Opinion // What Wonder Woman Tells Us About Hillary
The cartoon character faced unreasonable double standards, too.
by Letty Cottin Pogrebin
The night Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, I was finishing Jill Lepore’s fascinating bestseller, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, and came upon the strip in which Diana Prince—the bespectacled intelligence officer who was to Wonder Woman what Clark Kent was to Superman—runs for president of the United States. And wins.
The drawing of Wonder Woman’s alter ego taking the oath is captioned in part, “After many years of faithful service to her country, [she] finally holds its highest office.”
After 40 years of faithful service to her country and 240 years of male presidents, let’s hope the same can be said of Hillary Rodham Clinton next January 20th.
I was struck, reading the book, by how much the first female presidential nominee candidate of a major political party and the first female mass market comic book superhero have in common. Wonder Woman used her superhuman strength to break free of the iron chains that her creator, William Moulton Marston, used as metaphors for the constraints of the conventional female role. Marston once confessed, “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” Clinton is that new woman, who has had to use her human talents—which are formidable—to break the bonds of gender stereotyping and sex discrimination that still exist.
Despite 50 years of feminist progress, female power can still feel threatening to men and intimidating to women, so, like Diana Prince, Hillary Clinton often has to keep her inner Wonder Woman under wraps. Everyone tells her to be authentic. But if her authentic self is cool and smart, she needs to hide it. When she speaks forcefully, she’s called strident or shrill; when she demonstrates deep knowledge, she’s accused of being an intellectual elitist, remote, too wonky to be likeable. I heard one young person say she “has no soul.” David Brooks, writing in The New York Times, wants to know what she does for fun. Some say she should show more emotion, expose her vulnerability, be more family-oriented. But don’t talk too much about being a grandmother; that makes you sound old.
On appearance, compared to Hillary, Wonder Woman had it easy. But not all that easy. Clearly, Wonder Woman’s costume had to be red, white and blue and sexy enough to sell comic books. Beyond that, the specifics of her outfit aroused fierce disagreement among her creators, artists and company executives. Ultimately, they decided to replace her original white-collared blouse, flared skirt and strappy sandals with skin-tight short shorts, kinky stiletto boots and a red bustier emblazoned with an American eagle.
About Hillary’s looks, everyone on earth seems to have an opinion. No presidential candidate in American history has had to endure such scrutiny or reconcile so many irreconcilable cultural contradictions. She should lose 20 pounds. Wear black like Rachel Maddow. Forget the pantsuits. Ditch those tent tops. Keep her hair short. Nix the bright jewelry. Wear Manolos (low heels are so matronly). Then, if she adopts a new color or style, critics blast her for shape-shifting. A Vogue reporter described the brouhaha among journalists on the campaign trail when it looked from afar as if Hillary was wearing a white leather skirt. One said, “If she’s wearing a skirt, that’s huge news.”
Like Wonder Woman, Hillary is supposed to project the toughness and determination of a commander in chief while satisfying the still pervasive, often coercive “feminine ideal.” She has to smile sweetly, look fresh after 12 hours on her feet, answer for her husband’s behavior, confront her male adversaries without emasculating them and tout her experience and competence without making other women feel diminished in comparison. It’s a tough balancing act—and the worst is yet to come.
When Hillary cites examples of social inequality and injustice, count on Donald Trump to accuse her of “political correctness.” Expect him to denigrate her age and appearance—if not overtly, then with a smirk. She’ll need more than magic bracelets to withstand this grueling ordeal, but she’s battle-scarred and well-armored; no one is better prepared to power through it.
In 1941, when Wonder Woman first hit the stands, we were fighting Hitler and fascism. The comic’s inaugural issue shows the goddess Athena imploring the Queen of the Amazons to send to the U.S. her “strongest and wisest…and finest” woman warrior. “American liberty and freedom must be preserved,” says Athena, and “the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women, needs your help!” Sadly, what was true then is true now, except that this time we’re fighting antidemocratic, gun-crazy fundamentalist thugs and their hate-mongering standard-bearer, and this time we can elect a real-life Wonder Woman.
Lepore discovered in writing her book that the secret goal of Wonder Woman’s creator was “to set a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; and to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men.” In that sense, “she wasn’t meant to be a superwoman; she was meant to be an everywoman.” If Hillary Clinton succeeds, it will be because she has somehow managed to be both.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is the author of 11 books, most recently the novel Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate.