A Girl in Hot Pants – Symbol for the Empowerment of Women and Girls?
The UN announces a new honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls
October 21, 2016 – The UN announces a new honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls. So far, so good, so normal. A speech by a prominent female celebrity in an elegant evening attire is to be expected, followed by decent applause and a press-conference where the decision is explained and a few days later everybody has forgotten about the ambassador. But not this time.
In the history of the UN, there has hardly ever been an ambassador announcement which is as controversial as this one – not because the new ambassador was unpopular but rather because the choice was quite fictional. In other words, the new ambassador and symbol for the empowerment of women and girls is none other than a crime-fighting amazon, DC’s Wonder Woman. An ill-informed person might think: “This martial war goddess dressed in hot pants and a bra is fighting for gender equality and women’s rights?!” Oh yes, indeed.
Fighting against the 'deeply patriarchal' Nazi-regime
Wonder Woman and her “alter ego” Princess Diana of Themyscira were created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and Harry George Peter, and appeared in All Star Comics #8 (December 1941) for the first time. She was inspired by both Marston’s muse and affair Olive Byrne and prominent feminists, such as birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. She is claimed to be the first female superhero and has been the only superhero – besides Superman and Batman – to be published continuously since her first adventure. During the Golden Age of Comic Books (1939 – mid 50s) she was fighting against the Nazi-regime, portrayed as ‘deeply patriarchal’, encountering fictitious and real foes, and promoting a new image of femininity. For the first time, topics such as sororities, female friendship, and opposed male aggression appeared in the issues regularly, and even Wonder Woman’s superpowers could compete with those of her male allies. Her appearance expressed a combination of stunning beauty and martial strength, in contrast to the traditional image of a submissive (house-)wife.
Lynda Carter became the symbol of a strong, independent woman
After the Comics Code, feminist topics were shut down and were not revisited until the Seventies – not in the comics, but in the TV series aired between 1975 and 1979. Lynda Carter, who portrayed Wonder Woman and her secret identity, Diana Prince, became the symbol of a strong, independent woman who can even express her female side [take a look at her outfit] without being a target of male sexual aggression. Her arguably “skimpy outfit” was paradoxically discussed both as a positive sex symbol and in terms of equality and self-confidence in an unequal world of classical gender roles.
The image of Wonder Woman as a politically relevant and pro-feminist figure suffered
The TV series went along the rise of feminism during the 1970s and was acknowledged by prominent figures of the feminist movement. Even before the series first aired, Gloria Steinem paid respect to the original feminist background of the heroine by using her as the cover girl for the first edition her feminist magazine, “Ms. Magazine”.
During the conservative, anti-feminist backlash in the 1980s and 1990s, the image of Wonder Woman as a politically relevant and pro-feminist figure suffered again, and she was seen as a projection screen for male lust and sexual proliferation. Only in subcultures, such as the LGBT movement, could her progressive nature and sexual equality be maintained, upon which she was able to build up a huge fan base.
Feminism on the rise again
In recent times, her image as a feminist symbol is trying to be revived by the comic artist and in other media, especially in Hollywood, where she is going to have her own movie after her first appearance in Superman v Batman. The decision of the United Nations is a clear message to the mass media to empower the depiction of strong independent women and an attempt to bind their image to popular culture, which I can only endorse.
DiPaolo, Marc: War, Politics and Superheroes. Comics and Propaganda in Comics and Film, Jefferson, NC/London 2011.
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