Wonder Woman is a feminist icon. She’s also a sex symbol. She’s a wish-fulfillment power fantasy and a sexual fantasy, which is part of why she’s had such lasting appeal to fans all over the gender spectrum. But her sex appeal has been a consistent cause of consternation for critics, fans, and casual passersby since her earliest days as a comic-book character.
Director James Cameron is the latest commenter to claim there’s a contradiction there, that feminism and sexiness are somehow at odds. In a furor-raising recent interview at the Guardian, he said that in Patty Jenkins’ new Wonder Woman film, the character is “just an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing!” He claimed it was a “step backwards” from his own Terminator franchise, starring Linda Hamilton, who he described as “not a beauty icon.” That’s an odd thing to say. Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is a wonderful, powerful character, but she certainly didn’t challenge Hollywood standards of attractiveness.
Cameron’s evaluation of his own work is questionable. But he at least has a glimmer of a point about Wonder Woman. It’s just an old point that’s been made over and over for decades, largely by people with no sense of the character’s history. William Marston, her creator, believed that female sexual oomph could lead both men and women to matriarchal utopia. His version of Wonder Woman was meant to be sexually provocative, educational, and appealing to men and women alike. Marston lived with two bisexual women in a polyamorous relationship, so he was always very aware of Wonder Woman’s potential lesbian audience. He was also aware of how female sexuality could be empowering, not just objectifying.
In writing his early Wonder Woman comics, Marston had to fend off criticism from DC Comics’ advisory board, members of which understandably argued that wall-to-wall bondage games weren’t appropriate in a children’s comic. Later feminist fans of Marston’s comics have struggled to reconcile Marston’s positive messages — the issue where Wonder Woman becomes president, the many celebrations of female athletes — with the comics’ most openly erotic elements. Gloria Steinem, who edited a collection of Wonder Woman comics in 1972, simply omitted the sexual themes altogether. Comics critic Trina Robbins argued that Wonder Woman was not tied up any more often than Captain Marvel or other comics heroes of the era — a claim that Tim Hanley recently destroyed in researching his book Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World's Most Famous Heroine. (In spite of that pointed title, Hanley proved Wonder Woman got tied up more than five times as often as Captain Marvel.)
The arguments over Wonder Woman’s sexiness — whether it exists, and whether or how it should exist — weren’t limited to the Marston era. Mike Deodato’s Wonder Woman art in the 1990s is infamous for brokeback poses, butt close-ups, and a costume that abandons any pretense of structural integrity. In 2008, Wonder Woman writer Greg Rucka wrote an irate blog post excoriating Playboy for a Wonder Woman cover shoot which he suggested would harm Hillary Clinton’s chance for victory in the Democratic primary.
Gal Gadot was obviously picked for the Wonder Woman role in part because, by conventional standards, she is breathtaking. The film certainly doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that. In England, men stare at her as if they’re aware she’s dropped in from another world. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) tries to dowdy her down so his bosses will take her more seriously, without notable success. The film uncomfortably equates beauty with virtue; the primary female villain, Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), is badly scarred and hides her face. In a scene where Steve flirts with her, her villainy is obliquely linked to sexual frustration.
But the film’s erotic interests aren’t solely focused on objectifying Gal Gadot for a male audience, though. Jenkins throws in a sequence where Pine emerges naked from a bath, observed by an appreciative Diana. The movie includes allusions to casual, even institutional lesbianism on Paradise Island. Women in the audience, of whatever sexual orientation, are encouraged to be aware of the possibilities of a lesbian gaze.
In a public response to Cameron’s comments, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins wrote that if women “aren’t free to be multidimensional or celebrate an icon of women everywhere because she is attractive and loving, then we haven’t come very far have we.” For better and worse, Wonder Woman’s sex appeal has always been an important part of the character. That may confuse James Cameron, but as Jenkins notes, the film’s fans, regardless of gender, seem to understand it well enough.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.