With the release of “Wonder Woman 1984” on Christmas Day, a whole new generation of queer fans will be able to connect to the iconic DC superhero through a campy, nostalgic lens – something countless GenX-ers hold near and dear in their memory, thanks to the ‘70s TV show starring Lynda Carter.
The character herself, of course, predates that series by decades. Debuting in DC’s “All Star Comics #8” in 1941, she was quickly embraced by readers, and soon became a star in her own right. In “official” mythology, she was sculpted from clay by her mother, Queen Hippolyta of the island nation Themyscira, and given life as an Amazon princess before joining the outside world in its battle against the Axis powers of WWII. Those details have been retooled from time to time over the years, adapting it to the needs of an ever-evolving canon and the changing cultural tides of time; but her essence has remained the same – a strong, confident, and independent female character who can not only stand as an equal among men but outthink and outperform most of them without even breaking a sweat.
As such, she has been embraced as a feminist icon – though in the early years, many (mostly male) readers and critics dismissed her as a representation of the “angry, man-hating lesbian,” an interpretation undoubtedly stoked both by her provenance as a member of an all-female society and a heavy dose of fragile masculine ego. As years have gone on, however, that view has been mostly eclipsed by an acceptance of Wonder Woman as a symbol of feminine empowerment and equality.
For women, regardless of sexual orientation, it’s not difficult to understand why; in a pop culture that still features a comparative dearth of such role models, she continues to loom large. What might be less apparent is the reason behind the character’s enduring popularity with gay men – which goes far deeper than the obvious camp associations arising from the ‘70s TV show.
Some of that appeal can surely be traced to her real-life origin story. Created by writer and psychologist William Moulton Marston (under the pen name Charles Moulton), she embodied his views around feminism, influenced by feminist thinkers of his day and his own observations about the impact on women of male-centric assumptions and expectations. More relevant, perhaps, is the inside story of the character’s development, which was influenced by not only his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, but by their shared life partner, Olive Byrne; in an arrangement that would have been seen as beyond shocking during their era, the three of them were a polyamorous triad, and the involvement of the two women on shaping the character surely went far beyond just a visual design, which was based on features of both.
While those undeniably queer roots might link directly to Wonder Woman’s status as an LGBTQ fan favorite, they still don’t explain why gay men find the character so compelling – particularly since that history was largely unknown (for reasons that should be obvious) for much of her near-eight-decade existence.
Queer critics, theorists and scholars, of course, have provided volumes of their thoughts on the subject; but to get to the heart of the matter, there is no better source than the fans themselves.
For example, Jake Charles, a 40-something gay man who proudly sports a Wonder Woman tattoo on his arm and still heads to the bookstore as soon as every new issue of her comic hits the stands. He doesn’t remember, specifically, how he was introduced to Wonder Woman, but he knows it happened when he was about 5 or 6.
“Here was someone who could be a hero,” he tells us, “even though they weren’t butch and manly – and I needed to see that. I couldn’t tell you why, at the time, but I did.”
He elaborates, “She’d give you a charming smile, she’d be nurturing to someone she just saved in a way that Batman wouldn’t be. There was something loving and maternal that was just kind of built into her. Even when they’ve decided she needs to be more of a warrior, when they’ve tried to make her tougher and more manly over the years, that maternal side of her just keeps peeping through.”
That observation is echoed by another out-and-proud superfan, Keith Lamont, who says, “She was kind, loving and nurturing, traits that many of us didn’t receive as kids. She offered me protection and fantasy – her fabulous beauty and costumes, her invisible jet, Paradise Island.”
He goes on to add an important point. “I wanted to BE Wonder Woman, because that meant I could be adored by her love interest, Steve Trevor. She was really the only female superhero at that time, and I think it’s easier for a young gay boy to identify with a woman who is longing for the love of a man – as opposed to liking Superman or Batman, which is a different thing.”
Possibly the most universal shared experience of gay men with the character is expressed by another gay GenX-er, David Diaz, who tells us, “I loved her as a comic book superhero before the TV show, but once she came to life so spectacularly on the screen I was thoroughly entranced. Lynda Carter was stunningly gorgeous, but she played it straight, and she never traded on her looks or sexuality like so many other female action heroes. And she wasn’t an offshoot of some male hero, like Supergirl or Batgirl. She was her own woman.
“And of course, there was her transformation. Every time she spun around to change into Wonder Woman, I would do the same in my family room. I think the idea of her metamorphosis, from someone mundane and looked over to someone powerful and FABULOUS, was incredibly empowering for me. Even though I was years away from any real self-awareness of myself as a queer person, I clearly had some semi-conscious understanding of it, because I dreamed of being able to make that transformation myself.”
Even within this sampling of three voices, one can spot the common cord that binds them all together like Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth, as well as the variations of perspective that help to give this Amazon Warrior-turned-All-American-Hero such a profound influence on so many queer lives. What it comes down to, in the end, might be the reason she’s been embraced by members of almost every community that has been traditionally dismissed and sidelined by a dominant patriarchal culture – she inspires us to rise above the programming and carve our own space in the world.
Whether or not the new big screen blockbuster captures the cultural imagination as strongly as the 2017 blockbuster that spawned it remains to be seen – but even if it doesn’t, you can be sure that Wonder Woman will continue to hold a place in the hearts of millions of fans for whom she represents that powerful, primal desire to define ourselves by our own truth, and not the narratives foisted upon us by those who would keep us in the background.