The Strange, Complicated, Feminist History of Wonder Woman’s Origin Story

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Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by Warner Bro.

Circling the mug I drink from every day are versions of Wonder Woman’s iconic costumes from her 76-year history. There’s the character at the very beginning, created by William Moulton Marston and drawn by Harry G. Peter in 1941. She’s mid-step as the blue skirt dotted with white stars billows around her. The color scheme and main accoutrements mostly stay the same in each version — gold breastplate, tiara, bulletproof bracelets, the lasso of truth — but just about everything else is open to interpretation. Sometimes her face carries an open smile, other times she grimaces fiercely. Her hair lengthens, her muscles grow more prominent, the hemline rises. The mug is missing several costume changes, including the armored outfit that resembles what she wears in Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot as the Amazonian princess, which is currently dominating the box office. Jenkins’s film marks the first time this legendary character has been in a live-action feature film. It’s also the biggest pop-culture event surrounding the character since the kitschy 1970s series starring Lynda Carter, which for a certain generation remains the foremost image of her in the public imagination. Why has it taken decades to give the longest-running and most well-known female superhero her own film while her male peers have headlined features, animated series, and major comic-book events? It all goes back to her origin story.

Superheroes — particularly those as long-running as Wonder Woman — are inherently mutable. They shift and mold to the time they find themselves in and whichever artists are tasked with bringing them to life. Batman no longer carries a gun. Superman has grown immensely more powerful since his 1938 debut in Action Comics No. 1. But despite how much the characters have changed, they all feel true. Adam West’s goofy 1960s series and Scott Snyder’s more recent take on the character, despite being wildly different, both feel like Batman somehow. Perhaps it’s because images of Superman and Batman have proliferated the cultural consciousness so deeply. Ask laymen and comic diehards alike and you’ll get a neat summation of their origins as well as what they represent. Superman is the last son of Krypton who crash-lands in an idyllic version of the Midwest, inspiring hope when he takes on the mantle. And Batman? We’ve seen Bruce Wayne’s parents die so many times in that fateful alleyway, it goes without saying.

What separates Wonder Woman from her peers in DC’s trinity is that her origin has been adjusted so often, particularly in the last two decades, no one version has had the chance to take hold. In reality though, there are a few key aspects that have remained since Marston created her in 1941. Diana is a princess from a secluded, all-women island paradise now known as Themyscira, which was granted to the Amazons by the Greek gods. She’s the daughter of Queen Hippolyta, and she was molded from clay. The Amazons are a matriarchal society who were meant to have brought the message of peace to Man’s World, but they’ve secluded themselves away from that brutality, creating a society rich with culture, far more advanced than our own, steeped in magic and sisterhood. When Captain Steve Trevor crash-lands on Themyscira, a tournament is held to decide who will return him to Man’s World. Diana wins, and sets off to bring a message of peace to his world, becoming the hero we know as Wonder Woman. This origin is markedly different from her peers given its lack of tragedy (which for women usually comes down to sexualized violence). But it has romance, adventure, and it’s undergirded by a coming-of-age tale about a young woman leaving behind everything she’s ever known to help a world that very well may not accept her. Despite these alluring hooks, Wonder Woman’s origin is typically derided for being too weird, too complicated, too boring, and lacking a central narrative.

In 2013, DC Entertainment chief Diane Nelson was asked by The Hollywood Reporter why Wonder Woman hadn’t had a high-profile adaptation in decades. (Joss Whedon’s feature film attempt felt apart in 2007 due to creative differences; David E. Kelley’s tragic attempt never made it past the pilot stage.) Nelson referred to the character as “tricky,” saying, “She doesn’t have the single, clear, compelling story that everyone knows and recognizes.” The reason Wonder Woman doesn’t have an origin everyone recognizes is because her story hasn’t been told through multiple mediums the way Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man’s have. Nelson isn’t giving the character enough credit, either. Wonder Woman has still managed to reach icon status, which isn’t accidental — it’s indicative of the hunger for female-oriented stories, especially coming-of-age tales, that go against the usual depictions of female strength. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, director Ava DuVernay said as much about Wonder Woman: “The numbers around the world that that film has done proves that people are thirsty, are hungry, are craving more nuanced [and] full-bodied images of women.” Wonder Woman has partially achieved this status because she’s the longest-running character to communicate such a narrative on a grand scale.

When Marston created Wonder Woman, he was very clear about his intentions. “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” he said. As Jill Lepore mentions in her book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Marston argued that “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.” Wonder Woman isn’t a bloodthirsty warrior á la Xena, but someone who solves problems with compassion rather than a carefully timed roundhouse kick. This puts her in a precarious position in a genre defined by a very particular, at times noxious, power fantasy. In the wake of Marston’s death in 1947, DC Comics didn’t seem to have a handle on Wonder Woman. While the touchstones of her origin remained — being made from clay, the Amazons, Queen Hippolyta, Steve Trevor — the way it was framed changed drastically. Sometimes the Amazons and Themysciran culture were positioned as beacons of hope far more advanced than the rest of the world. Other times, they fell victim to troubling feminist stereotypes, lacking interiority as vengeful warriors, or closed off, emotionally distant fixtures. It was as if the men writing them couldn’t imagine what women would talk about among themselves or the allure of all-women environments. (Sound familiar?) Over the years, Wonder Woman has been stripped of her powers, turned into a super-spy, and has given up heroics altogether to marry Steve Trevor. Most troublingly, writers have forced her to become a warrior since it’s an easier selling point (but much less distinctive). By far the most regrettable and dramatic shift in her history is rooted in her 2011 reboot, in which she eventually becomes a figure that’s antithetical to everything Wonder Woman stands for: the God of War. The problem has never been Marston’s original origin story or how more recent creators like George Pérez and Greg Rucka have slightly updated it while still leaning into the feminist ethos central to the character. It’s those who have fundamentally changed who her character is over the years.

Due to the fact that she’s so intrinsically tied to the feminist movement, Wonder Woman is also often burdened with having to represent all facets of womanhood in ways other female superheroes, like Black Widow, Storm, and Captain Marvel, have not, which has created a more muddled sense of who she is. Charting the tangled lineage of Wonder Woman’s origin is to chart the history of American feminism itself and how female power is negotiated in a world that abhors it. At the beginning of her history, Wonder Woman carried the echo of the suffragette movement and first-wave feminism. The way her mythos reflected ongoing debates about womanhood only continued from there.

When Ms. magazine first debuted in 1972, it was Wonder Woman who appeared on its cover. She did so again for it’s 40th anniversary, a reminder of just how much the feminist movement and the character itself had, and had not, evolved. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem has long discussed the importance of the character. In 1972, she neatly explained how Wonder Woman has become a locus for feminist discussion and argument more than any other comic character: “Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values of the women’s culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women; sisterhood and mutual support among women; peacefulness and esteem for human life; a diminishment both of ‘masculine’ aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts.”

One of the most fascinating aspects in the wake of Wonder Woman’s release is the criticism, positive and negative, that demonstrates the unique burden the character faces in regards to feminist expectations. Her politics are so baked into her origin that she’s expected to be all things to all women. A recent Slate essay, “I Wish Wonder Woman Were As Feminist As It Thinks It Is,” demerits other critics for their emotional connection to the recent film. A Wired piece titled “Wonder Woman Overcame Her Origin to Become a Feminist Icon” misconstrues aspects of her story. Throughout her history, Wonder Woman has been either too feminist or not feminist enough. She’s either a wonderful step forward for intersectional portrayals of womanhood or a film that continues the obsession with exalting white womanhood. She’s either a BDSM-tinged pinup or a glorious example of female heroism. No one character and mythos could ever live up to such stringent expectations. These arguments have raged about the character and her origins long before Gal Gadot ever wielded her iconic golden lasso. That Wonder Woman has finally gotten to star in her own live-action film just as the conversations around female power and intersectionality have hit a fever pitch is not surprising to me. The character has always been a vehicle for such discussions, whether it be how she was depowered in the late 1960s, much to the chagrin of Steinem, or her 1987 revamp, which gave the Amazons a backstory that echoed ongoing conversations about sexual violence happening within the second-wave feminist movement.

Looking back at my childhood discovery of Wonder Woman, I realize the reasons I’m drawn to her are the same reasons her origin is heavily critiqued or treated as a problem that certain writers believe only they can ameliorate. Wonder Woman offers what no other superhero can: an essentially female-power fantasy. Close your eyes and imagine an island with achingly gorgeous vistas in which a diverse group of intelligent, strong women have created an immensely more advanced society. No men. No sexism. No capitalist burden to perform that leaves women, especially women of color, vulnerable. At its best, Wonder Woman’s origin is a bold, feminist-minded refutation of the masculine, hyperindividualistic nature of her superhero peers. That it has been heavily criticized, reframed, and rewritten so often isn’t a mark of its failure, but the failure of DC Comics, and perhaps American culture as a whole, to understand and respect female-power fantasies on a larger scale. Wonder Woman has often fallen victim to a company that doesn’t always recognize why readers are drawn to the character. But there are several runs that expand upon her origin and prove Wonder Woman is worthy of her icon status. None of which is better than the arguable gold standard, released in 1987 in the wake of DC Comics’ legendary continuity wide reboot, Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Writers Greg Potter, George Pérez, and Len Wein were handed the difficult task of updating Wonder Woman while staying true to the core of the character Marston created. The first volume, Gods and Mortals, lays the groundwork for her reworked origin. All the mainstays are there, but they’re deepened over the five years Pérez wrote and penciled the comic. What’s most important here is how female-oriented her origin is. Diana is formed out of clay by a woman, given life and power by women, and raised by women. She is able to thrive without the painful experience of sexism. This origin is so meaningful, it has crossed over into other mediums, used for the Justice League series and the animated film Wonder Woman, in which Keri Russell voiced the titular character. That Wonder Woman is considered a “tricky” character is because she contradicts the rather modern notion that heroism is born from tragedy and pain. The version we see during Crisis on Infinite Earths is a great example of how female power need not replicate the bloodthirsty vengeance of male counterparts to be worthwhile. Perhaps no version of Wonder Woman has understood this less than Brian Azzarello’s misguided, offensive take on the character in 2011, during the previous revamp of the DC brand known as New 52.

While writer Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman run has been praised in certain corners, it seems to only be done so by people who want her to be something she’s not: a typical heroine defined by brutality more than anything else. Azzarello’s disinterest in the character isn’t a secret. He’s referred to Themyscira as something out of a “Corona commercial.” He derided her as being mere window dressing when it comes to DC’s Trinity. But the worst insults were in the pages of the comics itself. In issue No. 7 of the series, Diana learns that she wasn’t actually made from clay, but gets her power from a man: She is the demigoddess daughter of Zeus. The Amazons aren’t powerful immortals, but actually have sex with sailors to keep their ranks and sell the male children to Hephaestus for weapons. This obliterates the feminist nature of Wonder Woman’s origin and flattens the fascinating weirdness of the character, turning her into the kind of warrior goddess we’ve seen countless times before. It also makes her seem kind of idiotic. How did she not notice what the Amazons were doing before? It’s the sort of gritty upgrade that demonstrates a great misunderstanding and disrespect of the character. As Corrina Lawson wrote for Wired, “Here are the Amazons, who are supposed to represent the best of their gender, now changed into man-hating mass murderers. To say nothing of the fact that Wonder Woman is also viewed as a gay icon and now the biggest group of fictional lesbians are basically evil.” Azzarello’s run lasted for three years, with the character only regaining the respect she deserves thanks to the team of writer Greg Rucka and artists Nicola Scott and Liam Sharp, whose run on the character wrapped up this month. In DC’s latest revamp of their entire brand, Rebirth, Wonder Woman has blessedly been returned to the made-from-clay origin, and the Amazons are now the complex, peace-loving sisterhood that has charmed audiences for generations.

When Rucka was asked in a recent interview why Wonder Woman’s origin was hard to explain, he was insistent that wasn’t the case: “There’s been this really weird fascination with her birth. With Batman and Superman you never go, ‘How were they born?’ That’s been confusing. Her origin’s actually quite simple. She is from a mythological paradise only of women, that is this warrior culture. She leaves her home, never to return, when a stranger crashes on their shores, and heralds a great evil that they have to fight. She’s the one who goes. And she goes willingly, and she abandons everything she’s known to go into this strange new world, with this stranger, to save us all … [I] do think we forget — this moment is huge. If you think about what it means, and what it means in terms of heroism, that she leaves everything she’s ever known — and everything she’s ever known is paradise and immortality — and she does it [out of duty].”

The Wonder Woman film currently in theaters — written by comic writer Allan Heinberg with a story by Zack Snyder, Jason Fuchs, and Heinberg — seems to conflate multiple takes on her origin. In one trailer, she explains to Steve that her mother formed her out of clay and Zeus gave her life. But as the film continues, it becomes clear that Azzarello’s origin is more than just a passing inspiration. This creates a schism within the film itself between the feminist ethos it leans toward and Azzarello’s origin, which nullifies it. That this origin — the more simplistic demigoddess take that ran for only a few years in the comics — will be the first introduction many have to the character’s backstory does her a disservice. (Thankfully, the Amazons aren’t portrayed as the feminist stereotypes Azzarello crafted them as.)

Perhaps the greatest element of Wonder Woman’s origin missing from the film is in the first act, which takes place in Themyscira. For longtime fans of the character, it is immediately noticeable that the contest to choose which Amazon would go to Man’s World is not included, which would have been the perfect opportunity to flesh out the sisterhood among the Amazons. In the film, Hippolyta’s sisters — Antiope (Robin Wright, having the time of her life) and Menalippe (Lisa Loven Kongsli) — are the characters most crucial to Diana’s growth into the hero she becomes. Beginning with the 1987 reboot, it’s Philippus who has been the most important Amazon influence for Diana, aside from her mother. (Artemis, created a few years later in 1994 is also a pivotal presence and simply an amazing character in her own right.) Since her introduction into the comics, Philippus has always been portrayed as a black woman and has become increasingly important to the mythos. (Thanks to Pérez and Rucka, Wonder Woman has also increasingly been defined by her inclusivity, both racially and in regards to sexuality, as she’s finally bisexual in the comics.) In the film, both Artemis and Philippus are played by black women, but their presence, while encouraging, is ultimately fleeting. More broadly, it’s those small moments, with Diana among her fellow Amazons, that I yearned to see given more weight and attention. Their dynamic is what always drew me to Wonder Woman, more than other superheroines whose relationships with other women are rarely treated with such continued importance.

The paucity of female-driven superhero stories represents a larger lack of film and TV shows interested in exploring the nuances of women’s fantasies. This year at Cannes, actress Jessica Chastain spoke passionately about the “disturbing” state of women at the festival. “I do hope that when we include more female storytellers we will have more of the kinds of women that I recognize in my day-to-day life. Ones that are proactive, have their own agencies, don’t just react to the men around them, they have their own point of view,” Chastain said. No matter the canon you’re speaking of — film, television, comics — the same criticism applies. This is why Wonder Woman and her made-from-clay origin feels so radical. She’s a superheroine who isn’t tied to the legacy of a man the way characters like Supergirl are, for better or for worse. She stands on the strength of her own mythos. And her powers and skills were granted primarily by women, not men.

There’s a two-page spread that neatly encapsulates Wonder Woman’s relationship with her own origin in the first issue of Greg Rucka’s The Lies. In it, Wonder Woman wears the version of her outfit that appears in Azzarello’s run. After turning the lasso of truth on herself in hopes of making sense of her life, she learns she’s been deceived about the origin of her previous reboot. This choice comes across as meta-commentary on the fluctuating changes Wonder Woman has dealt with, particularly during Azzarello’s run. She smashes the mirror in front of her. The shards of glass glitter with images from throughout her history — beheading Medusa, fighting with Cheetah, kissing Superman — many of which are from when Azzarello was writing her.

Rucka’s entire run on both The Lies and Year One is about reestablishing Wonder Woman as the hero she is at her best — compassionate, a seeker of truth, and inherently tied to the women who gave her life and raised her. That this version of Wonder Woman is somewhat obscured in the movie makes me worry about the character’s future within the cultural consciousness going forward. In many ways, the film’s inability to be overtly queer and more radically female-centered (it’s Steve whom Diana thinks about in her climactic battle, not her family) represents the conflicts that have always plagued the character’s origin, between her feminist underpinnings, the expectations of fans, and the requirements of a company often uncomfortable within leaning too far into these aspects of this character.

Despite my issues with how the writers tackle the particulars of Diana’s origin, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that Wonder Woman is a vibrant and powerful film. Jenkins’s Wonder Woman does understand the core of the character and what she represents. Her feminism is sly yet apparent, her relationships with the other Amazons are treated with loving care. With the praise the film is receiving and the success of Rucka’s recent comics, my hope is that a new age for Wonder Woman is dawning. Perhaps she is finally entering a point in her history in which what makes her so radical — her unabashed feminism, the female-oriented nature of her origin, her unerring compassion — is built upon rather than derided.

The Strange, Feminist History of Wonder Woman’s Origin Story