She’s worn a corset and short shorts, dabbled in bondage and S&M, and bashed goons in the name of feminism for the better part of 70 years. Then why is it that Wonder Woman—the ultimate female superhero and, ostensibly, the only comic book lady that casual fans actually know—can’t ink a movie deal?
Since the superhero blockbuster boom of 2002 and through this summer’s $225 million Man of Steel, there have been 40 films based off of Marvel and DC Comics characters. Two of those, Catwoman and Elektra, had female leads. They bombed.
“Elektra was pretty bad, and really kind of killed off the idea that you can have a female superhero in a movie and people will see it,” says Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, director of the PBS documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines. She says that a live-action Wonder Woman film, if done well, could change things. “It would validate the fact that we can have female heroes, not in an ensemble class, but as leads in major blockbusters.”
So what gives?
The short answer, of course, is that comic books appeal to pimply adolescent and twentysomething males more than women. Last year, a DC and Nielson ratings report on the series “The New 52”—where the storylines of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and others were revamped—found that a whopping 93 percent of readers were male.
Historically, female superheroes have had a tenuous relationship with power. X-Men’s Phoenix was so bloated with her super-abilities that she threatened to destroy the world. (She was killed repeatedly.) She-Hulk is bubbling over sexually, looking more like a Playboy cover girl than a crime-fighter. And there’s a barn of other characters: Black Cat, Storm, Batwoman, and the Birds of Prey—but they’re not exactly well known. Wonder Woman is arguably the only mainstream, instantly recognizable woman in tights.
Born from the mind of pseudo-feminist and pop psychologist William Moulton Marston in 1941 (he thought that society would one day be ruled by matriarchs), Diana of Themyscira was an Amazon princess thrust into a world “torn apart by the hatred of men.” If you sense a trend here, it’s intentional: Wonder Woman was raised only by women on Paradise Island; she later lives in “Man’s World.” She was like a softer-skinned Superman, with sexual equality on her agenda.
That’s not to say that Marston’s girl was a boring, feminist-flag-touting stereotype.
“He creates this character who on the one hand is a symbol of female empowerment and on the other hand is a series that’s filled to the brim with fetish and bondage imagery,” Danny Fingeroth, author of Superman on the Couch, says in the PBS documentary.
This uneasy sexuality may have been necessary to mask a radical pro-feminist message. Wonder Woman would lose her powers whenever a man put chains on her bracelets. But while girls were always being tied up in this age of comics, she was different: she didn’t need a man—she broke the chains herself. Her “lasso of truth” forced men to confess. She’d regularly ask evil-doers to submit to her. Yes, there was spanking, too.
Her exploits didn’t sit well with everyone, even women. Josette Frank, who was on DC Comics’ editorial advisory board, absolutely hated Wonder Woman. In 1944, she sent a letter to the comic’s publisher: “Personally I would consider an out-and-out striptease less unwholesome than this kind of symbolism.”
It gets worse. In 1954, Dr. Fredic Wertham’s scathing book Seduction of the Innocent charged that comics were savaging the minds of kids. Top on his list of offenders was Wonder Woman—though not for the reasons you might think.
“Wertham felt that Marsden was misguided and exploiting sadomasochistic, overly-sexualized, violent images of women,” says Carol Tilley, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science. “Wonder Woman is held up as the female equivalent of Batman—she had a fascist take on society and was labeled overtly lesbian.”
Wertham’s influential book—though a study by Tilley pokes some major holes in his research—partially inspired the Comics Code Authority in 1954, a body meant to cleanse the medium of “bad things.” Tilley says that code essentially made it dicey to show women characters. For example, this was when Catwoman made her transition from being a kick-ass bad girl to ambiguous sometimes-good girl.
As for Wonder Woman, the death of Marston in 1947 had already ushered in a time of less muscles and less feminism, and more romancing of her into a version of Lois Lane. This culminated in 1968 when Wonder Woman chose to give up her powers and avoid dimension-deportation. What happens next is almost unreal: She opens up a boutique, hires a blind mentor named I-Ching, and fights crime at night in fashionable jumpsuits.
While the reinvention—which didn’t last for long—pissed off a lot of women, it wasn’t really a conscious decision to make the character more like a stay at home mom.
“DC was looking at what was popular, like Emma Peel [from the ’60 show The Avengers], a fashionable, globe-trotting spy,” says Guevara-Flanagan. “It was a misstep because it was a pretty far cry from who Wonder Woman was.”
And who she actually is might have been channeled best in the ‘70s live-action show with an always-spinning Lynda Carter and a catchy theme song. So if Wonder Woman were to get a dark, gritty film like Batman and Superman, could it succeed on the big screen without morphing into a blockbuster burlesque show?
“I don’t think you’re going to see a heroine that’s not at least attractive, just like you don’t see a male hero who’s not attractive,” says Guevara-Flanagan. “But you can have a character that’s not a sex object. The Hunger Games is a good example of that. The story is about something greater than her sexuality and her romance.”
There’s nothing that says a comic book super-heroine like Wonder Woman can’t join the league of marketable female fictional characters next to women like Katniss Everdeen and Ellen Ripley. Just don’t remind anyone in Hollywood about 1984’s Supergirl.