Wonder Woman is a unsettling superhero. More so than her male counterparts, she resists easy classification: she is neither an alien or a billionaire — nor has she been subjected to some chemical to acquire her abilities. The comic books cast her as a mystery to be unravelled and ultimately controlled.
When the truth of Wonder Woman’s background is eventually found in a 1944 comic strip, it’s one of her own making. Even when showing her past, she refuses to become narrated — and maintains ownership of her own individuality rather. By telling the story in her own way, she controls the way the world perceives her similar to her sisters from medieval and classical literature did.
Wonder Woman’s narrative is introduced on a sheet of parchment in the comic book, just as most ancient texts were. These texts traditionally conceptualised women as blank canvases to be painted with desirable meaning, but Wonder Woman fails to be pigeonholed simply due to her gender.
Wonder Woman’s roots, shown from the parchment, are profoundly intertwined with well-known classical mythology and its medieval afterlife. She is the daughter of Hippolyta, who, according to the ancient Greeks, has been the queen of the Amazons: a utopian society of women warriors based on sisterhood and feminine empowerment.
Though the story of Princess Diana of Themyscira — AKA Wonder Woman/Diana Prince — does not derive from early Greek or Roman myths, her name echoes that of the Roman goddess Diana — identified with the Greek goddess Artemis — a ubiquitous figure in medieval and classical literary cultures.
Much like Wonder Woman — who’s arguably among the goddess’s modern incarnations — Diana is a capacious figure. As the goddess of childbirth, virginity and hunting, she’s a mixture of different roles. The fluidity of her individuality makes her an advocate of feminine empowerment. She embodies the several identities available to women, beyond the constraints of conventional gender roles.
Myth meets graphic novel
One of the most well-known medieval texts in which Amazonian mythology and the power of the goddess Diana intersect is Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, where the formidable Amazonian queen Hippolyta is pressured into marriage by the tyrannical Duke Theseus.
As her emancipated femininity is violently stifled through military conquest, Hippolyta becomes a metaphor for the destruction of any kind of female agency. She is paraded, silenced and overthrown in the front of the Theban crowd, while a storm rages ominously. Bound to Theseus, she loses her energy, similar to Wonder Woman whose strong potency can simply be dropped if she’s shackled in chains by men — a characteristic which creator Charles Moulton took straight from ancient Greek mythology.
In Chaucer’s text, Amazon princess Emily – the would-be aunt of Wonder Woman – appears to share the same fate as her sister Hippolyta. Trapped in an enclosed garden, she is the bride-to-be of one of the two feuding knights, Palamon and Arcite.
But Emily’s story has a rather different result. In his Teseida the 14th-century Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio describes Emily as “pelegrina” — itinerant, alien and restless. Her ago, such as Wonder Woman’s own — Wonder Woman leaves Paradise Island following the gods say that an Amazonian ambassador has to be sent to man’s world — makes her the epitome of emancipated femininity. She flees into the temple of the goddess Diana in the wild forests. In this unstructured space, Emily sees herself loose in the gender roles that are being forced upon her. For the first (and final) time her voice has been heard — and it is not a whisper: it is a roar.
Emily pleads with Diana, whose fluid identification seems to offer the guarantee of self-determination, in a life of perpetual sisterhood with the goddess and her fellow female hunters. She wants to go back to the feminine utopia where pregnancy and marriage aren’t an inevitable future. Where political and physical power aren’t the exclusive province of men.
Diana’s response to Emily’s plea is surprising and shocking: she has to marry. Marriage is a destiny scripted in the stars — and Emily can’t escape it. From this moment onwards, Emily is ostensibly silent, her roar stifled by the imperatives of marriage and procreation.
However, defying expectations, another time Emily is described in the tale she’s riding alongside Theseus’s party. No longer wearing her white virginal clothes, she’s clad in green, a color that represents the liberty and virility of hunting that, in the Amazonian world, is accessible to women too. Emily was able to find her own type of self-expression, regardless of the medieval limitations imposed on her.
With such powerful women in her family tree, the 2017 Wonder Woman has a great deal to live up to. But, from trailers to the new movie and her look in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), it seems like this new incarnation is one of the most powerful yet.
Gal Gadot, the Israeli actor who now plays the superhero, portrays a suitably gladiatorial Wonder Woman whose individuality is capacious and fluid. She is powerful, beautiful, smart and invested in being a force of positive change — quite similar to her sisters.