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The Many Wonders of Wonder Woman

posted by Mickey on 8/09/02

Primary industry is important in Australia. One of the big annual events that happens in the capital cities here is what I grew up knowing as The Ecka. The Ecka is Brisbane's abbreviation for the "The Royal Agricultural and Botanical Exhibition" (or something like that) and it is such a big deal that it is always marked by a public holiday, so the soft-living city folk can get along to see it. The same event is known in Sydney as the Royal Easter Show, and it has different names in the other cities, but the event itself is the same. Phenomena of nature are placed on display, such as the bovine prodigies who contest for the title of The Prize Bull. In other pavilions, the public marvel at freakishly large pumpkins. There are displays of wood-chopping, and sheepdog trials and arts-and-craft tents and chariot-racing and firework displays, and all the hoopla of having the carnival in town. Being essentially a family event, there is always a sideshow alley with laughing clowns and shooting galleries and a ferris-wheel and ghost rides and dodgems; and vans selling dagwood dogs and fairy floss; and machines designed to make children regurgitate the junk food they have consumed by sufficient agitation on the Turbo, the Zipper, or the Rock and Roll; and, of course, there is a pavilion devoted to commerce in sample-bags, or show-bags, which present such outstanding value that you can usually obtain about $2.00 worth of confectionary, and a plastic toy that will fall apart the very first time it is used, by outlaying only $15.00 or so.

When I told my friend, Alison, that I was going to do a post on Wonder Woman she told me about how, when she was seven years old, her fondest wish was that someone going to the Canberra version of this event would bring her back a Wonder Woman showbag. When, to her delight, a kind aunt or some other well-wisher did present the bag to her, with what anticipation did Alison, as soon as she could, secretly repair to the bathroom, to examine and try-on the contents, including a plastic tiara, and plastic bulletproof bracelets? When once these were on, with what determination did Alison spin herself around, believing that if she could only mount sufficient velocity, she would turn into Wonder Woman? Unsuccessful at first, with what redoubled efforts did she rotate on the spot, more and more quickly, expecting momentarily to become an Amazon warrior princess crime-fighter? And what disappointment, and giddiness, and peril to herself, not to mention the objects in the bathroom, came out of this experience? Luckily, the story has a happy ending, for the years accomplished what becoming dizzy in a Canberra bathroom could not, and she became a wonderful woman in the fullness of time, albeit one without super-powers; but I loved this story, because it reminded me how much, and with how little irony, children can love superheroes.

Wonder Woman unsuccessfully attempting to turn herself into a
deluded seven-year-old red-haired freckly Canberra schoolgirl.

To be perfectly honest here, comic-book superheroes were an intense pre-occupation of mine during a short period of my life, just before adolescence. Since then I haven't given them much thought, so for me this post is going to be an exercise in childhood nostalgia. In fact, the nostalgia in question spans more than one generation. My parents were kids during the second world war, and one of the features of their childhoods was the presence in Northern Australia of hundreds of thousands of American servicemen, en route to fight in the war in the Pacific. One of the things people of my parents' generation always remembered about these Yanks was that they all chewed gum and all read comic books, neither of which were habits that had previously had any popularity in Australia. When I was 12 or so and collecting comics, the ones I really loved were reprints of comics from the Golden Age of the medium, ie. the 1940s, and accordingly, despite that fact that Wonder Woman has been having adventures ever since, the only version of Wonder Woman who really means a lot to me is the original one, the one featured in those episodes of "Sensation Comics" and "Wonder Woman" my parents would have read when the doughboys discarded an issue of their favourite literature. This Wonder Woman is instantly identifiable from the distinctive, rather awkward drawings of Harry G Peter, who always gave her heavily- lidded eyes and the strong jaw that comes from having a square face. If Wonder Woman had joined the gum-chewing craze, it is certain she could have masticated the flavour out of a stick of Wrigleys in about two seconds flat.

Wonder Woman was created in 1941 by Charles Moulton, the pen name of one William Moulton Marston. Ever since then, she has been, along with Superman and Batman, one of the Big Three heroes in the Detective Comics (DC) stable. Her origin story drew on Greek Mythology to posit the existence of a place beloved by Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, called Paradise Island "set in the midst of a vast expanse of ocean" (rather than in Argentina, although the islanders were called Amazons). No men were allowed on the island. The inhabitants wore belts to "remove all desire to do evil and compel complete obedience to loving authority" and "bracelets of submission" which the Amazons wore to remember the folly of submitting to the domination of men. As the standard mode of reproduction could not occur on Paradise Island, the future Wonder Woman, Princess Diana, was created Pygmalian-fashion, when Aphrodite brought to life Queen Hippolyte's statue of a little square-faced child.

Things went swimmingly until U.S. Army Intelligence Officer, Captain Steve Trevor, managed to crash his airplane on Paradise Island. As it would turn out, this was a highly characteristic piece of conduct on Steve Trevor's part. Princess Diana was chosen to return this buffoon to mixed-sex society, and she elected to hang about for a bit and do some good deeds while in the neighborhood. Steve Trevor, naturally, became the principal love-interest of Wonder Woman's career although he was too stupid to spot that the only difference between the beautiful Wonder Woman and his dowdy square-faced secretary, Diana Prince, was that the latter wore spectacles over her heavily lidded eyes. As you would expect from such a drip, Steve Trevor was totally lame-ass in all his dealings with the world, and never did anything except get himself into various troubles from which he had be rescued by Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman's powers were slightly ambiguous. She could run quickly and jump a long way but on my reading of her adventures she was just really athletic, rather than superhuman, in these abilities. She also had the power to use her bracelets of submission to deflect bullets, performing this trick so often, and with such insouciance, as to suggest that if she had not been committed to combating crime, she would have been a natural at table tennis. In terms of gimmicks, she had a golden lasso, to which I will return. She also had an invisible airplane, which since Wonder Woman herself is not invisible, strikes me as one of the stupidest appliances a superhero could have. To begin with, I would imagine the sight of a woman zooming through the atmosphere whilst apparently seated on nothing would be designed to provoke more, not less, comment in onlookers than would be case if Wonder Woman traveled in a conventional two-seater. Secondly, a quick glance at an invisible dial panel was not going to be much use in letting Wonder Woman know when the old spruce goose was running low on gasoline. Thirdly, unless Wonder Woman relied on invisible airstrips to land her craft, whatever element of surprise she may otherwise have gained from transparent mobility was always going to be lost when she had to explain to air traffic control that the blip on their radar screens was in fact an in-transit superhero.

Pushing invisible tin.

So, why did I like this strip? Well, and I believe I am speaking quite accurately here on behalf on my 12 year old self, as well as reporting my mature conclusions, I liked it because it was lurid and unwholesome. Marston, the creator of the series, was an original thinker. In fact, he was a total crackpot. Before he became a middle-aged comic strip writer (Wonder Woman was his first, and only strip), Marston was a psychologist. I have no qualifications to say whether he was distinguished or not, but he was certainly well known, in particular for helping to develop and publicize, the polygraph lie-detector test. This is where Wonder Woman's golden lasso comes in, because anyone (including Wonder Woman) who got roped into this lariat was obliged to tell the truth. But there was more to the golden lasso than that- anyone who got roped in was forced to submit to the will of their captor. Marston appears always to have been particularly interested, both in his academic work, and, demonstrably, in his comic strips, in themes of bondage and submission. He was avowedly a feminist, and I certainly don't think that made him into a crackpot, but the evidence is also very strong that he was an out-and-out bondage freak. He wrote a memo to William Gaines, the owner of Detective Comics, defending the prevalence of these themes in his stories: "Women are exciting for this one reason- it is the secret of women's allure- women enjoy submission, being bound. This I bring out in the Paradise Island sequences where the girls beg for chains and enjoy wearing them."

According to Juanita Coulson's 1973 essay on Wonder Woman, "Of (Super) Human Bondage," "Several disquieting threads ran through each Wonder Woman episode: Bondage is Good for you. Submission to a Loving Female Overlord is Good for You. But submitting to a man is Bad for You- because men are Bad." According to Frederic Wertham, the author of the influential 1954 book "The Seduction of the Innocent," Wonder Woman was responsible for inspiring thousands of otherwise thoroughly decent and all-right American girls into perverted lesbian lifestyles: "For boys, Wonder Woman is a frightening image. For girls she is a morbid ideal. Where Batman is antifeminine, the attractive Wonder Woman and her counterparts are definitely anti-masculine."

And indeed, there wouldn't be an episode from the Golden Years that doesn't feature some such weird sexually charged image as, for instance, Wonder Woman being spanked by her overweight friend, Etta (and winking, for goodness's sake) or the girls from a college sorority being forced to wear baby's nappies, or Wonder Woman being put into chains, or sitting in a chair with the golden lasso around her, while swapping significant glances with some equally heavy-lidded underdressed slinky villain-ess or another. I will put some representative panels as an appendix to this post, so you can see what I mean.

You will look in vain for any overt erotic activity in Wonder Woman in the 1940's and yet there is a certain insinuating something about them. As for the visual style of the comics, where Superman is full of primary colours, and where Batman's backgrounds are characteristically dark and expressionistic, the colours in Wonder Woman tend to be more washed-out, and there are some striking choices in terms of the colours that predominate and set the mood of the panels. Although shadow almost never falls on the faces of the cast, one of the characteristics of the Wonder Woman style are noir-ish cross-hatched half- or three-quarter shadowed backgrounds, and Peters, or whoever was responsible for the inking, seems to have been very fond of olive, and there are plenty of mauves, and sickly pea-greens, and burnt siennas. After Marston died in 1947, the comic took a more wholesome turn, and although Peters would continue drawing Wonder Woman into the 1950s, other artists, with less distinctive styles, began to change the mood of the strip.

Apart from Wonder Woman as a 1940s comic book, the other versions of Wonder Woman I have some fondness for are the 1970s television series where Lynda Carter squeezed herself into the wonderduds. I say versions, because the first season of the show featured Wonder Woman battling Nazis in the 1940s, while the next two seasons updated the concept into then-contemporary 1970s settings. A few months ago, some episodes of "The New, Original Adventures of Wonder Woman" were aired on free-to-air television here; but unfortunately, at around 4.00 am, so I only got to see one, thanks to insomnia. The episode I saw was one of the ones set in modern times. Steve Trevor was waiting for Diana Prince to arrive in her flairs at the site of a test launch of a missile called the Athena. Call me prurient, if you will, but I detected hints of a sexual subtext in the sight of a big pink missile tilted against the sky at a provocative 45-degree angle, awaiting blast off. On her way to the launch, however, Diana Prince was detained by various troubles in a rube town called Burrogone. While Diana was sorting this all out, the rube grease monkey disabled her car, explaining to her, with what I couldn't help feeling was a similar sexual undertone, "Just on a whim, I checked under your hood, and dogged if your fuel pump wasn't leaking." It turned out all the genuine citizens of Burrogone had been lured out of town by the prospect of a weekend at Las Vegas, and the town taken over by sinister types. Before too long, the villains knocked Wonder Woman out with anaesthetic gas. "Is she dead?" asked one villain. "I doubt it," said the other; both of them missing a vital clue to her mortal status, i.e. although she was unconscious, her breasts were heaving. Wonder Woman was put into, and got out of, chains; and then the real action began, in the eyes of the producers, in the form of some 15 to 20 minutes of trail-bike action.

Ah, the 1970s. Those were the days. Just as the 1940s were the Golden Age for comic books, the 1970s were the Golden Age for enthusiasts of televised trail-biking. Everything stopped when the trail-bikes came out. Now some people may think that 15-20 minutes of watching trail-bikes kick up dust, and listening to the monotonous drone of trail-bikes on the soundtrack, might be too much of a good thing, but I love the way the producers of 1970s shows were always up for it. In fact, the drone of the trail-bikes isn't monotonous at all. If you listen carefully, you can almost always hear fresh revving going on at irregular intervals. I liked the way Wonder Woman had a special motorbike costume. I liked everything about it. I don't think those people who make snide comments about trail bikes, considered as entertainment of and in themselves, have ever watched television at 4.45 a.m. all a-flutter to learn whether or not Wonder Woman would be able to best her adversary in an old-fashioned trail-bike joust. It was thrilling television.

It reminded me of a show that used to screen in Australia at around the same time that my dad was a big fan of, called "Weekend Magazine." That used to feature a lot of trail-bike sequences. It didn’t used to create any context for them or anything. No way. We'd just drop in on some footage of trail-bikes churning up a mountain, and that would go on for half an hour or so, and then, inexplicably, the show would stop. Next week we might get half an hour of horses running along a beach. Or half an hour of wood-chopping action. They knew how to make television in those days.

When it comes down it, "The New Original Adventures of Wonder Woman" was a disguised version of the "Weekend Magazine" format, because what the show basically offered was a half hour of Lynda Carter running around in an abbreviated costume (with admittedly some extra "plot" elements to stretch the show to fit an hour-long timeslot) and I just happened to luck into an episode that featured trail bikes as well. Lucky me. I have spoken in other posts on this site about the great final season of "Beverly Hills 90210" (and indeed this event in television history is so dear to my heart that you shouldn't be surprised to see it continue to pop up in various contexts). One of my very favourite episodes from that very special season was the one where Dylan McKay and Matt Durning, Attorney-at-Law, left LA for a weekend to get into some trail-bike action. Those sequences reminded me so much of watching 1970s television that it was frightening. In the end, thanks to some insensitive editing, we were probably treated to no more than a disappointing 10 minutes or so of the plot screeching to a halt so we could watch these two clowns tool around on their trail-bikes, when it could have gone on for so much longer, but at least the thought was there. I daresay the day will come when I end up watching a re-run of this classic episode of Bevers at some ridiculous hour of the morning, and when I do, I will be the one sighing with contentment.

One of Wonder Woman‘s special outfits, with camel‘s toe.

Relying strictly on memory for other insights into the television Wonder Woman (and an email from my sister, la Paz, who was a more devoted fan than me), I recall the way her ability to jump great heights was signalled by an extended BOOOOINNGGG sound as she made the leap. In the 1940s episodes Wonder Woman has a deep-voiced sister, Drusilla (played by Debra Winger), who occasionally joined Wonder Woman in her fight to save America from evil. She could do the same quick-change trick as Diana Prince i.e. could twirl around and turn into a similarly clad superhero, albeit one with a body slightly less amazing than Lynda Carter's. The plots from this series were often drawn from Golden-Age comic strips, but although Lynda Carter was getting into and out of chains at regular intervals, for the most part the mood of the show was quite different, much brighter, much BOOOOINNGGGier, and there were no undertones to suggest that a villain-ette would be going down on Wonder Woman as soon as the commercial break began.

In the contemporary seasons, Wonder Woman lost the sister but adopted a more varied range of outfits. Indeed, she could do the Wonder Woman twirl and emerge from it kitted up for trail bike riding, or deep sea diving, or in a netball outfit, or whatever. In the credits for the up-to-date episodes, the producers showed Wonder Woman diving into the ocean, and then cut to an underwater shot that was obviously taken in a swimming pool hoping that no-one would notice (but reckoning without la Paz). I had originally believed that Steve Trevor (played by Lyle Wagoner) was still around meaning both that the unresolved sexual tension between these two had lasted for 40 years, and that during the whole of the Cold War (the Cuban Missile Crisis and all) and right into the era of the Iran hostage crisis, a key post in U.S. Intelligence had been filled by a moron who was unable to tell that Wonder Woman and his mousy bespectacled secretary with her hair in a bun were one and the same person, despite the fact they were clearly identical. My sister, however, has informed me that in the later series, Wonder Woman was actually working with Steve Trevor JUNIOR. I don't know if learning the government actually hired two generations of this nitwit family is comforting or not. Since Wonder Woman couldn't possibly be flirting with her own child, it stands to reason Steve Senior produced the replica version of himself with another woman, making it all the more inexplicable what Wonder Woman ever saw in two-timing Steve Senior. As for Steve Junior, he was such a clown that the1970's Diana Prince didn't even bother wearing the big glasses, she just wore her hair in the trademark bun and the penny STILL didn't drop with this dimwit.

While you could stretch a point in the comic books, Lynda Carter was (is) such an amazing looking person that however good their professional relationships with Diana may have been, Steve Senior and Steve Junior must have had rocks in their respective heads not to ask her, if she wasn't doing anything on Friday night, would she like to catch the Andrews Sisters/go down to Studio 54. Lynda Carter made a very, very good Wonder Woman. Well, OK, her face was insufficiently prognathous for purists, but apart from the whole Steve issue, her Wonder Woman actually was far less of a bimbo than she is remembered as being. While she wasn't exactly a good actress, LC was a good-hearted, likeable actress, who neither took herself too seriously nor ruined it all by camping it up too obviously; and she was great at pulling faces. And while her body may have had some minor imperfections, I say this more because I am thinking of the fun one could have had trying to discover what these were, than because I believe it is actually the case. Having said all that, if I had to declare a preference, I would probably say the sickly-coloured square-faced heavy-lidded Wonder Woman of the 1940s was more of a feminist pioneer, and more of a surprising creature to emerge from her era, than the trail-bike riding Sport-Illustrated swimsuit issue 1970s Wonder Woman.

Unhand me, you Tigeape!!

There is talk of making a Wonder Woman movie and various names have been mentioned as possibilities to play the 21st Century Wonder Woman. Tap "Who will play Wonder Woman?" into a search engine to find Message Boards full of discussion on the topic. Frankly these discussions remind me of nothing so much as the discussions people used to have at The Ecka about which beef creature ought to be The Prize Bull, being a debate as to body parts rather than any of the other qualities an actress could bring to the role. If they were casting for resemblance with the 1940s Wonder Woman, then they could do worse than consider Rosie O'Donnell. She is not exactly athletic, but she looks a hell of a lot more like the original Wonder Woman than Jennifer Connelly or Sandra Bullock or Pamela Anderson or Penelope Cruz or Angelina Jolie or Julia Roberts. If I was making a book on it, however, I would happily assign odds on Rosie O'Donnell actually getting the part at about 10 000-1. This brings me to the fact that as well as being a kind of curious lust-object for men, over her 60+ year history, and particularly from the 1970s on, Wonder Woman has had a separate (no, connected) iconographic life as a feminist symbol. She was on the cover of the first ever issue of Ms Magazine. The sort of Feminism that serious thinkers like Camile Paglia and the Spice Girls came up with was that all women would emerge as varieties of Wonder Woman: powerful, independent, and beautiful. And I, for one, have no objection to women (or men) being any of these things, so I hope I don't seem out of line in questioning whether Wonder Woman is much of a role model for the aspirations of the movement. Yeah, OK, she saves the universe regularly, and I am not saying that is a bad thing, but so does your Joe-Bloggs, 9-5, regular meathead Superhero, without getting Ginger-Spice style celebrity endorsement. The point about Wonder Woman is surely that she is a powerful and independent role model because she is beautiful, rather than the other way around. The various forms of power and independence (economic, political, cultural, etc), and the way women have been denied these over the centuries can be analyzed in various ways, but any way you do it, money and political power are entities that can be redistributed. The idea that physical beauty is a kind of asset that humans beings can acquire would appear to me to be so much applesauce. I am not saying physical beauty is not a bankable asset- the careers of, for instance, Jennifer Connelly and Sandra Bullock and Pamela Anderson and Penelope Cruz and Angelina Jolie and Julia Roberts and so on and so forth prove that it is- but while it can be exchanged for money and power, it can not be transferred to other women, so until we start to see some butt-ugly female superheroes, I am going to reserve judgment on whether or not Wonder Woman is much of a feminist icon, as opposed to a fantasy object who happens to be susceptible to both male and female fantasies. Those of us who are waiting for a movie about a butt-ugly female super-hero, however, will probably have a long time to wait.


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