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Category: Art and Entertainment, Feminism, Media

Wonder Woman in Pants is Not a Feminist Win

| July 1, 2010

title
Wonder Woman Makeover

It’s the end of an era. At 69 years old, Wonder Woman has decided to put on some pants.

Actually, the new duds are not an act of self-determination by the woman (formerly) in red, white and blue. According to the New York Times, the new head writer of the series, J. Michael Straczynski, wanted to “toughen her up and give her a modern sensibility.”

This is modernity? Where are her red boots? What about modernization requires her trademark “W” emblem to fade into the background? How is covering her once rippling, now wimpy, muscles a nod to evolved images of womanhood?

I know what you’re thinking: Shouldn’t feminists be happy that Wonder Woman now looks more like a young woman freshly off a college campus, at once ready to go fight some bad guys in an alley or in a pay discrimination lawsuit? Haven’t we been fighting for women role models with more clothing as well as more substance? She couldn’t really fight evil in a bustier—is this not a feminist win?

No, not by a long shot. In fact, it feels like the sad loss of America’s first truly feminist comic book heroine.

This isn’t the first time DC Comics has tried to “modernize” the Wonder Woman character, which debuted in 1930 as the creation of psychologist William Marston. Marston, with the encouragement of his wife Elizabeth, designed her as a “new kind of superhero, one who would triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love.”  Wonder Woman, her creator said, was “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world."

As such, Wonder Woman, alias Diana Prince, was introduced as a protégé of the classical goddesses and, like her male crime fighting counterparts, possessed a variety of powers and tools, including superhuman strength, agility and cunning, the ability to fly, bracelets that made her invincible and a “Truth Lasso” that barred those bound by it from uttering lies. Unlike her male counterparts, however, she sought to rid the world of evil by first employing logic and mutual human understanding before breaking out the fire power.

A generation of role-model starved women, finally presented with a truly powerful heroine, proved themselves a reliable comic book fan base—at the height of her early popularity, Wonder Woman had a readership of ten million, appeared in four comic books, and a daily newspaper comic strip, reported Philip Charles Crawford in School Library Journal.

Yet, social progress for women wasn’t correlated with the evolution of their superhero. In 1968, DC Comics debuted a “modern” version of Diana Prince who’d lost her goddess heritage and all her superhuman powers, gained a male mentor and his martial arts skills, and developed a propensity for the domestic arts. She also came equipped with a new “mod” costume: a pantsuit with no “W” emblem, no flags, and no invincible bracelet cuffs.

Feminist outrage at the devolution of their heroine was quick. A group of activists, led by Gloria Steinem, leaned on DC Comics to scrap the “new” Wonder Woman in favor of the more powerful original—and they won, convincing the company to restore Wonder Woman’s powers and history during the next version of the series. They understood that along with equal pay and childcare and the right to hold  credit in their own name, young women need to be able to see themselves in strong pop culture role models in order to fashion themselves into the real life versions.

Here we go again, it seems. Wonder Woman donning what looks like skinny jeans is being spun as a direct result of the successes of the Women’s Liberation movement, a reaction to requests that female superheroes do a little less baring of buns and a lot more kicking them. Yet in stripping Diana of her overt sexuality the new writers have missed the reason Wonder Woman was a feminist heroine in the first place. As originally portrayed, Diana Prince was sexy not because of her bare legs and cleavage but because her personhood wasn’t defined by them and her powers not derived from fashioning herself for the male gaze. She could work a 9 to 5 job, hold down a relationship, subvert international conspiracies and toss the villains in jail, and perhaps, as the first cover of Ms. magazine suggested in 1972, even be president—and the way she looked was, as it should be, simply an aside.

While it’s yet to be seen whether this costume change signals an intent to again strip Wonder Woman of her super powers, it’s disconcerting to learn that the writers are creating a new back story for the character that deprives her of her upbringing on Paradise Island with her mother, Queen Hippolyta, and her Amazon sisters in favor of being smuggled out of her homeland as a baby as it was destroyed. Wonder Woman’s original feminist creator’s intent in giving Diana the Paradise Island upbringing was to insinuate she knew gender equality existed because she’d lived it and that her powers were derived from living with and learning from her sisters. In effect, all women could become “Wonder Woman” if they tapped into the feminine power around them and strived for a gender just world that, we know from real live history, really did and can exist. Is this rewrite an attempt to impose the myth of “post-patriarchy” on the character, in which she no longer needs to dream of and fight for equality because she’s achieved it?

If the folks at DC Comics weren’t aware, 2010 America is far from a mythical Amazonian paradise. Take for example new statistics from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media pertaining to female role models for young girls. In G rated movies, just one in three speaking   roles is female and in PG and R rated films, about 73 percent of the characters are male. While there are notable exceptions, like Dora the Explorer and the girl superheroes in The Invincibles, young women are still hard pressed to find pop culture role models that look and sound like themselves. If, as it seems, Wonder Woman is truly losing some of her characteristic fierceness, that’s one fewer strong female role model for girls to aspire to be.

Jim Lee, the artist responsible for Wonder Woman’s new design, claims he wanted her to look strong “without screaming, ‘I’m a superhero.’ ” Even today, in this “modern era,” it’s still hard not to wonder, what’s so wrong with screaming that?

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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