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Why Wonder Woman is a worthy feminist heroine

Wonder Woman

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman, 2017.

Paul Asay - published on 06/02/17

Despite being one of the most popular superheroes, Wonder Woman hasn't received the pop-culture love she deserves -- until now.
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Wonder Woman hits theaters today, and fans of the world’s most famous female superhero have just one thing to say about it:

It’s about time.

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Male superheroes have no trouble getting a movie deal. Superman’s gotten nine films or serials, running the gamut from 2013’s The Man of Steel to 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men. Batman’s starred in a dozen, if you count this year’s LEGO Batman. And that’s not counting their double-bill, triple-panned 2016 flick Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Sure, Wonder Woman was in Dawn of Justice, too. Most critics think she was the best thing in it. Did she get name-checked in the title? Nooooo.

Despite being one of the most popular superheroes in American history, what pop-culture love has Wonder Woman gotten? A solitary TV series that ended in 1979.

Wonder Woman deserves better.

Granted, her history is not without problems.

William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman, introducing her to the world just as the United States was entering World War II. The superhero, whose given name was Diana, was beautiful, strong and courageous — “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” Marston wrote.

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But he also initially saddled her with “Aphrodite’s Law”: If her famous bracelets were chained by a man, she’d lose her super powers. And she fell victim to pretty much every age’s brand of sexism, too. Early in her run, when she served in the Justice League with fellow do-gooders such as Batman and Superman, she’d work as the League’s … secretary. The fact that she tends to dress more like a fantasy pinup model than a working superhero, or the insistence by some that she’s bisexual, further muddies her role.

But what 75-year-old woman hasn’t experienced her share of missteps? Wonder Woman is still hero to millions of girls and women. And I think rightfully so.

She was introduced in 1941 — just 22 years after women earned the right to vote. She was fighting fascists when some women were told their place was in the home and their only duty was to make their husbands happy. As men mocked “lady drivers,” Wonder Woman was flying an invisible plane. By the time women were allowed to take any job in the armed forces in 2016, Wonder Woman had been fighting evil for more than 70 years.

She’s super-strong, super-fast, and super … well, everything. Gal Gadot, who plays Wonder Woman in the new movie, thinks her character could whup Superman. In the original DC comics, Batman has said that Wonder Woman just might be the best fighter alive. Yeah, that’s right: Batman said that. He doesn’t seem like the sort of chap to give compliments lightly.

But as powerful as she is, Wonder Woman has never lost her essential femininity.

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Gadot’s portrayal of the mighty maven is pretty masterful in this regard.

In the movie, Diana is raised as a warrior princess on a magical island without men. She’s introduced to the outside world when a World War I pilot and spy, Steve Trevor, crashes into the nearby ocean. Diana rescues him (naturally) and hears about the horrors of the “War to End All Wars.” She figures that Ares, the god of war and her people’s mortal enemy, is behind it all. She decides to go with Steve to the front—determined to slay Ares and help restore mankind to what she believes it to be its original, unfallen state.

Throughout the movie, she leads Steve and his motley cohorts into the thick of the struggle, they simply struggling to keep up. But while her actions are that of a warrior, her motives are that of a mother. She sees wounded soldiers and longs to care for them. She almost singlehandedly overruns the German front in order to relieve a village and thus feed and rescue starving children.

It’s not that men don’t want to help the hurting and sick, of course, but their motives are mixed in the movie. Wonder Woman’s drive is unalloyed by baser inclinations: She, like a mother bear defending her cubs, operates through virtuous instinct. She sees suffering and wants to make it better.

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“What kind of weapon kills innocents?” she asks Steve as she contemplates the horrors of modern warfare.

“In this war?” Steve says. “Every kind.”

The new Wonder Woman movie is not perfect. Given its pagan underpinnings and the sexual interplay between Diana and Steve, the film has some content concerns. But it also gives us a real hero, as principled as we’ve seen on screen in years. Yes, she’s a great fighter, but she understands an important truth that we so often forget: That love truly is the most powerful force on earth.

When I saw the movie this week, I also saw dozens of Wonder Woman fans who’d been waiting for this day: 50-year-old women bedecked in Wonder Woman outfits and 7-year-old girls crowned with Wonder Woman diadems. Boys were there in force, too: Just because Wonder Woman’s a girl doesn’t mean she isn’t cool.

Truth is, as inspiring as Wonder Woman has been for generations of girls, her appeal is not restricted to a single gender. She embodies traits that we could all stand to embrace a bit more: a willingness to stand up for what’s right, no matter the odds. A desire to help the helpless. An urge to heal the hurts of the world.

It took a long time for Wonder Woman to get her own movie. But finally, Hollywood has come to understand what some of us already knew: Wonder Woman is a hero. For all of us.

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