Sunday, November 30, 2008

Make A Hawk A Dove, Stop A War With Love...and Big Hooters

Late last year, I ghost-wrote an essay for a book about action-adventure TV shows for a writer friend who was behind the 8-ball and called for volunteers on the writers list we're on to help him out of his jam. Here's the first half:

What Is So Hard About Wonder Woman?!
© respective copyright holder

“In terms of Wonder Woman, I’ve never really had a woman not identify, or identify in a negative way. At least they haven’t come up to me and said anything. That was always a goal of mine, was sort of that sisterhood thing from Paradise Island.”

Linda Carter, 2006 (Wonder Woman, 1975-1979)

On the back cover of the January 29, 1977 issue of TV Guide is an ad for Virginia Slims cigarettes, picturing a good-looking (but not so good-looking as to be threatening to her sisters), fashionably dressed young woman, cigarette between her fingers and the celebratory slogan of solidarity, “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby.”

On the front cover, in all her Lichtensteinesque glory, was Wonder Woman, cartoon bullets bouncing off her cartoon bracelets. “From the Comics to TV: Lynda Carter as ‘Wonder Woman’” the copy-line reads. The copy above the logo promises “A Startling Survey: What Criminals Learn From Television.”

The lead article was “When Television is a School For Criminals,” wherein “a surprising nine out of 10 (criminals interviewed at Michigan’s maximum security Marquette Prison) ... actually learned new tricks and improved their criminal expertise by watching crime programs. Four out of 10 said that they have attempted specific crimes they saw on television crime dramas.”

A staggering concept. (Starsky & Hutch as your criminal blueprint? Really?)

Thank Hera the article leading off the back of the book was about someone who could fight television criminals with television justice: “From the Pages of Comic Books ... Comes ‘Wonder Woman’ Lynda (Wham!) Carter, Who Is Scoring A Hit (Zap!) With Children and Their Fathers (Crash!)”

Lynda Carter and Wonder Woman were the media darlings and punch line du jour of 1977. After a couple of uninspired (many say insipid) pilots and TV movies, The New Original Wonder Woman debuted on December 18, 1975 on ABC. The series was set in the days of World War II, copying the look and feel of the comic book original by Charles Moulton (a.k.a. William Moulton Marston) and H.G. Peter. The villains were Nazis, Fifth Columnists, and war profiteers. The tone was campy, though not high-camp, a few notches down from over the top approach that worked so well on Batman, the show that (Wham!), a decade after it had gone off the air (Pow!), remained – as, indeed, it seems to do even today – the public perception of comic book superheroes (Zap!). Wonder Woman was played (unconsciously) cool and (retrospectively) ironic, but the appeal was (unavoidably) sexual.

Readers are made to wait until all the way to the end of the third paragraph of the article to learn that in the line-up of ABC’s comic strip-like TV show stars (Six Million Dollar Man, Happy Days, Welcome Back, Kotter, The Bionic Woman), none of the competition could hold a candle to Ms. Carter in the bosom department. “Lynda’s is an impressive size 38.” Against the likes of Lee Majors, Henry Winkler, Gabriel Kaplan and Lindsay Wagoner, the inclusion of this tidbit smacked of studio-approved pandering; it would be surprising if all of “Lynda’s” measurements weren’t included in producer-approved press material. The paragraph lead off with the information of the “spectacular 6-foot dimensions” of the “ex-‘Miss World-U.S.A.’” All this was in support of probably the only conclusion one could reach about a mid-1970s television show starring a tall, attractive woman costumed in a star-spangled bathing suit and red knee-high high-heeled boots: “...It is not only 9-year-olds who are watching. The Nielsen evidence is that their fathers are also impelled to steal peeks at this particular comic-strip show.”

No doubt.

TV Guide critic Judith Crist wrote in November, 1975, “Produced with taste and fine period feeling by Douglas S. Cramer, with a screenplay by Stanley Ralph Ross (one of Batman's better writers) and directed with wit by Leonard Horn, this introduction of Wonder Woman and her role in beating the nasty Nazis is indeed an animated comic strip, but done with intelligence and verve.” The cast is “fine,” and Lynda Carter is described as “luscious.” (In all fairness, Lyle Waggoner gets a reference for playing “handsome Maj. Steve Trevor,” but where handsome is value-neutral descriptive, luscious is plainly suggestive, especially when attached to the actress herself rather than to the character she plays.)

The New Original Wonder Woman garnered respectable enough reviews and ratings ... when viewers could locate it on their dials. When TVs still had dials. Instead of giving the Amazon Princess a berth on the weekly schedule, ABC used the first season’s eleven one-hour episodes as specials to counter-program against the competition on CBS and NBC; one would imagine that decision was not arrived at because anyone thought Wonder Woman offered a compelling historic look at the second World War sure to draw big numbers. Clearly, it was the costume and the spectacular 6-foot dimensions of the ex-Miss World-U.S.A. who filled it that drew its particular demographic: kids and males eighteen to dead. Junior came for the comic book goofiness; dad stayed for the size-38s. John Leonard, television critic for the New York Times, reviewed the 1977 premiere of The New Adventures of Wonder Woman on CBS (Warner Brothers, the studio that owned Wonder Woman, having grown tired of ABC’s lack of commitment to the program picked up their size-38s and took them somewhere else): “Obviously none of this is meant to be taken seriously. And I won’t. Using comic strip exaggeration, the producers are offering another of those escapist fantasies in the mode of grim bionic creatures and camp cartoons that once transformed Batman into electronic success.” It was a bit of a cliché, but a fun, harmless one. “As an actress,” he could not help add, “Miss Carter creates the impression of a sweet little girl disconcertingly trapped in the body of a potential Fellini sexuality symbol.”

Yeah, you’ve sure come a long way, baby.

“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don't want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”
William Moulton Marston, 1943 (creator of Wonder Woman)

In 1972, Gloria Steinem recruited Wonder Woman as the symbol of the growing woman’s liberation movement by putting the Amazon Princess on the cover of the first issue of Ms. Magazine. Wonder Woman was depicted (drawn by a middle-aged male artist) as a colossus striding Godzilla-like over a small town, brushing aside attacks by the military (meant to represent male aggression, one supposes) and protecting homes while carrying, bound up protectively in her Gold Lasso of truth, all those things that are good and giving (meant to represent female nurturing and strength).

Wonder Woman, created so that little girls could have a “funny-paper heroine to root for” had survived the highs and lows of publishing to be one of only three superheroes to stay in print (Superman and Batman being the others) through a seven or eight year superhero dry spell, comics having been commandeered by readers demands for other genres: westerns, romance, crime, humor, supernatural, funny animals. The popularity of The Adventures of Superman on TV kept DC’s core heroes afloat, but titles such as All-Star Western, Girls’ Love, The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Tomahawk, Mr. District Attorney, House of Mystery, Animal Antics, and Mystery In Space far outnumbered the dozen or so superhero titles.

Wonder Woman came about as the response to a challenge made by William Moulton Marston, psychiatrist, inventor of the lie detector, feminist, and educational consultant to comics publisher All-American Comics (later known as DC Comics). Dr. Marston was disturbed by the overwhelmingly male world of superheroes. Where, he asked, were the role models for the little girls reading comics?

All-American publisher Max C. Gaines (whose middle name, Charles, was combined with the doctor’s to come up with the ‘Charles Moulton’ pseudonym Marston employed on Wonder Woman) turned the challenge back on Marston, offering him the opportunity to create a “wonder woman” to stand with the “super men.” Marston responded with Wonder Woman, the first baby born in ages to the Paradise Island-dwelling race of Amazons and who was blessed by the gods with the gifts of Aphrodite’s beauty, Athena’s wisdom, Hermes speed, and Hercules’ strength. She was, of course, the feminine archetype.

But for whatever inspiration Wonder Woman may have provided to girls, it was believed that the readership for even this “girl’s” comic was likely as high as ninety percent boys. Sheldon Mayer, Marston’s editor at All-American, said in Les Daniels’ Wonder Woman: The Complete History, he felt Marston “was writing a feminist book but not for women. He was dealing with a male audience.” Daniels observed “Marston always felt that males were the ones who needed his message most. If he really did succeed in altering the social climate, it might have been by exposing millions of boys (who would become men by the 1960s) to the ideals of feminism. After all, it’s not much of a surprise that women might want to assert themselves, but it’s quite a different matter when many of the supposed oppressors agree to go along with the idea.”


1 comment:

rob! said...

ah, Lynda Carter in her Wonder Woman costume...*sigh*...

oh, i'm sorry, was there words and stuff underneath that picture?