Wonder Woman arrived on newsstands in December 1941 with a secret mission from her creator, William Moulton Marston: represent “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” as Marston himself put it.
Marston believed women to be inherently superior to men and his Amazon creation lived up to that view — but not for very long. Marston moved on and his creation quickly became a symbol for numbing sexism in a puerile forum — a woman in hot pants written and drawn by men for a medium aimed at boys.
The contradictions of the character are at the core of Wonder Women! The Untold Stories of American Superheroines, which is airing this week on PBS. EW talked recently with one of the filmmakers behind the documentary, Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, and with her help, we went back through vintage Wonder Woman comics and found 10 jaw-dropping moments of surreal sexism. Here’s how we would describe each of them if we were caught in the golden loops of Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth.
All-Star Comics No. 12, 1942: The mighty Wonder Woman is invited to join the Justice Society… as the club secretary. She accepts, and Hawkman, Dr. Mid-Nite and the guys serenade her with “For she’s a jolly good fellow…” How thoughtful. Later the mightiest Amazon dutifully waits behind while the men go off to fight. Those men include Al Pratt, a.k.a. the Atom, a 5-foot-1 tough guy who has no superpowers and wears a weightlifting belt as part of his costume.
Wonder Woman No. 3, 1942 : Even when Marston was putting the words in Wonder Woman’s mouth, his view on lifestyles and gender politics were, um, provocative. He believed that sexual enslavement would be the path to a matriarchal society but, remember ladies, not every woman gets a turn holding the riding crop. Actual quote from a Wonder Woman thought balloon: “If girls want to be slaves there’s no harm in that. The bad thing for then is submitting to a master or to an evil mistress like Paula! A good mistress could do wonders with them!”
Wonder Woman Vol. 2, No. 73, 1993: Wonder Woman gets a job at Taco Whiz, a fast food restaurant, and despite the low-pay, becomes obsessed with dinero. Actual dialogue: “I am supposed to help the poor, the powerless, to show women how to be strong without violence. But now all I can think about is money, money, money, and how to get a job!” Now we see the connection between Wonder Woman and the Material Girl video — twirling.
The Brave and the Bold #78, 1968: It’s Real Housewives of Gotham City when Wonder Woman and Batgirl bicker and tussle in a demeaning televised contest to win the affections of Batman, who sounds like he just wants to hide in his cave. Actual Bat-dialogue: “You’ve ruined everything with your kooky romanticism!”
Wonder Woman No. 127, 1962: The story titled Wonder Woman’s Surprise Honeymoon gives us the sad sight of the mighty Amazon warrior sobbing in the kitchen because she’s ruined the first breakfast she’s ever cooked for her new husband, Steve Trevor. With growing fury, he inspects her sad effort and delivers these lines: “This toast’s burnt! The meat’s raw! The Jell-O’s hot! The coffee’s cold!” It’s all a bad dream, of course — after all who eats Jell-O for breakfast?
Wonder Woman No. 78, 1955: the Amazon princess puts her career on hold for a new guy who turns out to be a primitive musclehead who’s just looking to score. That was actually more literal than it sounded: Wonder Woman abandons her crusade against evil and instead spends her time teaching a gorilla named Andy how to play baseball.
The Brave and the Bold No. 63, 1965: Supergirl abandons her superhero duties for a French lover and Parisian modeling gig, which sounds pretty good until Wonder Woman lets loose with a cruel (and Runyonesque!) reaction: “This is too much – Supergirl [has] become a glamorpuss playgirl and some gigolo’s in love with her!” Wonder Woman sheds the judgmental tone when she jumps into the shallow end of the Euro-trash bachelor pool and hooks up with a Count with a nice-looking ascot.
Wonder Woman No. 170, 1967: A gorilla from outer space is smitten by Wonder Woman. She declines his overtures until — zap! — he transforms her into a super ape in tiara and boots and she begins to accept her fate as a monkey wench. Then comes the boom: The fickle simian doesn’t like her hairy look. He bellows: “You’re not what I crossed space for!” It doesn’t make much sense but the DC Comics corporate approach of the Silver Age could be boiled down to one motto: “Any story works if it puts a gorilla on the cover.”
Wonder Woman No. 125, 1961: Wonder Woman is in hand-wringing mode while an alien called Amoeba-Man, a fish-tailed fellow named Manno the Merman (!), and pretty boy Steve Trevor battle for her hand in marriage. Amoeba-Man, by the way, is in fact a giant single-cell organism, which means he is (arguably) less-evolved than the Bachelor oaf-of-the-week.
Wonder Woman No. 203, 1972: Wonder Woman tells the women’s lib movement to go stifle itself. Actual dialogue: “I’m for equal wages, too. But I’m not a joiner. I wouldn’t fit with your group. In most cases I don’t even like women.” Wait, what? Wonder Woman doesn’t like women? That sound you hear is William Moulton Marston is banging his head against the wall in the great beyond.