Wonder Woman's True Superpower Is Rooted In American Feminist History

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Superman has his strength and flight. Spider-Man has his webs and spidey sense. Batman has his rich kid’s disregard for property damage. But what does Wonder Woman have?

When I think of Wonder Woman, I think of twirling. That’s because, like many Americans, my first exposure to her came through the 1970s TV show starring former beauty queen Lynda Carter. That series marked the second age of Wonder Woman. The first came when she made her comics debut in the 1940s, and the third arrived last week, when Wonder Woman, starring former Israeli beauty queen and soldier Gal Gadot, opened in theaters and earned a historic $100.5 million at the box office on opening weekend. More than 75 years after her comics debut, Wonder Woman has finally gotten her own movie.

You can’t make a superhero movie without a woman: What else but a woman’s beauty could inspire a superhero’s feats of strength? What else but a woman’s death could give a superhero the fodder for a thousand glorious issues’ worth of revenge? But making a superhero movie about a woman remains, even in our current superhero boom, an apparently risky proposition.

Studios see women as a dangerous gamble: Yes, we make up half the population, and slightly more than half of American movie audiences; we like watching buildings smashed and villains conquered as much as the next gender; and fans have been asking for a female-led superhero movie for decades. But studios still balk. Marvel, which owns the Avengers, has already given us two Ant-Man movies, while Black Widow waits in the wings. When an entire gender is seen as less profitable than a comic book hero whose defining power is his tiny size, something has gone wrong.

Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman—which also made Jenkins one of the first female directors to work with a budget of more than $100 million—has shattered this mold. With the biggest opening ever for a female director, the movie has proven that superheroines can be bankable, that audiences searching for visions of strength and valor beyond those of patriarchal masculinity are actually be worth courting, and that little girls’ dreams are worth just as much as little boys’ (at least in a merchandising context).

Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. Credit: GettyThe film’s success may have surprised some people, just like the TV show did in the 1970s, but Lynda Carter probably wasn’t among them: Back in her lasso-of-truth-wielding years, she surprised Americans in exactly the same way. “They didn’t think a woman could hold her own show, so they had an awfully difficult time with the networks,” Carter recently told Time magazine of her own time in Wonder Woman’s tiara and boots. Then, too, Wonder Woman defied the world’s expectations.

Not only could Carter hold her own show, but she credits Wonder Woman with ushering in the Jiggle Rush of the late ‘70s, when shows like Charlie’s Angels told Americans that women could be both blow-dried and badass, and when female characters were allowed to collar the bad guys as long as they let the cameras linger on their tan, lithe bodies in the process. Farrah Fawcett became a sex symbol after Charlie’s Angels made it big, and so did Lynda Carter after the success of Wonder Woman, though maybe that was to be expected: Wonder Woman’s creator—psychology professor, feminist, and amateur bondage enthusiast William Moulton Marston—based her in part on the pinups World War II soldiers hung in their barracks and painted on their fighter planes.

And maybe that was also why Carter’s Wonder Woman was always twirling. It was how she transformed herself from her American alter-ego, Diana Prince, to her true, costumed, and powerful self: raised in a world beyond men, trained to be a warrior, and seduced into our complicated society when she happened across an injured pilot washed ashore on her island home.

The Wonder Woman twirl was easier than the Superman method—no hunting around for a phone booth—but it also meant that Diana couldn’t embrace her strength without looking weak. She couldn’t appear as a warrior without, for a moment, becoming as vulnerable as possible. She couldn’t don her superheroine’s getup without showing off her delicacy and grace. She couldn’t assume her powers without performing femininity.

What else defines Wonder Woman? She has great toys, but, as Eliana Dockterman notes in Time, when Wonder Woman first appeared in comic books, “Her weapons were defensive—bracelets capable of deflecting bullets and the Lasso of Truth, which allowed her to acquire intelligence. (She didn’t get her sword until the 1980s.)” Wonder Woman has never relied on her gear—though the 1970s series seemed to contain at least one moment per episode when Wonder Woman’s clueless assailants tried to shoot at her, only to stare at her in confusion after she handily deflected the bullets with her silver cuffs.

Wonder Woman uses her equipment when she has to, and she has the extra strength and agility that befits an Amazon. But the answer to what makes her special—what it means, and will mean, for kids to play Wonder Woman—may lie in that twirl, and specifically in the transformation it allows her to undergo.

Wonder Woman is a rare kind of superheroine: She didn’t reach her powers accidentally, through tragedy or mutation, and she didn’t acquire them through sustained effort, or the desire for vengeance or redemption or dominance. She doesn’t costume herself as Wonder Woman; she is always Wonder Woman. And in this way she follows directly in the footsteps of Superman, the first American superhero, who is only three years her senior.

Both Wonder Woman and Superman were born in the fraught years before America’s involvement in World War II. Superman was created in 1938, by Jewish cartoonists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Both characters came from a simpler world, and were, as Americans, strangers in a strange land—and perhaps better able to protect its citizens for that very reason.

Cartoonist Jules Feiffer wrote about “the particular brilliance of Superman” in 1965, in his introduction to The Great Comic Book Heroes:  

What made Superman different from the legion of imitators to follow was not that when he took off his clothes he could beat up everybody—they all did that. What made Superman extraordinary was his point of origin: Clark Kent…Superman had only to wake up in the morning to be Superman. In his case, Clark Kent was the put-on. The fellow with the eyeglasses and the acne and the walk girls laughed at wasn’t real, didn’t exist, was a sacrificial disguise, an act of discreet martyrdom. Had they but known!

Similarly, Wonder Woman will always be Wonder Woman. Her homeland will always be the land of the Amazons; our ways will always be strange to her. And this, in the end, might be her greatest power.

Wonder Woman was also raised in a commanding matriarchy, the kind the suffragists once believed had covered the earth for millennia before male-dominated societies emerged and took over.

“We are told that the period of women’s supremacy lasted through many centuries,” The Medical Herald reported, with great assurance, in 1891. This period, the Herald claimed, was “undisputed,” “accepted as natural and proper wherever it existed,” and “called the Matriarchate, or mother age.”

Perhaps it gave suffragists a sense of comfort—or simply a powerful new argumentative tactic—to see feminism not as a dangerous and unprecedented experiment but as a link with history. Wonder Woman, with her inability to imagine any rule but equality or to be anything but strong, is a link to her own mother age, and one that is hardly more fantastic than the lost worlds imagined by American suffragists.

Superhero movies and comic books have a history of anxiety around the subject of female power. They tend to suggest that women can only become powerful through some profound loss or trauma, as with Jessica Jones or Swamp Thing’s Abby Arcane, but that she would really prefer to be normal—or that superpower itself is enough to overwhelm women and render them sinister, as in the case of Catwoman, and The X-Men’s Dark Phoenix and Mystique.

Of course, superheroines have a right to be jaded, at least if they have any awareness of the secondary roles they’ve been forced into within most fandoms. If the wages that un-superwomen earn in America are any indicator, then Supergirl is still making 87 cents for every dollar Superman pulls in. She may have arrived on earth wrapped up in that cape, but she still has to budget the dry cleaning bills.

The most exciting thing about Wonder Woman is that she expects more of us. Like Superman, one of her powers is freedom from illusion: She doesn’t belong to our culture, and can rescue us not just from supernatural foes, but from the lies we tell ourselves to get through the day. She sees feminism and equality as a birthright. She doesn’t know why anyone else would ever feel differently—and she certainly couldn’t imagine why people would be so surprised at her finally getting her own movie.

“America, the last citadel of democracy,” Wonder Woman exclaimed in her comics debut, as she flew toward a country she had never seen, “and of equal rights for women!”

Wonder Woman may be from a foreign land, but she is also a palimpsest of American feminist history. Maria Elena Buszek, an associate professor of art history at the University of Colorado-Denver and the author of Pin-Up Grrls, argues that her form of strength—one that is not tacked on as an awkward afterthought but fully integrated into her character–has as much to do with her World War II pin-up girl origins as her Amazon foremothers.

Even though the pin-up was a few decades old by 1941, the period “saw women’s professional, sexual, and patriotic roles not just conflated, but celebrated in popular culture for arguably the first time,” Buszek wrote in an email.

Wonder Woman, Buszek explained, emerged at a moment when women could begin to imagine themselves as strong not in spite of but because of their gender. “Since at least our Civil War, women had been part of the war effort (and even fought, in male drag), but mostly represented as kind of maternal ‘Florence Nightingale’ types,” she said. That changed during World War I, when “there were more independent and educated women who contributed to the war effort.”

Still, during World War I, images of women contributing to the war effort—including women in pin-up form—made sure to communicate that they saw their femininity as a weakness: Buszek cited the “GEE!! I wish I were A MAN” recruiting advertisement as one example.

But by the time World War II came around, Buszek said, “the United States was recruiting women for the military,” with versions of Esquire’s “Varga Girl” and George Petty’s “Petty Girl.” The pin-up “became a kind of pop-cultural shorthand for young women of the era, for whom a really assertive and self-assured sexuality coexisted with professionalism, patriotism, decency, and desirability—a new idea that a woman’s sexuality could be positively expressed as part of her whole being.” Within this cultural moment, and the unprecedented freedom and celebration of womanhood that it brought with it, Wonder Woman was born.

Her origins, however, stretch back even further than that: She was based not just on pin-ups, New Yorker writer Jill Lepore notes, but on birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Like Sanger, and like the suffragists who dreamed of a lost Matriarchate, Wonder Woman also possesses the power of imagination. She doesn’t rule with an iron fist, and she’s not the law and order superhero (though she was once elected president). Instead, she believes in the people around her, and doesn’t believe in the systems of power and oppression that dominate their lives. She doesn’t believe in them because she knows they don’t have to be there. After all, it was never like this in the mother age.

Wonder Woman is both physically mighty and emotionally present—perhaps because she didn’t grow up in a world that taught her these attributes were mutually exclusive. “She has so many strengths and powers,” Gal Gadot said of Wonder Woman in a recent interview with Glamour. “But at the end of the day she’s a woman with a lot of emotional intelligence…It’s all her heart—that’s her strength.”