The Enduring Racism of Wonder Woman

Earlier this week, images of the character Hippolyta riding on horseback emerged from the Italian set of the 2017 Wonder Woman movie. The photos came on the heels of the release of the first still from the movie, complete with badass Amazonian warrior women glowering at you from Paradise Island.

These photos look promising in many ways; they have more zip and character than most of Batman v. Superman, at least. Unfortunately, as a number of fans pointed out, badass as those warrior women are, they are also disconcertingly homogenous. All the Amazons in the images are white. Queen Hippolyta’s black adviser Philippus is nowhere to be seen.

Philippus was introduced into the canon by George Perez when he rebooted the Wonder Woman series in 1987. That means she’s been around for 30 years—long enough for the filmmakers to have heard of her, you’d think. Given the paucity of superheroes of color on the big screen, DC should use every opportunity to include black heroes in their franchise.

This is perhaps especially the case because the all-white Paradise Island underlines an uncomfortable truth about the original Wonder Woman comics. William Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator, was consistently, and grossly, racist.

Marston’s racism isn’t widely discussed; he’s much better known for his progressive views on feminism. He was a strong believer in women’s equality, and even women’s superiority. His comics were lauded by feminists like Gloria Steinem, and not just because they featured a female hero. Wonder Woman in the comics was surrounded by other strong women; Marston consistently depicted sisterhood as a source of power, whether on Paradise Island or in a man’s world. Women in Marston’s comics excelled in sports, in science, and in politics. Whether they were beating men in ice hockey or riding off to space on giant kangaroos, they were, well, awesome.

Or at least white women were awesome.

Women of color were a somewhat different story. Marston and artist Harry Peter regularly presented Asian and black people via racist caricatures. They even used the occasional anti-Semitic depiction. This was unusual in superhero comics, since most creators were Jewish. Marston, though, was a Harvard educated WASP, and apparently felt no compunction about stereotyping his colleagues.

The absolute low point of racism in the Wonder Woman comics was in Wonder Woman #19. This issue was set in some unspecified African nation, giving Peter the opportunity to draw African people as subhuman animalistic blackface monsters. For his part, Marston wrote a script in which the Africans were allied with the Nazis; they actually had swastikas on their loincloths. Hitler, of course, loathed black people. To present black Africans as Nazis both whitewashes Hitler and suggests that black people were implicated in an evil regime which called for their genocide. In short, even by the very racist standards of American wartime pulp, Wonder Woman #19 is a shameful exercise in ignorance and hate.

You could argue that Marston’s racism is inconsistent with his feminism and with Wonder Woman’s true principles. Marston generally wrote stories in which Wonder Woman would discover a patriarchal society of Mole Men or Seal Men, help the women find their true moral, physical, and erotic strength, and then depart with a happy matriarchy in place. In Wonder Woman #19, though, Marston’s racism interferes with the feminist narrative. Wonder Woman does not help black women to find strength and sisterhood; in fact, for all practical purposes, black women are not represented at all in the comic. Marston’s belief in female superiority and his belief in black inferiority are incompatible. He cannot imagine black women, and therefore, for the one and only time in the Wonder Woman series, is unable to imagine feminist revolution. Racism undermined Marston’s progressive vision. 

You could also argue that racism really was central to Marston’s feminist vision. Marston was a gender essentialist; he believed women were purer, more virtuous, and more peaceful than men. He saw Wonder Woman as the prototype for a female “love leader”; women who, via erotic oomph and moral power, would lead the world to matriarchal utopia.

So, yes, Marston was a crank. But his crankiness was consistent with some clichés of white feminism. Vron Ware in her bookBeyond the Pale talks about how in Britain, white women were seen as inspiring paragons, who went out into the empire to bring people of color to civilization and virtue—just as Wonder Woman converted Seal Men and Mole Men to good. For Marston, there’s an uncomfortable sense in which Wonder Woman’s whiteness was central to, rather than incidental to, her feminism. The powerful, transformative femininity of love leaders was tied to the moral power of white women in particular. For Marston, a black Amazon would not be possible.

Marston isn’t writing Wonder Woman anymore, obviously. His vision of the character doesn’t have to set limits on her forever. Superman could only jump at first; the Hulk was slate grey in his initial appearance. If you can color Bruce Banner’s skin green and have the red and blue guy whoosh off into the clouds, you should be able to have black Amazons.

Still, Marston’s racism is worth remembering because prejudice can be hard to shake. For Marston, Wonder Woman’s superpowers were linked to her whiteness; to be a wonder woman, of glowing virtue and love and femininity, was, for him, to be a wonder white woman. And in 2016, more than 70 years later, at least the first film still from the Wonder Woman film suggests that that flawed logic retains its force (though, thankfully, Director Patty Jenkins’ has promised that there will be more diverse Amazons in the film).

Wonder Woman was Marston’s ideal woman. And that ideal woman for him was, and had to be, white. DC should include Philippus in their film; there should be black Amazons. But as long as Wonder Woman herself is white, and has to be white, Marston’s racism will linger.

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