The amazing Wonder Woman

A discussion on Wonder Woman and the importance of contributions made by the social sciences and humanities.

Josho Brouwers

When I was studying archaeology, I was often asked a question that many who study the past are probably familiar with: that’s interesting, but what will you do for a living? The idea is, of course, that if you study archaeology or ancient history or Classics you’re unlikely to find actual employment in those fields. After all, the past is dead and buried; it has no practical use. Disciplines focused on the past cannot be compared to, for example, law or medicine or engineering, which are all useful in the modern world.

But this is a very narrow way of looking at the value of these fields of interests. True, studying Thucydides or examining Roman statues won’t lead to a cure for cancer or the bring about new advances in smart phone technology. But the past may nevertheless teach us valuable lessons about the present, especially when it comes to the human experience.

The concerns of our ancestors are often not that far removed from our own preoccupations. Indeed, this article suggests that liberal arts or humanities graduates could help people in making sense of the modern world. Technology companies are also interested in using such graduates to infuse their devices with much-needed human qualities.

Furthermore, the Classical world has inspired modern writers and artists since (at least) the Renaissance. Old stories, art styles, and motifs have been re-invented, re-used, and re-applied in new and creative ways for a long time now. It’s impossible to comprehensively understand modern art or literature – culture, in a broad sense – without a deep knowledge of the past.

For the sake of our culture (however we might define it), we need people out there to study the past, not only to analyse modern art and literature, but also to use that knowledge to re-invent those old stories and motifs, to build upon them and create something wonderful, familiar yet fresh.

Enter Wonder Woman

All this to work my way up to the subject of this article: the superheroine Wonder Woman. Not too long ago, I saw Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in the cinema. Opinions seem to be divided on the movie, but I had a great time. I especially liked the interplay between the three main characters: DC Comics’ stalwarts Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. I’ve been revisiting the comics and on the recommendation of a friend I bought Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014).

Wonder Woman was created in 1941 by American psychologist William Moulton Marston and his wife, Elizabeth. Marston intended for Wonder Woman to be a positive role model for girls, demonstrating that women could be as strong and capable as men (if not more so: Marston strongly believed the world would be better of if ruled by women). Wonder Woman became a strong symbol of feminism, with some imagery from the comics recalling advertisements for women’s suffrage from the earlier twentieth century. In 1972, the founding members of the magazine Ms. put her on the cover of their first regular issue and proudly featured the words, “Wonder Woman for president”.

As far as superheroes go, Wonder Woman was among the first, and she is – along with Superman and Batman – the foremost of DC Comics’s line-up. But the concept of the “superhuman” - i.e. a mortal being of tremendous power and/or skill – has, of course, been around for much longer. Aside from the fact that e.g. Superman was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’s character John Carter, stories about incredibly powerful heroes date back to ancient times. Philip Matyszak’s recent book on Hercules carries the telling subtitle, The First Superhero.

When Marston created Wonder Woman, it’s perhaps no surprise that he decided to make her an Amazon. She can be seen as a superheroine who bridges the ancient and the modern worlds. It was his knowledge of Greek mythology that enabled Marston to create a strong female character that has a sense of history behind her. After all, according to Greek mythology, the Amazons were an all-female nation, warlike and strong, who only needed men for procreation. While several Greek heroes managed to fight and subdue Amazon queens – including Hercules, Theseus, and Achilles – none were ever able to defeat the Amazons completely. They also were believed to really exist: Herodotus mentioned them and claims that they were related to the Scythians.

You might be surprised to learn that two particular aspects of Wonder Woman’s kit actually have ancient origins, namely her armour and her lasso. In the comics, Wonder Woman’s “lasso of truth” is unbreakable (except when the victim is Bizarro, as in Matt Wagner’s Trinity), and anyone caught in it is forced to speak the truth. It might surprise you to know, but Adrienne Mayor, in her book The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Warrior Woman Across the Ancient World (2014), mentions that the Sarmatians were thought to have used lassos in battle, and she also includes a Greek vase-painting of an Amazon about to lasso a warrior (fig. 13.5 on p. 227).

The armour worn by Wonder Woman tends to be moulded to fit the female body, just like, for example, the armour worn by the eponymous lead character in Xena: Warrior Princess. Here’s a shot with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) from Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman (2016), so you know what I’m writing about:

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) flanked by Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck).

Such equipment is often disparagingly referred to as “boob armour”. It mainly serves to highlight the breasts. Infamously, for the “Sand Snakes” – a group of female warriors who appear in season 5 of Game of Thrones – the costumer even included nipples! Strange as it may seem, there do seem to be ancient antecedents for such armour. In her book, Mayor includes an ancient Greek vase-painting (fig. 5.1 on p. 90) that depicts an Amazon in what appears to be a metal cuirass with moulded breasts.

Needless to say, such armour isn’t very practical. As Mayor explains (p. 93, original emphasis):

cone- or dome-shaped projections would direct the force of blows of weapons toward the sternum and heart. Even a fall could be fatal, causing the sharp metal separating the breast hollows to injure or even fracture the breastbone. Therefore, armored fighting women in antiquity would have worn padding under chest plates shaped exactly like the men’s, presenting a flat surface or a ridge down the center to deflect blows away from the heart.

Good thing Wonder Woman is rather steady on her feet, then!

Final thoughts

You could do a lot worse than read the Wonder Woman books. The name of the island of the Amazons, Themiscyra (spelled Themyscira), is taken from ancient sources (it’s an area in Turkey), and a lot of Wonder Woman’s allies and adversaries are taken from or inspired by Greek mythology.

The comic offers a good example of the re-use and re-invention of ancient stories and motifs. No one would be able to write these stories without some knowledge of the ancient world, and I think that readers will appreciate the stories more when they are themselves familiar with Greek mythology.

If you’re interested in delving into the comics, a good starting point, I think, would be the New 52 series of Wonder Woman comics written by Brian Azzarello. Naturally, you should also check out the books by Jill Lepore and Adrienne Mayor, cited above.