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Wonder Woman’s dueling origin stories, and their effect on the hero’s feminism, explained

The movie showed one version of the hero’s complicated origin story. Here’s the other. 

Spoiler warning: There are spoilers including discussion of the plot of the Wonder Woman movie here in this post.

One of the biggest revelations in Wonder Woman is tucked into the end of the film. Diana confronts Ares, the god of war, about the nature of man and mankind’s goodness. The two mythic beings have the character-defining philosophical battle of the movie, and then he slips in a declaration that makes Diana question everything she was ever taught: She is the daughter of Zeus, the king of the gods.

Up until this point, Diana believed what her mother had told her — that she was made out of clay and Zeus had given her life. By way of magic and myth, Zeus has symbolically been a father to her. But Ares implies something a bit more sordid: that Zeus had a relationship with her mother, Hippolyta, and created a child. And if that’s the case, then it’s not clear what else the Amazons lied to Diana about.

The movie leaves the final interpretation of Diana’s origin to its audience, and in doing so reflects a debate over Diana’s origin that’s been going on in Wonder Woman comic books over the past several years.

Wonder Woman’s creator didn’t want men to be part of Diana’s origin story

The original creator of Wonder Woman is a man named William Moulton Marston, who was, among other things, credited with inventing the lie-detector machine (which brings to light why Diana uses a lasso that compels people to tell the truth). He also had progressive, complex, and intertwining views about gender, relationships, and sex. Marston wrote about women being to be superior to men in some aspects, but was also intrigued by the dynamic between the dominant and submissive — hence why so many Wonder Woman comics portrayed the heroine bound and blindfolded.

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Marston’s origin story reflected these ideas. In his version, Diana was born on a paradise island that was home to Amazons, women who were enslaved by mankind — they were kept in chains — but eventually broke free. On their island, they developed physical and mental strength and raised Diana, who was born out of clay and did not need a father. Diana, in Marston’s eyes, was raised in this perfect world, on this perfect island, inhabited solely by women — a deliberate decision.

“Marston borrowed Wonder Woman’s origin story from feminist utopian fiction, which always involved women living on an island, and what happens when a man or a group of men is shipwrecked there,” Jill Lepore, a Harvard professor and author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, told me over email. “It was a thought experiment, designed to ask readers to think about how all political orders are man-made. The point was that there weren’t men. Marston hitched this tale to the legend of the Amazons.”

There is no Zeus in Marston’s story, and it’s strictly a world without men. Men were the source of pain and evil for the Amazons, and Marston wanted to explore what it would be like to have a hero like Diana, a woman raised solely by women, completely aware of what men are capable of at their worst. Philosophically, Marston believed that women were capable of showing humanity a different way of life, a peaceful and loving one, in contrast to the ways of man and the patriarchy. Diana was the embodiment of this philosophy.

“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power,” Marston wrote in a 1943 issue of The American Scholar. “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.”

Marston’s story was tweaked in 1959 in Wonder Woman No. 105 (written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Ross Andru), where Diana is given gifts from the gods and goddesses, like Athena’s wisdom, Aphrodite’s beauty, strength from Demeter that rivals Hercules’s, and Hermes’s speed.

This wasn’t the first tweak to Diana’s origin, or the last: Some stories rewrote and reinterpreted the reason Diana came to the world of man, or how she got her name, or why she carries a sword. But it’s really the change that came to the comics in 2011, the Zeus-you-are-the-father reveal we see in the movie, that fundamentally redefines Wonder Woman.

The feminist argument against Zeus being Wonder Woman’s father, explained

In 2011, DC Comics instituted a relaunch of 52 of its titles called the “The New 52,” which essentially undid those titles’ previous storylines and “reset” them at a new starting point; it was characterized at the time as a way to make the comics more accessible to new readers. In writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang’s New 52 run, Wonder Woman’s origin is changed: Diana learns she was never made out of clay, and — like what the movie implies with Ares — the clay story was used as a cover by Wonder Woman’s mother to hide that she and Zeus had had a relationship. Further, Ares teaches Diana how to fight.

“Along with all this, the new origin credits men with how powerful and formidable Diana is,” Alan Kistler wrote for the Mary Sue in 2014. “Whereas before she had learned all her training from the Amazon women, her greatest teacher is now Ares.”

The Azzarello-Chiang run also includes a story in which the Amazons reproduce by finding sailors, raping them, killing them, and then selling male babies into Hephaestus’s slavery in exchange for weapons (this editorial decision was critically maligned, despite general praise for the book).

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The New 52 wrinkle.

“Adding Zeus to the story, and in particular adding Zeus as Diana’s father, undermines the basic plot,” Lepore told me. “It turns the story of Wonder Woman into something much closer to the story of Thor — it makes her story less distinctive.”

Essentially, the New 52 reboot inserts men into Marston’s story and significantly alters the territory Marston wanted to explore by having Diana raised in a female utopia. In the new telling, Wonder Woman’s powers don’t come from goddesses or other Amazons, but rather from Zeus and Ares. Her mother, the woman who loves her most in life and the epitome of Amazon glory, is refashioned as a betrayer and deceiver. Paradise Island, instead of being a place that lives separately and peacefully from the world of man, now becomes a place where men like Zeus wield power and Amazons are vindictive.

It’s hard to reconcile this new origin story with Marston’s vision and intent for the character. It also changes the way one might interpret the origin story presented in the movie.

What the Wonder Woman movie means for Wonder Woman’s origin story

To be clear, I’m not here to bury the Azzarello-Chiang run — there have been plenty of articles written about how good their story was. I’m a fan of how the two explored Diana’s psychology and interiority, and how the comic really felt like her own. Furthermore, Marston’s view of women and feminism wasn’t entirely pristine: As Lepore wrote in her book, Marston’s portrayal often veers into “feminism as fetish” territory.

“Marston, as near as I can tell, from reading his letters and diaries, wanted kids to see her as a hero, a very strong woman, who would do whatever she set her mind to do,” Lepore told me. “He liked that adult men might find her especially alluring, and the scenes of her emancipation (from bondage) thrilling. He didn’t think there was a contradiction there.”

Essentially, Wonder Woman is a figure of feminism that has been historically written and drawn by men (like a lot of the characters who exist in the comic book universe). So perhaps it’s better to think of the character as someone who, throughout the years, has reflected what men believe powerful women to be.

The Wonder Woman film made me want to reread Azzarello and Chiang’s issues again, and explore the relationships they portray between love and violence, between physical strength and gender, and between Diana and her family. It doesn’t feel like a search for answers, but more of an appreciation for where authors, writers, and artists have taken the character in both the comic books and the movie.

To its credit, Wonder Woman slyly doesn’t pick one view of Diana’s origin, and what it means for the character, over the other. Ares is an unreliable character, and he could be deceiving Diana, but it’s also clear that Hippolyta kept secrets from her daughter in an attempt to protect her.

The finale’s portrayal of Wonder Woman finding strength in love seems closer to Marston’s ideal, while the annihilation of Ares seems more in line with her New 52 characterization. But the film, and those who worked on it, seems to understand that perhaps the greatest thing you can do for a character like Diana and those mighty Amazons isn’t to choose Marston over Azzarello, but rather to inspire fans to form their own ideas about what strong women mean to them.

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