Bright Lights Film Journal

How to Play a Superhero: Lynda Carter, Popular Culture Feminism, and the Search for Wonder Woman

After three decades of searching in vain for another Wonder Woman, it’s time to reiterate the importance of Lynda Carter’s iconic portrayal and its meaning to popular culture feminism.Pop[ular] culture n. Culture based on popular taste rather than that of an educated elite, usually commercialized and made widely available by the mass media. Feminism n. Advocacy of the rights of women (based on the theory of equality of the sexes). — Oxford English Dictionary

Poor Adrianne Palicki. It must feel awful having the rug pulled from under her feet after so much hype. In February 2011, it was widely reported that she was chosen to play Wonder Woman in an upcoming NBC television series about the iconic comic book superheroine. Despite generating enormous publicity and boasting a high-profile writer and executive producer (David E. Kelley), the series fizzled out even before it began. It was cancelled by NBC in May shortly after a test screening of the pilot (Rice, “NBC”).

The cancellation didn’t surprise many people as public sentiment about the series was ambivalent from the start. In March, the release of a publicity photo showing a “modernized” Wonder Woman costume struck horror into the hearts of many fans (Rice, “Wonder”), and the subsequent “leaks” from the cancelled pilot did more to confirm these misgivings than to counter them. As was expected, a major point of controversy concerned the casting of Wonder Woman. Even people who liked Palicki from Friday Night Lights tended to agree that she was miscast, while people who knew little about her also didn’t hesitate to denounce her, which seemed a tad unfair since the brunt of their criticism wasn’t so much based on anything she did as who she wasn’t.1

In short, she wasn’t Lynda Carter, who is still seen by most people as the ideal Wonder Woman.

Given the supposedly “ephemeral” nature of comic books and popular TV shows, the fact that Carter’s three-decades-old performance can still generate such wide recognition and fierce loyalty is akin to wondrous. The original television series lasted three seasons. Season one, The New, Original Wonder Woman, appeared on ABC between 1975 and 1977. Seasons two and three, The New Adventures of Wonder Woman, appeared on CBS between 1978 and 1979. Although after the show ended, Carter has continued to pursue an acting and music career, nothing from that subsequent career has come close to matching the fame and success she achieved from playing Wonder Woman.

Whether this complete identification with one role is something that deserves praise or criticism is a moot question. On the one hand, you could say that her inability to transcend her first major role proves that she never had enough talent to succeed in anything else. On the other hand, you could say that what she did with that role was so exceptional she has virtually owned the role ever since. The public perception that Carter’s version of Wonder Woman is “definitive” and “irreplaceable” has been reinforced by the fact that every subsequent attempt to date to remake Wonder Woman has failed.2 While it would be a distortion to claim that the failure of all these projects was because none could match Carter’s example, the consistent lack of success indicates both the immense challenge of bringing Wonder Woman to screen and the undeniable impact of Carter’s portrayal.

Before someone complains (with reason) that the last thing the world needs is another comic book-related vehicle, it should be mentioned that Wonder Woman isn’t just any comic book character. Apart from being one of the original Golden Age comic book superheroes, she has a strong claim to being popular culture’s most enduring, recognizable, and iconic woman hero.3 Since her debut in All Star Comics in 1941 (her first cover appeared in January 1942 in Sensation Comics), Wonder Woman’s comics have been continuously in print: a feat surpassed only by Superman and Batman. Not only is Wonder Woman recognized by people anywhere in the world where American popular culture is known, but she is also one of the few fictional characters who have acquired significance beyond their original medium. In popular vernacular, her name conveys the generic idea of an extraordinary woman.4

Accordingly, Wonder Woman has long been seen as a feminist icon.5 Yet, as is true of most feminist achievers, Wonder Woman has had to fight harder for respect and recognition than almost any of her male peers. Comic book historians tend to play down her feminist message and play up her fetishistic appeal.6 Furthermore, it only takes a quick internet search to discover how intensely some sections of the comic book community seem to hate her (e.g., Ashby). In 1972, Wonder Woman became specifically a second-wave feminist icon when Gloria Steinem, who grew up reading her comics, put her on the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine. Yet, in the magazine’s feature essay, Joanne Edgar also noted Wonder Woman’s problematic position as a preeminent female in a predominantly male genre. Edgar recalled that a common belief among the comic book collectors of her childhood was that “[o]ne Superman is worth three Wonder Woman’s” (52). Judging by the number of screen adaptations devoted to these characters in recent years, it would appear that the value principle underlying this belief still holds sway.

In the past three decades, Superman and Batman have been adapted enough times to reach a double-digit figure. Less iconic heroes (e.g., the Hulk, Fantastic Four, X-Men) have also made their way repeatedly to the big screen. Even relatively obscure characters (e.g., Ironman, Thor, Hellboy, Blade, Kick-Ass) have had no trouble clinching lucrative film deals. Yet, somehow, Wonder Woman is still trapped in an indefinite creative limbo. For any other character, this failure wouldn’t be especially remarkable; not many people are holding their breath for, say, a Big Barda or Scarlet Witch movie. But for the genre’s leading woman hero, it inevitably raises the suspicion that her predicament is symbolic of a larger social and cultural dilemma facing women in any male-dominated area.7 If equality, equal opportunity, and equal representation are relevant to feminism, the search for Wonder Woman is surely a pertinent feminist issue in popular culture discussion.

The fact that it’s possible to move this discussion beyond defensive pleading is largely thanks to Lynda Carter.

Not Searching for Debra Winger:
Talent/Non-talent and the “Character” Actor Defence

The claim that an actress playing a superhero is an achievement — let alone a “feminist” one — may sound so absurd as to require further explanation. This is because, when most people discuss acting as an achievement, they usually have in mind a high-culture concept of a gifted actor playing a serious role in a reputable genre. Likewise, when they discuss acting as a “feminist” achievement, they usually have in mind a gifted actress playing a serious role in a serious picture about real women. It follows that when people are asked to nominate a “feminist” actress, they are likely to mention Carter’s erstwhile co-star, Debra Winger.

Winger played Drusilla, Wonder Woman’s younger sister “Wonder Girl,” in three episodes in the first season. She reportedly hated this role so much that she not only rejected an offer to star in her own spinoff series but also bought herself out of her contract (Pingle 30). After leaving the show, she gradually established herself as one of her generation’s most highly regarded actresses through a range of critically acclaimed performances in films such as An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Terms of Endearment (1983), Shadowlands (1993), A Dangerous Woman (1993). Since the release of Rosanna Arquette’s Searching for Debra Winger (2002), a feminist documentary exploring the challenges that Hollywood actresses commonly face in their professional and personal lives, Winger has also become — albeit not by her own choosing — a symbol of “Hollywood feminism.”8

Winger has never made any secret of her opinion that Wonder Woman is “trash.” Nowhere was this opinion more memorably or entertainingly expressed than in her appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman in 1993 (“Debra”). Although the interview finished with Winger reprising her role as Wonder Girl as a practical joke on Letterman, she spent a good part of the interview dishing the dirt on Wonder Woman. She was especially sarcastic about Carter: not only did she use Carter’s family problems as fodder for her wisecracks, but she also implied that Carter had nothing to offer audiences except for her lavish eye-shadow and big breasts.9 By contrast, Winger insisted for herself that she had “moved on” and had “nothing to do with that anymore”: a not-so-subtle dig at her former co-star for being a one-hit wonder. In short, Winger was insisting that the difference between them represents worth/talent/feminism versus trash/non-talent/anti-feminism.

Personal digs aside, Winger’s attack was on the basis of artistic meritocracy: she had no respect for Carter’s acting abilities. This invites the question: what is good acting? If good acting entails traditional dramatic skills such as the ability to exhibit versatility, verisimilitude, vocal/physical nuances, emotional range, and psychological depth, Winger would seem to have legitimate reasons to consider herself superior: it isn’t for nothing that she has had three Academy Award nominations.10 Nevertheless, her obvious bias against the comic book genre should alert us against uncritically accepting her view as conclusive.

Contrary to Winger’s suggestion that superhero acting is something from which serious actors “move on,” since the 1970s, there has been a steady rise of first-rate dramatic actors dabbling in the comic book/action fantasy genre. By now, it’s almost become a cliché to expect every Hollywood blockbuster to include at least one Shakespearean actor and/or Oscar winner to anchor the picture.11 Yet, while casting an established actor in a supportive or antagonist role may boost a film’s credibility, the biggest challenge has always gone to casting the lead actor. And if there is a general rule for casting a lead actor in a superhero picture, it is this: acting abilities are no reliable indicator of success.

Take the obvious examples. In theory, George Clooney, Halle Berry, and Charlize Theron would be ideal for playing superheroes: they are all Oscar winners, sexy, stylish, talented, charismatic, popular with the public. Nevertheless, their attempts at playing superheroes are among the most disastrous mistakes in the genre.12 Winger might see things differently, but the argument that the genre is “unworthy” of serious actors is only as true as the argument that the genre offers some distinctive challenges for actors of any calibre to overcome. While outstanding acting isn’t unheard of in the genre — look no further than Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) — generally speaking, when a good actor does a convincing job playing a superhero, the actor is convincing for qualities that don’t necessarily come from his or her acting abilities.13 A good actor miscast is sufficient to sink a movie, but the right actor playing the right role can transform an average picture into something enjoyable, memorable, and enduring.

In the lore of superhero casting, Lynda Carter has defined perfectly the meaning of the right actor playing the right role.14 Perhaps her only rival for the honor of completely embodying a superhero is Christopher Reeve in the role of Superman. Although Reeve was a classically trained actor (a Cornell and Julliard graduate no less), his success as Superman owed less to his acting abilities than to his striking physical presence and complete rapport with the role. These qualities are also at the heart of Carter’s success. Yet her success is arguably even more distinctive than Reeve’s, since many other actors beside him have played Superman adequately, whereas she is the only actor who has truly personified the genre’s definitive woman hero. Hence, while we cannot call her a “character actor” in the sense of possessing the versatility and aptitude to play different roles convincingly, we can nonetheless call her a character actor: i.e., an actor who has played an iconic character so well that she has not only set a benchmark for the genre but also achieved an iconic status through her performance.

How to Play a Superhero: Looks, Aura, and Spin

Winger insinuated that Carter’s performance was all about physical appeal, and in a way, she was right. To play a superhero, one must look like a superhero. Carter fit this bill to a tee. In her instantly recognizable Wonder Woman costume designed by one of Hollywood’s most renowned costume designers — multiple Oscar and Emmy nominee Donfeld — she cut a strikingly impressive figure.

Yet, being too strikingly impressive has obvious disadvantages: people focus on appearance and dismiss everything else. As Winger’s comments indicate, this attitude isn’t confined to sexist men.15 It is also a view shared by some, mostly radical, feminists.16 Interestingly, Gloria Steinem was among these critics. She gave Carter a backhanded compliment: while acknowledging that Carter’s portrayal captures many of the original character’s positive messages (e.g., super-strength, pacifism, an appeal to young female viewers), she also accused Carter of being “a little blue of eye and large of breast” (“Introduction” 17).

Bawdy jokes about body parts may be good for a laugh — Winger proved that much in her Letterman interview — but one would have expected Steinem of all people to be above them, considering the extent to which she has been denigrated not just by the popular media but also by other feminists for being too attractive to be a “serious” feminist.17 If anything positive can come out of such derogatory remarks, it’s the reminder that diverse viewpoints exist within feminist thought.18 Accordingly, it’s also within the frame of feminist discussion that Carter’s physical appearance can and should be defended.

The first thing is to ask whether the “sex symbol” label misses the forest for the trees. People who snigger over “why Wonder Woman dresses like a stripper” are often too caught up in their own cleverness to consider the costume’s more serious import in the historical context of gender politics: its relevance as a symbol of defiance against the patriarchal expectation that “good girls” be modest, demure, proper, docile, and ladylike.19 In terms of body exposure, Wonder Woman’s costume is really no sexier than the costume of a track-and-field runner, gymnast, swimmer, ice skater, or ballerina. While no doubt many sexist men think that women athletes are only good for a perve, the question is whether it’s reasonable to allow such sexist attitudes to debase these women’s athleticism. If not, it’s also unreasonable to allow sexist attitudes to debase Wonder Woman’s heroism.

Rather than male titillation, the principal message of Wonder Woman’s unconventional costume is that physical confidence is an important aspect of female empowerment: the liberal skin exposure is an insistence on the rights of women to feel comfortable in their own skin irrespective of other people’s reaction.20 When I hear or read jokes about adolescent boys “getting a woody at the sight of Wondy,” I always think of The Simpsons episode in which Comic Book Guy meets Stan Lee:

STAN LEE: Hey, aren’t you the guy who was stalking Lynda Carter?
COMIC BOOK GUY (takes out a Wonder Woman action figure and strokes it): The term is “courting.” The restraining order says “no-no,” but her eyes say “yes-yes.” (“I am Furious Yellow”)

Comic Book Guy represents a parody of the phallocentric straight male: because they find Wonder Woman/Lynda Carter sexy, therefore Wonder Woman/Lynda Carter exists only to be sexy for them. In this way, the sexist male enshrines himself as a subject and objectifies anything he fancies for his own sexual gratification. Ironically, the radical feminist critique is just the opposite side of the same coin: because sexist men find Lynda Carter/Wonder Woman sexy, therefore let’s blame Lynda Carter/Wonder Woman for being a sex object.21 I suggest a better way of dealing with sexist attitudes is to hold to account people who are being sexist, not to require Wonder Woman (or any woman) to cover herself up out of shame, diffidence, fear, embarrassment, or conformism. With Wonder Woman’s choice of costume, the personal is political.22

The second thing is to dispute the assumption that the “normal” beholder of Wonder Woman is the sexist straight male. The problem with this assumption is that it not only privileges sexism as “normal,”23 but also marginalizes the character’s meaning to her most loyal followers: the generations of women and gay men who grew up seeing Wonder Woman as a figure of inspiration.24 Wonder Woman enthusiast Andy Mangels expresses this view perfectly: “When I look at Wonder Woman, I’m not seeing a woman in a bathing suit that’s well-endowed. I am seeing a woman that’s powerful, a woman with a sense of truth and grace to her. Her message was always about accepting everybody as equals, and about making the world a better place.” (“Fanatical”) That is Wonder Woman in a nutshell. If there’s a “normal” view of Wonder Woman/Lynda Carter, it should be Mangels’s appreciative view, not Comic Book Guy’s exploitative view.

Though Steinem might not have wanted to acknowledge this, what she achieved for popular feminism through her role as a media advocate is similar to what Lynda Carter achieved for popular feminism through the role of Wonder Woman. Just as Steinem’s glamorous image helped “sell” the messages of feminism to the mainstream public, so Carter’s glamorous image helped make the idea of a superheroic woman accessible to a wide range of viewers.25 And the qualities Carter embodied in her Wonder Woman costume — grace, strength, vitality, kindness, sensitivity, and self-confidence — made her an ideal symbol of the robust optimism of women’s lib in the 1970s.

As important as it is for an actor portraying a superhero to be physically striking, the portrayal still wouldn’t be successful if the actor lacks the ability to make the character real and believable. Critics often assume that this ability is insignificant because the skills involved aren’t those that traditionally define “good” acting. Yet, many “good” actors (including Debra Winger) have proved less than equal to the genre’s biggest challenge: namely, how to make an outlandish, potentially ridiculous character come across as natural and likeable as well as dignified and heroic.26 More important than traditional acting abilities, the key to success lies in an actor’s rapport with the material and his or her willingness to enter fully into the spirit of the character.

This ability Carter had: not only did she understand what her character stood for,27 but she also knew how to balance the characterization between comedy and drama, making the character fun without making fun of the character. This approach, which she has described in interviews as “straight acting” and “playing it for real,”28 turns out to be exactly what the role calls for. Her approach not only throws Wonder Woman’s heroism into sharp relief against the broad humor around her, but at the most effective moments, it also produces self-referential irony that is the hallmark of sophisticated comedy.

A useful example is a scene from season one’s “Fausta, the Nazi Wonder Woman,” in which the Nazi interrogator Colonel Kesselman (played by Bo Brundin) forces Wonder Woman to reveal the secret of her origin. Her explanation that she comes from “Paradise Island,” where women “are able to develop [their] minds and [their] physical skills unhampered by masculine destructiveness” is prima facie farcical. Yet, thanks to Carter’s earnest delivery and Brundin’s over-the-top reaction, the audience is wrong-footed into believing farce over facts. Her explanation may sound silly, but his refusal to believe it is even sillier. The scene thus nudges the audience into going along with Wonder Woman’s “truth” at the expense of Kesselman’s hysterical demand for a rational explanation. Without Carter’s convincingly earnest performance, the comic tension would have been far less effective.

Finally, what elevates Carter’s performance from a very good one to an outstanding one is the touch of creative ingenuity that she brought to the role. It’s one thing for an actor to look stunning in costume and be believable in character; it’s another thing for her to have introduced an idea so ingenious that it has permanently entered the character’s iconography. Yet, Carter did just that by inventing the way in which Diana Prince transforms into Wonder Woman. The idea of the “wonder spin” originated from Carter’s training as a dancer: she called it a “pirouette” (“Beauty”). Whatever her shortcoming as an actor in other films and genres, if one juxtaposes Carter’s version of the wonder spin against Debra Winger’s version of the wonder spin, one would see a decisive demonstration of grace against gaucherie.

So, physical likeness, spiritual rapport, and creative ingenuity: that’s the formula for playing a superhero derived from Carter’s performance. With a limited dramatic range, she has nonetheless succeeded where many great actors haven’t and captured the tone, spirit, and presence of an iconic superhero with ease, elegance, and exactitude. Surely it’s an achievement that’s worthy of recognition, notwithstanding sexist misappropriation and snobbish disparagement.

Still Searching for Wonder Woman

Comic book artist Alex Ross has aptly summarized this achievement: “Lynda Carter has a near equal importance to the legend of Wonder Woman, a character that is [over] sixty years old, as the creators. She personified it for the modern generation in a way that it will never be forgotten” (“Beauty”). He isn’t exaggerating: to many people, Carter is Wonder Woman. Nevertheless, Carter’s achievement also underlines a continuing problem for the character. When it comes to screen adaptations, Wonder Woman’s peak is still stuck in the mid-1970s.

This apparent inability to move forward has led some critics to question her value and viability as a character and cultural icon. It was especially common during the late 1990s and mid-2000s — the period when postfeminist screen heroines such as Xena and Buffy were at the height of their popularity — to find people praising these darker, grittier “It girl” heroines at the expense of Wonder Woman.29 Yet, even if all that might be said in favor of other heroines has been said, Wonder Woman is still the only female in popular culture that can claim to be:

  • A heroine whose name has entered popular usage as a synonym for female empowerment.30
  • A heroine whose history of representation has reflected the ongoing debates about women’s roles in U.S. social history for seventy years (and counting).31
  • A heroine so universally recognizable that merely changing her uniform could spark international headlines.32

Whether Wonder Woman is “lame” or “cool” is a matter of opinion about which everyone is entitled to make up their mind.33 Yet her status as the genre’s most iconic heroine is a matter of fact that no one can deny without rewriting popular culture history.34 Let’s face it: as long as popular culture exists, new crops of warrior gals, action chicks, and kickass babes will spring forth with every turn of the seasonal cycle. While enjoying their time in the sun, some of these heroines will be hyped up as the hottest, coolest, greatest, awesomest heroines in the universe (and some people will buy into all the hypes, too). After their season has peaked and the dust has settled, a few of them may even retain a “cult following” among some fans and academics. Yet, it’s doubtful that the rest of the world will recognize the majority of these heroines in twenty or thirty years — seventy years is asking too much — let alone bothering to have an opinion about them.

By contrast, I challenge anyone to say that Wonder Woman will cease to be a prominent part of the popular cultural discussion about heroic women in twenty, thirty, even seventy years. As surely as anything can be predicted, it’s fair to say that Wonder Woman’s cultural position is guaranteed. Notwithstanding the peaks and troughs of cultural trends, she has never ceased being relevant. Put her likeness on the cover of Playboy, and feminists rallied in protest.35 Fiddle with her costume, and wide-ranging debates about gender equality, sexual identity, empowerment, nationalism, and cultural relativism spread across America and beyond.36 Lobby for the improvement of women’s representations in the industry, and she is still the definitive index by which the discussion is framed and progress is charted.37 Anyone who considers themselves “feminist” and still gets a thrill out of trashing Wonder Woman should ask themselves what popular culture would be like without her. If they are honest, they must acknowledge that it would be futile to speak of another woman hero as being remotely equal to the most iconic male heroes: Superman, Batman, Spiderman.38 Without Wonder Woman, the debate would have been lost before it began. She is that important.

It’s a tribute to Lynda Carter that her version of Wonder Woman still stands among the most definitive in the character’s history, so much so that her endorsement can still lend credibility and legitimacy to any new project related to Wonder Woman.39 To those who say, “Of course, Carter is never going to win an Emmy,” note that Lindsay Wagner won one for Bionic Woman, and Kate Jackson was nominated three times for Charlie’s Angels. Whether or not she wins the award, Carter’s place in popular culture history is already secure. As the search for another Wonder Woman continues, anyone who cares about female heroism in popular culture should be grateful to Carter for showing that it’s possible for a live adaptation to do complete justice to the iconic heroine.

Normally, one would expect Debra Winger to be above any of this stuff and nonsense about comic book characters.40 Yet even she has acknowledged that her stance against the genre has met with an unexpected challenge. Last year, Winger told New York Times Magazine that not only does her 13-year-old son follow Captain America, but he has also urged her to do a superhero movie. She said:

It’s hilarious. I spent my entire early career trying to live down Wonder Woman, and then I spawn this child who . . . . Well, I should just show him the series. That’d probably end the discussion. (Harris par. 10)

The article doesn’t mention whether or not she got around to showing her son the series. Either way, someone should tell her not to count on being able to “end the discussion” so easily in the forum of popular culture. Seventy years from now, how many people will still be “searching for Debra Winger”? Most likely, the number will be similar to the number of people interested today in finding out who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress seventy years ago.

Yet here’s an alternative theory to tickle your fancy and pique your wonder: As long as popular culture has a place for a woman hero, Wonder Woman is relevant; as long as Wonder Woman is relevant, Lynda Carter is relevant. For the sake of popular culture feminism, let’s hope the search for Wonder Woman strikes gold sooner rather than later. But whatever happens, it will be a tall order for any actress to measure up to the benchmark that Lynda Carter has set, be she a triple Oscar nominee or otherwise.

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  1. E.g., results of two MTV opinion polls are as follows: When Palicki’s casting was first announced, 41.1% were in favor, 26.44% against, 32.45% undecided; once the publicity photo was released, 35.39% were in favor; 50.9% against, 13.71% undecided. Results of an LA Times opinion poll (with 6,469 voters) in the wake of the photo’s release are even more one-sided: 17.4% in favor, 57.88% against, 24.71% undecided. []
  2. Before Carter’s, there were two other live versions of Wonder Woman: a five-minute burlesque pilot “Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince?” (1967) starring Ellie Wood Walker and Linda Harrison; and a recognizable-in-name-only TV movie Wonder Woman (1974) starring Cathy Lee Crosby. Both were flops. Rumors of another live version of Wonder Woman have existed at least since the early 1990s. Some high-profile creators include: Joss Whedon (Wonder Woman film), George Miller (Justice League film), and David E. Kelley (TV series). Most recently, Nicholas Winding Refn has made headlines by declaring his wish to direct a Wonder Woman film starring Christina Hendricks. For a discussion of Wonder Woman’s frustrated development on screen, see Svetkey. []
  3. I define “woman hero” as a “lead female protagonist in a heroic, action/adventure role.” I base this judgment on three criteria: (i) the heroine’s historical pedigree, proven longevity, and continual adaptability across mediums; (ii) the heroine’s significance as a heroic symbol once removed from her franchise and considered in the general milieu of popular culture; (ii) the heroine’s recognizability to a wide range of international demographics. Based on these criteria, none of the characters commonly said to be “better” than Wonder Woman — Xena, Buffy, Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Lara Croft, Princess Leia, Storm, Elektra, Sydney Bristow, Nikita, the Powerpuff Girls, you name her — is a serious rival to her. I would go so far as to say that only Wonder Woman among popular culture heroines is as transcendentally iconic as non-heroic woman icons such as the Statue of Liberty, the Virgin Mary, the Mona Lisa, Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, Barbie, Marilyn Monroe. []
  4. Apart from Superman, Wonder Woman is almost the only comic book character whose name has meaning outside comic book contexts. In popular usage, “wonder woman” is a catchall word for “a woman who inspires wonder” or “extraordinary female achievements”. At the historic juncture in U.S. politics when two women, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, were running for president and vice president, media commentators have invoked the term “wonder woman” to discuss both women. []
  5. William Moulton Marston was a Harvard-educated psychiatrist who created Wonder Woman to counteract the “blood-curdling masculinity” (42) prevalent in the comic books of the 1930s and ’40s. He explicitly drew on the latest proto-feminist ideas in wartime America: “Marston believed World War I had fostered the notion of equality for women and that the end of World War II would also see an end of the idea of a ‘weaker sex.’ In 1943, he depicted Wonder Woman removing the chains of ‘prejudice,’ ‘prudery’ and ‘man’s superiority’ from her body” (Joyce par. 6). For feminist receptions of Wonder Woman, see Steinem, Wonder; Robinson; Robbins, Great. See also Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Kelcey Edwards’s upcoming documentary The History of the Universe as Told by Wonder Woman. []
  6. Robbins summarizes: “Most men who have written about comic book history are not particularly kind to superheroines, but they seem to reserve their most unkind observations for Wonder Woman” (Great 13-14). For a more objective discussion of the subtleties of Marston’s psychological theory informing Wonder Woman’s “bondage” sequences, see Bunn 110. []
  7. Cf. Steven Piziks: “Wonder Woman is the only iconic comic book character who hasn’t had her own movie . . . . Studios don’t really think a female super-hero can carry a movie by herself” ( Krug par. 4); Jennifer K. Stuller: “[T]he few films starring female super-heroes haven’t done as well at the box office, which is more a result of how poorly they were handled, and less a symptom of audiences not clamoring for them. (Action and super-hero films with male leads) can fail again and again, and yet they keep getting made, rebooted, and revisioned” (qtd. in Krug par. 7). []
  8. Winger is often praised for the following things: (i) she is an actress who trades on her talent, not on her looks; (ii) she has a mind of her own and is unafraid to speak it; (iii) she has shown courage and integrity by choosing to retire prematurely rather than stay in Hollywood to make “trash” (e.g., Pearce; Cooke). Cf. Arquette: “Debra had the courage to choose life, putting her art on hold, so she could get total control. That takes courage, which we all admire” (qtd. in Pearce par. 8). In Searching for Debra Winger, Arquette’s “feminist” thesis goes something like this: Hollywood operates on the “studio mentality” that privileges youth/appearance over experience/substance; good roles for women, especially for older women, are lamentably rare; talented actresses are underused, underpaid, and underappreciated. Accordingly, Winger’s derogatory comments about Carter on Letterman would seem to place Carter on the “bimbo” side of Hollywood feminism. []
  9. In 2002, Carter gave a reply of sorts in an interview with Larry King (“Lynda”). Carter said she got along well with Winger and was “surprised” by the attack. While acknowledging Winger’s “tremendous” talent, she also pointed out that being badmouthed by Winger put her “in good company” (Winger has also feuded with Shirley MacLaine, Richard Gere, John Travolta, John Malkovich, and others). []
  10. Winger was nominated for An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment, and Shadowlands. A comparison of Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (1976) and Urban Cowboy (1980) should convincingly settle the question of Carter’s and Winger’s respective talents. Each played a flimsy girlfriend role in a quasi-cowboy flick; yet, whereas Carter seemed awkward and confused and delivered her lines as if dictating from a book, Winger stole every scene she was in by fleshing out her barely-there character with angst, yearning, passion, vulnerability: a feat she would repeat in film after film for the next ten odd years. []
  11. E.g., Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing in Star Wars (1977); Marlon Brandon and Gene Hackman in Superman (1978); Faye Dunaway and Peter O’Toole in Supergirl (1984); Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989); Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever (1995); Geoffrey Rush in Mystery Men (1999) and Green Lantern (2011); Cliff Robertson and Willem Dafoe in Spiderman (2002); Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003); Ben Kingsley and Ian McKellen in the X-Men franchise (2000; 2003; 2006); Frances McDormand in Aeon Flux (2005); Kevin Spacey in Superman Returns (2006); William Hurt in The Incredible Hulk (2008); Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman in Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008); Nicholas Cage in Kick-Ass (2010); Anthony Hopkins in Thor (2011); Tim Robbins in Green Lantern (2011); and the entire British acting establishment in the Harry Potter franchise (2001-2011). Incidentally, all three actresses who played Queen Hippolyta in Wonder Woman — Cloris Leachman, Beatrice Straight, and Carolyn Jones — are Oscar winners. []
  12. Clooney played Batman in Batman & Robin (1997), Berry played Catwoman in Catwoman (2004), and Theron played Aeon Flux in Aeon Flux (2005). These failures aren’t isolated examples. Anyone interested in good actors acting badly should watch Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Natalie Portman plod their way through The Phantom Menace (1999). The point here is not to mock but to show that the trashy/worthy divide is much more fluid than Winger suggested. The definitive example of an actor who has blurred this divide is Sandra Bullock. For many years, she was Hollywood’s highest-profile B-actress: she made her screen debut playing an action heroine in The Bionic Showdown (1989) and was a prime contender to play Wonder Woman in the 1990s. Yet she also went on to win an Academy Award (for The Blind Side) and a Golden Raspberry (for All About Steve) in 2009. []
  13. E.g., Angelina Jolie is a convincing Lara Croft because of her physical resemblance to the character; Robert Downey Junior is a convincing Tony Stark because of his roguish charm. Both are Oscar-caliber actors, but their acting in Tomb Raider and Iron Man isn’t exactly remarkable. Alternatively, an actor with almost no acting abilities, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has proved that he can also play a convincing comic book hero in Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Conan the Destroyer (1984). []
  14. Cf. Alex Ross: “Her casting may have been the best casting in the history of television or film at that point. She is truly the best embodiment of that character from the comics made flesh. There was nothing off about her. She was perfectly that face, the beauty and sensitivity and really this quality of her looking like a heroic figure as well as her looking like an all-American girl” (“Beauty”). []
  15. See, e.g., comments to Crumlish’s article: “I always had a soft spot for lynda carter that gets hard every time i think of her” (Lovetruncheon404); “Personally I always liked Lynda Carter because she was f#%^able” (babel69); “In my early teens Lynda Carter was the first woman to make me sit up and really notice breasts” (Zakelius). []
  16. E.g., Douglas: “The campiest of the bionic bimbos was Wonder Woman played by the statuesque, voluptuous former beauty queen Lynda Carter . . . . [Her] breasts seemed constantly poised to burst forth from their Playboy bunny-type container” (217); Franich: “She is meant to be an inspiring feminist icon, but she represents a vast array of things that feminism despises. By which I mean, she dresses like a stripper” (par. 2). []
  17. See, e.g., Heilbrun: “That [Steinem] was . . . the one the media anointed because she was ‘feminine’ . . . glamorous [and] nonthreatening, was to cause a good deal of ill feeling among feminists who had arrived earlier” (187); also 233; 239-42; “Steinem’s bold move to create a new magazine . . . created distrust and jealousy among other women activists . . . . They resented her beauty and glamor, and distrusted her ability to represent them” (Rosen 216); “Steinem’s glamorous image has always belied the media caricature of a feminist as an ugly, bitter woman unable to get a man, and she has never been above using her appearance to get an audience” (Gamble 323). []
  18. Gamble: “[F]eminism has always been a dynamic and multifaceted movement. Although . . . it can be very generally categorized as the struggle to increase women’s access to equality in a male-dominated culture, there has never been a universally agreed agenda for feminism. Exactly what ‘equality’ for women entails, the means by which it is to be achieved, even the exact nature of the obstacles it faces, are all disputed issues” (viii). And what is true of “feminism” is also true of “Wonder Woman”: she may instigate fierce disagreement, but it’s impossible to talk about her without invoking important ideas about women: e.g., “what is equality?” “what is heroic?” “what is empowering?” []
  19. This line of argument has been a central part of feminist thought since Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: “I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness.” (12) The point is that if Wonder Woman had dressed as a “proper lady” in the 1940s, she would hardly have been fit to perform her heroic and athletic deeds. []
  20. This idea is cleverly dramatized in the pilot episode. Fresh off Paradise Island, Diana knows nothing about capitalism or patriarchal morality, and is unaware that her costume is sexy, provocative, or immodest. She walks into a boutique and observes to the attendant: “You certainly use a lot of material for your dresses,” before trying to leave without paying for a dress, which she misconstrues as a gift of hospitality. As she strolls down the street of 1940s Washington, she is amused and bemused to find herself attracting disgusted looks from the women and wolf-whistles from the men. Yet when a bank robbery occurs, she shatters the “hussy” stereotype by seizing the thieves, stopping their cars, and deflecting their bullets. The stereotype-defying scene is then used to explain the origin of her name: she is a woman who inspires wonder. []
  21. Levine cynically argues that the second version of the costume with a “lower-cut bustier and higher-cut legs” made the character “even more of a sex symbol” (139). In contrast, Carter offers a more pragmatic explanation: “when you sit down, and everything, you don’t want [the costume] so tight. [The second version] was higher cut, which was more comfortable and Donfeld did a great job on it” (Mangels 23). []
  22. In 2010, DC generated a media storm with the announcement that they were changing Wonder Woman’s costume to include a biker jacket and a pair of black pants. Debates followed as to the merit and demerit of the change. Personally, I am okay with the pants, but I disagree with two assumptions behind the change: (i) wearing pants is the only way for a woman to gain respect and equality; (ii) wearing shorts is about “looking sexy for men” rather than just being comfortable in her own skin. []
  23. Sexism is “common” but shouldn’t be accepted as “normal.” Consider the double standard: the Hulk, Tarzan, and He-Man wear far less than Wonder Woman; yet no one calls these heroes male strippers and gigolos. The reason is that straight men don’t see these characters in such terms, which, in turn, reveals the extent to which popular discussions about superheroes prioritize sexist male perception. The appropriate feminist response is therefore to ensure that normalized sexism is rejected and sexist men are prevented from dictating the terms of discussion about Wonder Woman. Moreover, not all straight men are sexist: the assumption that “boys will be boys” is unfair to the many straight men who are perfectly capable of respecting women and understanding Wonder Woman: e.g., George Pérez, Greg Rucka, Alex Ross, Dwayne McDuffie, Brian Azzarrello, []
  24. For Wonder Woman’s appeal to young female audiences, see, e.g., see Steinem; Robinson; Crumlish. For her appeal to the LGBT community, see Stuever 113; Robbins, “Wonder”. Cf. Carter: “I never really focused on the male fantasy, the bondage thing . . . . The other main thing I wanted to achieve — that I think I did — is that I never wanted any female at home to see Wonder Woman as a threat, because I either wanted them to be her, or be her best friend” (Mangels 21). []
  25. In the DVD commentary to the pilot, executive producer Douglas S. Cramer acknowledges that his “take” on the character was inspired by Steinem’s 1972 coffee table book. He also reveals that he had to defy the network’s executives who wanted to delete the Steinem-inspired lines such as Wonder Woman’s speech to Marsha: “Women are the wave of the future, and sisterhood is stronger than anything.” Carter has also acknowledged Steinem’s influence (Mangels 20). Accordingly, it’s understandable why some critics should have argued that the earlier ABC season is more “feminist” than the later CBS seasons, which updated the period setting to the 1970s and left out the “sisterhood” speeches (Levine 138-139). Rather than seeing the ABC season as “feminist” and the CBS seasons as “un-feminist,” however, I suggest they merely expressed Steinem’s “feminisms” in different ways: the first season’s “sisterhood” speeches modelled on Steinem’s ideas are replaced by the later seasons’ portrayal of Diana Prince as a super-professional woman modelled on Steinem’s public persona. The later seasons improved on the first season at least in one respect: they made Wonder Woman/Diana emotionally and sexually independent of Steve Trevor. While I agree that the CBS seasons are more about “new woman” feminism than “superhero” feminism, the fact that Wonder Woman can instigate such diverse debates about female heroism indicates her importance as a feminist icon. []
  26. Cf. Carter’s rationale on wearing a superhero costume: “The costume takes care of itself and I think that’s one of the problems with super-hero [projects]. It’s a very difficult and dangerous territory to play a superhero because you can get into the trap of not letting the costume and everything else work for you. But that’s already there. You don’t have to say it in a redundant way . . . . [W]hat takes it out of reality and into unreality is when someone does that” (Mangels 21). []
  27. Carter: “It is that [feeling] that I really wanted; kindness and goodness and hope and dreams and all the wonderful, human yearnings that we all have. To do the right thing and have a happy life. She wanted everyone to have that. And she was not very impressed with herself. It was everyone else around her that was impressed” (Mangels 20-21). []
  28. E.g., “I played the humor in a very human way . . . . I tried to play her like a regular woman who just happened to have superhuman powers” (Daniels 141); “I never played it as a joke. I never played it tongue-in-cheek. The only way I thought the rest of that could work would be for me to play it absolutely straight . . . . [Also] I never looked at it as trying to be a superhero, but more that she happened to be a superhero” (Hofius and Khoury 77). []
  29. Fingeroth captured the Buffy-mania “zeitgeist” when he wrote in 2004: “Buffy is the ultimate realization of th[e] evolutionary and revolutionary change in the attitudes of, and attitudes about, female superheroes” (83); “Wonder Woman is certainly an icon, an inspiration, and a role model — but not necessarily someone with whom you’d want to sit down for a meal. She seems pleasant but not really all that interesting. Buffy would be fun to have dinner with . . . . [T]here isn’t, it seems, the primal feeling about [Wonder Woman] that we have about so many of the Ur-male heroes” (88). The problem with capturing the zeitgeist is that no sooner has the zeitgeist faded than one’s judgment becomes irrelevant. So while it might have been the height of “cool” to claim that Buffy is the “ultimate realization of th[e] evolutionary and revolutionary change [ . . . etc.]” in 2004, this claim merely sounds overhyped and naive in 2011. []
  30. This is aptly illustrated by the way in which pop diva Beyoncé used her ambition to play Wonder Woman to make a statement about black empowerment three days after Barack Obama’s inauguration: “A black Wonder Woman would be a powerful thing. It’s time for that, right?” (Boucher par. 6). Try saying it with any other heroine — a black Xena? A black Buffy? A black Ripley? A black Mikaela Banes? — and the statement falls flat. []
  31. Cf. Louise Simonson: “Wonder Woman’s progress in a way reflects the place that society wants women to be at that point” (Secret). See also Emad. Apart from her seven-decade comic book continuity, Wonder Woman’s image has permeated many aspects of popular culture: from cartoons and video games to postage stamps and pop art to toys and merchandise such as Pez dispensers, Underoos, and MAC cosmetics. On a more serious note, she has also been recruited to teach third-world children about landmine hazards by UNICEF, raise funds to combat domestic violence in Portland, and promote awareness about AIDS in France. []
  32. In 2010, the news of Wonder Woman’s costume redesign was reported by almost every major media outlet in the U.S. The news also received coverage in the UK, Australia, parts of Europe (e.g., France, Germany, Spain); parts of Asia (e.g., Hong Kong; Singapore); parts of Latin America (e.g., Mexico; Brazil); and further. []
  33. Wonder Woman has plenty of detractors. E.g., top Marvel writer Brian Michael Brandis used Twitter to call her a “walking std farm”; “It girl” actress Megan Fox called her “a lame superhero.” See also Ashby. If anything positive can come out of these attacks, it’s their inherent acknowledgment of Wonder Woman’s cultural standing: why bother launching a contrarian attack on someone if she isn’t widely popular and recognizable? []
  34. A survey of other popular heroines’ cultural standing should clarify this point: Xena ended in 2001 with no likely prospect of a reboot. The last Lara Croft film was in 2003, and her latest video game release barely registered outside the gaming community. Buffy ended in 2004, and only devout fans know about her comic book afterlife. Sarah Connor was terminated after Terminator 2 (1991), and even the mediocre Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009) only lasted two seasons. Ripley’s last outing was in 1997, and the franchise seems to have moved on without her. Princess Leia, Hermione Granger, Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl all play second fiddle to male heroes in franchises that have finished for good. For these heroines, it’s reasonable to assume that their heyday is behind them. While they are all decent heroines, none of them is so transcendentally iconic that they are likely to be reimagined and reinterpreted for successive future generations. []
  35. See, e.g., Stuller. Greg Rucka, writer of Wonder Woman between 2004 and 2006, went so far as to argue that the February 2008 cover was an anti-feminist strategy to discredit Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. []
  36. For feminist argument in favor of the change, see, e.g., Andrews; DiBranco. For feminist argument against the change, see, e.g., Knox; Zehner; Chesler. []
  37. After being heckled by fans at this year’s Comic-Con to “hire more women,” DC chiefs Jim Lee and Dan DiDio issued a press release affirming their commitment to increasing female representations, citing as evidence “remarkable, iconic women characters like Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, Batgirl, Batwoman, Catwoman and Supergirl” (Lee and DiDio; Flood). When the inaugural DC52’s Justice League cover showed a sexualized image of Wonder Woman, fans took revenge by reimagining her male colleagues in the same costume and pose. []
  38. To this list we may add: Captain America, James Bond, Tarzan, Popeye, Robin Hood, and if we include anthropomorphic heroes, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny. It could also explain why some comic book fans are so keen to knock down Wonder Woman: she is the only female capable of directly challenging the primacy of their favorite alpha male heroes. Often, you would hear these fans speak affectionately of, say, Harley Quinn or Catwoman to prove that “they have nothing against strong female characters.” Yet such protests sound disingenuous since these females are subsidiaries in a male hero’s universe and are in no position to claim equality with him. []
  39. E.g., when DC published official “biographies” for its three flagship characters, Carter wrote the introduction to the Wonder Woman volume (Daniels 9). When DC changed Wonder Woman’s costume in 2010, Carter did media appearances for DC and wrote the introduction to Wonder Woman #600. When David E. Kelley’s series was the talk of the town in early 2011, media outlets eagerly sought Carter’s opinion, and she graciously endorsed Palicki. []
  40. As a fan of the genre, I can’t help asking: if Judi Dench is game enough to do The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) and Helen Mirren is game enough to do Red (2010), who is Debra Winger to insist that the genre is unworthy of her “talent” and “integrity”? []