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From a sex cult to the UN, Wonder Woman's long, complicated history

More than 75 years after her creation, Wonder Woman finally hits the big screen.

More than 75 years after her creation, Wonder Woman finally hits the big screen.

Wonder Woman was first introduced in 1941 as a model of the "type of woman who should rule the world," according to her creator. (dorkly.com)

It took more than 75 years for Wonder Woman, the most famous female superhero of all time, to star in her own big screen adaptation, a shocking amount of time when you consider how many male superhero titles are released each year.

Starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman is also the most expensive movie to be directed by a women, with a budget of $150 million US. Coming on the tail of a few spectacular failures from DC Comics (Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad), you could say a lot is riding on Wonder Woman's shoulders, especially at a time when executives are blaming diversity for sales slumps.

Below, we look back at Wonder Woman's creation and explore the complicated history surrounding the character, who has been both a feminist icon and a focus of criticism over her sexualization, often at the same time.

Sex cult beginnings

There are a lot of mixed feelings around Wonder Woman, mainly due to this feminist figure/male sexual fantasy dichotomy that has followed the character since her inception in 1941.

This complexity has a lot to do with the character's creator, psychologist William Marston, a self-described feminist who also lived in a polyamorous relationship with at least two women, his wife Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne, who both bore children by him. Byrne was a direct inspiration for Wonder Woman's physical appearance. Another woman, Marjorie W. Huntley, was also in a romantic relationship with the Marstons, and even helped with the inking and lettering of the Wonder Woman comics in the 1940s.

A still from Justice League of America #14 (DC Comics)

"Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world", wrote Marston, who, according to a detailed book called The Secret History of Wonder Woman, participated in a sex cult from 1925 to 26 that "celebrated female sexual power, dominance, submission and love by forming 'Love Units' consisting of multiple partners." This cult employed the use of bondage (Wonder Woman's Lasso of Truth being a nod to this) and also included female outliers who, as a rule, didn't wear clothes. They believed that women were superior to men, and this is how they reflected it in what author Jill Lepore calls a "feminist utopia."

Whether it was "feminist" utopia or not (let's be real here), it does explain a lot of things, such as the fact that Wonder Woman is one of the most powerful, intelligent superheroes in the DC universe, and that she comes from an island utopia inhabited only by women. It also explains the heavy sexualization of the character throughout the ages as her costume grew increasingly revealing. It's an issue that still follows the character today and made it all the way to the UN (more on that later).

Progressing/regressing through the years

One of the reasons Wonder Woman has endured as one of the most popular comic book heroes of all time is because of the chameleon-like trait of the character to change, morphing to fit each decade's idea of women, for better or worse.

As Hope Nicholson writes in her new book, The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen, Wonder Woman was a "chubby faced Amazon" during her beginnings in the 1940s. But by the '50s she was "fighting a war for humankind," at a time when the end of World War II was still on the minds of America.

During the Cold War in the '60s, she became a "suave and secret agent," writes Nicholson, only to become, in the '80s, a "big-haired leader of women," which included Lynda Carter's campy (but no less iconic) TV portrayal of her. In the '90s, Wonder Woman became a "scantily clad dominatrix," and then a "pants-wearing adventuress" in the 2000s. But the sexualized image of Wonder Woman proved impossible to shake.

Feminist icon

In 1972, Gloria Steinem used an image of Wonder Woman for the very first issue of Ms. magazine. In fact, Steinem, a renowned feminist, journalist and activist, was a big fan of the character. In a book on Wonder Woman published in 1977, she wrote:

Wonder Woman, as seen on the cover of Jill Lepore's new book, "The Secret History of Wonder Woman"

"Wonder Woman's family of Amazons on Paradise Island, her band of college girls in America, and her efforts to save individual women are all welcome examples of women working together and caring about each other's welfare. … Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values of the women's culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women; sisterhood and mutual support among women; peacefulness and esteem for human life; a diminishment both of 'masculine' aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts."

UN amabassador

In 2016, the United Nations sparked controversy when they named Wonder Woman the UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. Both Gadot and Carter attended the ceremony, but the role was rescinded two months later after critics deemed Wonder Woman an unworthy role model. A petition pointed out that the "character's current iteration is that of a large-breasted, white woman of impossible proportions, scantily clad in a shimmery, thigh-baring bodysuit with an American flag motif and knee high boots."

This despite the fact that Gadot's portrayal of Wonder Woman seems to embrace the best aspects of the heroine's history, placing her firmly as a positive, powerful role model, a "fierce warrior princess," writes Nicholson.

Queer superhero

Even before the feature film, there had already been some progress for the character in print. As comic book companies attempt to include more racially diverse and LGBTQ narratives in their titles, Wonder Woman is no exception. In 2016, DC announced Wonder Woman was queer.   

Although, according to Greg Rucka, the writer of 2016's Wonder Woman: Rebirth No. 1, his interpretation of the character is that she simply does not fit into a heteronormative role — the book explores her feelings for both women and men — and that it goes beyond sexuality. As he explains, she comes from the island of Themyscira, a place solely inhabited by Amazon warriors — women – so how could it be perceived any other way?

A page from Greg Rucka's 2016 Wonder Woman title. (DC Comics)

"And when you start to think about giving the concept of Themyscira its due, the answer is, 'How can they not all be in same-sex relationships?' Right? It makes no logical sense otherwise," he said. "It's supposed to be paradise. You're supposed to be able to live happily. You're supposed to be able … to have a fulfilling, romantic and sexual relationship. And the only options are women. But an Amazon doesn't look at another Amazon and say, 'You're gay.' They don't. The concept doesn't exist."

Gadot's Wonder Woman does not identify as LGBTQ, but the actress seems all for it.

"In the film, she falls in love with a man," she said, before adding, "I think Wonder Woman is all about heart and she cares for people without paying too much attention to gender. That's an option — but we never experienced that."

Jesse Kinos-Goodin, q digital staff

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