Posted by: Doc Comics | October 3, 2010

“The Wonder Woman Problem” vs. Hollywood Patriarchy

Fan art of the Wonder Woman we *WISH* we were getting.

There is news this weekend that Wonder Woman has a TV series in development [note: UPDATE on its fate below] written by “Ally McBeal” and “Boston Legal” scribe David E. Kelley after over a decade of limbo.  Particularly disturbing in justifying this writer of “quirky” courtroom farce is the oft-cited Hollywood logic that superheroines don’t sell, women can’t draw audiences as the lead in an action hero genre, and only sometimes work on TV.  Indeed, so this prevailing rationalization goes, women in superhero movies work only in ensemble casts and (aside from notable exceptions like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Alias”) are only really good as eye-candy for the panting fanboy demographic since girls aren’t interested. Yet its no accident that this sexist tripe usually comes from male commentators and the pandering Boys Club of studio execs, or clueless starlets who admittedly “don’t get it.”  These are all good reasons to be worried that any Wonder Woman project is in danger of becoming a spectacular trainwreck of failure as a self-fulfilling prophesy for “see we told you so” when no vision and bad writing contribute to the next Catwoman or Electra debacle.   When we seriously consider, “Why aren’t there any good superheroine movies?” so too must we examine the history of Wonder Woman’s never-ending battle against the enduring prejudices of Man’s World.

Wonder Womyn have long battled gender bias in our “Supergirls Gone Wild media mainstream.  Joss Whedon, who is celebrated for writing strong female characters, finally gave up on his much-anticipated Wonder Woman screenplay because even though studio execs had no idea what they wanted from a script, they weren’t into the gynocentric story he had in mind.  The blogosphere collectively face-palmed. Wonder Woman’s recent fashion makeover (and RetCon) has fans and feminists alike similarly nervous with the tinkering, but in fairness it’s obvious that comics creators (mostly men) haven’t fared much better in handling Princess Diana’s continuity.  Women who admire the empowered Amazon, however, seem to be pretty darn sure about why Wonder Woman endures as a feminist icon. “The original Wonder Woman was changing the world to fit women,” notes Gloria Steinem, “This one seems changed to fit the world.” Trina Robbins adds, “Girls have needed, at least in their fantasy lives, a safe place to be with other girls, where they could express themselves without being threatened by boys.” Indeed, as Gina Torres notes of superheroines, “it’s important to have strong images of women out there, women who aren’t afraid of expressing themselves, women who aren’t afraid of taking chances, women who aren’t afraid of their own power.” The animated Wonder Woman enjoyed mostly favorable reviews, and many believe the time is right to rethink the superheroine in entertainment media.

Got Patriarchy?

It’s pretty obvious (if you ask): Women like comics (and movies) that are GOOD.  And Wonder Woman has long been the litmus test for trailblazing media portrayals of strong women who have a purpose beyond male oogling (which, IMHO, translates visually with the Xena-inspired style rocked recently by Smallville‘s Lois Lane that bucks years of lingerie hotpants fashion).  When superheroine films don’t work, its often for the usual reasons rather than the reproductive naughty bits of protagonists: unimaginative formula melodrama, uninspired scripts for PR-grabbing stunt-casting, meddlesome sexist studio execs, and outdated gender stereotypes disguised as ass-kicking empowerment.  Notes one insightful blogger:

“According to what I’ve seen of women in fiction, we’re unsure of ourselves. We’re uncomfortable with ourselves. We’re uncomfortable with our bodies. We’re uncomfortable with our sexuality. We don’t know what we’re capable of.  We second-guess ourselves… Wonder Woman is not supposed to be like that. Wonder Woman is supposed to already be the woman other women in fiction learn to be. She’s at the point where you are done working on your inside and ready to work on the outside world.”

Dr. Marston’s Wonder Woman wasn’t equal to men but superior to them, and was thus sent as an ambassador for an Amazon philosophy that challenged masculine warmongering, gender oppression, and corrupting greed as threats to world peace through equality and democratic freedom. The best interpretations of Wonder Woman [The Hiketeia, New Frontier, Kingdom Come, and very few others] portray her as an empathetic ingenue pacifist who can transform into a fierce warrior for peace if forced into violent confrontation, a paradoxical contradiction navigated by her greatest superpower: inspiring a sisterhood of and for women in a hostile world. This purposive Feminist vision of an empowered egalitarian is what Wonder Woman in the 1940s introduced and continues to champion, so little wonder that the dominant Men’s Club of writers, executives, and producers seem to have such difficulty translating what today’s Wonder Womyn want. Fandom hopes against hope that WB/DC won’t pander to Sex and the City faux-feminism in the name of profit-turning spectacle but history suggests otherwise. One obvious answer is to cultivate more female talent, but even that first important step will be severely limited and limiting when the rest of the institutional structures (from bank-rolling studio execs to producers and directors or writers and critics along with the rest of the army of folks who play decision-making roles) are literally stacked against innovative storytelling from the get-go. Ultimately, its AUDIENCES like us who need to kick and scream and Twitter or Facebook ‘The Boy’s Club’ into attentiveness. Like Wonder Woman herself, we’ll need to BE the change we want to see in the masculine-dominated sexist world. As Gloria Steinem once wrote of this Amazon warrior princess:

“Wonder Woman’s family of Amazons on Paradise Island, her band of college girls in America, and her efforts to save individual women are all welcome examples of women working together and caring about each other’s welfare… women know how rare and therefore exhilarating the idea of sisterhood is… Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values of the women’s culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women, sisterhood and mutual support among women, peacefulness and esteem for human life: a diminishing both of ‘masculine’ aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts.”

That is, “Grrrl Power!!”

UPDATE: A post on the fate of the Wonder Woman pilot (and the collective sigh of relief from fans), and the never-ending battle over strong female representation and ‘Gender Trouble‘ with action heroines continues as Pixar’s BRAVE sparks lively feminist debate!


  1. Joss Whedon’s script for WONDER WOMAN that might’ve been

    …and SuperSexism played for laughs as an extended ‘Blonde Joke’…

  2. Why wasn’t “Superman/Batman: Apocalypse” star Supergirl given top billing in Warner Bros.’ latest animated feature? Turns out it’s due, at least in part, to concerns about a female character headlining after the sales performance of the critically lauded “Wonder Woman” feature.

  3. Strange this post is totaly unrelated to what I was searching google for, but it was listed on the first page. I guess your doing something right if Google likes you enough to put you on the first page of a non related search.

  4. Every time I see blogs as good as this because I should stop bludging and start working on mine.Thanks

  5. UPDATE:
    Looks like the whole Wonder Woman TV series deal is off, but for reasons related to the DC/Marvel media rivalry. See the news here.

  6. UPDATE II: And now the Wonder woman project is back on at NBC. Merciful Minerva!!

  7. WONDER WOMEN! The Untold Story of American Superheroines – SXSW 2012 Accepted Film

  8. “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.”

  9. An incredible Wonder Woman fanfilm trailer has the comics blogosphere abuzz!

  10. From the Atlantic… Earth to Hollywood: People Will Pay to See a Female Superhero Film

  11. “By denying Wonder Woman her true history, feminists of the 70s and 80s—some who have crusaded against material similar to her Golden Age adventures—deny the full spectrum of who this character really is.”

  12. “[There’s] been a fear that you needed to go harder in some direction to make [Wonder Woman] interesting,” Jenkins explained. “And I was always confused by it. You could go out on Halloween, even now, 75 years later, and there’s a good chunk of people dressed up as Wonder Woman. She’s pretty simple. She is like the parallel of Superman. She’s good, she means well, she’s kind, she’s loving.”

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