Wonder Woman. Less Sexist? Yes! Empowering? We’ll see…

As a feminist I tend to watch women in media with cautious optimism because…

Wait. No. That’s not the whole story. I’ll back up.

As a parent I tend to be very critical of movies and media and their impact on my son’s…

Damn. That’s not all of it either.

Okay, take three. Here we go…

As a parent, feminist and comic book nerd who likes movies and fantasy I want to watch something enjoyable that is culturally relevant as well as entertaining. Comic book movies are no exception to what I want to see- especially where cultural relevance is concerned. Comic books are fantasy stories that often reflect current events and culture.

There’s a new Wonder Woman movie that’s set to drop next June. We got a first look at it when Warner Bro’s dropped a shiny trailer at Comic-Con 4 days ago. Check it out:

Hold onto your impressions of the trailer. I’ll revisit it in a bit. I want to talk about the first frame -which is actually a shot of the poster Warner Bro’s released at the same time:


Okay. Is Wonder Woman too tall to fit on a poster and they had to cut her face off? Or perhaps she sees out of her breasts, so they wanted us to make sure we looked her in the.. um… bustier eyes..? Look, I have nothing against sexy woman in action movies. I really like that, in this case, the sexy woman is more than just eye candy – she’s actually a main character. The thing is – this incarnation of Wonder Woman is being sold as empowering. DC and WB are marketing feminism in a big way with this franchise – but the first poster they release not only doesn’t have Wonder Woman’s face, but it clearly highlights her cleavage.

Let’s break this down and talk costumes and evolution.

Wonder Woman first appeared in DC Comics in December 1941, and made the cover of the January 1942 Sensation Comics Issue #1:

Wonder Woman on the January 1942 cover of Sensation Comics

I can see her face, which is cool. Her outfit, while not practical for fighting all those guys with guns, doesn’t raise red flags for me.

All superheroes have to have a weakness: Superman has his kryptonite; Batman has his bats and emotional trauma.

It makes sense. You can’t paint a good story with a fully invulnerable superhero. The endings become far to predictable. You have to create uncertainty, and above all, you have show a superhero overcoming adversity and triumphing against all odds.

Superheroes excite us and can teach us incredible lessons. My son pretends to be the Flash when he’s riding his bike. He pretends to be Spiderman when he is in an uncomfortable social situation. These larger than life superheroes help him out – they provide an avatar of strength and general “coolness” that can help him explore and grow. We have Marvel and DC books meant for young kids that teach lessons as well as showcasing superheroes that struggle with very human problems – weakness, judgement, fear, etc.

All the superheroes that my son loves are male.

Silly Aphrodite. Making a sexist Law that strips women of their power if a man ties them up.

Wonder Woman is being sold as a superhero that young women can relate to. Someone that they can look up to – and call upon when they’re uncomfortable, or need some larger than life fantasy to help explain a complexity in growing up.

So it completely makes sense that her weakness originally was being tied up by a man (see image right).

See, it all stems from Wonder Woman’s Bracelets of Submission. That’s logical for a superheroine to have. ‘Bracelets of Submission’  definitely has an empowering ring to it. (I sure hope you can feel the sarcasm in my writing today)

In fact, these bracers are a double edged sword. Apparently a man – and it must be a man – can strip her of her power by tying her bracers together but she also goes berserk and uncontrollable if her bracers are removed:

Those Amazon women. Sure glad that she has her bracers of submission so she doesn’t go berserk on me! Glad I can bind them together to force her to submit if she gets out of line, too.

That weakness was retconned (removed from her origin) in the 80’s and now she is simply a superhuman that actually can get hurt by conventional means – hence the armor in the new version.

In the 1940’s version of Wonder Woman, she leaves the remote Amazonian world called “Paradise Island” when – you guessed it – a man, Steve Trevor, crash lands into Paradise Island and Wonder Woman (Then known as Diana) is smitten with him and his ‘handsomeness’. Because of dreamy eyed Steve Trevor’s stories, Diana decides to leave Paradise Island and comes to earth to fight in World War 2.

After she fights in the war, hiding her superpowers by pretending to be a nurse so she can help Steve Trevor recover, she begins to start saving the world as Wonder Woman.

Eventually Wonder Woman ends up getting invited to join the Justice Society of America – that superhero league thing. Of course, though, she is invited to join up as their secretary, despite her superhuman strength and superheroine status.

The weird sexist portrayal of Wonder Woman persisted in the 1970’s when she slammed women’s lib groups that were active at the time:

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.”

Source: Wonder Woman: 10 super sexist moments from her vintage comics

These stories, like many others, have been retconned to appear a bit less sexist.

So, overall, from 1942 to 2016, Wonder Woman has become less sexist. But I’m not convinced that she falls into the category of an “empowering female superhero” for a couple reasons.

  •  Wonder Woman is still being sold as “Sexy”.

Spartan Hoplites. Note the Helmets…

Her current incarnation of a costume is still impractical for combat. It resembles a Greek Hoplite’s armor, which makes complete sense as her origin story is Grecian. But given that Wonder Woman can actually be hurt in combat, you would expect her to have, well, more protection. A helmet, for starters.

Also, as stated above, that poster that cuts her face off to accentuate her cleavage is clearly marketing her sex appeal, and not her strength.

This is all just marketing. The actual “sexy vs. realistic” debate about Wonder Woman that I am having will come out once I see the film.

  • Being good at causing violence is equated to being strong and empowered.

I’m glad that my son likes larger than life superheroes, and I’m glad that comics can be a forum to teach life lessons and provide entertainment as well as stimulate imagination. But, ultimately, superheroes beat up bad guys and operate outside the law. Wonder Woman is no exception. The trailer shows her being a bad-ass, dodging bullets and beating up countless men.

Its high time that women and men share equal screen time in action flicks as main characters. Its nice to see a movie like Wonder Woman accomplish that ideal. But lets be honest – this is being sold as an action movie, and while I have nothing against a good action flick, I want to call a spade a spade – This is an action movie with a sexy main character, not a compelling tale of an empowered woman. She’s going to be doing superhuman and extraordinary stuff that No young woman should ever do.  As the title of this block says, in Wonder Woman (and most superhero movies) being good at causing violence is equated to being strong and empowered.

In Conclusion…

Maybe there will be higher morals that can translate past the violence and sexiness – perhaps an action flick like this can supersede traditional film tropes and a greater message can be gleaned from the script.

Maybe we’ll see  a compelling tale of a woman embracing destiny and making morally strong choices based on character and strength of reasoning. Perhaps Warner Bro’s can use a violent action film as a medium to really display an empowering and thoughtful superheroine. Perhaps superhuman strength and larger than life feats of violence can become a bastion of cultural empowerment for young women in a male dominated comic universe.


It’s a good quote – one that superheroes seem to take to heart…

Perhaps, as most comic book stories do, it will paint Woman Woman as being a bastion of

action – making the decision to stand up to evil when no one else will. John Stuart Mill would be proud.

I sincerely hope that Warner Brothers delivers a great movie. I plan on watching the film. I probably will even enjoy it – as aforementioned, I do love a good action film and comics. But I am skeptical that it will be a film that showcases empowerment for women. Wonder Woman has come along way since 1941, but I maintain that Less Sexist does not translate to Empowering unless there is a clear direction to make it such.