be Iron Man), said: “Yay! I love Wonder Woman! She’s my favorite Barbie!” Kiki, my studious tween who gets upset if she doesn’t accomplish something every day, said: “Who?” Then she thought about it for a moment and added, “Oh, wait, that’s who everybody thought I was when I dressed as Sailor Moon for Halloween.”
I admit to being crushed by this response. I felt like a failure as a Comic Book Parent. I write for a blog about comic book characters, my pet project is discussing the pros and cons of superheroines, and my own child doesn’t know who Wonder Woman — arguably the most iconic female in comics — even is? My childhood memories are full of Super Friends. I watched it religiously and not for Superman or the Wonder Twins (though, possibly for Batman). I watched it for Wonder Woman because, as Jennifer alluded to in her brilliant article about the new Marvel Heroes cartoon, I was a little girl and I wanted to watch stories about a girl hero. And the truth is by the time enacting Super Friends became my favorite pastime I had already been spoiled by a little show actually titled Wonder Woman. When I was Aeris’s age I wanted to be Lynda Carter when I grew up. And sometimes, I still do.
Lest you think I am making this up to make my article more poignant, here is a polaroid from January of 1982. That makes me just barely six years old — and dressed unabashedly as Wonder Woman, bulletproof bracelets and all. You’ll note my little brother is portraying Superman, further proof that affection for comic books is an inherited trait. The woman on the right is my mother and the woman on the left family friend and actress Jaffrey, who was “secretly a lesbian.” Since no one bothered to explain what that meant to the six year old I came to the logical conclusion that Lesbian was her superhero identity and for a good two years was under the impression that Amazon and Lesbian were synonymous.
Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman debuted in 1975, the year I was born, and ran only three seasons (Super Friends ran from 1973-1986). But way back then there weren’t 500 channels competing for our attention and the series was shown past its cancellation in the afternoons. I remember playing out my own Wonder Woman scenarios during recess in first grade. I was Diana and my best friend, Mark, was Steve. And since I was brought up by a pureblood-hippy mother who refused to allow toy guns or army men in the house, this meant I, as the superpowered Amazon (lesbian!) princess, always saved him — because guns are bad, so even though he was in the army he wasn’t ever allowed to have any. Yes, I was a bossy little child, but I did let him choose the game sometimes and those days I was stuck playing Daisy Duke who had no super powers and even fewer brains. But it is safe to say that my formative years were full of the tiara-throwing, super-strong, super-fast, indestructible, strong-willed Princess Diana of Themyscira. To the point where I found the real Princess Diana to be horribly disappointing; she never once flung her tiara.
Unlike Sue Storm or Beverly Crusher, Wonder Woman comes off as a strong female role model at first blush. With abilities that rival Superman’s she is the definition of a strong female and as a consummate career woman with a distinct moral compass and a willingness to stand up to anyone she is a strong role model. So it is a bit like saying Superman is a Superhero — we are then met with a chorus of Obviously!. But that she is clearly a strong role model for the little girl I was and the little girls I am raising does not mean we should dismiss it and move on. That she is clearly a strong role model makes Diana more special, not less.
But I will start with her flaws as a role model. First, Wonder Woman is hardly a representation of an average woman; she is an Amazon, a princess, and built like a supermodel. But if we are applying realism — she can fly. Superheroes, male or female, are not average citizens. They are the best and brightest and boldest and they are inevitably the most beautiful. Second, she runs around in her underwear. This fact is very well illustrated in the new animated film when Diana is interrupted in her not-date and fights off a gang in her purple dress until the dress falls apart and off revealing the star-spangled panties and golden eagle bustier we all know so well. I suppose the purpose there is to show that clothing off the rack from Filene’s can’t stand up to a fight the way patriotic underwear can. But again, it is not Wonder Woman’s fault comic book readers expect superheroes to be in costumes and superheroines to be in skimpy costumes. It is a flaw, but it is a flaw of the medium. Third, the story goes that Wonder Woman is so strong-willed “for a woman” because she was raised outside of society. Which says a lot about society; mainly that women raised within it (i.e. the readers) are expected to be meeker and weaker than Wonder Woman. And related to that, fourth, it is often pointed out that Diana “acts like a man.” Meaning her strength, her confidence, her commanding presence — these are anomalies. It’s a troubling message to send.
However, none of this takes away from her place as an iconic female superhero. And where Wonder Woman is truly unique is her status as part of the Big Three of DC Comics. She stands tall and proud beside Superman and Batman. She is more than their ally, she is their equal; at the same time she is more than their peer, she is their friend. And while Superman is magnanimous, Batman holds things close to the chest. There are very few people he considers friends and the number of friends he trusts can be counted on one hand — but Diana is one of them. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are considered a trinity representing the top tier of superheroism. They are what every superhero strives to be and the fact that Diana is a woman is inconsequential to her placement. But extraordinarily significant to her cause.
Especially when we realize it crosses over to her parent company. Not only is Wonder Woman respected as a parallel to Superman and Batman by the characters within the pages of their story, she is respected as a parallel to Superman and Batman by DC Comics. Superman and Batman dominate DC marketing, but Wonder Woman is second only to those two and more often than not the three appear all together. Wonder Woman and her logo show up on t-shirts, pillow cases, and underwear — she has books and coloring books and action figures — and she is my daughter’s favorite Barbie. And unlike Supergirl, DC’s other prominent female and female brand, she is not tied irrevocably to a more powerful man. Nor is her red and gold refashioned in pink.
Back to Tuesday night, we all enjoyed the film. It’s Wonder Woman’s origin story and thus steeped in Greek mythology and mysticism. Diana (voiced by Keri Russell) leaves her isolated island paradise to accompany a lost American soldier (Steve Trevor, voiced with amusement by Nathan Fillion) home and while doing so lets slip the idea that it has always been her personal dream to rejoin Themyscira with the outside world. Familiar characters abound with Hippolyta, Ares, and even a brief appearance by Etta Candy, but where the film excels is in giving the more minor characters, Diana’s Amazonian sisters Artemis, Alexa and Persephone, a way to express their (and thus the storytellers’) differing viewpoints — all of which, even villainous Persephone’s, have something to offer the young girls watching. Artemis is Diana’s trainer and only real rival for the title of best warrior; Alexa is a bookworm whose knowledge is able to save the day when brute strength fails; and Persephone makes poor choices but in the end she takes a quiet stand for women who want a family as well as a career. It is just over an hour long and rated PG-13 for “continuous violence” and “some suggestive material” — bathing Amazons (lesbians!) and quite a lot of “nice rack” jokes. My nearly-four year old didn’t notice these, focusing instead on the squadron of flying horses. And her older sister’s comments after the show were summed up in “I now have an appreciation for Wonder Woman. And I definitely love her bracelets.” Which is at the least an improvement over “Who?”
When I was six years old, dressed up in my sparkly underwear, spinning in place and crossing my arms to fend off whatever the villain wanted to fling my way — I wasn’t a six year old girl in my underwear. I was all powerful. I was Wonder Woman. And I will always appreciate that.
Posted by Anika