Every July, comic book fans, professionals, and academics flock to San Diego, California, to Comic Con International – a celebration of the art and business of the comic book industry. Comics used to be a niche genre of interest to a small subset of popular culture enthusiasts. However, since the 1970s, they have increasingly provided the characters and stories on which Film, television and streaming media empires are founded..
Marvel, home of the Avengers, turned a almost made the comic book and toy company one of the most lucrative movie franchises in history and became a mainstay of Disney’s streaming media empire. sony continues to make money from his involvement in the Spider-Man franchise. DC Comics created fan favorites Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Although his transition to movies did not coincide with the success of Marvel, WarnerMedia has doubled its investment in DC superheroes.
As the cultural impact of comics has grown, scholars have explored how they have reflected and shaped attitudes about everything from policy to war to economic Sciences to gender, career, ability and sexuality.
As a gender and political culture scholar, I’m interested in comic book depictions of female superheroes as elected officials. My research collaborator, Ryan Greene, and I have presented analyzes of political storylines in comics involving Wonder Woman and Batgirl at Comic Con International. We argue that these comic strip depictions aptly illustrate how sexism undermines democracy. Our examination also demonstrates why comic book history is relevant to contemporary politics.
Wonder Woman for President
Wonder Woman, the Amazonian princess, warrior for peace, and self-proclaimed defender of the Earth, has long been an icon of feminist force. She graced the cover of the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine in 1972, depicted as a giant superhero rescuing a beleaguered world while running for US President on a “peace and justice” platform.
Yet in 1944, when Wonder Woman ran for president in the pages of her own comic, the story exhibited a surprising undercurrent of authoritarianism and sexist thinking.
“wonder woman for president”, is a flashback story set in the 3000s, when women headed the governments of the world. Wonder Woman Creator, William Moulton Marstonhe believed in the moral superiority of women and conjured up a world based on gender differences, in which women represented peace and justice and men symbolized war and corruption.
What Marston called the “era of the new woman,” however, has the pitfalls of an authoritarian state.
“Girl troopers” protect President Arda Moore, the woman who precedes Wonder Woman’s rise to the Oval Office. The sky is covered with aircraft that spread “a great network of friendly protection across the length and breadth of America.” The secretaries gleefully sport head devices that force them to type their bosses’ dictation. In particular, Wonder Woman’s mother, Queen Hippolyta, assures her daughter that “all men are far happier when their strong and aggressive natures are controlled by a wise and loving woman.”
Democracy is not dead in the US, however, and Wonder Woman’s alter ego Diana Prince enters the political fray to stop the corrupt “Party of Man” from taking control of the government. Her victory is undermined both by the young voters whose female crush forces them to vote for the male candidate, and by a vote-stuffing scheme orchestrated by the Men’s Party.
When democratic processes prove insufficient to keep the peace, Wonder Woman steps in to thwart the Man’s Party’s plan and is sworn in as her alter ego, Diana Prince.
historian philip smith describes “Wonder Woman for President” as a “proto-feminist” story that reflects attitudes about gender that were progressive in its day.
However, our research shows how the comic introduces damaging stereotypes about gender and politics that persist to this day: that gender differences determine people’s approach to leadership; that female voters are sometimes motivated by sexual attraction; and so? when women gain political power, they use it to dominate men.
Furthermore, while Wonder Woman is portrayed as a champion of democracy, Marston’s story portrays democracy as weak, prone to corruption, and ultimately in need of superheroic intervention in order to survive. In that sense, “Wonder Woman for President” mirrors other stories about political superheroes in comics and movies. that have authoritarian foundations.
Giving “the kick” to sexist and authoritarian politics
Yet a comic book narrative that has been overlooked by scholars and fans alike illustrates how popular culture can foster healthier attitudes about politics and gender. In the 1970s, DC Comics sent Batgirl and her alter ego, Barbara Gordon, to the nation’s capital in a narrative grounded in gender equality and the strength of democracy.
In “Batgirl Unmasked”, Batgirl is discouraged that the thieves she sends to jail are released and commit more crimes. Disillusioned with vigilantism, she decides that the only way to effectively fight crime is to advocate for crime prevention and prison reform legislation.
Gordon launches a campaign for the US Congress that promises to give corrupt politicians “the boot” (a nod to Batgirl’s signature footwear) and attract support from a diverse coalition of voters.
While Diana Prince’s constituents were exclusively white and predominantly women, Barbara Gordon activates a multiracial coalition of women and men from various walks of life. Her heroic character as Batgirl fades into the background as Gordon deploys a more democratic superpower, persuasion, to accomplish her mission.
As in the Diana Prince campaign, nefarious actors meddle with the vote, this time using intimidation to depress voter turnout. But rather than wait for Batgirl to save the day, Gordon’s political supporters step in to drive voters to the polls, ensuring her political victory in “The Last Case of Batgirl.”
Wonder Woman’s superpowers were needed to make up for the weaknesses of democracy, but Batgirl’s exploits prove insufficient to ensure justice. Her faith in the people and democracy is rewarded when the citizens, working together, save the day.
tell democratic stories
As another presidential campaign approaches, it’s worth remembering that authoritarian politics are not always advertised as such.
Sometimes, like Wonder Woman’s signature outfit, they are dressed in red, white, and blue.
These stories have a lasting appeal. “Wonder Woman for President” continues to be celebrated on Tshirts, fan sites and in comics scholarship. And a subset of the voting public has shown support for real-world authority figures. who make heroic promises.
Although Batgirl’s tenure in Congress has been largely ignored by academics and fans alike, it illustrates how even the pulpy remnants of historical pop culture sometimes provide a surprisingly strong take on gender equity and democratic strength.