A couple of months ago, I posted about Grant Morrison’s version of Wonder Woman and how it kind of tried to be feminist but wasn’t. I’ve posted quite a bit about feminist themes in other books, too, but I’d like to make “Is This Feminist?” a regular thing, and I’m starting with some more Wonder Woman — the Wonder Woman by George Perez Omnibus Vol. 1 I reviewed earlier this week for Classics Club. I loved it for the art and excellent writing, but it’s also a much more nuanced treatment of feminism despite not using the word.
In this origin story — the 1986 reboot that kicked off the modern era of Wonder Woman — the Amazons are a project of several female goddesses to help bring peace to the world. They have something of a special connection to Gaea, and next to the active goddesses, but worship the whole Greek pantheon. Humans, particularly the patriarchal system, are far too influenced by a slightly war-mad Ares. What’s really interesting, and only mentioned once or twice, is that the Amazons are made from the souls of human women who were killed by men. Gaea held onto their souls and the other goddesses make Amazons out of them. Diana was Hippolyte’s unborn daughter, upon whom the goddesses (and Hermes) bestow gifts. I talked in that Classics Club post about how the Amazons are a race of warriors trying to achieve peace, and Diana’s origin plays into that — she comes from what we must assume is a horrible background, but she hasn’t seen those things herself. The goddesses want her to be someone new.
I also mentioned how interesting the pantheon is here, how believable the gods are. The female goddesses tend to have the most personal significance for the Amazons, but they interact with all of them. The series does a fantastic job of just having a lot of women, as villains and allies and supporting characters, without it ever feeling like it’s some weird universe that only contains women or that a female superhero HAS to only fight female villains. Steve Trevor, Ares, Hermes, Heracles, and various other men just have entirely natural parts among a cast of mostly women. And while the Amazons aren’t openly queer, it’s very strongly suggested that they are. George Perez, who did the plotting and art and quite a bit of the writing, includes several references to love between Amazons, a panel where Diana and her human mentor/friend/DEFINITELY GIRLFRIEND are “hugging” but drawn to look way more like they’re kissing, a reference to Sappho and an Amazon city on Lesbos, and an openly gay human character late in the omnibus.
One of the more cringeworthy elements of many Wonder Woman origins is how Diana reacts to seeing Steve Trevor for the first time. Often she seems to fall madly in love with him just because he’s a man and he’s there. In this version, she reacts to seeing a man for the first time, but it’s more of a casual curiosity and she notes he resembles the male gods she’s already seen. The Amazons also have, sensibly, a healing island where men are allowed. His presence is a concern, and they have an open debate about whether men should be allowed on Themyscira later on, but no one loses her mind over the sheer fact that a man exists. Steve and Diana do have a special connection, but of all things, it turns out to be plot-related! Instead Diana starts having feelings for Superman, but it doesn’t work out for ideological reasons, and Steve ends up with Etta Candy! Etta is also fabulous, she’s an Air Force lieutenant and more committed to it than Steve, she totes a gun, and she has a realistically-handled mini-arc touching on body image and Wonder Woman as an unrealistic ideal (both physically and philosophically).
Finally, I should warn you that rape and rapeyness are also recurring themes, although nothing graphic happens. The Amazons’ backstory in the first issue or two includes all of them being tricked, taken prisoner, and raped by Heracles’ men. The ensuing bloodbath when Hippolyte breaks them free is another central event in their narrative, splitting Hippolyte and her sister who doesn’t see a thing wrong with mass revenge. The whole sequence and aftermath get a little squicky because it’s sort of a “lesson” that teaches the Amazons they strayed from the path laid down by Gaea. But it also functions as a really important “we’ve been goddamn abused” backstory that makes the Amazons more realistic and relevant. The Amazons are an attempt at a feminist empowerment story, NOT a feminist utopia.
Midway through the book, there’s also a storyline in which Zeus decides these Amazons are worthwhile after all, so he’s gonna go have sex with them, as one might expect from Zeus. I have mixed feelings about this plot… I like that it exists, and the Amazons have to address it. They have to deal with being devoted to “gods” who are sometimes reprehensible. There’s a romance thing between Hippolyte and Heracles, though. In the context of the book he shows that he’s learned, and Hippolyte wouldn’t get involved if he didn’t demonstrate new respect for her, but in real life JUST NO. Still, the main part of the story between Diana and Zeus is good. Diana ain’t havin’ it, and when she’s conflicted, it’s not in front of him.
George Perez’ Wonder Woman isn’t “pro-feminist” in the sense of explaining or advocating for feminism, it just is feminist by treating its characters with respect. Perez creates varied, layered women with agency all throughout the book. In the end, it’s more feminist and more queer than Morrison’s queer feminist version. Read this, not that!