Wonder Woman's Lesbian Legacy

I spent the summer of 1977 running around my Long Island neighborhood in Wonder Woman Underoos, ragged towel safety-pinned around my neck, tinfoil-covered bracelets warding off invisible bullets. Two years earlier, an ingenue named Lynda Carter had been cast in the role of Wonder Woman, a cartoon superhero come to life on prime-time TV. I was five years old, and had never before seen such beauty and power. It altered the course of everything in my life that followed -- including my lesbian identity.

More than 20 years later, the icon of Wonder Woman endures. As hysteria builds around the movie version of Charlie's Angels, Warner Brothers (along with The Matrix director Joel Silver) is developing a feature-length film based on Diana Prince's Isis-powered alter ego. Young women today, given role models like Brandi Chastain, Xena and even Sporty Spice, still hold up Wonder Woman as the original female hero. Schoolgirls in St. Louis, ravers in DC, punks at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival with too-tight Wonder Woman tees strained across their pierced nipples -- they all embrace the allure of Wonder Woman.

But what of the woman behind the superhero? Lynda Carter has a family and a comfortable home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The former Miss World USA hasn't talked for years about her 1970s role, saying, "Everyone's been waiting for me to hate Wonder Woman, but I don't go around taking Wonder Woman pictures out; I don't live in the past." But she does not forget.

Girlfriends: Wonder Woman first caught society's eye as a cartoon crime-fighter in the WWII era, during which other female icons such as Rosie the Riveter existed. Do you recall the impact your Wonder Woman had on women during the 1970s, when they were again re-assessing their roles?

Lynda Carter: I think that the battle for women's rights has been ongoing, and every decade or generation has their own frustrations and battles -- and underground. (As for ABC's) creation of Wonder Woman, I think they did want something out there for little girls to believe in, and I do believe there was an altruistic reason for doing it. It was kind of an experiment, and my understanding is that the publishers of the comic books were against it until they realized that it was an untapped market.

Girlfriends: When you began playing the role of Wonder Woman in 1975, what was the political climate? I recall reading that there was some initial apprehension that a woman could not sustain a TV series.

Carter: Absolutely. They had their little graphs and things. But of course, they polled men. Then Doug Cramer had this idea, and it was a good one. They did these great big searches (for Diana Prince's character). He got it on the air, and they didn't think (I was right) because I had no real experience. To Doug's credit, he fought for me. He thought I was the one that could do the role. Once Wonder Woman became successful, there was the Bionic Woman spin-off, and then after that was Charlie's Angels, and on and on.

Girlfriends: What was the response at that time from viewers, especially from women and girls?

Carter: Well, the feminists were angry, because here was this "exploitation" once again. They were not very supportive of me in the role initially. But then they didn't know anything about me, and they didn't know how the character was going to be perceived. Once they saw that it was good for little girls they backed off.

Girlfriends: That's ironic, because on the cover of Ms. magazine's premiere issue in July 1972 was the cartoon of Wonder Woman.

Carter: That's interesting, because there wasn't a lot of feminist support when (the show) first came out. And (they weren't reacting to) Lynda Carter; it was Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. This character is much bigger than I am, although historically I played her and will always be identified with her. But I saw all of the potential when I first read the script. I thought that it could really be something great and that it could really be something that would help bolster girl power.

Girlfriends: How did the popularity of Wonder Woman as an icon for female empowerment affect you personally as a woman?

Carter: During the time when I played the role, I lived vicariously through her, because it was probably the least empowered time of my life. I've never really put that together before. I was at that time really unhappy and trapped in a relationship that was not healthy. It was my first marriage, and it was a mistake. Doing the show was like a saving grace, because I was my own person on the set; it was a piece of myself that I was able to hold on to. It was a scary time too, because everyone wants a little piece of you.

Girlfriends: Was that a heavy weight, or did it bolster you?

Carter: Of course it was. I think that any newly famous person should have to go into therapy immediately. (Laughs) But every time a woman succeeds, it paves the way for another woman.

Girlfriends: Although the icon of Wonder Woman has always been popular, it seems like there has been a resurgence of popularity, especially among young women of today.

Carter: I am thrilled by that. It makes some of the painful stereotyping of me by the industry worth it. I think Wonder Woman has that lasting effect because of the fantasy, that vicarious thrill of seeing a girl deck some guy, the idea of girl power -- being smart, and funny and free. It's also the idea of not being full of yourself while doing it, not being the female equivalent of a macho man, but being just a regular person.

Girlfriends: Few can deny that the icon of Wonder Woman paved the way for contemporary superheroines such as Xena. Do you take pride in being a progenitor?

Carter: I like women. I have the most amazing woman friends. And it seems to me that there are so many great women in comparison to great men -- and I do know some really great men, my husband being one of them. But in general I think that women are just amazing creatures and raising one is fascinating -- ultimately, exhilarating. My daughter fascinates me. Just watching her wheels turn in a different set of circumstances than I grew up in, growing up in the fifties and sixties, you know, that whole thing ....

Girlfriends: The lesbian community in particular has embraced the icon of Wonder Woman as a powerful, independent woman from an island of Amazonian sisters. Do you recall any backlash from that?

Carter: Like with Xena? No, there was nothing like that, at least that I was aware of. And if there had been, I would have told them all to go shove it anyway. I think it's great!

I get really angry about homophobia. I get really, really angry. Friends of mine, famous athletes don't have one single big company supporting them now they've come out. I've known Martina Navratilova for a long time, and she came out, and got no endorsers -- none. Any openly gay woman, it seems to me, cannot get any endorsers. What does that have to do with anything? Except the religious right and their judgment.

All the bad things I've been through in my life, every painful moment, have allowed me to be less judgmental of other people. Because I know how tender my heart is, I know how valuable I am, and I do believe I know the secret to life.

Girlfriends: Do you want to let me in on that?

Carter: It's giving. That feeling that you have inside when you have given to someone, that's God. And that's really what Wonder Woman did. I think that's the universal note she struck: She went around saving people, helping people, and she would kind of hide it and not make a big deal about it. That's why I liked her: She wasn't saying, "Look at me, I'm great, look at what I can do."

The other thing about her was that she also had this baggage. For Diana Prince, Wonder Woman was her baggage, because she couldn't just be herself. She couldn't have both of her selves seen and loved. Why is it that something as silly as a cartoon character does that? People don't have that kind of emotional attachment to The Rugrats.

Girlfriends: But it went against the grain. Wonder Woman wasn't just another Batman, Spiderman or Green Lantern. Wonder Woman was the first actual female role model, something that broke the mold, that said to women, "You don't have to be the damsel in distress."

Carter: And she made people tell the truth. In retrospect, believe me, the writers and the producers had none of this in mind when they were writing and producing. They had the formula down: four little acts, three Wonder Woman changes per episode. I didn't know enough, and I didn't have enough clout. I could only endow her with as much humanity as I could. That's what I worked on every day on the set. And that's why I liked to do my own stunts. They were a blast.

Boys thought of her differently, I think. I was the first fantasy for a lot of young boys...

Girlfriends: Maybe it was the metal bra.

Carter: But also, these little boys got to see a woman kick ... you know what. Wonder Woman had a great body and she was pretty, but that's OK. I can take that, too.

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