I love Wonder Woman. Actually, I love comic book superheroes in general. I am a big fan of Batman, Superman, and all the rest, but Wonder Woman stands above the crowd for me. She is the character I find most compelling in comics and the one I can identify with the easiest.
Now, this might be considered a surprising revelation for a number of reasons.
First, I am a grown man. If I had admitted my love of Wonder Woman when I was ten, I would have been beat up. The rise of superhero movies has made it more socially acceptable to be a comic book nerd even into adulthood, but it has not made the world any less sexist. Women are routinely expected to identify with male heroes of all sorts, in literature, on television, and in film, but men are not supposed to identify with female heroes ever. I mean, what am I, a wuss? Don’t answer that.
Plus, Wonder Woman is historically tied to a particular kind of radical feminism that I find problematic. Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman tells the surprising story of the character’s roots. Wonder Woman was created by the psychiatrist and inventor of the polygraph, William Moulton Marston, in 1941. Marston was an unconventional man. He lived in essentially a polygamous family relationship with his wife and mistress, both of whom remained close to each other long after his death. He was strongly influenced by the women’s suffrage movement and the ideas of birth control enthusiast and eugenics supporter Margaret Sanger. Wonder Woman was meant to be an icon not only of female equality with men but of female superiority and sexual freedom. She was from an island that was pure because of its lack of men. “Frankly,” Marston wrote, “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” For Marston, Wonder Woman was an odd mixture of dominatrix and suffragette. The early storylines that he wrote for Wonder Woman feature images of bondage and submission as well as radical utopianism, neither of which mesh well with any kind of traditional Christian ethics.
It gets worse in the immediate period after Marston’s death. Exclusively male writers of the 1950s and 1960s did not seem to know what to do with Wonder Woman. The dominatrix/suffragette motif disappeared, but she became a kind of super powered Barbie doll instead, fighting dinosaurs and large robots while trying to impress and woo her love interest, Major Steve Trevor. As a part of the Justice Society, an early precursor to the Justice League, Wonder Woman acted as the secretary, almost always unable to join the boys on their missions to save the world because she had to stay home and type up her notes from the last meeting.
Then, in the 1970s, she suddenly became a feminist icon again, but under very different circumstances. First, she appeared on the cover of Ms. Magazine in 1972. Then she emerged on a weekly network television show starring Lynda Carter. The show was often campy and cheesy, but Carter played Wonder Woman with absolute sincerity, helping the character to become associated again with women’s strength and empowerment, but without the eccentricities that Marston had introduced.
These days, there are three major monthly comic books that focus on Wonder Woman, but my favorite, is Sensation Comics featuring Wonder Woman, a monthly collection of one-off Wonder Woman stories by various guest writers and artists. In any given issue, Wonder Woman can be found doing just about anything from leading a rock band to patrolling Gotham City while Batman is away. In each situation, under each new writer’s pen, the various pieces of the Wonder Woman mythos play off of each other. Sensation highlights the fact that Wonder Woman is a mess of contradictions, like the rest of us.
I find Wonder Woman to be much more relatable than other superheroes. Superman and Batman are both driven by their origin stories to follow an unwavering path, but Wonder Woman has to reconcile the various competing parts of her identity. She is peace activist and warrior, sex symbol and paragon of chastity, a strong, independent woman who does not need a man to be complete and a human being who yearns for love, affection, and understanding, just like we all do. In the best Wonder Woman stories, rather than picking one of these aspects of her personality and running with it, skilled writers show Wonder Woman facing them all together. She deals head on with sometimes difficult truths about herself even as she tries to get over herself in order to protect those in danger and serve those in need.
In a weird way, and one that Marston certainly never would have anticipated, Wonder Woman is an icon of Christian discipleship. She is not a Christian, of course, though she is one of the most religious characters in comics, keeping her faith in the ancient Greek gods even when she finds it difficult to do so. But at her essence, Wonder Woman is a hero who seeks truth. In my all-time favorite run of the Wonder Woman comic, the writer Gail Simone redefined the power of Wonder Woman’s magic lasso so that when someone is caught by it they not only have to tell the truth, but they also have to face their own deepest, darkest selves.
Wonder Woman is able to be a great hero because she has encountered and accepted the reality of her own flaws and sins. Though fashioned out of clay by a god, she is all too aware of her own imperfection and her inability to do good by her own power alone. She relies on the gods to give her grace and strength. She finds her heroism in repenting of the darkest and most uncharitable parts of herself and instead sacrificing herself for the sake of others. Unlike Superman, who is sometimes misconstrued as a Christ figure because of his god-like power, Wonder Woman realizes that despite her amazing abilities she has no real power but that which she has received by grace, not merely for her own wellbeing but for the sake of the world. Wonder Woman only ever understands herself when she is finally able to look away from herself and towards the needs of others. Would that all of us, male and female, young and old, could follow the same path towards holiness.
The featured image is a painting of Wonder Woman at a pub in Kentish Town, UK. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
It is disappointing to see you repeat the calumny about Ms. Sanger being a eugenicist. My faith calls on me to be both truthful and fair regarding those I disagree with – even abhor. I am sorry you do not seem to feel the same.