What Can Wonder Woman Tell Us About American Culture?

Wonder Woman, DC Comics

Hey guys!  The following is part of a paper I had done for a sociology of gender course.  I realize this is not anthropology, but it does look at comic art, the history of Wonder Woman, and American culture.  I figured some of you may be interested.

Keep in my mind my research was based on a small sample of the newest interpretation of Wonder Woman.  I think I might continue working on this project.  Let me know what you think!   ~Katie

INTRODUCTION

Wonder Women is the first widely known female comic book hero and a symbol for American culture. She is best known for her lasso of truth, invisible plane, bracelets of victory, and level of strength which puts her in the same category as her male counterparts. With her powerful and independent characteristics it is no wonder why Wonder Woman has been an international iconic heroine for decades. This female character has a combination of qualities that our society labels as masculine and feminine. Her behaviors such as martial combat skills, ability to act rationally, and assertiveness are actions that we generally label as masculine. Her appearances such as long flowing hair and luscious red lips, as well as her secret identity as Diane Price have consistently been what our society would define as feminine. The masculine and feminine qualities of Wonder Woman have fluctuated throughout time and her portrayal reflects our society’s views of women at the time.

A trend with females is to take on masculine behaviors while embracing a feminine appearance. This made me question if females need to take on more masculine actions in order to climb up the hierarchy of power in our current culture. The media is great source to analyze when researching gender in our society. Research was conducted to determine if the most recent interpretation of Wonder Woman, a well-known female character in the media, contained more masculine behaviors with feminine or sexualized appearances, is Wonder Woman a male in a women’s body?

BACKGROUND

To better understand how Wonder Woman reflects our society’s view on gender, it is beneficial to look at her history. According to comicvine.com, Wonder Woman was created in the 1940’s by psychologist William Moulton Marston as a “counter-reaction to the early depiction of super humans in comics, the majority of whom were male” (2012). “Martson incorporated other stories such as the Wonder Women of History, detailing the achievements of other famous women throughout history in order to empower young girls” (2012). The first depictions of Wonder Women are now labeled by most as feminist. An independent and strong woman in the 1940’s as a lead character and a hero was unheard of and her character challenged the traditional role of females in America.

Wonder Woman in the 1940’s, DC Comics

Wonder Women’s characteristics changed dramatically after men returned to the U.S. after World War 2. According to the article Reading Wonder Woman’s Body: Mythologies of Gender and Nation, “Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Diana Prince appears more and more frequently until she becomes the main character, and Wonder Woman disappears all together for several years, leaving a boutique-shop owning, though also karate-chopping, Diana Prince” (Emad:2006). This article provides a quote by well-known feminist Gloria Steinem which depicts a feminist’s view of Wonder Woman at this time which states she was ‘‘a female James Bond, though much more boring because she was denied his sexual freedom” (Emad:2006).

Wonder Woman after WWII, DC Comics

By the late 70’s Wonder Woman had become an uncontrollable female power labeled a “menace” and and by the 80’s she transformed into a fashionable model (Emad:2006). In the 90’s Wonder Woman’s image became more muscular, yet more sexualized at the same time. In addition, plots often focused on personal relationships and friendships of Wonder Woman. This continues until yet a dramatic change after 9/11. Wonder Woman, although still hyper sexualized, appears more realistically painted. Her character becomes strongly symbolic for freedom and she even traveled to a desert land where she fights for the people who are “forced into use as human shields” (Emad:2006). In 2011 there was a relaunch of Wonder Woman and Justice League comics, which were analyzed to help our understanding of our society’s current view on gender.

Wonder Woman in the 1970’s, DC Comics

Wonder Woman in the 1980's

Wonder Woman in the 1980’s, DC Comics

Wonder Woman in the 1990's

Wonder Woman in the 1990’s, DC Comics

Wonder Woman after 9/11

Wonder Woman after 9/11, DC Comics

A new interpretation of Wonder Woman

A new interpretation of Wonder Woman, DC Comics

METHODS

My research focused on the most recent portrayal of Wonder Women. Two titles that Wonder Woman appears in were analyzed. Sample one was Wonder Woman’s self titled comic book and sample two was Justice League, a comic about a team of heroes which Wonder Woman is a part of. Two issues from each title were examined. Each sample observed was the most recent issue published. Research was conducted to answer the sociological question, is Wonder Woman a man in a women’s body? This question pertains to the socially constructed idea of gender and the stereotypical roles of men and women. I was looking to see if data would show Wonder Woman’s actions to be actions that our society generally labels as masculine while conducting these actions in a feminized body image.

A tally method was conducted to collect data. Data was divided into two categories, body posture and behavior. Body posture was divided into six subcategories. These included violent action, aggressive posture, neutral posture, submissive posture, violent action towards Wonder Woman, and sexual posture. Violent action included any image that depicted Wonder Woman taking an offensive action or performing a feat of strength. Aggressive posture was any image of Wonder Woman in a threatening stance such as hands in fist, frowing of eyebrows, or charging at an object. A neutral posture was defined as any panel where Wonder Woman’s posture did not fit into any of the other categories such as standing, unemotional, or not submissive. Submissive posture was categorized as any image where Wonder Woman appeared vulnerable such as an aerial view where she appears scared, an image where her eyes were shut, shoulders shrugged down, or getting up from the ground. Violent action towards Wonder Woman was defined as a panel where Wonder Woman was being physically harmed by another character such as being punched, kicked, or strangled. Sexual posture was any frame where Wonder Woman was depicted in a flirtatious or objectified manner such as one hand on her hip with the hip slightly tilted, images that only showed sexual body parts (ie ass shots), or panels where Wonder woman was smiling at a man which was considered flirting along with the context (ie during a Skype scene).

Example of male superheroes posed and dressed in a sexualized manner.  (photo courtesy of http://jezebel.com/5829204/if-male-superheroes-posed-like-wonder-woman).

Example of male superheroes posed and dressed in a sexualized manner. (photo courtesy of http://jezebel.com/5829204/if-male-superheroes-posed-like-wonder-woman).

FINDINGS

Results show that the newest interpretation of Wonder Woman’s body is less sexualized/ feminized than earlier interpretations. Observations indicate that the newest interpretation portrays Wonder Women’s body more realistically with average sized breasts and less sexualized body postures. In addition, the newest Wonder Woman’s behaviors included masculine, feminine, and neutral actions with neutral being the most portrayed. From the data sampled, it seems Wonder Women does not consist of masculine behaviors in a feminine/sexualized body. The newest interpretation of Wonder Woman is not a man in a female body.

From a sociology of gender perspective this was pleasing, although the most telling information was discovered in other unexpected observations when collecting data and analyzing gender for Wonder Woman. These observations were only observed in the Justice League issues, where Wonder Woman works with a team. In the Justice League issues Wonder Woman is portrayed in the same light as her male associates, except for a few observations of sexualized poses. She is giving about the same amount of masculine, feminine, and gender neutral behaviors as the other heroes. Although Wonder Woman’s actions were fairly gender equal, at times male characters interacted and spoke about her in a gendered manner. Some observations include: Wonder Woman was the only superhero that had a potential love plot, that was shown having a phone call (although she didn’t actually talk very much in this scene due to the other characters speaking over her), and was the only character that had a close up frame of a sexual body part. I also noted two comments that stood out. One was in a scene were Wonder Woman saved Green Lantern and he says “I hate being saved by Wonder Woman”. The other was a scene with a man talking with Wonder Woman’s potential love interest where the man asked “I heard you and Wonder Woman had a thing going on. She wear the boots in bed?”.

After analyzing the most recent interpretation of Wonder Woman, it appears her behaviors have become more gender neutral and her appearances less sexualized compared to the last interpretation. The most telling observations that can be sociologically analyzed regarding current gender inequalities were found when Wonder Woman appears with a team of male heroes. Surprisingly, findings were found with how others interact with Wonder Woman rather than how she is betrayed. There are still gender inequalities when it comes to how men treat and act towards women characters in comic books, including strong female heroes, like Wonder Woman.

Gender is a socially constructed idea and how gender is portrayed in the media tells us about our society’s views on gender. By analyzing the gender of the first and most well-known female comic superhero, it is clear that Wonder Woman’s identity changes according to our cultures views. Findings for the most recent interpretation of Wonder Woman show that in her self titled issue, she appears to be written like any other hero where gender is not an issue. Findings also suggest when paired with a team of all male heroes, Wonder Woman’s characteristics stay neutral but behaviors towards her are unequal.

CONCLUSION

Wonder Women is the first widely known female comic book hero. The specifics of Wonder Woman’s gender, much like the definition of a female in our society, is complex, socially constructed, and changes over time. Researching one of the most famous female characters of all time in the media helps us understand the sociology of gender and its history in America. Research was conducted to discover if the most current interpretation of Wonder Women fits with the recent trend of females taking on masculine characteristic in order to gain power while embracing their femininity. Methods included examining the history of Wonder woman and tallying behavioral and visual observations in comics. Two of the most recent Wonder Woman self titled comics and two of the Justice League comics were observed. Data concluded that the new Wonder Women does not consist of masculine behaviors in a feminine/sexualized body. Additional observations suggest there are still gender inequalities for Wonder Woman when paired with male superheroes.  Data was collected from a small sample and continuing research on the topic of gender and the most recent interpretation of Wonder Woman would be beneficial to help explain how our current society views gender and the inequalities that are portrayed in the media.

Resources

Averett, Paige.”The Search for Wonder Woman: An Autoethnography of Feminist Identity.” Affilia: Journal of Women & Social Work.Vol. 24 Issue 4. Article. Nov.

Dunne, Mary J. “The Representation of Women in Comic Books, Post WWII Through the Radical 60’s.” McNair Online Journal (2007). Print.

Emad, Mitra C.“Reading Wonder Woman’s Body: Mythologies of Gender and Nation.”

“If Male Superheros Posed Like Wonder Woman.” Jezebel. Web. Aug.2011. <http://jezebel.com/5829204/if-male-superheroes-posed-like-wonder-woman&gt;.

“It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Super Hero Sexism.” Sociologists for Women in Sociology. SWS. Web. 17 Apr. 2012. <http://www.socwomen.org/web/media/press-releases/3563-its-a-bird-its-a-plane-its-super-hero-sexism.html&gt;.

The Journal of Popular Culture.Vol. 39. Journal. 01 Dec. 2006.
2009.

http://jezebel.com/5829204/if-male-superheroes-posed-like-wonder-woman).

“Justice League, Issue 6.” Geoff Johns. DC Comics. April 2012.

“Justice League, Issue 7.” Geoff Johns. DC Comics. May 2012

Taylor, Laramie. “Watching Aggressive, Attractive, Female Protagonists Shapes Gender Roles for Women Among Male and Female Undergraduate Viewers.” Sex Roles. Issue ½. Article. July 2011.

“Wonder Woman.” Wonder Woman (comic Book Character). Comic Vine. Web. 17 Apr. 2012. <http://www.comicvine.com/wonder-woman/29-2048/&gt;.

“Wonder Woman, Issue 6.” Brian Azzarello. DC Comics. April 2012.

“Wonder Woman, Issue 7.” Brian Azzarello. DC Comics. May 2012.

Wonder Woman: The Untold Story of American Superheroines. Dir. Kristy Guevara–Flanagan. SXSW Film Festival, 2012. Documentary.

13 thoughts on “What Can Wonder Woman Tell Us About American Culture?

  1. This is really interesting! I personally collect the new Wonder Woman and have myself noticed how much more ‘gender neutral’ she is portrayed. Especially if you compare her to the new DC depiction of Catwoman, who is VERY sexualised YOWZA! I still love both comics though! And this is a really interesting article :) Well done on all your research!

  2. Pingback: Nodds & Nends | Absurdly Nerdly

  3. This essay would be just as appropriate in the Anthropology of Gender, or in a Mythology course. The anthropology I studied in University had a course in mythology, and the Anthropology of Science Fiction. We had to examine modern culture and discover the mythology that related. I worked on the Simpsons, ‘Tomacco’ episode, relating to the Seneca cultures stories on the discovery of tobacco, other students related connections with manga comics and punk music with other cultures music and sexual identities.
    This essay is well done. Well researched. Culture is a vast ocean, most of which is undiscovered.

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