Graphic Mythology: Wonder Woman Revisited

It has been over six months since I have discussed this character from comics/graphic novels, and I have had sufficient time to reflect on comments made by my readers back then. A mainstay of DC Comics, Wonder Woman is truly iconic and immediately recognizable. In trying to come to grips with her true significance, I have found the task more difficult than I originally imagined.

Wonder Woman by Alex Ross
Wonder Woman by Alex Ross

Her history is nuanced in that she has been given very admirable qualities along with what I consider some serious flaws. All of this, of course, indicates the mindsets of her original and subsequent creators. First conceived by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist with fetishes for bondage and spanking, she was often used to portray and legitimize his obsessions. Since then, I would have to say that her various representations have covered the range from heroic dignity to sexual exploitation. All image credits go to DC Comics.

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Were she, in all her manifestations, a real woman, I would say that she has a history of repeated abuse. She has been spanked and debased, allegedly playfully.

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She has been bound repeatedly. The following image particularly concerns me because it represents a real danger of asphyxiation for anyone foolish enough to participate in imitating it.

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She has been physically assaulted as a matter of routine, although one could argue that this is an expected consequence of being a superhero who combats villains. Some of the more recent imagery, however, makes me wince despite the fact that the associated story lines attempt to justify it in context, especially in the case of superheroes fighting one another. By the way, I have noticed some disturbing comments on-line which indicate unquestioning approval of the violence portrayed in some of the following  pictures. I know, I know… there are plenty of frames which show her dishing it out as well as taking it, but these  images collectively show an underlying motive which I will address a little later in this post.

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To date, she has not been sexually assaulted in any DC issues (although a story involving this very topic was once in the planning stages by one of their writers), but what do  illustrations such as the following suggest nonetheless? Visuals can easily overpower accompanying words.

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It is in no way inaccurate to say that all of the imagery to which I have objected was designed to arouse male readers. So, in a sense, those entrusted with the representation of this female character have repeatedly pimped her out for several decades. The use of feminist rhetoric to prop up this kind of imagery strikes me as rather flimsy.

Artist: Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross

A woman’s body is not a piece of candy. It sweats, bleeds, and eliminates. It suffers through sickness and injury. It gets pregnant and gives birth. But much of the imagery I have included in this post is the candy, a sugar-coated version of violence and exploitation which lessens the severity of such treatment in the minds of less discriminating readers by not adequately showing its consequences. We live in a society which has a widespread problem with the negative acculturation of boys and young men, and I see this as a driving factor in the rape culture which plagues college campuses and other settings as well.

Artist: Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross

I know I have said much of this before, but I don’t think that repetition of criticisms and warnings in this area is unjustified. In summary, I regard Wonder Woman as a character with a nuanced history of publication. As such, she has served as a lightning rod for discussions about feminism. Due to her importance in popular culture, I think she deserves better treatment than she often has received. I have included the panels by Alex Ross as evidence of how this can be done without mitigating the impact of this character. If anything, these examples have just the opposite effect.

Artist: Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross

 

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23 thoughts on “Graphic Mythology: Wonder Woman Revisited”

  1. Robert,
    I had no idea about Wonder Woman’s history – what you’ve compiled here was really fascinating to read and I thank you for opening this woman’s eyes. This is one of those writing pieces I print and keep in my FYI file
    am:)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The ancient Athenians had a general and deep disrespect for women, I was told by a university professor.

    Amazon warrior women when portrayed in Athenian art, were most often shown being killed by “real” warriors: macho men.

    There seems to be a bit of ancient Athens in the artwork of this most informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That post a while back you did on the origin of Wonderwoman was very very insightful and I still remembered it. I think this is a good follow up of further thoughts.
    By the way I still need to get around to writing my thoughts on Kingdom Come. I have a half-baked post in progress but then other things distract me…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I enjoyed your post, and I’m glad to say there’s been some effort in the past few years to revise Diana’s image in a more positive way. For example, dressing her in a comic-book rendition of Greek armor, rather than just a bathing suit.

    Just making the character an Amazon is still problematic. You just get a different kinky snicker as readers assume that all Amazons must be lesbian…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I will be saying again in an upcoming post, Alex Ross is one artist who really represents this character in a more positive way. I don’t know if you’re referring to one of his illustrations, but he stands out in my mind as a good example of what you said. I have higher hopes for the Wonder Woman movie as well since it has a female director.

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  5. I don’t think it’s up to us to say wherever other people should enjoy looking at bodies of other people. Women like to look at hot men, men like to look at hot women. The problem is when this transcends into rape or diminishing of one just to their looks.

    As for WW getting punched? If Diana doesn’t wanna be knocked out I would advise her to quit being a superhero. Haha. Women cops don’t get a free pass from criminals just because they’re women.

    As for rape culture it doesn’t exist in the west. Rapes happen but it doesn’t create rape culture. Rapists go to jail when proven guilty, society looks down on rapists, men get fired from jobs from making rape jokes, some men are put into jail to later find out they were actually inoccent. Feminists spread fake statstics like 1 in 5 women get raped sometimes even 1 in 3. When you say rape culture you should be looking into countries within middle east and not U.S. where rape is normalised and in high numbers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. Your comment was loaded this time, and I hope my reply can do it justice. I am not opposed to the portrayal of the feminine form per se, but I think the examples I criticized in this post crossed that line of debasement you mentioned. Please look for an upcoming post which again extolls the virtue of how Alex Ross illustrates this character. Also, I wasn’t critical of the mere fact that Wonder Woman is shown fighting bad guys. It’s all about the presentation, and the examples I cited as objectionable were written and drawn by men in real life. Kingdom Come and Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth show her engaged in conflict in what I consider a much healthier manner of presentation. As for rape culture, perhaps subculture is a better term. I’m a man and I’ve personally witnessed the objectionable ways in which some men talk and think. I’m familiar with the argument you made at the end of your comment. Conservative outlets have said the same thing out of concern for the rights of the accused, and there have been cases in academic settings where they were denied due process and assumed guilty until proven innocent. Even though it is said to be worse in places like the Middle East and South Africa, that does not mean that a shared mentality of rape is entirely absent from western culture. I work on a college campus and I have a brother who is a licensed therapist who has had clients who were sexually assaulted. At least two of my former students were attacked and violated while in college. On one campus in the United States, fraternity men annually mass in large numbers and march to women’s dormitories chanting, “no means yes, yes means anal.” I’ve seen the footage. There are other similarly disturbing examples. Rape in the United States is under-reported, under-investigated, and under-prosecuted. Law enforcement agencies often lack the resources, and there is a national backlog of untested rape kits. Yes, some reports over-estimate the statistics, but one in ten college-men in an anonymous survey admitted to behavior that legally satisfies the definition of sexual assault (including, but not limited to, rape). 4 out of 5 college men who have done this feel they have done nothing illegal, and that gets back to my point about the negative acculturation of men in America. The good news is that 90% have not committed sexual assault on our nations campuses. I hope my honest disagreement on this particular point hasn’t offended you (I enjoy following your blog), but this issue is important to me since I teach at a women’s college and have met even just a small number of the victims who are out there. More respect needs to be shown to future wives and mothers and to other men’s daughters.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I just wanted to make sure we are on the same page when talking about “rape culture being present in the West” because it discredits the work of the people who fought for where we are today. Very sad to hear your experience be like that on college campuses.
        I really align my thinking with the stats you brought up. 4 of 5 men on college campuses who have committed sexual assaults feel like they did nothing wrong which really should tell you something. MOST of men doing this are not mentally stable because sexually assaulting someone shouldn’t be on anyone’s okay list. Notice how I say most, because there are the people who can think clearly for themselves, don’t have mental instabilities (or specific childhood/events (which shaped his current mental state) and they are the main villains here.
        I also support almost everything you said so this is more of an agreement than a disagreement. The thing I disagree has more to do with comic depictions. When it comes to heroes like WW I think they shouldn’t be depicted as you’ve showcased as it really doesn’t fit the character (but it fits to sexualize Harley, Emma Frost, Mistique, etc. for character consistency reasons). I don’t think anything recent or even from past 17 years has portrayed WW in a overly sexualized demeanor.

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      2. Thank you for weighing in. I wanted to start some discussion and I guess it worked. By negative acculturation, I mean like the guy who has been taught that women say no when the mean yes and that they’re just playing hard to get. Rape that isn’t as specifically violent may fall into this area of a man not thinking he has done anything wrong. He could feel he has persuaded a woman while she thought resisting would get her hurt even more. There are some definite cultural misconceptions at play here. Anyway, I think this is an important discussion to have, and I appreciate you for participating. Take care.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Excellent, when wonder woman became a UN Woman ambassador I quickly said that although her looks were not very inclusive, she could reach not traditional audiences… I feel like a fool right now. Thanks for this article.

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