Wonder Woman: New book explores contrasting history as feminist icon and sexualised superheroine

Dr Joan Ormrod reveals how the comic book hero has been shaped by politics and popular culture

Gal Gadot at 2017 Wonder Woman premiere. Credit: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com

Gal Gadot at 2017 Wonder Woman premiere. Credit: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com

Wonder Woman’s portrayal as both empowering feminist and sexualised superheroine mirrors the conflicting and changing perceptions of women and their bodies throughout different cultural eras, argues a new book.

Released ahead of the widely anticipated Wonder Woman 1984 film, Wonder Woman: The Female Body and Popular Culture is a timely analysis of how the superhero has become an emblem of the feminine ideal in popular culture, and also the subject of hotly contested political debate.

Dr Joan Ormrod, Senior Lecturer in Film and Media Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, and expert in women in comics and subcultural identities, charts Wonder Woman’s 80-year history through the portrayal of her body, from her creation as an Amazonian ambassador for peace and love, to 1960s 'mod' girl, through to the Iron Maiden of the 1980s and intersectional hero of the 21st century.

In doing so, Dr Ormrod reveals how Wonder Woman’s body has been both an articulation of female potential and attempts to constrain it.

She said: “Wonder Woman has been with us near 80 years. In this, 80 years’ expectations of women and their potential have changed from era to era.

“The aim of this book is to map out how Wonder Woman's body reflects these changes, showing how the look of her body is affected by the mass media, fandoms, war, consumerism and our changing notions of beauty.

“The book shows how contemporary notions of gender, racial and economic rights even now shape Wonder Woman's body and the ways we understand female identities. Its publication a few months before the new Wonder Woman film may enable us to appreciate the significance of this contemporary icon of female empowerment.”

The recent surge in Wonder Woman’s popularity, exemplified by the 2017 blockbuster film and this year’s sequel, has occurred alongside debates over her role as a role model for young fans. In 2016, the UN revoked her status as UN Honorary Ambassador for girls’ empowerment after public protest.

Wonder Woman has been with us near 80 years. In this, 80 years’ expectations of women and their potential have changed from era to era. The aim of this book is to map out how Wonder Woman's body reflects these changes

Through key moments in Wonder Woman’s history, Dr Ormrod’s book identifies how and why she inspires such diverse interpretations, through a focus on how consumerism, media and representations of race and gender have shaped her character and physical form.

By doing so, she reveals how not only Wonder Woman, but women in general, have been perceived and represented in popular culture in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Wonder Woman: The Female Body and Popular Culture begins by exploring how the original William Marston and Harry G. Peter version of Wonder Woman was constructed as the “idealised immigrant body”, to integrate into American culture, but with roots in showgirls, race and modernity. She then explores how the 1950s and 60s Wonder Woman reflected fears about communism, eradicating her feminist message to emphasise women’s place in the nuclear family.

She goes on to look at the use of fashion to connote feminist values in the 1970s, as well as the growth of consumerism in the 1980s, discarding Wonder Woman’s secret identity to become a goddess, and the 1990s and 2000s and the effect of globalisation and technologies in controlling the “unruly female body”. She concludes by analysing Patty Jenkins’ 2017 film, and reflecting on future directions for the character based upon contemporary debates around ethnicity, race and gender.

Wonder Woman: The Female Body and Popular Culture is published by Bloomsbury on February 20.

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