Wonder Woman and the Double Binds of the First Female President

When the world fails women, Wonder Woman comes to the rescue.

It’s no coincidence that after Hillary Clinton, the most prepared person in politics, lost the 2016 race for the presidency to a pageant-owning, groping misogynist named Donald Trump (if that doesn’t sound like a comic strip, I don’t know what does), Wonder Woman made her entrance once again, this time in the form of Patty Jenkins’s film.

If the American public could not imagine what a woman in power might look like, perhaps Wonder Woman could show them. This was my mindset when I went to see Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, and at least initially, she didn’t disappoint.

I cried—out of love, joy, pain, rage, and pure delight. For the first time, I saw a woman on screen taking on the full armor of a hero without angst or apology. This was her job, plain and simple. Her strength was evident. She didn’t need a man to save her, she saved herself, and the world.

When the film was over, a teenaged girl, play-tussling with her friends, kicked up her leg powerfully and yelled: “Take that!” Watching that girl gave me a giant boost of optimism. It was working: Wonder Woman was already empowering girls everywhere. Yes!

The theme song for the popular ’70s Wonder Woman TV show intoned, “make a hawk a dove, stop a war with love, make a liar tell the truth.” There’s beauty in that message. But there’s another message too (and here’s where things start to fall apart): “In your satin tights, fighting for your rights, and the old red, white, and blue.”

In your satin tights? Fuck that.

Wonder Woman is, and always has been, a problematic figure to pin our hopes to because, so often, she’s the one that’s pinned down.

Created in 1941, Wonder Woman was the child of the suffrage movement and a product of the battle for birth control. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, a complicated male feminist, was clear about what Wonder Woman represented: the fight for female emancipation.

And yet, as Jill Lepore explains in her brilliant book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, despite his good intentions, it was often Marston himself that tied Wonder Woman up. In her book, Lepore rolls out Wonder Woman’s long lasso of truth to get to the “veritas” behind the strip. Beneath the veil was the secret life of Marston, who lived with two women and their four collective children under one roof.

One of Marston’s partners was Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, Marston’s public wife, and a career woman. She’d studied law and psychology, was editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica and McCalls. The other woman was Olive Byrne, who had studied medicine but gave it up to “stay home.” Marston’s nickname for Byrne was “Docile,” and she that took care of the kids, two of which biologically belonged to her, the other two to Holloway. To add another twist: Byrne was Margaret Sanger’s niece.

Wonder Woman was then inspired by two women, as Lepore lays out. She’s not just the Amazonian fighter (Elizabeth Holloway), she’s also Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s disguise; the nurse, the secretary (Olive Byrne). The melding of Byrne and Holloway was alluring, but also dangerous alchemy, particularly in the hands of male designers who, as Lepore calls it, ended up creating “the suffragist as pin-up.”

In the ’50s, for instance, just as women were swung back into the kitchen, their labor no longer deemed necessary with the return of men from World War II, Wonder Woman’s popularity waned. But by 1972, she ripped off her chains and began fighting again for women’s lib. In July of that year, she was the cover girl for Ms., under the headline “Wonder Woman for President.”

This time, she was following in the steps of Betty Friedan, who told women in The Feminine Mystique that they were meant for more. “The problem that had no name”—women’s ubiquitous unhappiness—had finally been named. If women were to have fruitful lives, then they must be allowed to chuck the fruit cake.

Beyond the covers of Ms., Representative Shirley Chisolm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, was running for president, but Senator George Stanley McGovern won the Democratic nomination, handing Richard Nixon the presidency. A woman did not win the presidency, but women had made it into the workforce, full force.

Perhaps Wonder Woman had something to do with that. She was both recording the successes of women and also attempting to push them further. But, perhaps too, she was also part of the problem. Human women, without supernatural bulletproof cuffs, were breaking down. It wasn’t fair to ask any single woman to be two women at once, to carry the weight of the world.

A September 1986 article in The Atlantic entitled “Women in the Workforce” demonstrated that while the pace of women gaining employment had tripled from 1950 to 1986, these women weren’t getting equal pay. They were working outside the home while also continuing to carry the brunt of childcare. Oh, and they still had to look hot while they did it. Let’s not forget that the Wonder Woman of the ‘70s was, after all, played by Lynda Carter, crowned Ms. World America, 1972.

In 2012, The Atlantic ran another story. This time, an essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter, entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Slaughter, who was the first female director of Policy Planning for the Department of State, had reached the pinnacle of her career, but after two years in high office, she decided to go home to her family. As she wrote the piece, she wasn’t exactly retired. She was teaching at Princeton, writing columns, giving speeches, publicly opining about foreign policy, and working on a book. Women had come a long way, no doubt, but high public office and motherhood were still a conundrum for Slaughter and many other women.

Only four years later, the highest office in the land would elude a woman, once again. And to the rescue, again: Wonder Woman. But will she prevail this time?

At first, it’s easy to think: Yes! Because this time the director, Jenkins, is a woman, wary of the easy pitfalls that could plague Wonder Woman. When Diana is forced to give up her armor for women’s couture, to fit in/hide in plain sight, she asks, “How do you fight in this attire?” And of course, she’s right.

Still Gal Gadot, the actress and model who plays Wonder Woman, is a beauty pageant winner like Carter before her: Miss Israel, 2004. Gadot also studied law and was in the Israeli army for two years, so she’s not all veneer, but what if Jenkins had cast someone, like Serena Williams, whose body exuded power? An athlete, whose body was trained, over years, to become the best. What if we could see Wonder Woman’s scars?

Perhaps the answer is that women like Serena Williams are considered “too unruly…too strong…too masculine, too rude, too fashionable, too black,” as Anne Helen Petersen writes in Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. And yet the “unruly woman” is exactly what we need if Wonder Woman is to work any wonder at all in 2018 and beyond. We need to see what it’s like to actually go through battle as a woman. We need to see what it takes, so that when we see it on the campaign trail, we can recognize it, instead of criticize it.

Hillary Clinton told Newsweek in 1995 that if she wanted to “knock a story off the front page,” all she had to do was “change [her] hairstyle.” That’s how closely her appearance was (and is) monitored. Clinton had to be sure not to dress “too masculine, too rude, too fashionable…” She had to be Byrne and Holloway in one, the suffragist as pin-up, the beauty queen who kicks butt.

Not much changed between 1995 and 2016. In What Happened, Clinton dedicates a chapter to what it meant physically to run for president as a woman. Horrified, she calculated being forced to spend 600 hours (25 days) in the hair and makeup chair. She tried to use the time usefully—being briefed, reading, working as her team coiffed—still the inequity was irritating. “I’m not jealous of my male colleagues often,” she wrote, “but I am when it comes to how they can just shower, shave, put on a suit, and be ready to go. The few times I’ve gone out in public without makeup, it’s made news.”

Maybe the next time a woman running for office appears in public without makeup, the conversation will revolve around her actions and policies instead of her cheeks needing a little pinkening. Several months have passed since I saw Wonder Woman, and since then I’ve met with other women in fiction and nonfiction that I’m finding solace in. The women Petersen calls “unruly…the type who incite Trump’s ire, and whom millions of voters have decided they can degrade and dismiss, simply because they question, interrogate, or otherwise challenge the status quo.”

Claire Dederer, for example, in her memoir Love & Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning, as she delves into what it means to be a woman full of “unruly” desire: Wonder-ful. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s imperfect, sometimes disastrous, self-titled characters in Broad City. And the young women of Insecure, Issa Rae’s show, born of Rae’s web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Wonderful, among other reasons, because characters like Issa have hardly (if ever) been seen before in popular culture. And if we don’t see them in popular culture, how can we imagine them in power?

Helping with that feat, on the front lines, in real life, there’s Stacy Abrams and Dr. Mai Khanh Tran, whose “unruliness” we can only hope becomes the rule, instead of the exception.

Abrams was born in Mississippi, where her grandmother, as a Black woman in the Jim Crow south, couldn’t vote. Today, Abrams is the House Minority Leader for the Georgia General Assembly, and running for governor of the State in 2018. She’s a graduate of Yale Law, a politician, and Romance novelist. Just try and fit that into a box.

She’s also written a nonfiction book called Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change. She dubs it: “Lean in, for the rest of us.” This past year, at Netroots Nation, the largest annual conference for progressives, she told a cheering crowd: “I’m here because I know that racism and sexism and geography will always be a weapons forged against us. That who we love, and what we are, and how we look, will be used to tell us that we are not enough…I am running for governor because I reject that belief.”

Dr. Mai Khanh Tran, a pediatrician in Orange County, California, also stands in defiance. Born in Vietnam, her childhood was set against the backdrop of war. Her parents were forced to place her and her siblings in an orphanage in Saigon, just to get them out of Vietnam. Later, reunited in the United States, the family picked berries to survive. Tran got scholarships to Harvard and made her way through school cleaning floors. Now, she’s running for a congressional seat in 2018 (CA-39). Her campaign promise: “to fight Donald Trump’s assault on healthcare and women’s rights.”

Here are two human women rising from the ashes of real American wars, fighting for injustice in real time. They do not rise, idyllic, from the fictional island of Themyscira, but instead from the long arms of the Civil War and, later, the Vietnam war. I find these women just as, if not more powerful, than Wonder Woman, though they might not exist without her. Perhaps, in turn, these unruly women can find their way into Wonder Woman’s next appearance. Maybe Wonder Woman will allow us to see real women in positions power, tossing the tights and grabbing the mic.

In an early storyline from the ’40s, Wonder Woman becomes president in the year 3000. Hopefully we won’t have to wait that long.

by Vanessa Garcia
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Vanessa Garcia is the author of the novel White Light, one of NPR’s Best Books of 2015. She’s also a journalist, essayist, and playwright. Find her at vanessagarcia.org.

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