When I was a teen in the 1970s, Wonder Woman was everywhere. A feminist cheerfully determined to right the world’s wrongs, especially against women, she boldly sprinted onto the cover of Ms. Magazine’s 1972 inaugural issue. Her tv series spun off toys, t-shirts, action figures, lunch boxes, and more. Now she’s back. Jill Lepore’s new book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, tells of her bizarre 1940s creation and subsequent history. In 2016, a revamped Wonder Woman will be sword-fighting her way into movie theaters worldwide in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Wonder Woman is just one of many currently popular women warriors or superheras, including the X-Men series’ female super-mutants, the Hunger Games’ lead character, the women warriors in the Avatar tv series, and many more, whose power comes from the ability to fight. Even Snow White became a martial arts expert in 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsmen. Like Wonder Woman’s recent regeneration, however, these characters seem grimmer, and more deadly, violent, and dystopian than the earlier Wonder Woman with her optimistic, colorful comic book style, and an innocence that would now seem naive.
While fictional superheras may seem trivial in our world with so much real-life oppression and suffering, the popularity of characters with superpowers who repeatedly vanquish villains to save the world attests to their widespread and deeply-embedded appeal. More importantly, millions of young women and girls worldwide spend countless hours watching them and learning their subtle lessons. For some, these characters may be the only role models of powerful women they have.
But what messages about women’s power do these characters really convey? Power based on the ability to fight and cause harm or death is integral to the pervasive patriarchal culture that inflicts rape, injury, and murder to oppress women. Admiring characters who are part of an ideology responsible for the brutalization of women can never lead to the inner strength, wisdom, groundedness, and happiness that are the hallmarks of control over one’s life and the ability to transform society for the better.
A more lasting, truer women’s power to positively transform on the most essential levels of both the individual and society does, of course, exist and is wielded by millions of women every day. The tools of the women who possess this power are their voices, minds, spirits, strong connection to the Earth and nature, courage to demand justice, and ability to inspire and heal. Women shamans, women’s governing councils, informal women community leaders, artists, and activists demanding ecological sanity and social justice – these are the real superheras who are coming to the world’s rescue.
Still, as we define and forward true women’s power — whether as scholars uncovering ancient goddesses and historical figures, writers and artists creating heras for our time, or teachers offering rituals and spiritual practices to girls and young women – perhaps there are still lessons we can learn from that earlier, vastly popular Wonder Woman so many of us remember.
Wonder Woman’s home is on an island inhabited by the Amazons, who, in the Wonder Woman universe, are a peaceful, all-woman, ecologically-sustainable utopian society. In order to effectively activate inner power to navigate yourself through life, it is helpful to have a clear vision of what your ultimate destination is even if your vision changes over time. I wonder if we, as a community of feminist religious and spiritual women, spend enough time envisioning the planet we are working so hard to bring into being for future generations and articulating what life in such a place might be like.
Wonder Woman was created in World War II, when propaganda, lies, and mass delusions led to genocide and other atrocities which we still see today. Unlike other superhero weapons that merely kill better, Wonder Woman’s Lasso, which compels anyone caught in it to tell the truth, is actually the kind of tool of transformation that women of real power could use. Truth alone, whether told in stories or images, can instantly change the dynamics of a situation, making what is right and just obvious. The ability of Twitter, Instagram, and blogs like FAR to proclaim the truth instantly and globally almost makes Wonder Woman’s Lasso a prophetic gift from her to us. May we use it often and well.
Finally, Wonder Woman never doubts that she can save the world. She reminds me of the Susan B. Anthony quote that guided me in my own young womanhood: “Failure is Impossible.” Our challenges are great and survival of our species and our planet is precarious, but when we consider the world in which Anthony lived and the progress made in the relatively short time since then, we, too, can bolster ourselves when hope is fading with the knowledge that great change for the better is possible as long as we keep working.
Wonder Woman first emerged in the 1940s when her feminist message was deeply needed, and then again in the 1970s when feminism was burgeoning with opportunity. Now, in the 21st century, she is arising anew, but this time the message she sends needs to be transformed to reflect women’s true power and what it can achieve. If Wonder Woman were here, I think she would exclaim “Great Hera! Let’s take back our power from the mainstream media!” and make a whooping sound.
Perhaps we feminist spiritual and religious women can also, each in our own way through fiction, poetry, art, dance, scholarly articles, and more, disseminate even more forcefully a vision of women’s power that doesn’t come in magic swords or the ability to fight, but in healing and creating, in facing down the real sources of death and destruction in our world. As an early version of Wonder Woman herself said, “A new journey to be started. A new promise to be fulfilled. A new page to be written.”
Carolyn Lee Boyd is a human services administrator, herb gardener, and writer whose work focuses on the sacred in the everyday lives of women. Her essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews and more have been published in numerous print and online publications. You can read more of her work at her blog, www.goddessinateapot.com.