Not exactly. I struggled to come up with those examples. The women who do appear in today's superhero movies as more than merely a romantic foil remain overtly sexualized in comparison to the male heroes, and the Wonder Woman movie — which has been attempted many times in the past — still hinges on the success of this year’s male-driven Batman vs. Superman.
Comics, particularly superhero comics, have long struggled to incorporate female superheroes in a way that doesn’t offend real women. Superheroes are the stuff of fantasy; male superheroes are aspirational to both their creators and readers, whereas female superheroes typically end up as eye candy—flat characters with inoffensive personalities. (In fairness, there are some standouts in the extended comic book universe that have yet to become familiar in wider popular culture, and as a medium, comic books are more female-friendly than ever.)
As Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, once wrote of the need for a strong female superhero: “Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weak ones. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”
I relate more to the aspirational but grounded nature of a superhero like Superman, a lonely alien raised by a supportive family with dreams bigger than Kansas, than Superman’s cousin, Supergirl, a character created as a “female Superman” in an attempt to draw female readers.
Superman doesn’t pander. His personality and motivation are fundamental to his character. Supergirl’s personality, like those of most female superheroes, changes according to the plot of the comic book she’s in. That’s one thing Wonder Woman has going for her: She’s no one’s knock-off. But through the years, her personality has changed as often as her clothes and her haircut.
She didn’t start out that way. Wonder Woman stands at the crux of struggles to define what being a “woman” should mean, but she is hardly a neutral observer. In fact, Marston called Wonder Woman “psychological propaganda” for his own agenda, reports Jill Lepore in her new book The Secret History of Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman, one of the earliest and still most recognizable superheroes, was created in 1941, shortly after Superman and Batman. She “was a product of the suffragist, feminist, and birth control movements of the 1900s and the 1910s and became a source of the women’s liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s,” Lepore reveals through extensive research. But Lepore also digs into the biography of Wonder Woman’s creator, including Marston’s own layers of secret identity and his lifelong quest to evangelize his shaky belief system.
Marston argued that readers would respond to a female character who was both strong and loving. “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power,” he wrote. “Not wanting to be girls they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are.”
He initially got six months to prove his formula would sell comic strips, and he succeeded. Creating a character through a strategic blend of “feminism as fetish” and “the suffragist as pin up” (as Lepore describes the evidence left behind from the creative process), Marston created a female superhero who originally sold as well as her male contemporaries.
And I think Wonder Woman was at her best in those days, when she pushed a barely concealed agenda that was pro-American war effort, much like all superheroes in the '40s, and pro-“strong, free, courageous womanhood,” as Marston wrote in a press release revealing himself as her creator. (He originally wrote under a pseudonym.)
But Marston had a very specific definition in mind when he made “love” a defining characteristic of this character. “My whole strip is aimed at drawing the distinction in the minds of children and adults between love bonds and male bonds of cruelty and destruction; between submitting to a loving superior or deity and submitting to people like the Nazis, Japs, etc.,” Marston wrote, defending Wonder Woman from her critics.
While there’s likely some truth to that defense, Marston was also a consummate propagandist who lived a double life. He had a demonstrated interest in sexual bondage and fathered children by two women who both lived with him. His legal wife supported all of them financially, Lepore found, while he tried one career after another (Marston also invented the first lie detector machine), culminating in his success with Wonder Woman.
Marston’s activism put Wonder Woman firmly on one side of the feminist war that is still raging today. She was heavily influenced by early birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and later adopted by Gloria Steinem as the first Ms. magazine cover girl, but Betty Friedan was a critic.
But post-Marston, Wonder Woman has rarely taken a stand. After Marston died of cancer in 1947, his family and his creative team were all either cut out of the creative process or left DC Comics. In the 1950s, she became “a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star,” then later “the author of a lonely-hearts newspaper advice column,” as Lepore noted. Hardly revolutionary jobs for a character meant to be an aspirational icon for the “the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world,” as Marston used to say.
I cannot agree with most of Marston’s agenda or motives revealed in Lepore’s book. But his Wonder Woman is a character I find engaging and thought-provoking, and far more so than today’s weak, amorphously defined female superheroes, or today’s Wonder Woman, who is “reinvented” on a regular basis.
Additionally, today’s concept of a “Wonder Woman” has been co-opted to stand for someone who “has it all.” Marston’s Wonder Woman knew that being who she wanted to be required giving up things she wanted less: Her bracelets were a reminder that if she did not separate herself from “the world of men,” she would be tied down; her lasso was a tool she used to make others tell the truth but it could also be turned on her (though Marston may have had other motives for constantly featuring Wonder Woman tied up).
Of course, while Wonder Woman’s roots are in the women’s rights movement, her creator was still a man, and one who Lepore points out likely profited from the uncredited work of the women in his life (as well as their willingness to support his aspirations and lifestyle). Just as the term “feminist” is being subjectively applied today, Marston had his own ideas about what a woman “should” be and how that ideal would improve society.
The modern Wonder Woman character, in trying to represent every ideal, represents almost nothing. If being “pro-woman” means supporting the right of every woman to make her own choices rather than limiting her to the stereotypes of what’s right for her gender, that also means recognizing that women – self-identifying “feminists” or not – are individuals who do not all make the same choices. (In fact, we rarely agree on what “feminist” means or what the “feminist” thing to do would be in any given situation.) Wonder Woman cannot stand for all women without being a woman herself. That individualism seems to be missing these days in depictions of her, and of most other female superheroes.
So long as the “war on women” can still be used as a political gambit, I think our society still needs female icons who can demonstrate why and how being a woman influences what they do — and who are even hero enough, on occasion, to address the elephant in the comic books we’re supposedly so enlightened we can ignore: how being a female superhero is different from being a male one, and why not all female superheroes are the same.