Comics and American Feminism: Wonder Woman

by Stephanie Cawley

The representations of women in mainstream comics, on the major industry labels DC and Marvel, have demonstrated considerable shifts over the course of the twentieth century, and a study of these representations can reveal a great deal about the changing status of women in this time period. Mitra C. Emad claims that “comic books are historical documents that can yield much insight about the particular conditions of their production” (956). One of the most prominent female comic book characters, the one most closely tied to the feminist movement, is, of course, Wonder Woman, and an examination of Wonder Woman’s incarnations since her inception reveals the major trends in representations of women in comics in the 20th century.

Wonder Woman on the first Ms magazine cover (Siskind)

Wonder Woman has been issued continuously since 1941, when the character was created by Harvard psychologist William Moulton Marston. Marston saw Wonder Woman as embodying and reflecting his feminist values. According to Kelli E. Stanley, Wonder Woman emerged at a time when women were being encouraged to join the workforce as part of the war effort (149). As such, early Wonder Woman comics present her as strong, powerful, and independent from men. In the post-war period, however, Wonder Woman’s storylines, focus more on domestic virtues and romance, as women were being urged to leave the workplace in order to allow men to reclaim their jobs (151). Wonder Woman returned to her independent, empowered roots in the 1970s at the urging of prominent feminist Gloria Steinem, who enjoyed reading the early Wonder Woman comics growing up (Stanley 153). In fact, Steinem chose Wonder Woman for the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine in 1972, and this issue featured a critique of contemporary Wonder Woman comics that was partially responsible for urging DC to reconsider and revamp the character in keeping with the feminist movement.

Despite overt associations with feminism both in Wonder Woman’s 1940s creation and her 1970s revival, a 1975 Wonder Woman comic presents a distinctly negative representation of feminism: “Feminists are depicted as virulently anti-men, shouting ‘Off the male chauvinist pigs!,’ and patronizing only beauty salons that refuse to cater to a ‘male’ vision of beauty” (Stanley 155). This comic illustrates the problematic aspects of Wonder Woman’s embrace by the feminist movement, in that the comic itself does not always present values that match the values of the character as described by the feminists who have embraced her as an icon. In the late 1980s, however, Wonder Woman was written by George Peréz, a “staunch feminist” (157) who consulted with Steinem in developing storylines, and attempted to make the character live up to her status as “the sacred icon of feminism” (157). Peréz’s tenure as writer was relatively brief, however, lasting only five years.

Following Peréz’s term as head writer, Wonder Woman was presented in a way that was typical of women in comics in the 1990s. At this time, women in comics tended to be represented as hypersexualized objects of male fantasy, even if they were also represented as strong and independent. Michael R. Lavin writes “Many of the comics which do portray strong, interesting heroines nevertheless still pander to young male readers. Despite all their admirable qualities, such characters…are still drawn in skimpy outfits and sexy poses” (Lavin). Trina Robbins describes these hypersexualized females as “possess[ing] balloon breasts and waists so small that if they were real humans they’d break in half” (Robbins). According to Robbins, this emphasis on idealized, sexualized female bodies has a long history in comics, but seems to have reached a new level of physical distortion by the 1980’s that continued in subsequent decades. Sheri Klein traces the origin of this emphasis on women’s bodies and the male gaze in visual media all the way back to the beginning of western art history, claiming that women in paintings such as La Grande Odalisque by Ingres are “arranged to display [themselves] to a male voyeur, the surveyor, as [they] look out of the picture” (61).  This sexualized aspect of Wonder Woman’s representation, making her an object of consumption for a male gaze, certainly problematizes the suggestion of her status as a feminist icon.

(Dini & Ross 59)

Today, Wonder Woman comics primarily continue this pattern of representation, presenting Wonder Woman as sexualized, even if she continues to be one of the few comics centered around a female superhero. Additionally, a striking Wonder Woman graphic novel, Spirit of Truth from 2001, presents a typical viewpoint of mainstream American feminism with regards to the rest of the world. In this graphic novel, Wonder Woman travels to an unnamed, unspecified Middle Eastern nation where she must liberate and save the people including “releas[ing] the women  hostages” (Emad 979). Dramatically, and “In a bizarre display of ethnocentric nationalism, Wonder Woman pulls off the heavy covering that is her chadohr disguise, to reveal her hypersexualized body in the star-spangled but minimal costume” (978). Wonder Woman presents American liberation through “feminism” as the route for freedom for Middle Eastern women but displays this liberation on her distorted, hypersexualized, exposed body. Despite the irony, this is typical of the exportation of Western feminism abroad, and of mainstream Western feminist attitudes about the Middle East in general.

Wonder Woman serves as an exemplar of many of the major shifts in representations of women in comic books from the beginning of the 20th century through to today, and these shifts in her representation chart a complex and somewhat uneasy relationship between Wonder Woman and American feminism. Though she originated as a central female character with a great deal of power and independence, she was also subjugated to storylines that focused on fitting her into traditional gender roles with regards to romance, and is also routinely presented as sexualized and objectified for a male audience. Although there are notable exceptions, women in mainstream comics are often represented in the same way. It seems that the feminist appropriation of Wonder Woman focuses only on several key elements of her character, without acknowledging the complexity and contradictions of her representation over the sixty-odd years that the comic has been produced.

Works Cited

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