Not too long ago, I was in attendance to a Vacation Bible School at a Local Baptist Church. I saw a younger girl in her teens with a Wonder Woman bag. Being a supporter of the character, I complimented the girl on the bag, stating that the character is AMAZING when written well. But then I wondered about the appropriateness of having such a bag in a Christian church considering that Wonder Woman herself is depicted, at least in the beginning, as being a worshiper of Aphrodite (Love) and Athena (Wisdom). Why aren’t more Christians more worried about characters like her and Thor? They’re not high-fantasy like Lord of the Rings where the world is completely divorced from our own, they exist in a world where other religions such as Christianity and Judaism and Islam exist. Thor can be reasoned away as a sufficiently advanced alien worshiped AS a god, but why the ease with Wonder Woman and her explicit Hellenic paganism, and what are the broader implications of this? I have a few potential explanations for that, in regard to the construction of sacredness in early childhood experiences, the sense of safety and lack of critical thought in beloved pop culture, the shared appreciation for the good that transcends the symbols and figures that represent them.
As you may know, in the original Marstonian Wonder Woman tales, the matron goddesses of the Amazons on Paradise Island were Aphrodite and Athena. The Amazonian worship of those two goddesses represented the women’s need to have their immense power, strength, intelligence and skills bound to the service of love and wisdom. The gods and goddesses and the worship thereof were personifications of ideals to dedicate one’s life to. Only one who submits themselves to these things is worthy of ruling over other human beings, as Wonder Woman did. Marston was of the idea that women were biologically predisposed to being more loving, and therefore more suited to leadership roles that have been historically allocated to men.
And if everyone, especially men, would submit to being governed by loving authority, then many of the world’s problems including the impact and stranglehold of War in the world, would eventually end. Although his stories feature of a number of evil women monarchs and bosses, Wonder Woman, the greatest of the Amazons, consistently bested them and often took them back to
Paradise Island to undergo rehabilitation. One of her successful patients was the villainess/Nazi spy Paula Van Gunther. Wonder Woman was created for a two-fold purpose: to give girls a
unabashedly feminine role model who is adeptness at combat and domination of her opponents was tempered by gentility and love, and for boys, to give them someone they see themselves
happily following the leadership of.
Over time, these particular themes were either watered down, invoked ironically, or ditched entirely by later writers. These are certainly interesting enough themes to be updated, even though the manifestation of these themes in the early stories may have been in some cases problematic or off-putting or jarring. Very few writers have wanted to pick these themes back up. What remains of the character in any given iteration you’re likely to encounter is a conglomerate of context-less relics put in a contemporary super-hero format. Now, when we get to the Wonder
Woman of the Super-Friends, the 70s television show, or in the Justice League animated series, the character becomes way more palatable to children, but nevertheless inspiring admiration and
nostalgia from those who watch, and there parents will often think nothing of it. Though inevitably… sometimes the original themes shine through in spite of the obstacles of them being there.
Most people in the West are familiar with the Greek Gods, it is taken for granted they are not real and knowledge of them is harmless. The gods are often put in fantasy television shows and cartoons. They know Wonder Woman is from an island of women who are self-governing and aren’t Christians. They HAVE to be able to put two-and-two together that Wonder Woman is NOT a Christian, seeing that her face on merchandise can be seen with the word-bubble “Merciful Minerva!” as opposed to something like “Sweet Jesus!” The latter would be jarring, but we take the first for granted. Perhaps, because people don’t often think pop-culture and religiosity should ever overlap or have anything to do with each other. The Greek gods have been “demoted” to pop gods that everyone is aware of, that nobody actually devotes themselves to outside of history books or fantasy. However, we must not underestimate the life-changing power and impact on early childhood pop-culture has. These characters are beloved, shape our values, and make our childhoods amazing. Because of this, they aren’t going anywhere any time soon.
But Wonder Woman is interesting. Superman most likely grew up Methodist, and is more conducive to being recast as an advocate to the status quo, but Wonder Woman is more… tricky to do that with without completely rewriting the character and her origins, and this has certainly happened. But when you do this with Wonder Woman, the original intent of the characterinevitably starts showing up when the obscurations of the character’s original intent run dry, when given enough time.
The fundamental clash of values between Wonder Woman and the status quo are the overcoming of male rule, overcoming of war, and her paganism.
The three are inextricably linked with her character’s mythos. IF you put the God of War as her primary enemy, then the longer the struggle continues the more of a peace-maker she must become. A hero is only as good as what they must overcome. IF you make male supremacy her primary adversary in a narrative, then her justifiable overcoming of unjust male rule and behaviors will inevitably put her in a deserved leadership role. IF you make the struggle to please her gods the primary focus, the story tends to become more mythological and her character is tested or shaped by a sympathetic presentation of Wonder Woman’s dedication to her gods to a primarily Christian audience who may believe these gods are at best, non-existent, and at worst, demonic entities. Christians, who also tend to believe that males were divinely appointed to rule over females. Admiration of Wonder Woman, when perpetuated, can help undermine hegemonic cultural forces. Either Wonder Woman will come into conflict with those forces and win, or a establish a pluralistic cooperation with those forces that also makes a space for alternatives.
Wonder Woman is a figure that simply will defy our preconceived notions about her, the better we get to know her. The longer she has to shine, the longer she has to overcome even her author’s own biases and prejudices. Unfortunately, this doesn’t tend to last too long. An author has a stint with the character, the depiction has problems, and the depiction doesn’t tend to last. So we have a buildup or hits and misses with the character over decades, and not that much dedication to build on all that’s come before like we would see with a new Batman writer or Superman writer. But I see potential if the character is adopted by people who share her faith. Adopted by people who share her opposition to male supremacy. Adopted by people who share her dedication to end all wars. Or share some other fundamental feature of the character. The character must be put in the hands of those who see that of Wonder Woman within themselves, and with an inner Wonder Woman with a story to tell.