SPEAKING AT THE SMU WOMEN’S SYMPOSIUM

Wonder Woman taller than SupermanTomorrow, I’m speaking at SMU’s 49th Annual Women’s Symposium. My 30-minute talk will be about the historical and social impact of women superheroes, from Wonder Woman to Emily Edison. In particular, my jumping off point is this letter to Lego from 7-year-old Charlotte Benjamin. What I will try to say in 30-minutes, she says much more concisely (and eloquently) in just a few words:

“Let them go on adventures and have fun. OK!?! Thank you.”

Comic book writers, take note. It’s all right there. Let them go on adventures and have fun.

In honor of Wonder Woman and my presentation, I want to share something I wrote that never got published. Smart Pop Books, a few years ago, was considering a Wonder Woman anthology to accompany a possible Joss Whedon helmed Wonder Woman movie. Of course, we all know what happened there. I wrote the first part of my essay, working title: “Wonder Woman and Superman in Conversation: The Gender Gap in DC’s New Frontier,” and then stopped when the DC movie fell through. So, the excerpt below is unpolished and unfinished, but some good ideas exist in there somewhere. Feel free to read and look for them.

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Why do fans always want Wonder Woman and Superman to hook up? After all, Wonder Woman has had a long running relationship with Army officer Steve Trevor, and Superman will always been associated with the intrepid reporter Lois Lane. Yet the thought of these two Super Friends becoming more than friends is too tempting. From one perspective, Wonder Woman represents a greater conquest than Lois Lane. Diana is the Amazonian Princess, an immortal – and for Wonder Woman’s creators William Moulton Marston and his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Wonder Woman is meant to represent the ultimate woman. She is to be the greatest ambassador for her gender. Superman, if he deserves the best, it’s Wonder Woman.

From another perspective, this super-union is not about a conquest, but compatibility. These two people are godlike. How could they ever find someone they truly relate to among everyday people? As Brodie in the film Mallrats so eloquently explains, Superman is too power to even have sex with Lois Lane, nor would her womb be able to contain the super child of their union.

“He’s an alien, for Christ sake. His Kyrptonian biological makeup is enhanced by earth’s yellow sun. If Lois gets a tan the kid could kick right through her stomach. Only someone like Wonder Woman has a strong enough uterus to carry his kid.”

Only someone like Wonder Woman. Also, we should consider Wonder Woman and Superman do not age as normal humans. Steve Trevor and Lois Lane will be shipped to a nursing home, while Wonder Woman and Superman are still stopping powerful locomotives and leaping tall buildings.

The desire for this hypothetical union is rooted in our most primitive mythological concepts. Wonder Woman, the Amazonian, comes from the earth. Literally. Queen Hippolyta created her out of clay, and the Greek gods brought Wonder Woman to life by granting Hippolyta’s wish for motherhood. Thus, Wonder Woman is representative of the earth. Superman comes from the sky, rocketing to this planet from the devastated planet of Krypton. He takes to the air, up in the sky; it’s Superman. Their relationship satisfies a symbolic union of the feminine nature of the earth, the Earth Mother, and the masculine sky god. No wonder fans are begging for Superman and Wonder Woman. They are only asking for the most ancient of mythic norms.

Despite all this, readers shouldn’t expect too much between the two Titans. Lois Lane has been connected with Superman since Action Comics No. 1, and in every radio drama, television series, cartoon, and movie since. Likewise, Wonder Woman meeting Steve Trevor crash landing on Paradise Island is central to her origin story. Still, when comic book readers see Wonder Woman and Superman, we instinctively see them as the ideals of woman and man, as representatives to their gender. DC Comics should be keenly aware that when Wonder Woman and Superman share the page, they make a statement about the nature and roles of men and women, our values – similarly, how we relate to each other, how we communicate. While limiting the male or female experience to a sole representative may seem to reinforce harmful stereotypes, to ignore how men and women are presenting in popular culture might be more damaging. We can find gender typecasting as far back as Adam and Eve. Such insights should inform our perspective and not diminish it.

Numerous comic book writers have explored the Wonder Woman/Superman relationship. Each contributes a slightly different (and sometimes contradictory) piece to their continuity. If the Wonder Woman fan is searching for something definitive, they may be greatly disappointed. However, Darwyn Cooke offers the most compelling look at their relationship, with a touch of complexity and understanding to their symbolic role as ambassadors to their gender.

The New Frontier

In 2004, writer and artist Darwyn Cooke began his ambitious award-winning six issue miniseries called DC: The New Frontier. This epic storyline bridges the gap between the Golden Age of Comics and the Silver Age, moving from the America of the 1950s to the 1960s. This series also bridged other gaps — looking at the gap between hero and superhero, the gap between races, socio-economic levels, and the gap between men and women. In many regards, the mid-20th century could be summarized as a convergence of these gaps. After World War II, the United States was seeking to redefine itself from its long-standing Monroe Doctrine of isolationism to a great responsibility as a Cold War Super Power, playing the tenuous role of global superhero. DC: The New Frontier is such an impressive achievement, because Darwyn Cooke balances numerous plot lines, involving almost the entire pantheon of DC characters, while carefully examining America’s identity in the Atomic Age. These plot lines are unified through a common threat.

Wonder Woman’s story arc deals primarily with her relationship to Superman who she respects, but ultimately disagrees with on national politics and personal responsibility. This arc covers two different scenes with a third scene of reconciliation.

[And that’s all I wrote on the subject. See you tomorrow at the symposium.]
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