Posted by: Doc Comics | March 28, 2010

Wonder Women, Superheroines, & Feminism

When Wonder Woman appeared in 1941, she was immediately very different from the superhero boys club.  Created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, who invented the polygraph “lie detector” and wrote comics under the pen name Charles Moulton, Wonder Woman was not only a super-powered Amazon princess with strength equal to that of the mighty Superman but also an archetype of kinky feminine empowerment (just ask Golden Age Wonder Woman about the Phallic Menace).  Still, despite hit and miss characterizations after Marston’s death and Comics Code sanitizing, Wonder Woman has endured as a feminist icon as well as a reminder of ongoing sexist objectification of women in comic books (esp. by Frank Miller, here and here).  The Amazon Princess Diana illustrates what her supporters and critics have noted are gender inequities in male-dominated characterizations of superheroines, a trend clearly illustrated by recent Wonder Woman scribe Gail Simone in her infamous “Women In Refrigerators” row.  Still, there has been some progress (for example, Marvel’s Heralds and ironically-titled Girl Comics) but sexist attitudes towards superheroines still persist in comics AND movies.  Besides Wonder Woman, we’ll take a look at Robin the girl wonder (and Green Arrow’s latest Speedy) and the newest Batwoman as we reflect upon the history of the Action Superheroine! American media (and comics) has a serious and long-standing Wonder Woman Problem, which Promethea boldly tackles.

PROMETHEA is acclaimed British writer Alan Moore’s use of a strong female superheroine to explore themes of magical imagination and, again, deconstruct superheroes. Moore recalls: “the original idea behind Promethea was to come up with something that worked as a mainstream superhero character, maybe looked a bit like Wonder Woman or Doctor Strange in a weak light, and which would enable me to explore the magical concepts that I was interested in before a mainstream comics audience that may never have encountered these ideas before… Because in some sense, when I’m talking about magic, I’m only talking about the creative process. Magic to me is something from nothing, which includes rabbits out of hats, it includes the creation of the universe from a quantum vacuum, or it includes how a comic comes into being from me sitting in an armchair with a completely blank mind. It’s all of this. Any given creativity is magic.”  You can see some academic musings on Promethea’s themes here and here.

Here is a brief overview of feminism, an Introduction to Feminist Theory, and a look at the problem of “Supergirls Gone Wild” in the comics.

The real problem isn’t Wonder Woman’s backstory, or her costume, or her superheroine abilities, it’s that the men who’ve been given the chance to write her keep trying to reinvent the character into what they want her to be, instead of staying true to who she is – the very aspects that drove her popularity in the first place.  That dynamic is essentially the core struggle women face their entire lives: fighting to stay true to themselves against the pressures to become what others want us to be.  It’s no wonder, then, that so many women are, like me, waiting to see our Wonder Woman again.” Apparently, a lot of fans agree!



  1. Wow the list of the fate of all the super female charaters is very unfortunate; all are either dead, raped, depowered, impregnated, tortured, or a combination of mental disorders and before mentioned. Not one female hero escapes the male centric rule.

  2. Simone’s “Women in Refrigerators” list sparked a lot of controversy and is indeed a sobering illustration of comics characterizations of women (here’s an updated list and the backstory as well as an interesting 10 years later reflection). Fighting sexism is an ongoing struggle across all media (ever heard of the Bechdel Test for women in movies?).

  3. Hilarious dark comment stated; females there-in depicted are but cannon fodder for supervillains.

    For which described in the 10 years later blog post, where cannon fodder and super villain can be symbolically inferred from the weapon/Bullet Kitty Pryde is protecting us against is, pretty much a giant phallus… hhhrrrmm

    yes sexism is rooted far more than I realized.

  4. Or, culture has become overly (overTly?) sexified, to borrow your term, and created a counter-culture that cannot help but symbolically recreate imagery of the V, OO, ->, etc…where is Dr. Ruth??

    • Exactly Garret haha

  5. UPDATE: The latest dust-up evokes an answer to the “guys are objectified also” argument. Check out “The Myth of Male Objectification in Superhero Comics” at Comics Bulletin.

  6. In Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes, Lillian S. Robinson argues that the stories of female superheroes in the genre “transgress [the] use of mythological sources, borrowing from various traditions and creating new ones in order to tell different stories about gender, stories that come closer to the universe of belief than do masculine (and masculinity) adventure comics” (6).

  7. “I always felt one of the fundamentals of Wonder Woman in at least the last two decades is that she always seems to be on trial, and I don’t mean that in a story sense. Everyone’s always saying, “Why does nobody buy Wonder Woman? Why isn’t she any good?” (Laughs)… it seems like she’s always on trial, so I thought if I literalized that and made the story basically the Amazons bringing her back home after her first adventure away and putting her on trial, it’d be different from anything else you might see. The Amazons have their own ways of doing things.
    It’s kind of asking Wonder Woman to justify herself, which I feel has almost been what the character’s had to do for a long time.”
    ~Grant Morrison interview

  8. The newest Wonder Woman for BATMAN VS SUPERMAN has been chosen, and the predictable backlash and excuses has begun. A fanfilm, however, hints at what could work.

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