Ever since she appeared in All Star Comics #8 in October of 1941, Wonder Woman has raised questions about issues such as gender, power, violence, and truth. Yet, in all her different iterations and with all her different writers, Wonder Woman has never provided simple answers to these questions. Instead, her legacy is that of a conversation spanning 70 years, with each new version of Princess Diana a commentary on the last ones. I was excited to read Wonder Woman and Philosophy: The Amazonian Mystique because it promised the chance to dive neck deep into that conversations. It did not disappoint.
It is fitting for a character who has spoken in so many different voices over the years, that this book is a collection of essays by different authors. Each one explores Diana and her world through a particular lens. Many of them place Wonder Woman in conversation with philosophers such as Aristotle, Foucault, or Beauvoir. Others look at her actions and legacy through philosophical schools such as virtue ethics, or use her words and actions to explore issues relevant to our own world, such as if and when one can kill in the name of justice. The richness of essay topics speaks to the richness of the character of Wonder Woman herself. Each essay highlights a different facet of Wonder Woman, creating a mosaic of opinions and perspectives that befits a character who has captured the imagination for more than 70 years.
The essays are thorough and informative without being overly academic, or unapproachable. Many of them go into great depth on a specific topic, such as Wonder Woman’s relation to the Bushido ethics of the Samurai, or how her story fits into Greek understandings of godhood. Not all of them are compelling; I had trouble buying Adam Barkman and Sabina Tokbergenova’s argument in chapter 11, Saving Lives Through Just Torture that Wonder Woman’s use of the Lasso of Truth is a justification of torture in our own world. But even if I disagreed, their exploration of the Lasso and its power to compel honesty while causing discomfort and pain makes me wonder about other superheroes who are willing to punch the bad guy in the face till he spills his guts. The authors didn’t convince me that Wonder Woman would support waterboarding, but they made me wonder if Batman or the Green Arrow would.
In one of my favorite essays from the book, chapter 5’s Feminist Faux Pas, Andrea Zamin uses the work of Simone de Beauvoir to explore Wonder Woman’s role as a role model for women. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir illustrates how the idea of woman has been constructed by man as the “other” against which man can define himself. Man is subject, woman is object, constantly defined in terms of man’s needs and wants. Wonder Women represents a break from that, having been born and lived most of her life in a world entirely without men. Zamin points out Wonder Woman’s origins in the early 1940’s, a time when women were able to play a larger role in American society because the men were off fighting WWII. “Women were liberated from the shackles of ‘Man’s World’ (even if for a brief moment) that prescribed procreation, above all else, as feminine purpose.” Woman could be the subjects of their own world, with Wonder Woman leading the way.
That idea of Wonder Woman as subject instead of object would make a fascinating essay in and of itself. But Zamin goes deeper, tracing the history of Diana and the many times she was pushed back into the role of object, from her original conception by author William Moulton Marston as a man’s idea of ideal womanhood, to the many iterations which have moved away from feminist ideals and embraced domesticity and marriage as goals Wonder Woman strives for. Zamin traces the line of Wonder Woman’s development, highlighting times when she has been more role model and times when she has been an unobtainable goal, ending on a hopeful note about the new movie and Wonder Woman’s future.
Wonder Woman and Philosophy reminds me why I started Superhero Ethics in the first place. The authors included approach Marston’s character as a serious work of fiction, worthy of study and debate, and with relevance for the questions of our own world. Whether a Wonder Woman fan who wants to dive deeper into Dianalysis, or a philosophy buff who is interested in how this pop culture phenomenon relate to the larger questions of philosophy and ethics, this is a book worth opening up.