Suffering Sappho! The Tortured History of Female Superheroes

Warner Bros.

The box office failures of Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005) gave studios an excuse for not making superhero movies featuring anyone but white men. But it seemed like more of a convenient justification than a good one, since the failure of both The Green Hornet and Green Lantern in 2011 didn’t lead to the end of superhero movies starring quippy white guys. In fact, quippy white guys are more of a superhero-movie staple than ever. Marvel has three different ones named Chris anchoring franchises (Hemsworth in Thor, Evans in Captain America, and Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy) — a fact the company used as a jokey selling point, rather than as a depressing marker of lack of diversity in the genre that now makes up the bulk of expensive summer tentpole movies. As #GamerGate has similarly helped highlight in the video-game realm, there is a seeming unwillingness among those making comic-book movies to let go of the idea of the young white male as the core audience, even when statistics show that the audiences for entertainment are as diverse as the population makeup in real life. It appears that the people responsible for green-lighting big movies (who tend to be very much white men) cling to the false conventional wisdom that women will see movies about men but men won’t see movies about women.

Then, nine months ago, we learned that DC Comics had set up a solo Wonder Woman movie for Gal Gadot, who will debut as the original female superhero in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016. Last week, playing catch-up, Marvel announced it was making a Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel stand-alone movie, with the star TBD. (Marvel and DC have both also blatantly failed to feature male minority superheroes in their films, even though Wesley Snipes’s vampire franchise Blade kicked off the second wave of comic-book movies. In tandem with the announcement of Captain Marvel, Marvel announced a Black Panther movie to star breakout actor Chadwick Boseman, too.)

The news was greeted as if the new movies represented a great, if overdue, leap forward — or would represent a great leap, anyway, in the eventual future. Wonder Woman won’t debut in Batman v Superman for another year and a half, and Wonder Woman is slated for 2017. (Gadot will also star as the superheroine in The Justice League Part One later that year.) Captain Marvel won’t get the jump on Wonder Woman: She’s scheduled for summer of 2018. The studios deny that they were shamed into making these women-led movies, or that they succumbed to pressure from the public or each other. Marvel’s Kevin Feige claimed that a Captain Marvel movie “has been in the works almost as long as Doctor Strange or Guardians of the Galaxy … and one of the key things was figuring out what we wanted to do with it.” This, though, was obvious backtracking; the statement came only three months after Feige said he was not going to be “swayed by the backlash” against the lack of women and minorities in Marvel’s upcoming films.

A look at how female comic-book superheroes have been handled by studios doesn’t inspire much confidence that those studios know “what to do” with them now. 20th Century Fox fumbled the X-Men movies, a Marvel franchise built around diversity and inclusiveness, by primarily focusing on the white male cast members. In the comics, the X-Men are a stronghold of great female characters, and ostensibly an ensemble piece, but the movies have been the Hugh Jackman–as-Wolverine show since day one. In the comics’ “Days of Future Past” saga, it’s Kitty Pryde who travels back in time and does all the cool stuff. But in this past summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past on the big screen, it was Wolverine, while Ellen Page’s Kitty was relegated to psychic mission control and got barely any screen time. How can movies based on comic books be so much less progressive and inclusive than the comics themselves, which are decades old?


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What makes Wonder Woman so intimidating? On the face of it, she’s just Superman in a bustier and hot pants; instead of a planet of superbeings, she comes from an island of superwomen.1 But in truth, she is different from Kal-El in a number of ways. While Superman has been seen as a Jewish fantasy about the Übermensch, Wonder Woman represents what was perhaps an even more radical concept: the Überfrau. This was completely intentional. Wonder Woman was, in creator William Moulton Marston’s mind, a representative of the “New Woman” he had encountered in his college days: independent, resourceful, smart as a whip, living in a post-suffrage world with better access to birth control than ever before. He called his creation Diana, after the Romans’ name for the Greek goddess of the hunt. Jill Lepore’s new book The Secret History of Wonder Woman details the fascinating backstory behind the invention of Wonder Woman, which involves a BDSM lifestyle, polyamory, and the study of human psychology.2

Wonder Woman was conceived as a champion of feminism by Marston. But Marston’s depiction of female superiority redeployed old stereotypes, simply inverting their outcome — idealizing femininity instead of demonizing it. It was structured around a belief in rigid and inborn gender differences, the view that women were more honest and gentle than men. Marston also believed that women’s natural state was submission, and that it was their ability to find strength in submission that made them superior. Wonder Woman may dress like a dominatrix, but she was conceived as a professional submissive. In The American Scholar in 1943, Marston wrote: “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are.”

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Just how progressive was Wonder Woman’s creator? He was a product of his time — but also of his own unusual convictions. When he fell for one of his female students, for instance, he talked his wife into accepting the younger woman into their home. Somehow, Marston saw being a man with two wives as politically attuned to his peculiar form of feminist allying; one of his beliefs was that women were meant to submit to “loving authority.” By many accounts, the household was a happy one, but it is hard to call it an obvious triumph for women’s rights: Marston convinced his wife to go along with the arrangement by threatening to leave her unless she accepted the polyamorous lifestyle. Principles are clear-cut, but real human relationships are messy. That said, the women must not have hated it: They continued living together for 40 years after Marston’s death.

Whatever Wonder Woman’s true origins, the character in the comics quickly morphed from Marston’s very specific vision into something much bigger: a symbol of female equality for the World War II era. She was an emblem of physical strength and female athleticism who fought alongside the boys, leaving her Amazonian Eden for the depravity of “Man’s World” to assist in the noble cause of taking down the Nazis.

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Fredric Wertham’s influential 1954 psychiatric tome Seduction of the Innocent, which led to the establishment of the Comics Code Authority, detailed the allegedly hidden taboo themes of popular comic books. Wertham described Superman as a fascist fantasy and posited that Batman and Robin were a homosexual couple who encouraged alternative family units. He suggested that Wonder Woman was equally depraved. Wertham picked up on the pretty obvious bondage subtext of the Wonder Woman comics (which Marston intended), but he also called the heroine the “Lesbian counterpart of Batman” for her refusal to fulfill traditional female roles. Wertham believed that Wonder Woman was a bad influence on girls and a terrifying concept to boys: a woman who was physically beautiful, as well as superior to earthly men in every single way.

That Wonder Woman was so blatantly sapphic was a major part of the comic’s subversive appeal. Paradise Island was a women’s utopia, Wonder Woman’s battles with female nemeses involved a lot of ladies hugging each other with their legs, and Diana’s longtime boyfriend Steve Trevor was the comic’s damsel-in-distress character. Robert Kanigher, who wrote Wonder Woman for 20 years, readily admitted to feminist comics historian Trina Robbins that the Amazons of Paradise Island were (in his mind at least) lesbians.

Wonder Woman’s inarguable superiority felt threatening to men — because it was supposed to, even as she embodied the idea that women were less aggressive and more submissive than they were. Male strength is rendered irrelevant by Wonder Woman, who acts selflessly in the service of a higher, idealistic, peace-loving agenda. Wonder Woman is also a perennial outsider, even (especially) among other superheroes. But Marston’s belief in other kinds of families is the through line that makes Wonder Woman more than just a loner in an Invisible Plane; she desires connection and finds it in places that contradict the nuclear-family ideal, whether with her peers in the Justice League or among the Amazons at home. There was no conflict for Wonder Woman between her need to fly solo sometimes and her ability to operate within the context of groups. She doesn’t believe in binaries because she was raised on an isolated island where they don’t exist. She can be different things at different times.

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Wonder Woman updated a classic archetype, the woman warrior who is also a lover of peace, and tied it to the superhero causes of justice and patriotism. She was a careerist, continually putting off marriage to Steve Trevor because she had other important stuff to do, like save the world. In her civilian life as Diana Prince, she worked as an Army nurse3 and a military secretary, and later served as secretary for the Justice League’s predecessor, the Justice Society of America (*grumble*). During one brief, story-long spell, she humbly toiled at a taco stand. So her only flaw is that she is a compulsive workaholic. In the ’50s and early ’60s, during the Silver Age of comic books, Wonder Woman’s mythological backstory was beefed up. She was a long-established feminist icon by the time she was featured on the cover of the premiere issue of Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine in 1972.

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Feminism, though, is an argument among divided camps as well as a movement. Wonder Woman’s burden is that as the first female superhero, she bears responsibility for representing all women, which as any woman can tell you is impossible even for a symbol as resilient as an Amazon. She was constantly reinterpreted. In a bizarre 1968 twist, Wonder Woman dropped the whole superpowers angle and became a comic called The New Wonder Woman, in which Diana Prince was merely a civilian who fought crime using martial arts and worked at a mod boutique during the day. She didn’t regain her powers until years later, at which point she reclaimed her original moniker.

No one Wonder Woman adaptation can possibly please everyone, because women are human beings with personally differing tastes. But there are splits in Wonder Woman fandom — over the TV show, for example. Starting in 1975, Lynda Carter portrayed Wonder Woman and Diana Prince on television in a show that was as cheesily appealing as the satin disco version of Wonder Woman’s uniform, designed by Donfeld.


Submissive is not a word you would use to describe Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the Hunger Games series played by Jennifer Lawrence onscreen. The triumph of the Hunger Games franchise, as well as the surprise success of Luc Besson’s Lucy, which imagined Scarlett Johansson as a post-human on the run, exposed the faultiness of the claim that female protagonists don’t have crossover appeal and can’t be action heroes. It’s been contradicted before, by Ripley and Sarah Connor, but it seems we have to learn this lesson anew again and again. The real lesson is the old one: Progress follows money.

Wonder Woman has never appeared in a film, even as her closest compatriots have led the blockbuster Superman and Batman movie franchises. Helen Slater’s 1984 take on Supergirl (a Superman spinoff) is as close as we’ve gotten to a Wonder Woman movie. Wonder Woman appeared in animated form in the Justice League animated series in the ’00s and a subsequent string of straight-to-video animated films. She also appeared on the big screen for the first time ever recently, in Lego form, for The Lego Movie.4 In 2009, Lauren Montgomery directed an animated stand-alone Wonder Woman feature for the DC Universe Animated Original Movies series, a retelling of her origin story that hews closer to the heroine’s earliest roots than any other adaptation thus far. Joss Whedon wanted to make Wonder Woman as his passion project, but was blocked.

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It’s pathetic enough that it’s so hard to get a female superhero onto the big screen, let alone that progress is taking place only out of a cynical desire to get some of that Hunger Games profit and audience. If women and minorities go to movies at disproportionate rates, why not pander to them the way comic-book movies have pandered to white male audiences forever?

Filed Under: Movies, Marvel, Comic Books, wonder woman, feminism, Captain Marvel, carol danvers, DC Comics

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mollylambert