As one of the founding members of the Justice League, Princess Diana of Themyscira has been one of pop culture’s most influential heroines for decades. In her years fighting injustice, she has taken on everyone from Hitler to Superman. With a new movie on the horizon bringing her story fully into the modern DC cinematic universe, Wonder Woman is as powerful a character today as she ever has been. This month marks the 75th anniversary of her first ever comic appearance. The Amazon princess and immortal warrior has become an iconic role model for woman the world over.
The character was created by psychologist, writer and inventor of the lie detector, William Moulton Marston, with help from his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston and artist H. G. Peter. Marston believed that comic books as a medium were not living up to their potential and was hired as an educational consultant by the two companies that would one day become DC Comics. He was invited to create his own superhero. His idea was for a character that “would triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love”.
“Fine,” was his wife’s response, “but make it a woman.”
From the start, Wonder Woman was designed to reflect the independent, liberated woman. Marston described her as “the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world”. He drew inspiration from the early activists fighting for women’s equality. He also based many aspects of characters on his wife and their lover, Olive Byrne, both of whom resisted pressure to live as housewives to become accomplished psychologists and academic scholars.
Wonder Woman’s story goes that she was sculpted from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta, given life by Athena and superhuman powers by the other Greek gods. Her Amazon heritage lent itself to the development of incredible strategy skills as well as the ability to hunt and fight.
Her first ever story was published in All Star Comics issue #8 in December 1941. It tells the tale of the first time Princess Diana of Themyscira laid eyes on a human man, when US Army Intelligence pilot Steve Trevor crashes his plane on her home of Paradise Island. Though men are forbidden from remaining on Paradise Island due to an ancient betrayal, Diana is allowed to nurse him back to health. Through his story, she learns about the war against the Nazis. The Amazons decide that an agent of their own should be sent to the United States to help in the battle. After winning a grand tournament to determine the strongest of the Amazon warriors, Diana is awarded her now iconic costume along with the title Wonder Woman.
A month later, in January 1942, Wonder Woman was feature on the cover of Sensation Comics #1, which went on to continue her adventures as a lead feature for most of its run.
DC Comics has published Wonder Woman stories consistently ever since, with only a brief break in the mid-1980s. For several years in the 1950s, she was one of only three superheroes to have their own comic books, alongside Superman and Batman. As well as appearing in comic books and, later, film and TV shows, her status as a cultural icon and symbol of female empowerment has been cemented by numerous depictions in everything from magazines to cereal box covers.
With her first story published two years into the Second World War, Wonder Woman spent a lot of her early time fighting Axis military forces, as well as fighting crime and advocating for peace.
Once the Amazonian princess arrived in America, she established herself as an Army nurse under the name Diana Prince. Over the years, she worked her way through various military positions from nurse, to a military intelligence office. She also managed to find time for the usual variety of supervillains and to serve as secretary for the Justice Society of America.
When the War was over and Nazis became less of a hot topic, Robert Kanigher updated Wonder Woman’s backstory to give her mythological roots more of an impact on her character. The blessings she received at birth from the Greek deities became prophetic of the warrior she would become: as “beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, strong as Hercules and swift as Hermes”.
The villains she fought against were less often of a military persuasion. Instead, she was pitted against monsters and evil deities, such as Ares, Hades and Circe. She also took on espionage work once she was out of the military, as well as at various times becoming a businesswoman, an astronaut and an associate of the United Nations, all of which have contributed to her rich and diverse history of adventures.
Though her character and origin has been rewritten multiple times over the past 75 years as new writers take on her story and enormous plotlines encompassing all of the DC universe streamline her world – for instance, 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths series – Wonder Woman has consistently stood for the same simple values. In her identity as a superhero, as a princess and as her alter-ego Diana Prince, she devotes herself to truth, honesty, equality and compassion.
From the original stories by Marston through to the writers that sculpt the character today, these have been Wonder Woman’s defining characteristics. She has a reputation for being both the fiercest and most nurturing member of the Justice League, with that distinction between the two sides of her personality being the most defining facet of her character.
Gail Simone, Wonder Woman’s longest running female writer, was clear about how important this was for the character:
“Wonder Woman is about her sense of justice and compassion and taking care of things that other people may not be able to, but she does have the ability to do it. She’s also brave. She doesn’t have the fear of stepping in and doing that when she can.”
This, at least in part, is what has made her such a strong emblem for female empowerment – her ability to marry her power with compassion. Wonder Woman was always physically strong and a brutal force to come up against in battle, in a similar way to other superheroes that were marketed in a more masculine way, such as her DC compatriots Superman and Batman. But the extra layers added to the character by her dedication to basing every decision on compassion and to treating everyone, no matter how awful, with the basic respect owed to human beings, gave her a unique depth. Her empathy gave her a much more human feel that made her easy to relate to for anyone looking for comic books for anything other than frivolous – though undoubtedly entertaining – violence and explosions – what Marston described as “blood-curdling masculinity”.
For the action inherent in the comic book genre and the violent wartime setting of the early Wonder Woman stories, Diana is at her core a pacifist. She often used her abilities to defuse violent situations, for instance by deflecting bullets with her indestructible bracelets. A stark contrast to the male superheroes who raced into battle to save the day, Wonder Woman is a more patient kind of hero. Grant Morrison describes her as “a doctor, a healer, a scientist”.
What really makes her enduring influence so impressive is its resilience to people who have gone out of their way to oppose the character’s proliference.
Marston created Wonder Woman to reflect liberal values, to be a pioneer of women’s rights and independence, in a time when many restrictions were placed on the choices women were allowed to make about how they lived their lives. Even by today’s standards, Marston lived an alternative lifestyle that pushed boundaries, in a state of consensual non-monogamy with his wife and their lover, both of whom had an influence of Wonder Woman’s character. It’s really no surprise that a character who embodies the values of such an open-minded group of people attracted the judgement of conservative critics.
Princess Diana of Themyscira, as a strong, independent woman, challenged the common attitudes of society at the time about the role and place of women. She refused to conform to expectations. She turned the ‘damsel in distress’ trope on its head and created a whole new kind of female role model who did not need a man to rescue her. Her adventures often found her abducted or bound by villains and she always managed to get herself out of those situations using her own skills and ingenuity.
She refused to be oppressed or treated as an inferior warrior and she always held her own against her male counterparts. She was even known to reverse the trope entirely by rescuing her male cohorts when they ended up in trouble.
In Fredric Wertham’s scathing critique of comic books, Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954, he claimed that Wonder Woman gave girls the “wrong ideas” about a woman’s “place in society”. Despite Diana’s marriage to Steve Trevor as well as other relationships with characters like Superman, Wertham described Wonder Woman as “anti-male” and as “the lesbian counterpart to Batman”, which at the time was viewed extremely negatively.
All of Wertham’s claims were later deemed to be at the very least misleading and his studies did not meet even the minimum of scientific standards. Still, his influence was profound enough that it inspired the self-censorship of the comic book industry before outside forces could censor them instead. His impact was significant enough that a lot of people believed that, simply by having the strength and self-sufficiency that made her such a powerful character, she was a bad influence on children.
The period following Seduction of the Innocent was a shaky time for comic books in general, but Wonder Woman’s particular resilience to it made her all the more iconic for oppressed groups. From the strictly controlled women of the 1940s through pacifists during war time to LGBT communities today, her refusal to bow to political opposition has made her a figurehead for anyone who has felt marginalised.
In 1972, Gloria Steinem put Wonder Woman on the cover of Ms. magazine along with an appreciative essay about the character. Steinem has written extensively about Wonder Woman’s impact at a time when women in comic books were often relegated to the role of the helpless victim in need of rescue.
“As a little girl, Wonder Woman was the only female superhero, so she was irresistible. She was literally the only game in town, the only hero that made you feel good about yourself.”
Steinem was the force that rebooted Wonder Woman’s story after she gave up her powers in the 1960s. Diana had a new male mentor and had opened a fashion boutique and was at risk of falling into a lot of the traps and clichés of female stereotypes. By lobbying DC, Steinem restored Wonder Woman’s powers, her history, her family and her equipment to ensure that her legacy was not lost to archaic cultural stereotypes that would have erased her Amazon roots.
Coming from a society populated only by women, Diana would have left Paradise Island for America with no concept of heteronormative gender roles. Her refusal to conform to traditional expectations showed younger generations that they had the same freedom that she did, if only they chose to insist upon it, to refuse to conform.
Similarly, her impact as a sexual being is affected by her upbringing in Themyscira. Though her first and most famous relationship is her connection to Steve Trevor, a distance between Wonder Woman and heteronormativity has been drawn upon as her history is more thoroughly explored. Although her sexuality was suppressed for a long time following Wertham’s criticism, recent stories published in a more accepting climate have taken the opportunity to develop this aspect of her character.
Growing up with the experience of only one gender, Diana was raised with no understanding of prejudice towards non-heteronormative relationships. In fact, she would have seen them as more commonplace than relationships between people of opposite genders. Being thousands of years old before Steve Trevor crash landed on her island, it only makes sense that she would have had romantic connections with other women in her community.
As this facet of her past and her character is more closely explored, Wonder Woman has solidified her position as a role model for the LGBT community. In particular, it offers a symbol for lesbian and bisexual people, who are often underrepresented in the media. Non-heteronormativity is still a point of controversy in some areas of the world, making her canonical bisexuality and subsequent empowerment of the LGBT community a valuable source of comfort to many people who feel ostracised because of their sexuality.
The writers who craft the character today are in unanimous agreement about this aspect of her personality.
In a statement to Comicosity in September 2016, Greg Rucka talked about how Diana’s sexuality is intrinsically linked with her Amazonian heritage:
“It’s supposed to be paradise. You’re supposed to be able to live happily. And part of what an individual needs for that happiness is to have a partner — to have a fulfilling, romantic and sexual relationship. And the only options are women.”
In 2016, when marriage equality was established by the Supreme Court throughout the United States, Sensation Comics published a story in which Wonder Woman officiated a same sex wedding, cementing her endorsement of LGBT rights.
Wonder Woman’s contemporary significance in the LGBT community is a fitting tribute to the values Marston instilled in her at her conception.
Development for a cinematic adaptation for Wonder Woman has been underway since 1996. In the decade since, dozens of creators have been attached to and drifted away from the project. Finally, with the characters introduced to the DC cinematic universe in Batman V Superman, Wonder Woman will get her own solo movie in 2017. Directed by Patty Jenkins and with a script from Allan Heinberg and Geoff Johns, it will tell the origin story of Diana’s latest incarnation, following her New 52 history as the daughter of Zeus.
Jenkins seems committed to keeping Diana and her Amazonian family distinctly different from Superman and Batman DC’s other popular heroes. She says:
“To me, they shouldn’t be dressed in armour like men. It should be different. It should be authentic and real — and appealing to women.”
However, some people are already concerned that the film may fail to live up to Wonder Woman’s legacy. Grant Morrison, for instance, fears that a lot of Marston’s original intentions may be lost in the latest depiction, that instead of a calm and compassionate Diana, “you see the latest shots of Gal Gadot in the costume, and it’s all sword and shield and her snarling at the camera”.
But Gadot, the actor portraying the new Diana, has shared insights into the mind of her incarnation of the character. She said to Glamour:
“It was important for me that we show how independent she is. She is not relying on a man, and she’s not there because of a love story. She’s not there to serve someone else… She has so many strengths and powers, but at the end of the day she’s a woman with a lot of emotional intelligence. She’s loving… And it’s all her heart — that’s her strength. I think women are amazing for being able to show what they feel. I admire women who do. I think it’s a mistake when women cover their emotions to look tough. I say let’s own who we are and use it as a strength.”
Perhaps more importantly, she has embodied Wonder Woman’s fierce independence off screen too. Although Gadot underwent an intense diet and training regime, practiced a variety of martial arts and gained 17 pounds of muscle, some still expressed doubts about the decision to cast her due to physical concerns:
“There were a lot of comments about the size of my breasts. I realized we can’t please everyone. In one interview, I did say, ‘If you want it to really be true to the origin story, the Amazons had only one breast; otherwise it would get in the way of the bow and arrow.’ So!”
Until the new movie is released in June, fans can only speculate how effectively it will live up to the Wonder Woman who has captured hearts and minds for the past 75 years. And there is certainly a lot to live up to.
In 2016, her legacy was honoured as she was appointed a UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls in a ceremony attended by both Gal Gadot and Lynda Carter, who portrayed Diana in the Wonder Woman television series from the 1970s. The decision was symbolic part of a global campaign for gender equality. Sadly, she was dropped less than two months later after 45,000 signed a petition claiming that her appointment was inappropriate due to her “overtly sexualised image”.
Though she was not strictly the first female superhero, Wonder Woman has been one of the most consistently successful. Created by polyamorists, she has been a symbol of freedom for almost every oppressed community who has needed a saviour over the decades. As one of the earliest iconic female superheroes, she has paved the way for the success of other characters who made decisions with their hearts and could hold their own in battle against any man, with everyone from Xena, Warrior Princess to Captain Marvel following in her footsteps.