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At last, Won­der Woman has her own block­buster film, and it only took seven and a half decades!

You read that right. It’s been over 75 years since the 1941 de­but of every­one’s favourite Ama­zon in Al­lS­tar Comics #8. Since then, Won­der Woman has starred in her own long-run­ning comic, been the cen­tre of a beloved TV show, had her face printed on ev­ery­thing from kids’ py­ja­mas to an ex­clu­sive lim­ited makeup range at MAC, been ap­pointed as an hon­ourary UN Am­bas­sador, and be­come per­haps the best­known fe­male su­per­hero in Western pop cul­ture. Yet 2017 is her first big-screen out­ing as a solo su­per­hero; com­pare that to Bat­man, who’s been head­lin­ing films since 1943, or Su­per­man, whose cin­ema ca­reer spans a pe­riod of al­most 70 years. So why wasn’t Won­der Woman con­sid­ered film­wor­thy un­til now? The an­swer to this ques­tion lies in a prob­lem that’s plagued su­per­hero comics for quite some time: women in comics al­most never get the re­spect they de­serve, whether on the page or be­hind the scenes. And while gen­der rep­re­sen­ta­tion in comics is dis­tinctly bet­ter than it used to be, we still have a long way to go. Won­der Woman is, in fact, an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of how these is­sues play out. Her ge­n­e­sis is cred­ited to au­thor Wil­liam Moul­ton Marston and artist HG Pe­ter, who in­tro­duced the char­ac­ter in All-Star Comics #8 (1941). The con­cept for Won­der Woman was rooted in Marston’s be­lief that women were su­pe­rior to men due to be­ing more nat­u­rally in­clined to­ward “lov­ing sub­mis­sion”, and that a fe­male su­per­hero would en­force jus­tice by en­cour­ag­ing oth­ers to fol­low sim­i­lar ide­ol­ogy. To push this con­cept fur­ther, the char­ac­ter was sit­u­ated in an all-women so­ci­ety of Ama­zons on the utopia named Paradise Is­land. Marston and Pe­ter could there­fore present their new char­ac­ter as a fem­i­nine al­ter­na­tive to the ag­gres­sive male he­roes of com­pet­ing comics; by the time All-Star Comics #8 rolled around, Bat­man had al­ready racked up sev­eral kills in his own strips, which in­cluded push­ing a crim­i­nal into a vat of acid and hang­ing a man from the Bat­plane. In con­trast, Won­der Woman of­ten con­quered her en­e­mies not by punch­ing them in the face, but by teach­ing them about the power of sub­mis­sion and love. It helped that Pe­ter drew her as a sort of pa­tri­otic neoHel­lenic glam­our girl with per­fect curls and mas­cara­heavy eye­lashes, be­cause peace is eas­ier to stom­ach when preached by some­one con­ven­tion­ally at­trac­tive.

Nev­er­the­less, Won­der Woman man­aged to de­feat a whole slew of en­e­mies rang­ing from Nazi mas­ter­minds to evil misog­y­nis­tic sci­en­tists to mem­bers of the Gre­coRo­man pan­theons, via pow­ers that came from a 100 per cent fe­male so­ci­ety. She also joined the Jus­tice So­ci­ety of Amer­ica, be­cause why not. Not too shabby for a woman in comics dur­ing the 1940s.

Un­for­tu­nately, she had many more gen­der equal­ity bat­tles left to fight. For one thing, since she was the only woman in the Jus­tice So­ci­ety, she ended up work­ing as their sec­re­tary. Then there

so why wasn’t won­der woman con­sid­ered film­wor­thy un­til now?

was her se­cret weak­ness, namely that her Ama­zo­nian pow­ers dis­ap­peared when­ever a male op­po­nent chained her bracelets to­gether. (Did we men­tion yet that Marston was a bondage en­thu­si­ast?) The idea that all it takes to stop a pow­er­ful god­dess is a man and a strate­gi­cally at­tached chain doesn’t jibe well with the claim that Won­der Woman was meant to pro­mote fe­male supremacy.

Dur­ing Marston and Pe­ter’s time on the comic, read­ers were also treated to numer­ous scenes of Won­der Woman chained up or bind­ing other women. While many of these scenes were pre­sented as play­ful, they still raised ques­tions about Marston’s mo­tives. Maybe he was try­ing to shed light on themes of con­sen­sual kink so that it could be seen as healthy, or maybe he wanted to see draw­ings of women in sex­u­alised sit­u­a­tions.

Then there’s the is­sue of who ac­tu­ally cre­ated

Won­der Woman in the first place. Although it’s fairly undis­puted that Marston did the script­ing and Pe­ter did the art, sev­eral sources – in­clud­ing a 1992 ar­ti­cle in the New York Times – state that Marston’s wife, El­iz­a­beth Hol­loway Marston, was the one who told her hus­band that his new su­per­hero should be fe­male. In other words, the Western world’s most fa­mous su­per­heroine owes her gen­der to a woman who was never of­fi­cially cred­ited in any comics, car­toons, or mer­chan­dise, or even by Marston him­self. It seems that fe­male supremacy was eas­ier to write as fan­tasy than it was to put into prac­tice.

De­spite these marked flaws, Won­der Woman’s

pop­u­lar­ity paved the way for numer­ous fe­male he­roes and vil­lains in sub­se­quent years. These women were not con­tent to sit back and take meet­ing min­utes for the Flash; they were on the front lines bat­tling evil, fu­elled by a new in­de­pen­dence that stemmed from the bur­geon­ing fem­i­nist move­ment. In The Fan­tas­tic

Four, Sue Storm, also known as the In­vis­i­ble Girl (later the In­vis­i­ble Woman), wore the same blue jump­suit as her male team­mates and fought mon­sters with them. Jean Grey, who started out as the su­per­hero Marvel Girl, de­ployed her tele­ki­netic pow­ers along­side her fel­low X-Men to help pro­tect the in­no­cent. Comics also ac­quired new fe­male vari­a­tions on ex­ist­ing male he­roes. For in­stance, Bat­man books had Bat­girl, who was first in­tro­duced as Robin’s love in­ter­est Betty Kane be­fore get­ting re­booted as Bar­bara Gor­don, Gotham City’s head li­brar­ian and the daugh­ter of the city’s po­lice com­mis­sioner.

On the other side of the law, there were char­ac­ters like Cat­woman, an elite thief who car­ried a whip and tended to­wards wear­ing thigh­high slit skirts, or, in more modern it­er­a­tions, tight black leather. There was Poi­son Ivy, a femme fa­tale with a plant theme whose kisses were lit­er­ally toxic. Women be­gan ap­pear­ing across su­per­hero comics as vil­lain­ous as­sas­sins, mar­tial artists, telepaths and magic adepts who could snap spines with­out blinking or could ma­nip­u­late the fab­ric of re­al­ity it­self.

It should be noted here that while these women var­ied greatly in terms of their pow­ers, cos­tumes and so on, a par­tic­u­lar racial uni­for­mity per­sisted – ie most of them were white. The few su­per­women of colour who graced comic book pages in­cluded char­ac­ters like ex-de­tec­tive Misty Knight, a black woman who sported a bionic arm and a gor­geous Afro, and Man­tis, a mar­tial artist/ for­mer pros­ti­tute/“Ce­les­tial Madonna” from Viet­nam. If you catch a whiff of stereo­typ­ing in the air, you’re not alone.

At any rate, no amount of su­per­hero­ism or su­pervil­lainy on the page could stop these women’s great­est foe: the need for por­tray­als of fe­male power to avoid threat­en­ing male­dom­i­nated so­cial struc­tures. One way of ne­go­ti­at­ing this was to ob­jec­tify comic book women as much as pos­si­ble. Sure, they could kill you with their mind or lift trucks over their head one-handed, but what re­ally mat­tered was T&A. Cos­tumes be­came a com­pe­ti­tion to show off the most skin with­out get­ting ar­rested for in­de­cent ex­po­sure. Take Poi­son Ivy, who started out in a leafy leo­tard and pro­gressed to be­ing prac­ti­cally naked; Star Sap­phire from Green Lan­tern, whose cos­tume left al­most the en­tire front of her torso ex­posed; or Har­ley Quinn, who used to wear a com­me­dia dell’artestyle har­le­quin out­fit but in the end had to get her as­sets out for the lads like the rest of her col­leagues.

These poor women were also fre­quently drawn in poses rang­ing from un­nat­u­ral to anatom­i­cally im­pos­si­ble that fur­ther por­trayed them as sex ob­jects. Granted, per­haps some su­per­pow­ers cause women to de­velop 360-de­gree spinal flex­i­bil­ity so their breasts and bums can be on max­i­mum panoramic dis­play at all times.

It has to be that. Oth­er­wise it’s just ridicu­lous and sex­ist.

To be fair, the prob­lem didn’t wholly lie with poses and cos­tumes. Some­times the body be­ing con­torted into yet an­other “sexy” pose or squeezed into an out­fit smaller than a postage stamp had pro­por­tions so ex­ag­ger­ated that any at­tempt at re­al­is­tic stances and cos­tum­ing would have been fu­tile. The 1990s was es­pe­cially bad for this; 44HHH chests atop waists so tiny they left no room for in­ter­nal or­gans were stan­dard fe­male physiques. Such

aes­thet­ics sent the mes­sage that women in comics didn’t need to look like in­di­vid­ual hu­mans. Bet­ter they should look like dolls, sub­ject to their own­ers’ whims.

Pre­pos­ter­ous cloth­ing and fig­ures were just the tip of the prob­lem­atic ice­berg, how­ever. There was a deeper is­sue at work con­cern­ing the fear of women’s agency over their own bod­ies. Af­ter all, what ex­em­pli­fies fe­male bodily au­ton­omy more than a woman with su­per­hu­man abil­i­ties? Clearly these for­mi­da­ble women had to be kept in their place some­how, and it turned out the eas­i­est way to do that was to de­pict fe­male power and sex­u­al­ity as evil.

Thus su­per­heroines who turned to the dark side got more re­veal­ing out­fits to il­lus­trate their lack of morals. When Made­lyne Pryor, a clone of Jean Grey who was mar­ried to Cy­clops, be­came the de­mon-ma­nip­u­lat­ing Goblin Queen, she ditched her comfy shirts and sen­si­ble jeans for what can only be de­scribed as an un­der­boob top and a loin­cloth, plus black thigh high boots.

Like­wise, when Sue Storm briefly be­came the vil­lain Mal­ice, Mistress of Hate, she ditched the bright full-body jump­suit for a skimpy black num­ber that was ba­si­cally a bikini with a long cloth drape at the bot­tom, a black hood cov­ered in spikes, and a spiked col­lar. And thigh boots, nat­u­rally. The whole en­sem­ble was very S&M chic.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, as the Goblin Queen and Mal­ice, Made­lyne and Sue didn’t just ac­quire new stylists – they also grew more pow­er­ful. Be­fore turn­ing to evil, Made­lyne had no pow­ers ex­cept for a short stint as a healer, thanks to Loki grant­ing av­er­age folks a taste of su­per­hu­man­ity through magic. As the Goblin Queen, she could con­trol minds and trans­form peo­ple into de­mons. Although Sue could al­ready turn in­vis­i­ble and gen­er­ate force fields, as Mal­ice she learned to use these pow­ers ag­gres­sively, cre­at­ing un­seen weapons from her force fields to carve up her en­e­mies. Want­ing to gain power is evil if you’re a woman, dear read­ers. That’s why Made­lyne and Sue had to wear dom­i­na­trix gear; it’s the same rea­son why Cat­woman car­ries a whip and wears black leather. Only bad women want to be in con­trol, whether sex­u­ally, men­tally, or in any other way.

And if we’re talk­ing about the evils of fe­male power in comics, we can’t for­get the Dark Phoenix Saga, where Jean Grey de­vel­oped cos­mi­clevel pow­ers and mur­dered a planet as a re­sult. It all kicked off when Jean bonded with the Phoenix, a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the uni­verse’s prime life force, which gave her


Left: Power Girl is a prime ex­am­ple of how women’s su­per­hero out­fits aren’t prac­ti­cal and fo­cus on am­ple bo­soms Above: Witch­blade barely coves the nip­ples with her skimpy non-out­fit Be­low: Made­lyne Pryor gets a loin cloth and thigh-highs but very lit­tle else...

Above: Orig­i­nally, all a man had to do to de­feat Won­der Woman was chain her wrists to­gether Top: Won­der Woman’s first ap­pear­ance in All-Star Comics #8 Right: For a long time, Won­der Woman was the only fe­male in the JLA

Above: Sue Storm, or In­vis­i­ble Woman, orig­i­nally had the same mas­cu­line cos­tume as her male team mates

Right: When Bat­girl was in­tro­duced she was Robin’s love in­ter­est Betty Kane be­fore be­ing rein­vented as Bar­bara Gor­don

Top: More of­ten than not, fe­male coun­ter­parts to male he­roes or vil­lains will have the skimp­i­est of im­prac­ti­cal out­fits Above-mid­dle: Of­ten fe­male char­ac­ters are por­trayed in rather un­com­fort­able po­si­tions Above: She-Hulk is a main per­pe­tra­tor of women be­ing sen­sa­tion­alised in art Above-right: Cat­woman is of­ten guilty of dis­play­ing a lack of spine for her breasts and bum to al­ways be on show

Above: For a brief time Sue Storm be­came Mal­ice, Mistress of Hate and her out­fit was very S&M Left: Fe­male char­ac­ters have con­tin­ued to have per­pet­ual ‘bro­ken back’ syn­drome Be­low: The Hawk­eye Ini­tia­tive was cre­ated to show the in­jus­tice in pre­sen­ta­tion, here a clear ex­am­ple of men vs women

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