What do armpits, a marketing campaign, and the United Nations all have in common?
If you guessed “Wonder Woman,” then you’re close; more specifically, each of these things have been at the center of recent accusations that the 75-year old character perpetuates sexist stereotypes and antifeminist ideas about gender, sexuality, and body image. With the upcoming release of Wonder Woman’s first studio film, activists have raised concerns about the implication of an attempt at cross-promotion with a line of diet products as well as at trailers revealing actress Gal Gadot’s hairless armpits (to a degree that prompted studio executives to alter the footage in question for subsequent broadcasts).
And after the UN announced in October 2016 that the character would be named as an honorary ambassador for women and girls, over 45,000 people petitioned for a reassessment on the grounds that Wonder Woman’s overtly sexualized image (and fictional nature) did not set a proper example of equality and respect, particularly for younger people, but instead promoted the further objectification of women. The initiative was ended after two months.
Despite her creator’s clearly feministic intentions, Wonder Woman’s history reveals a relationship with feminism and objectification that is, at times, awkward as the character who William Moulton Marston imagined as the embodiment of female strength and power has often been relegated to junior positions and skimpy outfits (see both Tim Hanley’s Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine and Teresa Jusino’s article at The Mary Sue on this). And yet, Gadot’s confident portrayal of the character in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was hailed by many as a silver lining to an otherwise cloudy film, leaving many to hope that her feature-length treatment will be handled with similar respect. But, regardless of authorial intent, decades of objectification is hard to forget; fortunately, there is plenty of material in the Wonder Woman mythos on which Diana of Themyscira’s longtime fans might build their hopes that she will remain the feminist icon she was always meant to be.
Perhaps the most thorough exploration of the ethical pitfalls of objectification comes from Dr. Martha Nussbaum. One of the most accomplished philosophers alive, Nussbaum is presently the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. Over the last thirty years, she has demonstrated the practical value of academic philosophy by using it to shed light on political, social, and ethical issues, including feminist concerns over the perception and treatment of women. In an article first published in 1995, Nussbaum defines objectification as “making into a thing, treating as a thing, something that is not a thing,” and deconstructs the concept to analyze seven distinct ways that this is possible (1) ; I suggest that Wonder Woman can be recognized as a character whose history clearly subverts all seven.
Firstly, some of Nussbaum’s categories are easily rejected by Wonder Woman’s catalog, such as objectification brought about by fungibility, violability, or ownership. The first treats an individual as interchangeable with other individuals, thereby ignoring that which makes her a unique person; for Diana, who was crafted from clay by her mother and miraculously brought to life by a goddess, the suggestion of her fungibility is questionable at best – a fact made even more clear by Diana’s earned status as the champion of Themyscira. This theme was developed in particular by Gail Simone, Wonder Woman’s first female head writer, in the 2008 arc The Circle, which saw a rogue group of Amazons attempt to kill Diana because of her unique birthright.
Violability addresses the perception that it is both physically and morally possible to violate the personal space of a subject, as when an objectifying diner patron suddenly grabs the backside of his waitress. Even when her early penchant for being tied up is taken into account (2), Wonder Woman has, on various occasions, come out victorious in fights against Batman (3), the Flash (while blindfolded) (4), and even Superman (5); she is clearly able to demonstrate the foolishness of such molestation. And Diana’s status as a princess immediately disqualifies her from objectification-via-ownership, though it does offer the opportunity for wry one-liners, such as Diana’s exchange with Etta Candy over the slave-like nature of a “secretary” in the first trailer released for the new film.
Another key element to objectification entails denying that a person has autonomy, or the right to control herself; in fact, Nussbaum argues that the denial of autonomy is one of the most pressing elements on the list, given that “it seems difficult if not impossible to imagine a case in which an inanimate object is treated as autonomous.” (6) In short, although it could easily be imagined that an object like a pencil could be both violable or inviolable for various reasons, or perhaps owned or not owned, objects necessarily lack autonomy, so to deprive a human being of autonomy immediately objectifies them to at least some degree. Similar to Nussbaum’s separate category of inertness (which treats a subject as not only disallowed, but incapable of controlling herself), this view insulting believes that an agent is incapable of navigating the world on her own.
In contrast to this, the core of Wonder Woman’s story is her successful navigation (and improvement) of the world of men; indeed, any friction she feels from the exercise of her superpowered autonomy is typically a result of the world’s sexist expectations being confronted by a woman who demonstrates their falsity. Gadot consciously approached her character in this fashion, telling Entertainment Weekly that Wonder Woman’s feminism is implicit in her confused approach to Western gender roles:
“It was important to me that my character would never come and preach about how men should treat women. Or how women should perceive themselves. It was more about playing oblivious to society’s rules. ‘What do you mean women can’t go into the Parliament? Why?,’” she asks. “It’s just reminding everyone how things should be. I wanted to play the fish out of water, but I didn’t want to play her too silly.”
A good example of Wonder Woman’s subversion of objectification by autonomy-denial is her fatal confrontation with Max Lord in Greg Rucka’s The OMAC Project (part of the lead-in to 2005’s Infinite Crisis). If ever there was a model of the denial of autonomy, Lord’s psychic ability to force others to follow his commands is it; but Lord turns out to be no match for the resolve of the Princess of the Amazons. In trying to prevent countless lives from being caught in the midst of a battle between herself and a hypnotized Superman, Wonder Woman controversially breaks Lord’s neck to stop him, underlining her agency in the face of mental oppression. And this is far from the only time that Superman or other members of the Justice League are saved by Diana of Themyscira – consider particularly the 2000 one-shot JLA: League of One that sees Diana defeat each member of the Justice League in order to keep them safe from a battle prophesized to be fatal. Altogether, these trends iconize Wonder Woman’s triumph over the twin objectifying elements of inertness and autonomy-denial.
However, it is Nussbaum’s final two objectifying categories which encapsulate the majority of the concerns from Wonder Woman’s critics; the denial of subjectivity and instrumentality. The former concerns treating someone as if their personal feelings and experiences are either unimportant or nonexistent – something nearly impossible to maintain when a story is told from a character’s first-person perspective as many Wonder Woman stories have been. Moreover, Wonder Woman’s romantic storylines, though certainly bent towards sexist stereotypes in the immediate era following Marston’s death, have more recently demonstrated a healthy amount of respect and reciprocity, particularly in the post-Flashpoint New 52’s pairing of Diana with the similarly-powered Superman instead of the human Steve Trevor (7). No longer does Diana weep over a man so insecure that he criticizes her for abandoning him to rescue someone in need, but she instead demonstrates both her ability and her passion when she rescues the Kryptonian target of her love from certain danger. From both internal and external frames, a Wonder Woman story never fails to avoid emphasizing the importance of her personal perspective.
Finally, the category of instrumentality sees an objectifier treat a person simply as a tool for his or her own purposes, instead of as a uniquely valuable human being with personal desires and ends. From an in-universe perspective, a reader would be hard-pressed to find examples of Diana falling prey to this trope; as already described, her strength and courage lend her more than enough agency to avoid such concerns. Additionally, Nussbaum stresses that temporarily using someone instrumentally (as in the case of a person who rests her head on her partner’s stomach, temporarily using the body part as a pillow) is not necessarily problematic if that usage is done consensually and within the context of a generally respectful relationship; she summarizes, “what is problematic is not instrumentalization per se, but treating someone primarily or merely as an instrument.” (8) Which means that even in contrary cases, such as when both Lynda Carter’s television program and the cartoon Superfriends included storylines that involved Wonder Woman becoming hypnotized to serve a villain’s interests, objectifying instrumentalization is not here lauded, but rather used as proof of the villains’ depravity.
However, on a meta-level, this form of objectification is at the core of many complaints about Wonder Woman’s character – including the UN petition and the armpit protest. When Diana’s sexuality is emphasized and her physical form is accentuated and revealed by her costume, such features can overshadow her agency and personhood for the reader, instrumentalizing her character into a tool for a viewer’s sexual gratification (9). Regardless of how many themes of female empowerment might be expressed or demonstrated within the book, if a reader’s uncontrolled sex-drive leads him or her to objectify the character at first glance, then those positive messages will likely be missed; and while such mistreatment would be on the fault of the objectifying reader, critics have accused Wonder Woman’s writers and artists of encouraging such views in their storytelling and design choices. However, the character’s re-design following 2015’s Convergence event has included a new costume which traded Diana’s traditional swimsuit for a much more professional uniform that includes both pants and sleeves – perhaps a sign that DC’s writers are starting to heed such critiques about superheroines and the male gaze. (10)
So, is Wonder Woman an objectified anti-feminist? Altogether, Nussbaum’s seven components of objectification – fungibility, violability, ownership, autonomy-denial, inertness, subjectivity-denial, and instrumentalization – comprise a complicated matrix of problems. In fact, Nussbaum calls these categories “sign-posts” for objectification and points out that any one of these features is likely sufficient for objectification to be present, though often a given case involves more than one (11). Fortunately, Wonder Woman’s history is a thoughtful interplay of these issues, filled with examples of how strong and capable women can subvert precisely these forms of objectification. For a character whose origins are grounded in an inanimate lump of clay being brought to life, it is ironic that Wonder Woman has turned out to be so much more than just an object.
1. Martha C. Nussbaum, “Objectification,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 24, no. 4 (Fall 1995): 249-291. Available for free access.
2. On this, see Noah Berlatsky’s 2015 monograph Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948 published by Rutgers University Press.
3. As in Greg Rucka’s 2005 one-shot The Hiketeia.
4. Wonder Woman #212
5. This has actually happened several times, but Wonder Woman #219 is one of the more notable examples.
6. Nussbaum, “Objectification,” 206.
7. Although this relationship had been seen in several notable Elseworlds stories, including the much-lauded Kingdom Come, 2011 saw this pairing enter the standard DC canon.
8. Nussbaum, “Objectification,” 271.
9. For an amusing satire of this problem, see The Hawkeye Initiative.
10. For more on these issues, see Jehanzeb’s article “The Objectification of Women in Comic Books,” in Fantasy Magazine.
11. Nussbaum, “Objectification,” 258.