The Enduring Woman: An Anniversary Tribute to Wonder Woman
It’s easy to complain about Wonder Woman, who made her first appearance in a story in All-Star Comics #8 by William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter published on October 25 1941. Many deride her as an empty symbol; something to emblazon T-shirts with rather than a character to read about. She’s been bloated by the past century’s worst attitudes towards women. Her outfit is often embarrassing and exploitative. She’s not a warrior, a peacemaker, a queen, or a diplomat, but something indefinable and eternally in-between. If complaining is the comic community’s greatest pastime, picking apart Wonder Woman is our baseball.
So why does she still exist?
What is it about her that has survived the indignities of postwar conservatism, the leering gaze of the 80s and 90s, the endless cracks about bondage and bracelets? What is it that George Perez, Greg Rucka, and Gail Simone found in her to channel to great heights? What made Ms. Magazine put her on the cover, and why do people keep buying those t-shirts? Why her, and not Batgirl? Why not Miss Fury, the Blonde Phantom, or any number of other Golden Age also-rans?
What sets her apart, I believe, is her self-possession.
Womanhood is an endless process of being hollowed-out, flattened, and otherwise molded for other people’s purposes. Slut, virgin, mother, bitch: labels that make us consumable to the outside world, to our own detriment. Owning one’s self — a slippery concept at the best of times — is a lifelong process. Some of us will never complete it. Even with a knowledge of Simone de Beauvoir and a lifetime of promises, we may struggle to be our own person until the day we die; to be someone beyond the Madonna or the Whore, the Daughter or the Mother. To live outside of what men might make of us.
Wonder Woman, in contrast, is Wonder Woman. She is Hippolyta’s daughter, certainly, and she is Themyscira’s envoy, sure. She is Steve Trevor’s lover, okay, sometimes. But she belongs to herself before she belongs to anyone else: none of these attachments define her completely.
When the slew Medusa before an audience of millions in Rucka and Drew Johnson’s Eyes of the Gorgon arc — perhaps her greatest modern story — or when she was borne aloft on the love of her many mothers in Simone and Terry and Rachel Dodson's The Circle; when she spent her days getting into Golden Age trouble with Etta Candy and the Holliday Girls; she was ever and always herself. Those timeless stories depend upon her ideals, her courage, and her brilliance before anything else.
There are many like her — strong, beautiful, brilliant women who populate our pages, screens, and stages. The Disney Princesses, Katniss Everdeen, Hermione Granger — fictional females hailed as game-changing, singular, and strong. And they are, mostly.
But there’s something about how unreservedly good Wonder Woman is, how strong and courageous and undaunted. As much as I love Batgirl, Miss Martian, and She-Hulk, her name is entirely her own. Unlike Miss Fury and the Blonde Phantom, she’s endured far beyond World War II. Unlike Cinderella, she is physical, and unlike Katniss, she usually wears a smile.
She’s a fantasy of who we could be, if we could truly have it all — and, crucially, she feels as though she is meant for women, and not another unreachable paragon of perfection.
Whatever your feelings on the argument that superheroes are modern myths, or about Wonder Woman herself, the character matters, and how she is presented is important, and her stories have consequence. Readers, and especially women, feel tied to her, and to the fantasy of self-possession. The fantasy of freedom. The fantasy of goodness, and courage, and of being able to break the most restrictive of chains.
So happy birthday, Wonder Woman: Diana Prince, Goddess of Truth, Themysciran Ambassador, Holliday girl. Happy birthday to the MAC model, the magazine cover, the T-shirt symbol. Happy birthday to Marston’s clever daredevil, Simone’s warm-hearted sister, Perez’s fearless truth-seeker.
But most of all, happy birthday to the Wonder Woman who lives in our hearts: entirely, undauntedly, and unreservedly herself.
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