Is Wonder Woman a girl's best role model?

Wonder Woman: a feminist superhero.

Wonder Woman: a feminist superhero. Photo: Philippa Hawker

A party for a five year old girl. Nine fairies with wings, frills and sparkly wands. Pink, white, pink, lilac, pink. And one more princess, my daughter: in blue skirt with white stars, red tank-top, gold headband and bright red boots. Yes: Wonder Woman amongst the gentle kings' daughters and magical sprites.

This is not a rant against pink. And I have no problem with fairies, even if the modern Disney versions have lost their ancient ambiguity (Some fairies were said to crash parties, cause death by dancing, or seduce men into drowning). While kids' gendered play might have consequences for their adult life, the cause and effect is by no means clear.

My point here is to celebrate superheroes like Wonder Woman, who provide my daughter with a richer fantasy world than tiaras and tea parties can alone.

Lynda Carter, statuesque, wasp-waisted, commanding, brought a signature style to the role of  Wonder Woman.

Lynda Carter, statuesque, wasp-waisted, commanding, brought a signature style to the role of Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman was invented by William Mouton Marston in the early '40s, with help from his wife, Elizabeth. Like her husband, Elizabeth was a psychologist, and the two collaborated on the invention of the first modern lie detector. The couple lived in a polyamorous relationship with Olive Byrne. It was Elizabeth who suggested William's character be a woman, and Wonder Woman was reportedly based on both Elizabeth and Olive. In short: Wonder Woman's literary parents were feminists.

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Alongside some dodgy ideas - women having "almost a monopoly on pure submissive emotion," for example - William Marston's basic vision was emancipatory. Wonder Woman combated evil, not by killing or horrifying, but by encouraging honesty and love. "Wonder Woman binds the victims again in love chains," he wrote, "she makes them submit to a loving superior, a beneficent mistress or master." She was as strong as Superman, of course, and punched like a heavyweight. But Diana of Themyscira (as Wonder Woman is also known) also knew gentleness and care, and inspired devotion. She was neither a stereotypical strongman nor helpless maiden, but a feminist amalgam of muscle, morality and mind.

Wonder Woman was not without problems, of course. Diana was often drawn by men for men, which does shed some light on her odd uniform choices over the years and early penchant for bondage. After the Second World War, when women were shoved out of the factories and back into the kitchen, Wonder Woman too was domesticated by DC comics: more romantic starlet, fawning over her beau, than action hero. Recent stories have dulled her distinctiveness. My daughter and I will talk about this, too.

Damon Young.

Damon Young.

But for the most part, the Amazon has been a rare pop culture feminist. This is why Gloria Steinem put her on the cover of the first stand-alone Ms. magazine in 1972. "It's been many years since I was a child," Steinem said recently, "but I still always buy two bracelets." Diana has provided generations with a symbol, not only of modern women, but also of humanity more generally: independence without egotistic brutality, kindness without mawkish humility.

In stories like Greg Rucka's Hiketeia or Christopher Moeller's JLA: A League of One, Wonder Woman is tough, intelligent and righteous, but also wary of intimacy, often lonely, and ambivalent about freedom. She boldly contains multitudes.

Which brings me back to my daughter, striking a pose in her home-made Wonder Woman costume, or asleep with Wonder Woman Chronicles on her pillow. I will not vilify her frou-frou pink tulle. But I will introduce her, with heroes like Diana, to less stereotypically 'feminine' virtues: physical strength and martial courage, emotional autonomy, and a concern for public life.

Damon Young's daughter in her Wonder Woman costume.

Damon Young's daughter in her Wonder Woman costume.

The point is not to make my daughter a feminist, as if character were a mechanical production. The point is to give my parental consent to her independence in the present, so that she no longer needs my consent in the future. Comics will not do this alone - raising many-sided kids is a many-sided job. But insofar as we must imagine; insofar as fantasy can goad existential growth; insofar as play is also serious - I want my daughter to do so ambitiously.

Damon Young is a philosopher and author. His essay on comic book superheroes, "Illustrating Ethical Dilemmas", will appear in the winter Meanjin.

4 comments so far

  • Bravo! Congratulations on wanting to bring up a child not on the basis on stereotypical, mindless gender labels without forethought - most parents see dressing a boy or a girl up in gender colours a norm, but is it?
    Blue - strong, masculine, assertive. Girl - Soft, passive, feminine. How we teach and pressurise children to adhere to gender stereotypes can also cause problems to their future development. Think many young, sensitive boys who might enjoy role playing or playing with soft toys being shoved tanks, tools and toy guns and being given the message that anything else soft is 'girly' and shameful.
    I myself was tired of being shoved barbie dolls and pink. I loved green, red and black, loved micro machines and in those days, when insect-making gummy machines were popular, I got a kick out of making those to scare the girls in my class. I despised the passive, submissive "waiting for my prince" missions girls were taught through their love and encouragement of looking up to the princess stereotype - and loved strong, independent women. I loved comics - but felt a little sad at the highly sexualised slant of every female character I read about.
    Teaching girls to be strong, independent, free-spirited, intelligent and passionate is extremely important, as it is for boys to be in touch with their emotions, that its okay to be gentle, sensitive, compassionate and exercise empathy alongside his masculinity.
    When a parent shrugs and say, why not? I keep thinking of how parents in the 70s shrugged while blowing cigarette smoke at their children's faces, shrugging and say, why not?

    Commenter
    Green Tea
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    May 11, 2013, 10:15AM
    • Mother Therese is for me the perfect role model. Enough said

      Commenter
      EricZ
      Location
      Nanjing, China
      Date and time
      May 11, 2013, 12:59PM
      • The problem with trying to raise an independent child is that if they truly were independent they wouldn't need your permission or approval to be independent and if they're not independent telling them to be independent would actually be obedience...

        Commenter
        Rocky G
        Date and time
        May 11, 2013, 8:59PM
        • And more often than not, a parent trying to teach their kid independence is really just teaching them to conform to a different role, generally the opposite of whichever one they loath.

          And of course, any attempt by a child to conform to the role the parent detests is immediately seen as society brainwashing the kid, not them actually wanting to participate in it.

          Commenter
          Markus
          Location
          Canberra
          Date and time
          May 13, 2013, 10:07AM

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