October 2016 marks 75 years of DC comics superhero Wonder Woman, the US Postal Service has launched four new stamps featuring her across the decades, and on October 21st (now Wonder Woman Day) the UN will declare Wonder Woman an Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. As one of best-known female superheroes — though not the first — Wonder Woman certainly deserves some attention.
The character, like DC’s Superman and Batman, was created during the Second World War, and she debuted in 1941. Usually credited to US psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman was always intended to be a feminist hero and has enjoyed a near unbroken run for DC ever since. In her homeland, Themyscira, she is an Amazon princess; in our world her secret identity is Diana Prince and as Wonder Woman she is a founding member of the Justice League. ‘Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,’ Marston wrote in a letter to comics historian Coulton Waugh (in Gloudeman). The character’s history is summed up in umpteen videos by scholars, companies and fans, and the depictions on the US stamps take images from the Golden, Silver, Bronze and contemporary age.
There has already been some criticism of the UN announcement — the most common being why they couldn’t find a real woman to take on the role — though it is not the first time the UN has used fictional characters in this way (Tinkerbell and Red from Angry Birds have also been declared Honorary Ambassadors). Wonder Woman’s feminist credentials include featuring on the very first cover of Ms. magazine in 1972, and again for the publication’s 40th anniversary in 2012. In 2012 Kathy Spillar proclaimed: ‘Wonder Woman has been an enduring symbol of women’s power. We could imagine no better way to urge women to use their own power–the power of their vote–to stand up for themselves and their rights in the coming elections.’ The same thinking is obviously behind the UN’s announcement.
Woman, starring Lynda Carter as the superhero (ABC/ CBS, 1975–79), which was somewhat in contrast to Charlie’s Angels (1976–1981). It seems incredible that it has taken this long to give Wonder Woman her own feature film, due out in 2017, and DC certainly hope that she will turn around the poor showing of previous twenty-first century attempts such as Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005). Introduced in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice(2016), the character as played by Gal Gadot won praise for her brief scene in an otherwise critically panned movie. ‘Wonder Woman has long stood with Batman and Superman in the trinity of DC’s most iconic Super Heroes, but she also stands alone as a symbol of equality, justice and female empowerment and is more relevant today than ever,’ said Diane Nelson, President of DC Entertainment, President of Warner Bros. Consumer Products, and President and Chief Content Officer of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. ‘With her roots in Greek mythology and American feminism, Wonder Woman is one of the most unique and compelling characters in comic book history; her longevity is a testament to her global appeal and the special place she holds in the hearts of generations of girls who have imagined wielding their own lassos of truth.’
The Wonder Woman feature has been long in the making, with several false starts and changes of personnel. The version that will come to screens next year is directed by Patty Jenkins, still most famous for writing and directingMonster (2003), starring Charlize Theron as serial killer Eileen Wuornos, and clearly intended to bring some female, if not feminist, credibility to the project. Likewise with the casting of Gadot, who did two years military service in Israel and served as a combat trainer: she did some of her own stunts in theFast and Furious films. In one interview from March 2016 she comments on the physical aspects of her performance in the role, in what seems like a deliberate jab at the questions female actors are constantly asked about their appearance. ‘Since I’ve started, I’ve gained about 17 pounds, and it’s all muscle. I feel so much better now. When you feel strong, it changes everything — your posture, the way you walk.’ With Wonder Woman writer Greg Rucka recently declaring that Diana/ Wonder Woman ‘must be’ queer’ the stakes are high for how the film represents her character.
Notably, other Warner Bros. execs dwell on aspects of the character and her contemporary appeal in slightly different terms: ‘Wonder Woman is a legend around the world and one of the most valuable franchises at our studio, and we’re thrilled to celebrate this anniversary,’ says Kevin Tsujihara, Chief Executive Officer, Warner Bros. Wonder Woman’s ‘value’ to DC and Warner Bros. is partly tied up in the new toys and other product ranges that will herald the film. Given the controversy surrounding the Marvel products tied to the Avengers films, and the Disney toys for Star Wars: The Force Awakens(2015), where female characters were not featured in sets based on scenes in which they had a key role, resulting in hashtag protests (#wewantwidow and #wheresrey) this is one thing DC needs to get right. The release of a Batman v. Superman collectors Barbie by Mattel has already been criticised for not being in accurate costume from film. The curated Spotify playlists promoted by DC as part of the anniversary celebrations seem to be more effective. These feature ‘playlists from top female talent in music, film, TV, sports, and more’ and aim to ‘showcase the music that inspires these ladies to be Wonder Women in their daily lives,’ according to DC. So far curators have included Jessie Graff (stuntwoman), Rachel Bloom (My Crazy Ex-girlfriend), Corinne Bailey-Rae (singer-songwriter), Tina Guo (cellist and composer).
Whether Wonder Woman is a successful Ambassador for Women and Girls Empowerment remains to be seen, but all eyes will be on her representation in the film when it hits screens next year and it is sure to attract comment about how female, and queer, characters are negotiated in mainstream blockbuster action movies. As the theme song to the TV series from my youth has it, ‘All the world is waiting for you/ And the powers you possess… All our hopes are pinned upon you/ And the magic that you do.’