In her book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore is clear that everything done on Wonder Woman after his creator William Moulton Marston left is sexist crap (she also looks down her nose at female superheroes in general). And with the film coming up this weekend I’ve seen other articles making the same argument. I disagree with them.
It’s true that nobody has ever written the Amazing Amazon as overtly feminist as Marston did. She championed the freedom of women; her enemies (Mars, Doctor Psycho) were dedicated to putting women in chains (often literally). Women could and should be independent. Any woman from “man’s world” with Amazon training could be as awesome as the Amazons. Of course along with that we got heavy use of bondage, BDSM themes, and difference feminism (Marston strongly believed that women were better suited to run things than men), as noted in my Screen Rant article (link also goes to my review of Lepore’s book). But still, the feminism is very strongly there.
Where Marston believed deeply in feminism, Robert Kanigher, his heir on the title, did not (Lepore notes that when a sniper takes out Diana’s sidekick I Ching in #204, his first victim is based on DC Comics’ female editor Dorothy Woolfolk). And apparently he hated the book. Lepore’s take, which I’ve heard elsewhere, is that the series dissolved into a mushy muddle of dating, romance and WW pining for Steve Trevor.
And that may be true for most of the 1950s — it’s the period of Diana’s life I have least knowledge of. However, I have read Kanigher’s run from 1958 on (when he began working on the book with artists Ross Andru and Mike Esposito) and I don’t think it’s true at all. As I’ve mentioned in the past, while there’s no overt feminism,Wonder Woman is the world’s mightiest super-hero and Kanigher writes her that way (crossovers weren’t common at DC in this period so she didn’t share the spotlight with anyone). If alien fleets are going to invade, she’s the one they have to stop. If monsters run wild, she’s the only one who can save us. And so on. As her teenage Wonder Girl self, she’s so dedicated to training for her future heroic career, she often has to pass up chances to date. That’s light years away from Silver Age comics’ usual portrayal of teen girls (Donna Troy in Teen Titans was way more flirtatious).
That said, the Silver Age has its share of sexist stories where Diana acts (as they used to say) “just like a woman.” In #102, for example, an alien confronts Steve with Wonder Woman and two identical robot duplicates, forcing him to choose the real one. He finally succeeds by kissing each of them — but Wonder Woman only grumbles that Steve kissed the two ‘bots before he kissed her, the Lothario! These were only a minority of stories, but that changed in Kanigher’s ’65-68 run when he did import a lot of romance comics tropes to the book. This is the period WW really starts mooning over Steve and things get more sexist.
Then came the four year period (sans Kanigher) where Diana lost her powers. One of the articles I read pointed out, accurately, that this places a lot of emphasis on Diana’s taste in clothes, another element important from romance comics (fashion and style were a big thing there). But while accurate, it also distorts this period: Diana is a top-flight martial artist and globetrotting adventurer fighting against the conspiracy of Dr. Cyber. Plus cleaning up her new neighborhood in New York, visiting the Amazons and having other adventures. I think depowering her was a bad idea, but she wasn’t just a fashion plate.
Whatever those eras’ faults, they’re not as bad as you may hear.