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The Fall of Wonder Woman: Is Mainstream Feminism Forgetting its Roots?

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The Fall of Wonder Woman: Is Mainstream Feminism Forgetting its Roots?

By Billie Lorraine Lafty

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In 1975, The New Original Wonder Woman made its debut on ABC and immediately won the hearts of little girls everywhere. At the time, male superheroes were the typical protagonist, with female ones in supporting roles such as Barbara Gordan (played by Yvonne Craig) in Batman (1966 – 1968). Female superheroes were rarely the focal point of a television show, and none of them was as impactful as Wonder Woman grew to be.

The 1970’s marked a changing point for women. Although the right to vote was granted in 1920 with the 19th amendment, women lacked agency in the home and the office. Strict gender roles continued to limit women, and the Equal Pay Act of 1963 lacked the enforcement needed to guarantee women equal pay.

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In the 1970’s, young girls and women were finally encouraged to be strong, to transcend society’s strict gender barriers. In 1972, the federal government passed Title IX, thus prohibiting any gender discrimination from federally funded programs. Title IX marked a major milestone for women— suddenly young girls began freely playing sports, which inspired other non-gender conforming activities such as climbing trees, using tools, and even taking on “male” careers.

These changes began to impact the way that women were portrayed on television and in movies. Suddenly, television networks were more keen on depicting strong female characters, and in 1975, after a complete makeover of the Wonder Woman series that ran a year prior (starring Cathy Lee Crosby from the 1974 movie by the same name), ABC launched The New Original Wonder Woman. Starring Lynda Carter, this series opens with Wonder Woman stepping outside of gender stereotypes to save a male American pilot during the Second World War. The idea of a woman saving a man during the seventies was new and certainly not frequently depicted on the small or big screen.

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The series continued until its cancellation in 1979, but its legacy carried on—more television series started to depict strong female characters. Wonder Woman is still a symbol for the generation of women born into a new age of freedom. Little girls were given choices that their mothers and grandmothers did not have and provided with role models like Wonder Woman, who fought crime and stood for justice. The beauty of this female role model was her strength and imperturbable aptitude to do what was right.

While Wonder Woman was considered a breaking point for females everywhere in the 1970’s, 2016 harbors other opinions about the Amazon Princess and her influence on young, female minds. In October of 2016, the United Nations bestowed Wonder Woman with title of honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls. Although many rejoiced at the idea of bequeathing Wonder Woman with this honor, others responded negatively to the announcement. In October, a petition began circulating from concerned United Nations staff members, stating that “At a time when issues such as gender parity in senior roles and the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls is at the top of the United Nation’s agenda, including the “He for She” campaign, this appointment is more than surprising. It is alarming that the United Nations would consider using a character with an overtly sexualized image at a time when the headline news in United States and the world is the objectification of women and girls.”

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While the petition procured almost 45,000 signatures, the sentiment behind the decision to start a campaign against any woman who gained such an honor sent outrage across the Internet. Women are only just beginning to taste the freedoms that our mothers and grandmothers never fully had. The attempt to remove a female ambassador due to her “sexualization” sends a message to females everywhere that women have some sort of control over the way they are perceived and are therefore liable for any treatment that comes because of it. Isn’t this the sort of victim-blaming that we have been trying so vigorously to eliminate from our courts when dealing with sexual assault cases? If a woman’s appearance or dress is not an excuse for an assailant to commit a sexual assault, then it should never be an excuse to have her stripped of any titles that her behavior dictates she so rightfully deserves.

Wonder Woman has always encouraged women to be stronger. In 1941, Wonder Woman made her first appearance in All Star Comics, after William Moulton Marston conceived the character. Marston a polygamist, developed the character due to a suggestion from his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston and is said to have collaborated with the artist of Wonder Woman, H.G. Peters, to create the physical appearance of the character based on his long-term girlfriend Olive Byrne.

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Marston was a strong supporter of female empowerment and often spoke and lectured in favor of women equality. In a 1937 interview with Washington Post, he stated that, “Women have twice the emotional development, the ability for love, than man has. As they develop as much ability for worldly success as they already have ability for love, they will clearly come to rule business and the nation and the world.”

Marston was also very open about his purpose for developing Wonder Woman and the role he hoped she would play for women. When describing the concept of his most famous female character, he stated that, “She encourages women to stand up for themselves, to learn to fight, and be strong, so they don’t have to be scared, or depend on men.” In the 1940’s, describing a woman as someone who does not “depend on men” was an extremely bold statement to make. Although Marston certainly created the heart of who Wonder Woman would grow to become, he did not conceptualize her alone.

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The artwork behind Wonder Woman was developed by women’s rights advocate H.G. Peter. Peter was 61 years old when he created the iconic image of Wonder Woman, but he had long used art to support women in their fight for equality. Peter was published in a variety of publications, including magazines such as Judge, with artwork that depicted the women’s fight towards universal equality.

After her public release, Wonder Woman rapidly rose to fame. In less than a year after her original appearance in All Star Comics, she became the first female superhero to appear in a comic of her own name, Wonder Woman. She will be forever recognized as one of the most influential characters during the Golden Age of Comics (1930’s to 1950’s). Other superheroes who share this honor include Superman, Captain America, and Batman.

In addition to her other impressive accomplishments, Wonder Woman was also the only woman in the popular superhero team, the Justice League, a society that was based on the Justice Society. Along with Wonder Woman, the original founding members of the Justice League included heroes such as Superman, Batman, the Flash, Aquaman, the Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter. The original Justice League, which was created by Gardner Fox, was created in the 1960’s and included a mostly male lineup. The inclusion of Wonder Woman demonstrated the far-reaching capabilities of women and represented the surpassing of gender stereotypes.

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Although Wonder Woman is only a comic-book character, her endless list of accomplishments over the past 75 years have inspired young girls everywhere. She has encouraged girls to take action in a time when women didn’t even realize their own strength. This petition not only forgets about the atrocities women faced a century ago but also sends a dangerous message to young girls who are only beginning to form their identities as women. Don’t let this petition tell girls that they need to dress or act in a certain way—or they’ll be punished. Different is not wrong. And as a society, we should stop making rash judgments based on an accepted or idealized appearance.

Indeed, the beauty expectations society sets on women is preposterous. Though women are expected to be “pretty,” they can’t wear too much makeup, or dress inappropriately or too sexy. Making negative remarks to our fellow women is anti-feminist—it takes away their freedom of choice by force-feeding them our point of view. While refraining from makeup or what society considers to be “sexy” attire is perfectly acceptable, choosing to dress sexy or immodestly is not a crime. Public perception is the fault of the public alone and nobody else should be held accountable for their viewpoint.

Forcing opinions to align with the mainstream concept of feminism is just another attempt to control the minds of young girls. By encouraging this sort of behavior, we may be successful in promoting change, but the change will be a result of fear. Rather than asking ourselves if Wonder Woman is the right kind of role model, perhaps we should ask ourselves if this is the right kind of change.

Instead of attacking one another, we should support other women and sign petitions that request additional female role models to stand alongside Wonder Woman. The UN offers ambassadorships on multiple occasions, so women should see Wonder Woman’s nomination as an opportunity for her success to grow. If we attempt to revoke honors from fictional female characters based on their appearances, what are we willing to do to our real-life fellow women?

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