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.
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.
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.
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.
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.