When I switched my viewing and research from the British Royals to Wonder Woman, I was expecting a complete change. But Wonder Woman is also a Princess Diana, and I’ve found quite a few parallels, as I’ll explain in a future post…
The Wonder Woman Lynda Carter TV show might have cult status, but it isn’t something most people would expect to quote from literature and philosophy, or discourse on ethics and society, or teach us how to live.
Yet it does all those.
In season 1 (on which this is based), there are quotes from Socrates in ancient Greek; the behavioural psychologist, Pavlov; Dr Johnson on patriotism; economics, and scientific equations. It makes witty social critiques of bureaucracy whilst trying to address international relations. But most of all, it is a vehicle for feminism.
Wonder Woman was a war baby, created in 1941 by a controversial psychologist. William Moulton Marston (pen named Charles Moulton) wanted to right the gender balance amongst superheroes. He believed that women are the future and are natural leaders. He believed – like proponents of single sex schooling – that women thrive when away from the influence of men, and are capable of equal or better physical and mental feats. He set his heroine as being part of a Greco-Roman myth, the mighty all female race, the Amazons, living in highly civilised peace. As he wrote, women’s roles and perceptions were altering, paving the way for feminism.
By 1975 when the TV pilot was aired, feminism had happened and was on its second wave. Theologian Mary Daly had publicly left the Catholic church because of its oppressive patriarchy to live on an all women island, and allegedly communicated with men only through an interpreter. The TV show seeks to sympathise with the sentiment but to step back from that extreme and show both men and women as good and bad, capable of living together harmoniously.
The slave-like bullet proof bracelets that Wonder Woman wears were created by Moulton to remind that if women let them, they are in servitude to men. The bracelets’ secret substance gave rise to the episode title The Feminum Mystique, refracting the famous Betty Friedan text. Hindus too have seen a feminine mystique, a force called Shakti. For Moulton, this is symbolised in Wonder Woman’s lasso which compels its captive to tell the truth. Much is made of the connection between this device and that Moulton partly invented the lie detector test, but this immoral and inaccurate contraption actually does an inverse task: it spots lies, not finds out truth. Moulton claims that all women have this power to disarm and bring out honesty through charm.
It seems, like Indian women, that there is a dichotomy and contradiction between the venerable female ultimate force and a sexualised submissive domesticity. Moulton said that women’s qualities are wrongly seen as weak, but he sees their attributes as including meekness and submission. In the 1970s TV series, women’s qualities are cited as strength and compassion. Wonder Woman is the first superhero to fight with love, not for just truth and justice. The theme tune lyrics reflect this, but also the ambivalence of the show: Wonder Woman fights for democracy, love and honesty; the world is ready for her peace and women’s lib message. But she does it in satin tights. She’s conventionally attractive and slim – beauty queen Lynda Carter dieted for the role. She wears very little, despite the dress conventions and climate of her adopted home. Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, managed to scale a ladder in heels and a floaty dress in Rear Window, but Princess Diana of the Amazons must swap her native diaphanous groin skimming dress for a cross between a circus costume and a gym suit to assume her role in the ultimate example of democracy.
But as both lead actress and male commentators in the Season 1 DVD extras say, actually Wonder Woman in the TV show doesn’t feel titillating or objectified. All superheroes have outlandish, skin tight and sometimes revealing costumes – the Hulk, Hawkman and He Man all basically just wear underpants. Lynda Carter’s tights are a step up from having the bare legs of the comic book. Her outfit becomes simply a uniform; and although beautiful, she is never ogled over by the men around her, but accepted as their equal, if not superior. There’s a purity around her that commands awe and adulation, but not objectification.
Lynda Carter often says that it’s sad that Wonder Woman never, like her, has love or children; and that therefore most of us have more than the Amazonian Ambassador. But but I like that an ultimate heroine is complete without these. It makes Wonder Woman an even better feminist icon because it says that reproduction and marriage are not defining aspects of womanhood – indeed, personhood. It is undermining for single non parents to believe they are lesser and missing something; but it is also unhealthy for anyone to think that we need these others to be whole, or that we are defined by our relationships. And Wonder Woman does find love, on many levels: each episode, she finds a new friend, animal and human, of all ages – and is clearly close to her mother and sister. (You’ll never see Shadowlands in the same light after seeing Debra Winger’s debut here!) Carter’s insistence on repeating this idea regarding motherhood and romance is disappointing, and if it is meant how it is taken here, undermines what she brings to the role.
I at first felt the weekly girl fights were also part of degrading Wonder Woman to arousing entertainment. That might be a by-product, but as the first season’s extras imply, it’s more about giving other women key active parts that show their importance in the story. It helps the gender portrayal balance of having female villains as well as a protagonist; and a show down fight between these is normal in the action genre. Often, Wonder Woman is able to reach out to wayward sisters, particularly in Episode 3 of season 1. An unappreciated, endangered Nazi leader is recruited for the Allied forces, ending in a touching moment of bonding.
Wonder Woman also ribs beauty contests (ironically played by a Miss America) and the shallowness that makes Major Steve Trevor unable to see beyond another kind of uniform past the disguise of his bespectacled efficient secretary, Yeoman Diana Prince. Unlike Clark Kent, Diana does not act particularly different to her vigilante counterpart, so the ruse of her secret identity is more about playing to expectations and prejudices.
There’s explicit statements on gender, just war causes, and animal rights. As outsider, Wonder Woman can comment as so many sci-fis do on the fallacies of Earth people. Passionately pro-American, she still opens her adopted country to critique. She delivers a Nazi war criminal alive for a fair trial, unlike recent events in the Middle East.
The show’s makers claim their groundbreaking series opened the way for other strong women roles in television, and that fans wrote in to tell how Wonder Woman had inspired them to try new careers that they thought impossible (though admittedly these were often government and military related).
The Wonder Woman television series remains brilliantly entertaining, and its old special effects make it all the funnier – I especially love that invisible plane. It – and she – have rightly become an icon for many, regardless of sexuality, gender or country. My hope is that in all the fun, the serious messages and discourses are not lost on viewers, and like the lyrics, it will change our minds and change the world.