The Wonder Woman Precedent: Female (Super)Heroism on Trial

By O'Reilly, Julie D. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), September 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Wonder Woman Precedent: Female (Super)Heroism on Trial

O'Reilly, Julie D., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


FEMME FATALE. Surely you've noticed. Female superheroes aren't nearly as revered as male superheroes.

BUBBLES. Sure they are. There's Supergirl. Batgirl.

FEMME FATALE. Shhh. They're so lame. Merely extensions of their male counterparts. Who besides you is a heroine in her own right?

BLOSSOM. Huh! There's Wonder Woman and ... eh ... um ... um . . .Wonder Woman

BUTTERCUP. She's right! There is no one else.

The above exchange was included m a 2002 episode titled "Equal Fights" of the animated series Powerpuff Girls (1998-), which follows the adventures of three diminutive superheroes. In this episode, the Girls-Bubbles, Blossom, and Buttercup - encounter Femme Fatale, a criminal who carries a C-shaped gun and demands that the teller of the bank she is robbing fill the loot sack with only Susan B. Anthony coins. When the Powerpuff Girls capture Femme Fatale, this villain, in an attempt to evade punishment for her crimes, appeals to the Girls in the name of female solidarity: "Sending me to jail would be a blow for all of womankind ... including you" ("Equal Fights"). Femme Fatale's ploy works, for a time; the Girls become angry -with all men, from the mayor they have willingly assisted m the past to a male classmate who accidentally knocks down a female playmate during a game of catch. By the episode's end, though, the Girls have realized that Femme Fatale must pay for her crimes because, as Susan B. Anthony taught by example, equal rights for all do not include special privileges for some.

Unfortunately, not all representations of superheroes promote the same equal-opportunity perspective on heroism. While most hero stories include a series of trials designed to prove the hero's worthiness (Bongco 94), many female superheroes have the privilege of demonstrating their abilities or defending their roles as heroes in a manner not afforded their male counterparts. And Wonder Woman, the "heroine m her own right" named by Blossom, set the precedent.

Although Wonder Woman, who debuted in All-Star Comics in 1941, challenged previous notions regarding the subordination of female superheroes to men (Inness 144), she was still not equal to her male counterparts. In Wonder Woman's first comic book story line, the Amazon princess Diana must compete in and win a series of physical challenges that culminate in a frightening and potentially deadly game of "bullets and bracelets" (i.e., deflecting gunshots with her wristbands) to prove to the Amazon Queen-her mother-that she is a "Wonder Woman" worthy to venture into man's world to "fight for liberty and freedom and all womankind" ("Introducing" 15). In contrast, in the first Superman comic book story line published three years earlier, Clark Kent decides to don a cape and enforce justice-a decision that is neither questioned nor challenged. He becomes a hero simply because he chooses to be: "Early, Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind. And so was created ... Superman!" ("Superman" 11).

Thus, Wonder Woman's legacy is one of deference, or at the least, limited agency; Superman's is one of assumed autonomy. Because of these respective positions of submission or dominance, the resolution of heroic trials, in their various forms, differs significantly based on the gender of the hero. Female superheroes on trial must prove their merit to a sanctioning institution, while male superheroes on trial affect the outcome on their own behalf.

The use of the narrative device of the "hero on trial" extends beyond the superhero comic book genre to portrayals of such superpowered characters on television. Like Wonder Woman, the sister witches of Charmed (1998-) and the title character of Buff y the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) face examination to justify possession of their conferred powers. Unlike Wonder Woman, the teenage Clark Kent of Smallville (2001-) and Jake Foley of Jake 2.

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