THE CLERK AT my local post office was clear out of Wonder Woman stamps. Try again next week, he shrugged. They’d reordered the bright four-paneled pages a few times already, but they kept selling out. In all his years behind the counter he’d hardly ever seen such demand for a stamp. I don’t get it, he said.
Oh, but I do. It’s not just that it’s the 75th anniversary of the most popular female superhero’s debut in DC Comics, or even that the long-awaited Warner Bros. film is being released this week, with all the attendant commercial tie-ins (action figures, a fashion line, diet power bars). With her golden hammer and Lasso of Truth, Wonder Woman fascinates because she is a complicated symbol of female empowerment: the perfect embodiment of social ambivalence around women’s roles, especially today.
Could there be a better repository for the jumble of emotions women are feeling at this moment in America? A literal Amazon from a matriarchal utopia sent to free the world of lies, hatred, and wars, Wonder Woman is strong but scantily clad, like Rosie the Riveter in a push-up bustier. She is both a feminist icon — Ms. magazine put her on its first cover in 1972 — and every adolescent boy’s fantasy. She wears golden cuffs that deflect bullets, but they are called Bracelets of Submission because they recall a time when her paradise island of women was cruelly dominated by Hercules — a winking reference to bondage themes that run through many of the early stories. Warrior princess or objectified vamp? You decide.
The tale behind Wonder Woman’s origin as a comic strip is nearly as fantastic. As explained in “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” a terrific book by Harvard historian Jill Lepore, the character’s creator, William Moulton Marston, led an eccentric, not to say kinky, lifestyle in the 1920s and ’30s. A devotee of polyamory, he lived and fathered children with both his wife, Elizabeth, and a student named Olive Byrne, the model for Wonder Woman. Olive’s aunt was the crusading birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, whose feminist views influenced Marston. Indeed, the family’s curious living arrangement was seen as a pioneering experiment: a way for Elizabeth to pursue a legal career while Olive raised their mutual children. Talk about having it all!
In October, when it looked like Hillary Clinton was about to use her superpowers to blast through the political glass ceiling, the United Nations cheekily named Wonder Woman an honorary UN ambassador. Reaction was fierce. At least 45,000 people signed a petition opposing the choice, first because plenty of real-life women heroes could have filled the role, and second because — well, as the petition noted — “A large-breasted white woman of impossible proportions, scantily clad in a shimmery, thigh-baring body suit” was not the ideal model for international gender equity. The honorary ambassador was quickly relegated to the remainder pile.
But feminism is all about choices, and I think we can choose to claim Wonder Woman as our own. She’s only a symbol, after all; we can give her whatever meaning we wish. Real women contain multitudes, as Hillary Clinton knows better than anyone. Proud feminists from Madonna to Beyoncé to Emma Watson have managed to strut their sexuality while still telling their truth. A poster of Wonder Women giving Donald Trump a power-punch was a popular feature at the women’s marches after his inauguration.
So bring on the Lasso of Truth! I don’t have a pink pussy hat, but I want a Wonder Woman stamp for the next letter I send to Congress. I’ll consider it a 49-cent stick in the eye of the patriarchy.
Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.