Wonder Women are Everywhere

Wonder Woman’s history against sexism, patriarchy, and her influence on female characters

By Allison Munder Contributor

A woman with showcasing a t-shirt that says Superheroes in sparkly font, with DC female heroes pictured beneath the words.
A shirt featuring DC Comic’s superheroines Batgirl, Wonder Woman and Supergirl pictured above (Photo courtesy of Kristina Paukshtite/Pexels)

On Nov. 29, the FEA Women and Film Association sponsored a screening of the documentary “Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines.” The film looks at the representation and evolution of Wonder Woman and how the comic book character became a cultural icon as well as influenced the creation of powerful female characters.

Originally, in the late ‘30s during the Great Depression, Wonder Woman was used to influence readers to support the war. She was used as propaganda alongside comics like Superman. At the time, men were being sent to war and women began to join the workforce in their place in order to make a living. The Wonder Woman character was described as an Amazon, a princess and a goddess. This attracted young female readers and encouraged the idea that women don’t need men, because at the time, women were in high demand for factory jobs that were sending supplies to soldiers in the war.

At the same time, the character was constantly in situations in which she was tied up in rope and chains—her chest sticking out and portraying scenes of bondage, reflecting the male gaze. To this day, female comic book characters are criticized for their oversexualized and unrealistic depictions.

When the war ended, women were expected to go back to being homemakers and leave their jobs to the soldiers coming back home. This was often times described as patriotic. This sudden change in society was again reflected in the Wonder Woman comics. Wonder Woman’s storyline quickly changed from being a fighting warrior to a woman who needed saving and just wanted to fall in love. It was as if Wonder Woman had spent years not being feminist at all. Any female super heroines in the ‘50s were given traditional roles instead of storylines of fighting crime.

Second-wave feminism changed all of that. In the ‘70s, Ms. Magazine’s first published issue had Wonder Woman on the cover. Feminist and comic book fanatics were rooting for Wonder Woman to make her comeback and get her powers back. Then the Wonder Woman television show aired in the mid-’70s. It wasn’t expected to be a hit because producers didn’t believe a woman could carry the show. But other television shows began to follow in Wonder Woman’s steps, like “Bionic Woman” and “Charlie’s Angels.” They were a step forward for the feminist movement. Characters like Wonder Woman and Charlie’s Angels were still portrayed as feminine and sexy, but even though they were fighting crime; women still weren’t given full agency of their power.

In the ‘80s, Hollywood produced films full of hypermasculinity, violent characters and women in need of saving. However, in the ‘90s, more women began to involve themselves in politics, films and television shows, and strong female characters started to reappear in shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and films such as “Thelma and Louise,” where women were the ones “holding guns and shooting them.” At the end of these shows and movies, though these powerful women were killed off. They were seen as “too powerful for their own good.” In one way or the other, their power kills them and this trope is still seen in films today.

Now, Wonder Woman has come to the big screen after popular demand from comic book fans and feminists. The film made over $570 million worldwide, proving women can be the protagonist of a successful film. Sexism in the film and television industry has not gone away, but amongst it, Wonder Woman is a symbol of female empowerment.