The Legacy of Original Intentions: The Non Violence of Wonder Woman by Nick Pumphrey


What would a superhero comic be without Pow, wham!, Zap, and even a Boom! (insert your own campy sound bites from Batman).  Oddly enough, when psychologist William Marston created the character of Wonder Woman, he did not intend for her to be a violent character.  When villains shot their mere bullets, she simply would deflect them with her indestructible bracelets.  Instead of stooping to the level of her attackers, she would wield the lasso of truth, capture her foes, and force them to admit their malevolent deeds.  Meanwhile, creator William Marston was actually developing the first polygraph using changes in blood pressure as exemplified in Wonder Woman’s lasso.  Wonder Woman was not the first female superhero; however, she was the first non-violent one.  While other writers like Siegel and Shuster (Superman’s creators) were using their religion as inspiration, Marston drew on the women of his life as example.  He intended to have a peaceful, warrior woman, who was more than equal on grounds of “sex,” and could stop the tyranny created by war and hatred (i.e. men) without having to embrace it.  He wanted an example for young girls to idolize and a way for boys to embrace feminine power.  

However, the pacifist nature of Wonder Woman was short lived.  Although created prior to Pearl Harbor, her debut was indeed around December 7th 1941 and Princess Diana of Themyscira (her secret identity) was forced to go to war for America.  War is hell, and so is the America propaganda machine!  Before long, Wonder Woman was forced to use her super human strength and Amazonian combat skills to fight the Nazis.  This forever changed Wonder Woman’s stance on violence now that she was faced with “ultimate evil.”  Although her involvement in the war solidified her popularity, she was not without detractors.  Great Scott! In 1954 amidst the McCarthy scare, Wonder Woman found herself placed alongside Batman and Robin as characters who promoted homosexual behavior.  Fredric Wertham in his Seduction of Innocence brought to the Senate a long list of sexual deviance and imagery exemplified by comics, which he deemed not appropriate for children.  The characteristics that made Wonder Woman a strong female character, painted her as a lesbian in the eyes of a man of the 50’s.  The hearings did not result in any major changes to Wonder Woman; however, the Comics Code was created as a way for the U.S. Government to monitor and censor anything that was “necessary.”  This was a remnant of the McCarthy era which lasted until 2011.

In the late 60’s early 70’s, Wonder Woman lost readership for a brief time when she “lost” her powers, her typical wardrobe, and became a Kung Fu fighting hero.  Readers felt that the writers took the “super” out of Wonder Woman’s superhero status and it was not long before she returned clad in Red, White, Blue, and Gold again.  Her legacy then inspired several authors, artists, and feminists.  Gloria Steinem chose Wonder Woman to be the first standalone cover on Ms. Magazine in 1972.  Many superheroes like Buffy Summers, Rogue, Lt. Ripley, Samus Aran, Power Girl, etc., were based on paradigms established by Wonder Woman.  However, today, she may be in danger again.  DC has again decided to revamp Wonder Woman in an attempt to find new readership.  Instead of removing her powers, she is now a demi-god born from Hippolyta and Zeus and her wardrobe added pants and removed any stars and stripes.  The jury is still out whether her legacy will continue as it once did but in a reality where the fans are devout to the history of a character, it is hard to think any change to Wonder Woman will attract readers rather than reject fans.  Compounded with the cries of misogyny in the new line of DC comics, I only hope that one the greatest superheroes will survive.   In a world of sexually exploited women, the comic book world that is, Wonder Woman was originally intended to stand outside of this exploitation, a non-violent beacon of hope and inspiration for women and men.  With DC comics’ readership reaching almost 95% male, I hope that the character created for peace, truth, and feminine power, who graced the cover of the first Ms. Magazine, will impart her original intentions on the male readers as well as bring back the non-male readership. ‘Nuff said!  

Nick Pumphrey is a Ph.D. student in Hebrew Bible at Claremont Graduate University specializing in Ancient Near Eastern literature and sexuality as well as the Intertextuality of Pop Culture and the Bible.  He is a long time reader and lover of comics, which he cites as one of the reasons he studies religion.  Some of his favorite superheroes include Samus, Buffy, Wolverine, Mystique, and Gambit.

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Categories: Feminism, Gender and Power, Politics

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6 replies

  1. Wonder Woman for peace and nonviolence in the pursuit of justice.! I love it! Too bad she didn’t take hold.

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  2. Wonderful Wonder Woman. I’ve always loved her. In fact, I wore my Wonder Woman earrings to a conference recently. They always make me feel strong.

    I wrote about Wonder Woman in Pagan Every Day. Here’s what I wrote, which adds a tiny bit to your terrific essay. Thank you for bringing this great hera to FAR!

    November 7: Wonder Woman
    Wonder Woman, Diana Prince—Princess Diana—is a modern American Amazon. Her stories were first written by William Moulton Marston in the December-January, 1941, issue of All Star Comics. Six months later, she had her own comic.
    She was born on Paradise Island, known to no man, and trained in Amazonian martial arts. She wore bulletproof bracelets. Her magic lasso was forged by Hephaestus from links removed from Aphrodite’s Girdle. Her mother was Queen Hippolyta, whom we remember from the story of Theseus.
    The Wonder Woman web site quotes Marston as saying in 1943, “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”
    The New Original Wonder Woman first aired on ABC on November 7, 1975, starring Lynda Carter, Lyle Waggoner as Steve Trevor, Chloris Leachman as the queen, and Debra Winger as Wonder Girl. American war hero, Steve Trevor, is shot down over the Bermuda Triangle and winds up on Paradise Island, where the Amazons hold a contest to determine who will return with him to American and fight the Nazis. Princess Diana wins. She hides her red, white, and blue bustier and shorts under a Navy uniform, and the story continues. The first season, set during World War II, remained faithful to Marston’s original.
    Today there are other female superheroes, but Wonder Woman was the first and the best. She didn’t kill the villains, and she was honorable in all of her dealings in our flawed modern world.

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  3. Such a great blogpost! I don’t think I will look at Wonder Woman the same again! I am racking my brain trying to think of any strong female comic book/lit female heroines that display non-violent/pacifist ideals. I know there are strong women to look up to (you mentioned Buffy, one of my favorites in the genre) but as a pacifist I would have a hard time finding someone to point a daughter or son to in the future. Any ideas?

    Also- I will be reblogging you on Rabbit Hole Review today :)

    I guess narrative also matters too– but heroines like Buffy Summers or even Sailor Moon (I think she fights with love) and from the lit world Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen avoid violence until forced into it and then only engage it when they have to. They might fit the description but I’d like to hear your take on it.

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  4. Reblogged this on Rabbit Hole Review and commented:
    I don’t usually post about comic books, but this short essay on Wonder Woman and her pacifist past fit so well with discussions I have been having with friends on popular heroines in literature and the comic book world, I thought I would share. It comes from my brilliant friend Nick Pumphrey over at the always wonderful Feminism and Religion blog. Enjoy!

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  5. Need I remind you that WW killed Maxwell Lord in order to free Superman from Lord’s mind-control?

    Also, the DCnU Amazons reproduce by sleeping with sailors and murdering them. So from a Feminist perspective, there’s a lot of problematic stuff going on in the new comics.

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    • From our discussions, I knew that DC was doing some crazy, misogynist stuff. I didn’t know how it was it was playing out in WW. I still don’t know if I agree with her new back story as daughter of Zeus rather than formed from clay. Why do you think they are going in this direction?

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