Wonder Woman : Feminist Icon or Sexual Object ?

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Wonder Woman’s Identity Card (by Alice Huot)

2016 was a great year for the famous super heroine —she celebrated her 75th birthday and made her big screen debut in Batman v. Superman : Dawn of Justice— and 2017 promises to be even better as she will appear in two films : Wonder Woman (June) and Justice League (November). Nevertheless, in spite of her undeniable popularity, the character is full of paradoxes and often subject to controversy. The most recent example was last October when she was named UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Girls and Women only to be stripped of her title by December after an online petition was signed by 45.000 people. For many, having a heavily sexualized ink-and-paper character created by men and appointed to promote women’s empowerment was absurd (plus, Wonder Woman is also clearly an American hero which goes against the UN’s neutrality). However, this is only one way of looking at the character. Feminists Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes chose to look at her differently in 1972 when they decided to use Wonder Woman as the cover of the first issue of their feminist magazine, Ms.Magazine.

So, is Wonder Woman a feminist icon or a sexual object ?

The myth of Wonder Woman is largely based on the idea of a female warrior that

Cover of the first issue of Ms. Magazine, 1972

challenges gender identities. The super heroine always possesses three objects: her tiara, her bracelets, and her lasso. Among those three objects, two are gender-codified, namely the tiara and the bracelets. However, although they are traditionally feminine accessories, the tiara is used as a weapon and the bracelets as defensive items. In terms of iconography, Wonder Woman’s complex gender identity translates into a muscular appearance. From the first issue of the comics book to the more recent ones, her strength is always physically highlighted. The super heroine has generous curves, revealed by a costume which exposes most of her skin, as well as muscular arms and legs. Wonder Woman is a very sexualized female character but she has nothing to envy to the most skilled and powerful warrior —male by default. This mixing of gendered attributes creates the ideology of the empowered woman which seems to be at the core of Wonder Woman’s myth.

Matriarchy v. Patriarchy

In addition to those visual aspects, the origin story of Wonder Woman challenges patriarchy. The super heroine is indeed the daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. In the DC Universe, the Amazons are a tribe of women warriors who shun the world of men and live on a secret island. Since it is exclusively populated by women and girls, the Amazonian society is the epitome of matriarchy. The character of Wonder Woman pushes the idea even further since her existence is tied to absolutely no man, not even a father. In the original story, Wonder Woman is said to have been created from clay by her mother which explains why the character can be seen as the embodiment of women’s  complete emancipation from men.

But one question remains : if Wonder Woman is such a feminist icon why does she have to be half-naked ?
To fully understand the super heroine, it is necessary to understand William Marston, her creator. Marston believed that women were superior to men because of their emotional capacities and kindness and so that they should rule as « love leaders ». According to him, violence was men’s power of submission whereas women’s was eroticism. This explains a lot : from the revealing costume to the many kinky bondage scenes (the choice of the lasso is not innocent). It should also be noted that for Marston, Wonder Woman’s eroticism was directed to men as well as women. Unfortunately, as we live in a man’s world, Marston’s very idiosyncratic ideas were easily distorted and Wonder Woman was over-sexualized to please the male gaze only. This is especially striking when looking at her costume’s evolution. When put side by side the series of stamps released by the USPS to celebrate her 75th birthday seems to tell the story of a strong women that artists tried to reduced to a sexual object. Is that maybe why she seems so angry ?

Four stamps released by the US Postage Service to celebrate Wonder Woman’s 75th birthday

By Alice Huot (M1)

Cet article est la synthèse d’un essai réalisé dans le cadre du cours « Clusters symboliques » dispensé par Catherine Bernard.



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