It took the better part of a century for the comics’ most famous female superhero to get her own movie, but there’s no denying the box office clout of Wonder Woman now. So, more than ever, it’s fair to ask: What took so long? The character’s unique, politically charged, and frequently controversial history dating back to World War II may have had something to do with the extended wait. In 2014, Jill Lepore’s book The Secret History of Wonder Woman unearthed fascinating insights into the character’s past. Now that Wonder Woman has been redefined for a generation of movie fans by Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins, we took a look back at Lepore’s book and a few related sources to find 10 facts about Wonder Woman’s origins and legacy that may surprise you.
Wonder Woman was created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston, the inventor of the lie detector test. An eccentric visionary who had trouble holding one job for long, Marston studied psychology at Harvard. In 1914, he became the first to use a person’s blood pressure to determine whether they were lying. Though the method was far from perfect, it led to the creation of the polygraph still used today — and entered the comics as Wonder Woman’s “lasso of truth,” which forces its captive to speak honestly.
The character’s original look was inspired by ‘40s pin-up girls, the Miss America pageant, and the newly popular superhero Captain America. Hence the skimpy costume, the tiara, and the patriotic color scheme, respectively. The bullet-deflecting bracelets had a secret inspiration: Marston was a believer in “free love” with three female life partners, who also collaborated with him on his scientific and comics work. One of those women, Olive Byrne, wore thick bracelets — much like Wonder Woman’s — in lieu of a wedding ring.
Wonder Woman was meant to channel the ideals of the country’s first feminism movement. Marston was a big believer in the turn-of-the-century women’s movement, which advocated for voting rights and access to birth control. In fact, Marston believed that women were inherently superior to men (not a belief of mainstream feminism, then or now), with, as he told the Washington Post, “twice the emotional development, the ability for love, than man has.” Per Lepore’s book, he predicted in 1937 that within 1,000 years, the United States would be run entirely by women. Wonder Woman was meant to be an ultra-patriotic model of the justice and compassion that women could bring to the nation.
The character came with her own curse words. The backstory of Wonder Woman, born of ancient gods and raised on an island of female warriors called the Amazons, is derived from Greek mythology. Marston wanted Wonder Woman’s language to reflect this, while keeping the emphasis on what Marston’s wife Elizabeth Holloway called “feminine expletives.” Examples included “Suffering Sappho!”, “Great Hera!”, and “Athena’s shield!” The last was suggested by Holloway to DC Comics as an alternative to the exclamation “Great Caesar’s ghost!”
In 1942, Wonder Woman became the first female character to have her own comic. One year after she first began appearing in DC titles like Sensation Comics and All-Star Comics, Wonder Woman was already the publisher’s most popular superhero after Superman and Batman (who were introduced in 1938 and 1939, respectively). That fall, she became the first female superhero to join the Justice Society, the earliest version of the Justice League…as the group’s secretary.
Early Wonder Woman comics include a feature called “Wonder Women of History,” stories about real-life female heroes. The women profiled in these 2- to 4-page sections included Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc, Sojourner Truth, Abigail Adams, and Susan B. Anthony, along with important but lesser-known figures in women’s history like home economics creator Ellen Swallow Richards and astronomer Caroline Herschel.
Controversy followed Wonder Woman from the beginning. In 1942, the National Organization for Decent Literature, composed of Catholic bishops, condemned the character for being “not sufficiently dressed.” A decade later, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham declared that Wonder Woman promoted S&M and lesbianism in his book Seduction of the Innocent, which led the comics industry to develop new censorship standards (the “Comics Code Authority”).
The feminist ideals of Wonder Woman’s origins didn’t survive the 1950s. After World War II, women who had been in the workforce resumed their roles as homemakers, and Wonder Woman’s politically progressive storylines became unfashionable. Instead of fighting for justice, she tried babysitting a dinosaur, becoming a fashion model, and writing a “lonely hearts” column. Even “Wonder Women of History” was replaced with a feature called “Marriage A La Mode,” which detailed the customs and traditions of matrimony. In the 1960s, Wonder Woman gave up her superpowers entirely to be with love interest Steve Trevor, permanently transforming into her human alter-ego Diana Prince.
Wonder Woman’s renaissance began in the 1970s, when she appeared on the first-ever cover of Ms. Magazine under the headline “Wonder Woman for President.” The editors of the feminist publication wanted to pay tribute to the Wonder Woman they remembered from their childhoods, who fought wartime dictators, protested unfair labor conditions at home, and would always break the (literal) shackles put on her by men. But the comics were slow to pick up the feminist pace. In 1972, a series of “women’s lib” stories, including one in which Diana Prince defended an abortion clinic, was cancelled after the first issue. DC finally began assigning some female writers to Wonder Woman in the 1980s, though the first woman to write the character long-term was Gail Simone from 2007-2010. In April 2017, after 75 years, Wonder Woman finally got its first all-female creative team.
As late as 2015, Wonder Woman was declared “cursed for movies and TV.” That statement was the headline of an article in The Hollywood Reporter that ran after the first director of the Wonder Woman movie, Michelle MacLaren, dropped out. (She was replaced by Patty Jenkins.) There were many failed attempts to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen, including a 1999 film meant to star Sandra Bullock. Most of the Wonder Woman TV shows developed over the years never even made it to the air, with the notable exception of the hit series that ran from 1975-1979 starring Lynda Carter. The THR article’s author claimed that the problem was “the character herself,” because she’s not accessible to audiences. Of course, the author was ignoring a fundamental truth about Wonder Woman: In the past 75 years, every time she’s been knocked down by a man, she always rises up.
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