Thursday, February 16, 2012

Woman and Superman

A portrait of Wonder Woman by Alex Ross
Female robot slaves, invisibility, shrinking and other forms of super-diminishment — the long, strange journey of the American Superwoman

Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?
— Song of Solomon
If I were asked... to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of (Americans) ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply: To the superiority of their women.
— Alexis De Tocqueville
By Dan Hagen
Comic books, like other popular art forms, provide a funhouse mirror view of American society. It’s distorted, yes, but interestingly so, and the truth can be seen in there if you know where to look.
When fishing for the significance of superheroes, you naturally begin in the shallows but find, if you persist, that you're rapidly led into deeper waters. Take Wonder Woman's magic lasso, for example. The shining, golden cord is a marvelous melodramatic device which compels liars to speak the truth — perfectly ludicrous, right?
Not really. Wonder Woman's creator, psychologist William Moulton Marston, actually contributed to the creation of a real "magic lasso" — the device called a polygraph or "lie detector." It’s an example of the sometimes complex thematic interplay between fantasy and reality. Marston intended his Wonder Woman to be no less serious an invention than the polygraph and, had he been wired up to the latter, he might have felt distinctly uncomfortable if asked to answer certain questions about the meaning of the former.
Art by Olivia Denk
But more on the checkered past of DC Comics' star-spangled Amazon anon, however.
The modern superhero motif — the idea of secret champion who masquerades as a milquetoast — was in fact the creation of a woman. The Baroness Orczy defined the concept in her classic 1905 novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and her pattern has been reproduced repeatedly ever since — though rarely in a light favorable to her sex.
In his influential 1950 book The Lonely Crowd, sociologist David Riesman quotes an interview with a 12-year-old Superman fan who is asked if she'd like to have the power to fly. "I'd like to be able to fly if everybody else did, but otherwise it would be kind of conspicuous," replied the girl.
Supergirl by Amy Reeder
The answer illustrates an ambivalence toward spectacular female achievement not only in American society at large, but drilled into the female psyche. For boys, the notion of standing out in shining contrast to run-of-the-mill humanity has always been one of the chief satisfactions of superhero fantasy. But even in fantasy, the postwar adolescent quoted above couldn’t bring herself to transcend social concerns and fears. Super heroics might be attractive, but not at the price of group acceptance.
No wonder super heroines have rarely equaled their male counterparts in popularity. Success is hard to come by when you're at cross-purposes with yourself, striving at once to soar and to remain "inconspicuous." And no wonder American women have found it surprisingly difficult to spread their wings in a man's world, even while that world was eroding. Even as economic barriers fell, psychological ones remained.
A society founded on the principle of individual rights must inevitably, if uncomfortably and reluctantly, extend those rights to all, or repudiate its foundation and legitimacy. The emancipation of American women has been an ongoing process throughout the 20th century, but its logical inevitability didn't prevent much of society from worrying about just where it was going. That ambivalence was reflected even in escape literature, which often offered no real escape at all.
Flying would be "kind of conspicuous"
Although she was the most significant and enduring superheroine, Wonder Woman wasn't the first. She was preceded by a character from the newspaper comic strips whose attributes — and those of several of her successors — are an ironic reflection of the traditional status of women. They illustrate the difficulties which the overwhelmingly male comics writers had in creating superwomen who weren't self-contradictory.
America's first super woman appeared in newspapers June 3, 1940
Russell Stamm, previously an assistant on the Dick Tracy strip, created Invisible Scarlet 0'Neil for the Chicago Times Syndicate in 1939. This attractive, red-headed daughter of a scientist gained the power of invisibility through accidental exposure to a "weird-looking ray" invented by daddy, and learned to control her ability by applying pressure to a nerve in her wrist.
Scarlet's first escapades expressed a certain maternal quality as she rescued orphans and handicapped children, but she moved on to battle the spies and saboteurs that were meat and potatoes to wartime superheroes. Her whimsical adventures took her to prehistoric times, confronted her with an invisibility epidemic and, cleverly and tellingly, left her doubting her own reality during a bout with amnesia. The character's healthy run branched out to comic books and Big Little Books.
Unfortunately, she was truly invisible by the time the strip ended in 1956, having been supplanted by a male hero, Stainless Steel, for whom the strip was renamed. Like many of her Rosie the Riveter sisters, Scarlet found that the reward of her wartime public service was an invitation to step back into the background when the men came marching home.
By the time Scarlet finally bowed out, dozens of other members of the superheroic sisterhood had also appeared and vanished in the superhero boom of the ‘40s. “Feminine softness in the midst of the hard, cruel battle against evil — girls who could put men on the rack — it needed a very delicate touch to make such things acceptable to the mainly male readership,” Wolfgang Fuchs has noted.
A delicate touch, indeed. The sad truth is that even America's superwomen often weren't super enough to dodge the traps laid by a patriarchal society.
Invisible Scarlet O'Neil and Marvel Comics' Invisible Girl could literally vanish, for example, while Marvel's the Wasp, DC's Shrinking Violet and Quality Comics' Doll Girl boasted the ability to shrink from sight.
In attempting to create supermen, male comics writers offered us garish figures who streak across the sky, battering down all obstacles with irresistible force. But, when asked to create superwomen, the writers tended to endow them with extraordinary levels of insubstantiality and insignificance. Supermen engage in constant super-activity, while superwomen are often super-passive.
Invisible Girl, the Fantastic Four's original fifth wheel, is a case in point.
The sister of the Human Torch, Sue Storm provided Stan Lee with a source of plot conflicts through the romantic interest of teammates Mr. Fantastic and the Thing and frequent opponent Sub-Mariner. But her early contributions to the team's battles were distinctly limited in comparison to those of her more flamboyantly powered partners — so much so that readers began to complain about the situation.
Susan Storm Richards: Then Invisible Girl, now Invisible Woman
Lee made an issue of it all in the 11th issue of The Fantastic Four, with Sue examining some "disturbing" fan mail. "A number of readers have said I don't contribute enough to you," Sue tearfully tells her teammates. "You'd be... better off without me! And perhaps they're... right!"
The Black Cat and her Kitten:
As one wag observed, something
about boy acrobats with dead
parents always seems
to lead to this sort of thing. 
Her fellow superheroes rally to her defense, arguing that Sue had helped them out in battles but, more to the point, women don't have to fight men's battles for them in order to be helpful. Mr. Fantastic, Reed Richards, points to a bust of Abraham Lincoln (you never know what will come in handy in stocking your superheroic headquarters). "Lincoln's mother was the most important person in the world to him!," Reed says (speaking, presumably, of Lincoln’s stepmother, in fact). "But she didn't help him fight the Civil War! She didn't split rails for him!" Ben Grimm, the Thing, also bristles. "If you readers wanna see women fightin' all the time, then go see lady wrestlers!"
But, despite the characters' protestations, Lee didn't transform Marvel into the nation's most popular comic book company by ignoring readers' wishes. Eleven issues later, he broadened Sue's powers to include the projection of invisibility and the creation of invisible force fields. At first purely defensive, the latter power later took on offensive uses, and Sue finally became a far more formidable member of the team. And she’s now known, of course and at last, as “Invisible Woman.”
Sue Storm was forced to take a back seat to the men for years, but she wasn't sitting there alone. When the comics' superwomen weren't actually invisible, they were often distinctly anemic. Many were deliberately designed as pale imitations.
In comics, as in American society, talented women found it difficult to escape the orbit of even more prominent men — in part because many of the comics' superheroines began as spinoffs from popular male characters.
That silly Hawkgirl, preferring fashion to crime-fighting
The trend emerged as early on, with Hawkman's girlfriend Shiera Sanders donning bird mask, wings and bikini top to soar as DC's Hawkgirl. Susan Kent was forced to wear even more unattractive headgear — a shell-shaped Gravity Regulator Helmet — to zoom to the aid of her boyfriend, Fawcett Publications' Bulletman.
Captain America’s sartorial preference for red, white and blue duds was shared by Madeline Joyce, who as Miss America actually outstripped her earthbound counterpoint. A 1943 lightning bolt left her with super strength, X-ray vision, super intelligence and the power of flight (but not for long — like other powerful women, Miss America found herself increasingly circumscribed, and ended up with only her flying ability left).
Bruce Banner's cousin became the She-Hulk. My old 
friend David Anthony Kraft developed the character
in the 1970s, giving her a surprisingly witty edge.
Introduced overseas in 1938, Sheena the jungle queen was obviously a distaff cousin of Tarzan. Created by Will Eisner and S. M. Iger, the knife-wielding warrior woman was born Janet Ames. Orphaned in Africa, she was raised by the shaman of the Zambuli tribe, gaining fighting skills and the ability to communicate telepathically with animals. Her minimalist costume was undoubtedly one reason for her remarkable popularity, which inspired two comics titles, a 1955 TV series starring Irish McCalla and a forgettable 1984 film with Tanya Roberts.
Similarly, Harvey Comics’ the Black Cat was an early and unacknowledged relative of the Batman. Actress Linda Turner donned mask and leotard to battle crime for a full decade, from 1941 to 1951. She was frequently assisted by Kit Weston, a boy who — like Robin — was a circus acrobat orphaned by criminals. He had to suffer along with a crimefighting moniker even more precious than Robin’s: Kitten.
Mary Batson basked in brother Billy's reflected lightning as Mary Marvel. And Martha Roberts didn't shrink from a fight, but to it at the side of her boyfriend, Quality Comics' Doll Man. Supergirl, Batwoman and Batgirl, Spider-Woman and, incredibly, even the She-Hulk would be created as distaff duplicates of more popular male counterparts. The trend continued outside comics, with Six Million Dollar Men inevitably spawning Bionic Women.
Granted super powers, Lois Lane and Lana Lang immediately
commit themselves to the all-important mission of landing a man.
Even when they were clearly identified as adults — as in Sue Storm’s case — the comics characters were often not "women" but "girls," reflecting the double insult of condescension combined with the sotto voce presumption that females rapidly lose their worth as they age. The strange convention persisted until feminism was firmly established in the ’70s. Even in their choice of secret identity occupations, the early superwomen suffered from the economic limitations often lamented by their real-world counterparts. Instead of working as reporters or lawyers or FBI agents - or escaping the necessity to work by being millionaires - the superheroines tended to toil away as librarians (Batgirl), actresses (the Black Cat, Fly Girl) and flower shop operators (the Black Canary).
Although her origins were inauspicious, the superheroine was arguably a more uniquely American invention than the superhero, whose mythological predecessors can be traced to prehistory. Mythological sources for the superheroine are in short supply, however. In fact, a modern reading of the hero myths suggests that some of their most notable features were suspicion of and brutality toward women.
Give a couple of those silly gals super-powers in the 1960s,
and you end up with super-pancakes, super-pizza...
In the oldest tale known, for example — the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh — the superhuman hero was given to seizing attractive virgins and other men's wives while riding through the great city of Uruk, on the bank of the Euphrates. This epidemic of rape brought protests, but no one dared fight the hero until the mother goddess Aruru heeded the prayers of the citizenry. From the wet clay of the Euphrates, she formed the superhuman Enkidu, half-man, half-bull, who lived upon the plains as the protector of the beasts.
But Gilgamesh, jealous of Enkidu's reputed powers, engineered his capture through the services of a courtesan. After his seduction, Enkidu was broken-hearted to learn that his loss of innocence caused the wild beasts to shun him. Bribed by Gilgamesh, the courtesan lured Enkidu to the city, where he gradually acquired the virtues of civilization at the price of losing part of his superstrength.
During the inevitable clash between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the two heroes, finding they were equal in strength, broke off fighting and became comrades-at-arms and the greatest of friends. Their happiness ended at the hands of a female, Isthar, the goddess of love.
...And, of course, a super-catfight.
Spurned by Gilgamesh, she sent the Bull of Heaven to terrorize Uruk in revenge. But Enkidu killed the monster, hurling its pelt into her face. The insult earned him her fatal curse, and Enkidu's death haunted Gilgamesh for the rest of his life. The tragedy also spurred him to his greatest feat, the snatching of the flower of immortality from the ocean's depths, although he was thwarted before he could bestow immortality upon mankind.
The tale is remarkable in its thematic callousness toward women and fear of their power, which can make and break superheroes. The taming of Enkidu anticipated by a good 4,000 years the nagging suspicion of American males that commitment to women meant the loss of their own independence.
Super-Lois in the 1960s...
But the epic is far from unique. The ancient superheroes, impervious to mighty monsters, often prove vulnerable to women. The Hebrew superhero Samson also lost his power to the "civilizing" effect of the treacherous Deliah's shears. The murder of the Norse hero Sigurd was the result of the machinations of the jealous valkryie Brynhild. The Celtic King Arthur was brought to ruin through the actions of two women — his seduction by his half-sister Morgan le Fay and the faithlessness of his wife Guinevere. And the Greek Heracles was doomed by the jealousy of his misguided wife, Deianira, who impregnated his robe with the poisonous blood of the centaur Nessus in the belief that it would serve as a love potion.
... What a pain in the butt she was.
Given all the examples of the joys of heroic wedlock, no wonder Superman hesitated to pop the question for a full half-century.
The legend of Heracles sheds further light on the ambiguous position of women in superheroic myth. For although Heracles owes his power to his father Zeus, he is perversely indebted to his archenemy, Zeus's ever-jealous wife Hera, for his heroism. Hera fashions his legend by throwing challenge after challenge against him, and the hero is named in her honor (Heracles means"the glory of Hera").
In this 1960s tale, Supergirl and Wonder Wonder rebelled to ESCAPE
responsibility and authority, not to embrace it.
One of those challenges, Heracles' Ninth Labor, brought him up against one of the rare mythic antecedents of the superheroine, the fierce warrior-women called Amazons. Heracles is charged with the task of obtaining the girdle of Ares worn by the Amazon queen Hippolyte — a job which looks easier than it turns out to be, since Hippolyte offers to simply give him the prize as a token of love. But Hera, inducing the Amazons to believe that Heracles is about to kidnap their queen, inspires them to attack his party. Heracles, in turn, repays Hippolyte's kindness by killing her out of hand and seizing the girdle.
The ill-used Amazons proved useful when the time came to refashion the ancient myths to fit modern American notions of equal rights, in part because those notions were particularly in need of defense. They were under attack on a global scale. That time was December 1941.
Hawkgirl and Hawkman, as rendered by Alex Ross
The Golden Age of Comics — the age of the superhero — was a mere three years old then, having been inaugurated in 1938 with DC Comics' publication of a character whose characteristics could be traced to the adolescent male angst of his two creators, Cleveland teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The young men felt powerless to combat the evil marching abroad in the world in jackboots. But their virtually omnipotent Superman most certainly was not. The boys feared that the high school class beauty, Lois Amster, would laugh at them if asked for a date (justifiably, as it turned out — she admitted a half-century later that she probably would have). But their Superman served up a cold revenge, regularly rejecting the romantic attentions of Amster's comic book incarnation, reporter Lois Lane.
But the "bloodcurdling masculinity" of Superman and his swiftly spawned cohorts inspired psychologist Marston, who sat on DC Comics’ editorial board, to create a philosophical counterweight under his DC Comics pen name of Charles Moulton. His Wonder Woman espoused the virtues of love, not war, and argued for the equality — and frequently, even the superiority — of women.
In Moulton's tale, the goddess Aphrodite has supplied the Amazons with a Pacific haven, Paradise Island, on condition that they forever "keep aloof from men." Enter Capt. Steve Trevor, from above. While on a counter-intelligence mission for the United States, Trevor crash-lands on the island, providing Amazon Princess Diana with her first look at a man and the Amazon society its first glimpse of the worldwide war between the "American liberty and freedom" and "the forces of hate and oppression."
Reluctantly, at the urging of the Greek goddesses, the Amazon queen permits her daughter to escort Trevor to the United States, there to fight for the right as Wonder Woman.
Armed with strength rivaling that of the Amazons' ancient foe, Hercules, and speed sufficient to stymie gunmen, Princess Diana assumes the unassuming guise of Diana Prince, U.S. Army employee. But when trouble looms, she erupts in eagle-emblazoned glory on her real mission — an agenda which includes, as it turns out, not only teaching the Axis powers the proper respect for humanity, but teaching the whole of mankind a fuller respect for women.
For example, when freed from the hypnotic domination of the evil Dr. Psycho during World War II, the villain's former fiancee poses a question to Wonder Woman: “But what can a poor girl do?”
“Get strong!,” replies the Amazing Amazon. “Earn your own living. Join the WAACs or WAVEs and fight for your country. Remember, the better you can fight, the less you'll have to.”
Such fighting words were a whiff of pure, protofeminist oxygen for young female fans of the ’40s such as Gloria Steinem, flamboyant future Texas Gov. Ann Richards and my own mother. Here was role reversal with a vengeance, with the heroine saving her beloved's bacon instead of frying it. And Steve Trevor ate it up, welcoming Wonder Woman's rescues with grateful cries of “my Angel!”
A Wally Wood cover for Marvel's Beware the Cat,
a short-lived entry in a
remarkably long line
of feline-fashioned super-women.
To say that such sentiments were ahead of their time is an obvious understatement. Even by the late 1970s, actor Lyle Waggoner was less than completely comfortable with his Trevor role opposite Lynda Carter in the TV series Wonder Woman. When asked how his young son reacted to the idea of Daddy being rescued by a woman each week, Waggoner missed the opportunity to toss off a casual, post-macho quip. Instead, visibly miffed, he replied that after all his character was no Amazon, and anyway it took a minimum of three men to beat up his character. He'd had it written into his contract, he said.
Marston conceived the character as a direct challenge to DC's flagship hero. He originally wanted to call her "Suprema, the Wonder Woman," a name only one letter removed from "Superman."
Feminist philosophy aside, Marston also danced to darker motifs which are clearly audible in the composition called Wonder Woman. When asked, for example, whether boys would be interested in his Amazing Amazon, Marston replied, “Give them an alluring woman stronger than themselves and they’ll be proud to be her willing slaves.” Ahem.
Psychologist Frederic Wertham, in his anti-comic book jeremiad Seduction of the Innocent, pegged Wonder Woman as a lesbian fantasy with sadomasochistic overtones, and for once his objections had some substance. References to bondage and "loving discipline" do pop up with suspicious regularity in the Amazon’s early adventures.
“Why did they bind me with such small chains?,” muses DC’s Princess Di as she casually bursts free in a 1943 adventure. “It’s an insult!”
Wonder Woman's weaponry underlines the theme. Her magic lasso is in fact a chain — forged from the fine links of Queen Hippolyta's magic girdle, a talisman to ward off Amazon conquest by men. Some astute readers will already have observed that the lasso, which envelopes men who must then surrender to its power, has another pretty clear meaning. If the sexual symbolism of, say, a sword or a .45 is obvious in male characters, then what must a lasso represent? Marston, a psychologist, was probably well aware of the symbols he was toying with.
Wonder Woman's bullet-deflecting bracelets
are the remnants of the shackles that held women
Wonder Woman’s bullet-repelling bracelets are the remnants of shackles worn by the Amazons after their conquest by Hercules, designated by the Greek goddesses as both a check on Amazon power and a necessary condition of it. If the bracelets are chained together by a man, an Amazon loses her superhuman strength. But if they are broken or removed, she becomes drunk with power, losing her feminine capacity for the just, compassionate use of force. Domination and submission are therefore symbolically represented as inescapable elements of human nature.
And the first feminist superhero was almost pathologically ambivalent on the subject of equality. As befits someone dressed in a star-spangled, eagle-breasted, red, white and blue costume, she is at times a passionate defender of democracy. She leaves Paradise Island to sign on with the Allies during World War II explicitly to preserve "liberty and freedom" and "America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women." In 1950, she goes so far as to embark on a crusade to prove that there are no dull jobs because"no one is unimportant in a democracy."
Yet Amazonian philosophy, as outlined by Marston, is essentially anti-democratic — a 'queendom' characterized by voluntary submission to the presumably right-minded leadership. One wonders if Wonder Woman couldn't have fought for fascism during World War II with an equal — or equal lack of — consistency.
H. G. Peter was the first artist to depict the Amazon Princess who refused to hide her strength
Yet we shouldn't be too hard on her, for even the Amazon's ambiguity is American. U.S. citizens, after all, continue to debate the merits of liberty vs. "law and order" to this day, and often pledge a dubious allegiance to a Constitution and Bill of Rights which they can't recall, or haven't read. Yet, like Wonder Woman, that rarely stops them from waving the flag.
Such criticisms notwithstanding, Wonder Woman earned the right to be called one of the three most enduring comic book superheroes.
Within a year of her introduction, she was starring in three comics (Sensation, Comic Cavalcade alongside the Flash and Green Lantern and Wonder Woman). Only her title, and those of Superman and Batman, survived the postwar collapse of superhero comics and have been published without interruption to this day. She’s starred in TV movies (1973’s Wonder Woman with Cathy Lee Crosby and 1974’s The New Original Wonder Woman with Lynda Carter), a subsequent TV series (1976-79), a 1970s cartoon series (Super Friends) and a couple of books.Which is not to say that the Amazing Amazon had it easy.
By the time I ran into Wonder Woman as a boy in the late ’50s, she seemed a strange character indeed — encumbered with the odd trappings of the long-departed Marston (who'd died in 1947), but bereft of her creator's philosophical rationale. The accouterments of the male superbeings — the Fortresses of Solitude and the Batcaves with their trophy rooms and labs — seemed right and proper, since they were essentially grand extensions of boys' private pastimes (the secret clubhouse, the chemistry set, the passion for collecting). But an all-girls island? Yuck. It was hard to find an emotional resonance with Wonder Woman.
She could perform impressive superhuman feats, certainly, but was given to whining while doing so: "Great Hera, grant me the strength..." etc. By this time, she'd lost her boots and fought crime while rather precariously perched atop high-heeled sandals. She'd also taken up the habit of "gliding on air currents," which seemed equally precarious. I had no problem with Superman's flatly inexplicable power of flight, but riding a breeze just didn't seem possible. And I could never understand why would she would have to give up her superheroics if she were to marry Steve Trevor.
But if the character was somewhat contradictory, so too was was the position of any personally ambitious female in the ’50s, an era when films like The Best of Everything were heavy-handedly pointing out that a career girl who waited too long to snag a man could expect to receive the exact opposite of the movie's title.
In one of the better stories from those pallid years (The Revolt of Wonder Woman, WW 144 1964), Wonder Woman is brought to the verge of complete exhaustion by a string of disasters and forced to protest that she is, after all, not to be treated as a tireless machine. It was a lament to be heard again, and frequently, as women reexamined the "you can have it all" superwoman phase of feminist adjustment.
Black Canary of the Justice Society
Wonder Woman was to spend another couple of decades in a search for a worthy destiny. In the late ’50s, she became a full-fledged founding member of the otherwise male superhero team the Justice League of America (an improvement over her 1940s stint in the Justice Society of America, which had required her to work her way up from secretary). But by 1968, she'd traded her powers, equipment and heritage for karate skills, a wardrobe of mod jumpsuits and a male mentor called I Ching. The traditional Wonder Woman returned in the ’70s and spent some time fighting World War II all over again (paralleling the period setting of the TV series).
But it wasn't until a 1986 revival, with the aid of the elegant pen and painstaking, myth-laden plots of George Perez, that Wonder Woman began to soar again (literally this time — Perez traded her invisible robot plane for the more straightforward power of flight). The secret identity was dispensed with, and Wonder Woman was now more a feminist cultural ambassador than a standard superheroine.
The fresh start was a welcome move, although the series now occasionally creaks with political correctness. Even the lesbian implications of an all-female island have been explored, discreetly and maturely.
“Don't you miss the sharing God intended for the sexes?,” asks a Unitarian minister on a tour of the Amazons' ancient island paradise in a 1989 issue.
“Some do,” says his guide, Mnemosyne. “They have sworn themselves to Artemis, the virgin hunter, and Athena, the chaste warrior. Others choose the way of Narcissus. But most of us find satisfaction in each other - three thousand years can be a long time, Reverend.”
“Oh,” replies the minister.
The evolution of an amazon.
If Wonder Woman suffered from America's growing pains over the years, at least they didn't prove fatal, as they have for several of her sisters. To add injury to insult, comic book superheroines tended, during the 1980s, to come to tragic ends — a fact which is all the more striking in a make-believe universe where most other characters not only don't die, but rarely even age.
In the 1980s, Supergirl died in her cousin Superman's arms, having been mortally wounded in the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Supergirl not only died agonizingly but, thanks to the retroactive universe-shifting of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, then never existed at all, for purposes of the comics continuity.
An Alex Ross portrait of Batgirl
And Barbara Gordon opened the front door at the wrong moment and was shot point-blank by the Joker, so Batgirl was permanently paralyzed.
Jean Gray, who began her crusading in the '60s as the X-Men's Marvel Girl, ultimately found her rather pallid power of telekinesis expanded into virtual omnipotence. Taking the name of Phoenix, she was overwhelmed by her power and, in the grip of an evil second personality called Dark Phoenix, casually wiped out a whole race of extraterrestrials. She died in retribution. She was later "revived," rather anticlimactically and unconvincingly.
Yvonne Craig, who played Batgirl on the Batman TV series, took the tragic news in stride. “Somebody sent me the comic. Apparently, she was hit with a sniper’s bullet in the spine. Sounds awful, but I figure it’s their character to do with what they want, as long as they don’t do it really to me,” Craig said, laughing.
One could be forgiven for reading a certain hostility to women into all this, but no grand conspiracy is afoot here. An accidental combination of factors — admittedly including the traditional status of women in American society — spelled their doom, for a while.
Since the 1960s, superhero comics have veered away from whimsy toward melodramatic angst, making the occasional tragic death inevitable. Super heroines had largely remained secondary characters, and secondary characters are always expendable. Both Supergirl and Batgirl have since returned intact as their comic book universe has been rebooted.
In a way, the black fates of Supergirl and Batgirl turned out to be trial runs they were revisited, with great fanfare, by their male counterparts. As comics grew darker and writers bolder, Superman was slain (but later resurrected, of course — the dead don’t escort you to the bank for long) and Batman suffered a crippling spinal injury.
There's also a house-cleaning factor at work, with the later writers realizing that a distaff duplicate of a popular character serves to undercut the uniqueness and force of the original. And finally there's the philosophical thread which runs through almost all superheroic characters, the concept of the penalty of power, of a price to be paid.
Whether by accident or design, several of the comics' superheroines were, at least for a while, made to suffer what might be termed the final indignity in a male-dominated society. But if the comics often faltered in their quest for a superwoman, they nevertheless marched well ahead of other media. Network television offered several strange examples of superpowered women in the ’60s — not as adventure heroines, but as sitcom characters.
In Bewitched (ABC, 1964-1972), Elizabeth Montgomery portrayed the sweet witch Samantha, commanded by her narrow-minded mortal husband Darrin Stephens (Dick York, then Dick Sargent) to forever renounce her supernatural powers for the pleasure of serving him as a housewife. Darrin's dictum, invariably pronounced in ringing moral tones and never disputed by Samantha, seemed particularly ludicrous coming from a guy who used his talents for the ethically dubious ends of a Madison Avenue executive.
Elizabeth Montgomery, Dick York
and Agnes Moorehead in "Bewitched"
My sympathies were with Samantha's mother Endora (the delightful Agnes Moorehead), who was always on the verge of resolving the whole mess by transforming Darrin into the toad he truly was. The successful series spawned one direct spin-off (Tabitha, with Lisa Hartman portraying Samantha's grown daughter on ABC from 1977 to 1978) and several knock-offs.
The latter tended to reinforce the Bewitched theme that female power is best restrained by male hegemony. From 1965 through 1970, NBC aired the tedious I Dream of Jeannie, with djinn Barbara Eden slavishly devoted to her long-suffering "master" (Larry Hagman). And Bewitched was paralleled by the CBS sitcom My Living Doll (CBS, 1964-1965), which starred Julie Newmar as Rhoda the robot. Her misadventures surrounded the efforts of a psychologist (Robert Cummings) to hone her into the perfect woman. That would be, of course, one who obeyed commands and piped up only when spoken to.
The double-edged, rather sinister image of the robot woman goes back at least to 1927 and "Metropolis" (Fritz Lang's, not Superman's).
In the 1970s, with feminism's influence finally filtering into popular culture, another "mechanical woman" appeared on the tube, this time an action-adventure heroine.
Following the pattern established in the comics, The Bionic Woman was a distaff version of the superheroic Six Million Dollar Man (and extending the pattern to the charmingly silly extent of giving her a bionic German shepherd as a pet). Her limbs and an ear replaced by physically superior prosthetics following a skydiving accident, Jaime Sommers fought threats to national security from 1976 to 1978 on ABC and NBC.
The series' biggest asset was the fact that Lindsay Wagner, playing Jaime, possessed acting abilities far superior to the demands of her role. She conveyed an ironic skepticism about the ultimate value of intelligence work, accepting missions from spy boss Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) only reluctantly. More a nurturer than a warrior, Jaime obviously regarded her job as teacher as more important to humanity.
Still, her more outlandish adventures could be fun. In a two-part episode, she and the Six Million Dollar Man teamed up to stop the Fembots (female robot slaves, again) created by a traditional mad scientist. Theatrical legend John Houseman was recruited for the latter role, which he accepted because of his admiration for Wagner, who'd played his daughter in the film version of The Paper Chase
Ironically, Wonder Woman’s first proposed incarnation on television, in 1967, would have been a gratuitous insult to women, and particularly to feminists. Producer William Dozier’s campy Batman TV series had debuted in January of the year before, so instantly and surprisingly successful that it inspired one of America’s periodic revivals of the superhero fad. Cashing in, Dozier followed up with the Green Hornet series, a more straightforward melodrama featuring Van Williams in the title role and Bruce Lee as his masked companion Kato.

But Dozier’s planned Wonder Woman TV series veered wildly back in the direction of comedy, without actually managing to be funny. In the pilot material that was shot, Diana Prince is fretted over by her interfering mother (an Amazon queen somehow retired to suburban frumpiness?) because Diana remains unmarried despite being 27 million years old.

The running “joke” is that the nearsighted Diana thinks she’s as beautiful as Aphrodite, but is in fact “ugly” (by the network TV standards of the day, which seemed to regard even mildly attractive women as “ugly”). Hilarious.
So here’s a super-strong, super-fast Amazon who regularly saves the nation from ruin, but is nevertheless to be considered a pathetic figure of fun because she’s supposedly too plain to land a man. If this was the attitude of the males who ran the national entertainment media in the “sophisticated” 1960s, it’s no wonder women got fed up with it.
The Amazon heroine suffered another televised misfire in a 1974 pilot movie starring Cathy Lee Crosby. The former professional tennis player was earnest in the role, but the producers couldn’t figure out how they wanted to approach this comic book material, and their embarrassment and confusion shows. It’s not even clear to the audience whether or not Wonder Woman’s identity is secret.
The back-to-basics approach that hit the target came the next year with the strangely but appropriately titled “The New, Original Wonder Woman” starring Lynda Carter.
Faithful to the 1940s comic book, the pilot movie featured characters who did not laugh at themselves, but let the audience laugh if they wanted to. The subsequent TV series benefitted from the fact that the philosophy of Nazism is, in fact, so evil that Nazis always make perfect comic book villains, and somewhat justify and balance the extremity of goodness represented by super heroes.
 A pop culture metaphor can serve different ends over time, as the background culture realigns itself. Thus the arguably insulting premise of My Living Doll, played for comedy, became an explicitly feminist premise when played as tongue-in-cheek horror in The Stepford Wives, the film version of Ira Levin's novel. Suburban housewives who assert their independence find themselves quietly "androidized" one by one, with the compliance of their husbands. The film boasts one of those truly delicious camp scenes destined to stick in the memory. When the robot version of Paula Prentiss's character is stabbed in the abdomen, her reaction is a mechanical parody of petulant hurt feelings and wifely good manners. "How could you? Just when I was going to make you coffee," she repeats, over and over again.
The show lost its way when it was updated to the 1970s, but its idealistic feminist message — though sometimes muted by the networks — remained clear. Carter looked uncannily like the comic book character, and was able to project the kind of high-minded benevolence that we should expect from a super hero. It’s something we may snicker at publically but, on some level, want to believe in.
Director Susan Seidelman brings the metaphor full circle in her 1987 film Making Mr. Right. In this bit of feminist revenge, John Malkovich plays an android created for space exploration who is ultimately reprogrammed into a "perfect" sensitive, accommodating male. Meanwhile, his human counterpart and creator, a cold-fish scientist also played by Malkovich, is banished into empty space, the only existence for which he is fit, apparently.
In the spring of 1991, as if to underscore the point of just how hard popular culture icons die, Mann and Machine popped up on NBC, featuring yet another macho cop teamed with yet another female android.
Outside the comics, the most well-known of superwomen have not generally functioned as cosmic do-gooders. When they’re not unremittingly evil (the Wicked Witch of the West, for example), such characters usually dedicate their spectacular powers to remarkably mundane pursuits.
In the film and syndicated TV series Weird Science, for example, a computer-generated pinup girl wields her virtual omnipotence solely on behalf of two ordinary teenage boys. Mary Poppins, similarly, employs seemingly limitless magical abilities to pursue the career of a nanny.
Popular culture’s superwomen often operate under a far more restrictive set of conditions than its supermen. Mary Poppins, Weird Science’s virtual heroine, Samantha, Jeannie and Glinda the Good Witch all have powers as impressive as Superman’s. But while the Man of Steel routinely rescues his city, nation and planet from utter destruction, the women are shown to be content with purely maternal missions of bringing happiness to their (overwhelmingly male) charges, whether as helpmates or surrogate mothers.
Superman’s universe is the universe itself; the superwoman’s universe has been the kitchen and the nursery. American popular culture found the concept of the superman instantly exhilerating, and the concept of the superwoman vaguely — but distinctly — threatening.
The inconspicuous adolescent girl cited by Riesman at the beginning of this chapter could have been counted on to furtively tune in to a TV series entitled The Flying Woman. The concept gained nothing in appeal, but a good deal in popular cultural propriety, when it actually made it to the air as The Flying Nun. Sally Field was permitted to soar on condition of chastity and a vow of benevolent, non-threatening subservience to a rigid male hierarchy. How original, he observed dryly.
John Buscema's Black Widow,
a former villain retooled for the feminist era.
Comic book kiddie fare has fared better than allegedly more sophisticated movies and television in its treatment of women and superwomen. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, well-intentioned writers set out to make up for the comics' past treatment of women by creating and promoting firmly feminist superheroines — characters like Ms. Marvel, the Cat, the Black Canary and the Black Widow.
Readers were ultimately unimpressed, and consigned most of the characters to a rapid oblivion.
Enduring characters in popular culture are rarely, if ever, the result of preset, propagandistic game plans. Instead, they're the outgrowth of the creator's attunement to his audience, and resonate with the audience's fears and fantasies on more than one level. It is the audience's values, not the creator's agenda, which sustain love for a particular character. Most of us, whether children or adults, get quite enough of sermons in our daily lives, thank you, and resent them in the guise of entertainment.
All were defeated, in part, by popular culture's inherent strain of conservatism. Popular culture appeals not to the values espoused, but to those actually believed by its audience.
A convenient "stray comet"
But if successful pop culture reveals not the values to which we pay lip service, but whose we actually hold, then we may at last have evidence of a incipient shift in American thinking — evidence evident in several latter-day action-adventure films.
In The Silence of the Lambs, for example, Jodie Foster plays a rookie FBI agent who outwits both a psychotic killer and the male hierarchy of the Bureau to deliver justice in the final reel. In the Alien films, the fate of humanity rests squarely on the shoulders of the intrepid space explorer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). In Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer reinterprets the Caped Crusader's female foe, Catwoman, as a radical feminist who is pushed too far by her chauvinistic boss (out the window of a skyscraper, to be precise). And in 1995’s Star Trek Voyager, a take-charge woman (Kate Mulgrew) at last takes the helm of a Star Fleet ship as Captain Kathryn Janeway.
Margot Kidder as Superman's girlfriend, Lois Lane
But was the audience buying the idea of the straightforwardly forceful heroine? Well, we need merely note that the aforementioned films and TV series have made not merely millions, but hundreds of millions of dollars.
Foster, for one, understood exactly what she's done, and explained it to the Associated Press. "I think it's one of the first in a line of cinematic female heroes," said Foster, who won her second Academy Award as best actress for the role of Clarice Starling in the 1991 film. “I don't mean it's the traditional heroine, the woman who is escaping the monster or the woman who emulates men by pumping up their muscles or something.”
“I think this is a genuine female hero. I think it's one of the first times that a woman has had access to that myth, to a folklore connection with what a real hero is. I think it's a big step.”
The super heroine has been characteristically self-contradictory, and a fully satisfying and successful archetype long remained elusive. This may mirror the elusiveness of a settled view of women's role in American society. But if the super heroine has yet to truly arrive in American popular culture, she clearly seems to be on her way. The success of Foster, Weaver, Pfeiffer, Mulgrew, Lara Croft and Modesty Blaise pointed the way. Even the deaths of Supergirl and the paralysis of Batgirl turned out to be mere temporary incoveniences — Supergirl came back to life a couple of times, and Batgirl began to reappear in fighting form, and in more sophisticated graphic novels

I was waiting for some woman to to step forth from the shadow of the superman, and I think it finally, fully happened on  March 10, 1997, when writer-director Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer went on the air.

Even Lois Lane has, at long last, begun to emerge from the shadow of her boyfriend.
When I interviewed her, Margot Kidder, the actress who played Lois opposite Christopher Reeve's Superman in four films, was unaware that the characters became engaged and then married in the comic books, and subsequently had no secrets from each other. But she wasn't unappreciative of the changes.
“She'll have to get some superpowers next,” Kidder said. “As women's liberation goes on, that's how it should be. Know more and do more. I'm all for it,” she said, adding with a laugh, “But skip the marriage. And make sure he does the cooking." 
“Our society’s ideals of fair play demanded there be super heroines,” wrote Danny Fingeroth in Superman on the Couch. “But our society’s ingrained, conflicted and unconscious feelings toward powerful women made the creation of truly crowd-pleasing superhero women takes decades — generations — longer to develop than their male counterparts.”

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow
By the dawn of the 21st century, however, something had definitely changed. Take the Black Widow, for example. She’s a Marvel Comics superspy/martial arts expert who has been kicking around as a minor character since the 1960s. But the ever-insightful director Joss Whedon, who had already given us television’s first fully successful super heroine in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, made her an integral part of the biggest super hero films ever made, 2012’s The Avengers.  And he did it by slyly subverting the traditional popular culture clichés about cringing, shrieking female victims.
For the Black Widow, the villains’ expectation of female weakness is THEIR vulnerability, not hers. When her eyes widen in shock and she seems weak with terror, you can be certain she is a single move away from checkmate. And just listen to the audience cheer. Hollywood has been trying, and failing, to reboot Wonder Woman since the 1970s. Actress Lynda Carter says they’re missing the point.

“I think they try to just make her a female version of a male superhero, and that's not what she is,” Carter told David Weiner. “She is an Amazon Princess and she's got really strong sisterhood values. She's smart, and she just happens to be beautiful and super strong, and she has these great cool things like these bracelets and boomerang headband and non-lethal kinds of ways of dealing with people. She's just saying, like, ‘Get a grip!’ all the time. … She slaps the hands of the bad guys.”
“Maybe they need a female writer who gets it. I've often tried not to say that, but I think it's the truth. It’s like, 'Hellooooo guys, get a female that understands what that's all about.' You look at any society that suppresses women, and it's violent. Look around the world. … There's a humanity that they're missing. There's got to be a sweetness, a kindness, a goodness in the character. The rest takes care of itself.”
I think she’s right. Wonder Woman with a sword, decapitating people like Wolverine, is not what we need. Wonder Woman, like Klaatu in “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” is an emissary from a truly advanced civilization, here in humanity’s 11th hour, to save us from our darkest enemy, the shadow that lies within us.

An Alex Ross portrait of the original 1930s Superman and his cousin, Power Girl, who was created to be a sexier version of Supergirl. The comic book fans weren't eight years old anymore, and they were never going to be again.

One of the first super heroines falls under a villain's spell in this Sunday newspaper strip from the 1940s.


  1. Wonder Woman for the 21st century. Contrary to Hollywood belief, it CAN be done.

  2. The Comics Code and women.

  3. "What Jessica Jones gives us is a superhero that reflects a reality not often seen on screen: A woman crime-drama lead with the same depth and agency as a man. It's rewarding to see someone relatable, who looks like you, fighting for good against evil onscreen. Everyone wants to play the hero. It's fun. What's more, the show's "evil" is completely grounded in what is, for many women, a real danger: harmful manipulation and emotional control by a male partner, disturbingly fictionalized via mind control." — Sara Boboitz