(This essay was published in the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con Souvenir Book)
By Heather M. Berberet, Psy.D.
True story. When I was in third grade, I fell asleep every night with a doll in my arms and a prayer on my lips. The doll bore a surprisingly good resemblance to the actress Lynda Carter and the prayer? “Please God, let me be just like Wonder Woman.”
She was my third grade self’s epitome of confidence and power. As a nine year old, everything from the boots to the tiara screamed girl power and the strength femininity can wield in the world.
Now, as a 40-something, psychologist, I am grateful to my professional predecessor William Mouton Marston for creating a female superhero of intelligence, physical prowess, and strength of character. Wonder Woman was my first model of a woman who kicked the butts of boys. She was smarter, faster, stronger, and better people than almost all of the men in her world. At least, that’s how I remember her…and that’s all the matters.
One would think I’d look back now and cringe at it all: the costume, the cleavage, the legs, the boots. But I don’t. When I look at those old TV episodes, all I feel is excitement at her beauty and strength. And her hair. God, she had the most gorgeous hair. Even the way in which her costume’s gold decoration wrapped around her breasts made them seem powerful, a part of her “superheroiness,” rather than overly sexualized.
As a nine year old, I knew nothing of the history or symbolism Dr. Marston intended Wonder Woman to represent. And yet, it was all there for me.
Wonder Woman first appeared in DC Comic’s All Star Comics issue #8 in the fall of 1941 while World War II raged in Europe. Only a few months after she hit the stands, Japan would bomb Pearl Harbor and the US would officially enter the war. The following year, the Manhattan project commenced and three years later we would end the war with Japan by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a time of fear and monsters, not just in the US, but around the northern world. And, as they are wont to do, monsters call forth our superheroes-those extraordinary, mythical humans that put monsters back into their boxes and clean up the messes they leave behind.
Her creator, William Moulton Marston, was one of the country’s first psychologists. Trained at Harvard, he had more on his mind than the Second World War when he created Wonder Woman. Marston had been intimately involved in the women’s suffrage movement since his days at Harvard. He had been present when the most powerful voice for women’s suffrage, Emmeline Pankhurst, spoke to the Harvard community. (Though not actually on Harvard property, as women were forbidden to speak at the University in 1911.) Marston intended Wonder Woman to be a voice arguing for the improvement of women’s lives through equality. He knew that he could get people to listen to that voice through the cultural phenomenon that was comic-books.
According to Jill Lapore, in her truly amazing book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman (published in 2014 by Vintage Books), Marston wanted his comic book to be about a “great movement now under way-the growth in the power of women, to be embodied in the way Wonder Woman carried herself, how she dressed, and what powers she wielded. She had to be strong, and she had to be independent.” (Lapore)
As a contemporary of Captain America, and obviously in response to World War II, Marston also designed her to patriotically promote the values of democracy and oppose the war. Marston’s instructions to her first artist, Harry G. Peter, was to “draw a woman who’s as powerful as Superman, as sexy as Miss Fury, as scantily clad as Sheena the jungle queen, and as patriotic as Captain America.” A fan of the pin-up girl, Marston worked with Peter to make her outfit much more revealing than Captain America’s to ensure that people would buy the comics. Modeled after Esquire Magazine’s popular Vargas Girls, Wonder Woman was drawn “just this side of allowable, by the standards of the 1940’s…” (Lapore),
And…it worked. Wonder Woman was a success, ultimately achieving a readership of 10 million people and surviving to celebrate her 75th anniversary.
Although she had been almost continually in print since her debut in 1941, she made the leap to television in 1975. After 35 years, America again needed powerful superheroes to protect us, to wrangle back the chaos and bring the bad, scary guys to their knees.
As in 1941, the US was again embroiled in war and turmoil. The Vietnam war ended with Vietnam’s unconditional surrender and the US pulled out of Cambodia, both defeats for democracy. Gas prices had skyrocketed due to the 1973 oil crisis, creating extreme gas lines and increased gasoline prices for more years. Following the stock market crashed of 1974, the American economy had tanked into recession and the unemployment rate hit 9.2%. It was the height of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war was prevalent.
America was also smack dab in the middle of the second wave of feminism. Ms. Magazine debuted at this time. Despite The Equal Rights Amendment failing to be ratified by the states, Title IX regulations barring sex discrimination in college athletics were enacted and the US military academies were opened to women.
The New Original Wonder Woman was created by ABC. It stayed close to the original comic-book story. Set it in the 1940’s, it embraced the same costume, the same male side-kick, the same back story, and the same villains. To many radical feminists, this looked like a sell-out. In May of 1975, The Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement, a radical feminist group, denounced Wonder Woman as the “ruination of feminism.” (Lapore)
Wonder Woman’s amazing powers all promoted the agenda of women’s equality. Most significant to me was her lack of secrecy. She only created her Diana Prince persona because living as Wonder Woman caused such a ruckus it interfered with her ability to fight the bad guys. Otherwise, she didn’t hide, but protected those around her in the open, visible to anyone looking.
Her greatest power was her thin, golden lasso. Despite it’s seeming fragility, one wrap of it around your waist and out came the truth. Obviously, because bringing truth out of the shadows and into the light wields immense power. The lasso needn’t be strong because it was Wonder Woman’s integrity and strength of character that held the power, not the rope. As Lapore wrote, “… …her only weakness is that she loses her strength if a man binds her in chains.” The chains her villains inevitably used were thick and heavy because, lacking the integrity of Wonder Woman herself, they needed brute strength to accomplish their goals.
Her bullet-repelling bracelets created almost perfect protection while exposing her to the current villain. (Unlike Captain American, who hid behind his shield when attacked, or Spider-Man, who used his web to pull himself away from danger, or Batman who hid his face behind a mask and almost always fought the bad guys at night.) All she had to do was raise her arm, look straight into the villain’s eyes, and watch as his attempts to take her down failed in a barrage of impotence.
During travel, she flew through the air in her invisible airplane. There she was, flying through the air, unafraid and unashamed as if to say, “Yes, I do not need to employ stealth tactics. My cause is right and just. What are you going to do about it?”
My nine-year old’s read on these super powers? It is by letting people see who you really are, by facing them eye to eye with apparent vulnerability, that you gain the strength and power to save the day.
While I watched her on TV, and held her doll at night, I wasn’t thinking about equality between men and women or breaking down gender stereotypes. I just wanted to be like her. I wanted her confidence in the world. I wanted her invisible plane. I am pretty sure I wanted her hair. Mostly, I wanted to have the power to chase away the bad guys and make the world a better place.
Now, as a psychologist working in the field of trauma, I can say that Wonder Women inspired me to find my own superpower. These days, I help people chase away the bad guys lurking in their minds after terrible things happen to them. Using what I learned from Wonder Woman, the power of vulnerability and truth, I help people find hope and joy again.
So, thank you Wonder Woman, for inspiring a young, shy, nerdy girl to find her own superpower and figure out how to help save the world from the bad guys.