Wonder Woman: More than a superhero

The Means Report - Wonder Woman: More Than A Superhero graphic
The Means Report – Wonder Woman: More Than A Superhero graphic

Augusta, Ga. (WJBF) – When “Wonder Woman” hit theaters this summer, it became an instant hit. Woman and men, young and old, have flocked to see the film, even if they are not fans of comic books or comic book movies. The story of Wonder Woman, though, is steeped in history, dating back to the beginning of World War II. To learn more about the superhero, who has become an icon for many girls and woman, we invited Dr. Ruth McClelland-Nugent, an Associate Professor of History at Augusta University, to give some insight into the famous character.

Brad Means: I know you’re gonna enjoy our first segment, because we’re gonna talk about Wonder Woman with Associate Professor of History at Augusta University Dr. Ruth McCelland-Nugent. First of all, welcome, I’m glad you’re here.

Dr. Ruth McClelland-Nugent: Thank you.

Brad Means: And I love what you said, you kinda helped me, put me at ease, I said, “Should I refer to you as Dr. Nugent “or Dr. McClelland-Nugent?” and what do your studentscall you?

Dr. McNug: They all call me Dr. McNug, so, just go right ahead.

Brad Means: I love Dr. McNug, I’ve wrote it down, it’s easy to remember, and so if I slip and say Dr. McNug, she gave me permission. Have you seen Wonder Woman? What do you think of the movie?

Dr. McNug: I sure have, I’ve seen it twice actually, to be totally honest. I think it’s a really good adaptation. I think it’s smart, and frankly, it’s just a good movie. It holds together really well, you know, it’s fun to watch, it’s a classic film.

Brad Means: It is setting all sorts of marks when it comes to earnings and its position in box office history, it’s just done a phenomenal job. And Marlena, by the way, at some point during this interview, get a tight shot of Dr. McNug’s necklace. I lovethat necklace, paying homage to Wonder Woman herself. Is she the first feminist hero that we have? If you go back to her origins in the early 1940s, would you put her up there as, “Okay, this is our first feminist hero that America had, “that the world had”?

Dr. McNug: Certainly I think she’s probably the first superhero designed to have sort of a feminist message in a way. She’s not the first female comic book character, or the first female superhero even, although she’s certainly the longest-lived and most successful. But her creator is a little different than, say, Superman or Batman and how they were created. You know, those are characters who were designed by young guys with kind of a hero fantasy. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, was designed by a Harvard-trained psychologist. He had a PhD in psychology, as well as a law degree from Harvard. And he was really interested in the power of popular culture to shape our world, and he was quite concerned about comic books, said they were very violent, they have a lot of messages that maybe aren’t so great for kids, and proposed the idea of having a different kind of superhero, one who had these kind of, what he considered, more feminine virtues of love and caring, as well as being very strong, and, you know, exciting to read about.

Brad Means: Yeah, let me read you a quote from Dr. William Moulton Marston, the psychologist that Dr. McNug is referring to. I think his creation of her, as you just said, was intentional. He wanted this role model, if you will. He said, “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for “the new type of woman who I believe should rule the world.”

Dr. McNug: That’s right, that’s right.

Brad Means: Where do you think that came from? Was America at that time, early 1940s, incensed, craving a woman to rule the world, craving someone to break out of this male-dominated society?

Dr. McNug: Probably not.

Brad Means: And maybe they didn’t even know it.

Dr. McNug: But, if we think about the historical context, Marston is writing in a time when the world is really falling into fascism, if you will. I mean, in 1940 and ’41, when he’s coming up with the idea for this character, Europe’s at war, we have war in Asia, and Marston, as a psychologist, had been very interested in gender and leadership, and what’s a positive leader versus a less positive leader, and he was very concerned with the idea that the world overvalues leadership by force, and doesn’t value leadership by, if you will, compromise and persuasion. And so, for him, this character is a way to try to get kids, in particular, to value a kind of leadership that is not the fascist, domination kind of leadership.

Brad Means: Did it work? Because she hasn’t gotten a lot of play over the years. We’ve seen all these different versions of these male superheroes, Wonder Woman, except for the show that I grew up on Saturday… I don’t know if it was on Saturday morning, but I grew up watching Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter. She hasn’t gotten a lot of play over the years by comparison, so did Dr. Marston’s… Were his goals realized?

Dr. McNug: Well, I think that’s hard to say. Yes and no, let’s put it that way. Now, William Marston, I should also add, you know, he was a man who never dreamed small, right? He was involved in lots of other things. He was involved in writing film scripts, he was involved in the development of the lie detector test, he was really interested in making psychology relevant to the world. So whenever he said he was doing something, it was always huge. So I don’t know if he really ever expected that one character would change the way we think about gender and leadership, but having said that, the character certainly grabbed the imagination of a lot of young people. And we sort of see that later on in American history. You know, who’s the first person to be on the cover of Ms. Magazine, in 1972? Do you know?

Brad Means: No, was it Lynda Carter?

Dr. McNug: It’s Wonder Woman.

Brad Means: It’s Wonder Woman.

Dr. McNug: The comic book character Wonder Woman.

Brad Means: Wow.

Dr. McNug: Because Gloria Steinem had been a kid and reading those comics, and it really had an effect on her, and a lot of other feminists of that generation. So, has Wonder Woman single-handedly changed the world? No, I don’t think so, but did having that character to spark the imagination of something a little different? Yeah, I’d say so.

Brad Means: Yeah, I was gonna ask you if you think we’re giving a comic book character too much credit, but we’re perhaps not, I mean, she did, in many young women’s minds, create that spark, right?

Dr. McNug: Right, and so maybe the way to think of it is that the comic book character doesn’t do all these things, but the people that she inspires certainly have made some changes in the world.

Brad Means: Do you have a problem with the way she’s dressed?

Dr. McNug: Are you talking about the film, or the comic, or…?

Brad Means: I’m just talking about the image of Wonder Woman that pops in most people’s minds, and that is a woman who… You know, I mean, there’s some skin that’s being bared, I don’t know if she ever was fully covered. The question comes from this, the National Organization for Decent Literature, in 1942, put Wonder Woman on its blacklist ’cause they said she wasn’t sufficiently dressed.

Dr. McNug: Right, and it’s interesting because one of the things about Marston is that he is a psychologist, and he really thought about things like sexuality in a way that some other people didn’t, and thought that prudery, in his terms, this is prudery, right, being prudish, was one of the things that held women back because they were expected to be so modest that they essentially disappeared. Now, again, if we think of the context of the 1940s, remember, women weren’t allowed to compete in marathons. It was thought that if women ran more than one mile at a time, that would ruin their ability to have children. I know, isn’t that funny?

Brad Means: It’s amazing, people used to think like that.

Dr. McNug: I know, I know, it’s really amazing. This is why history is fun. So, he’s really fighting in a world where women’s ability simply to be athletic, to be outdoors, is severely constrained. You know, to give another example of the context of this, right, Wonder Woman debuts in 1941, just as the United States is getting into the Second World War, right? Well, in 1942, Congress starts thinking about this proposal to create a Women’s Auxiliary to the Army. That’s incredibly controversial. “We can’t put women in uniform! “They can’t be in the Army! “This will ruin our entire country!” And that’s the context where you have a Wonder Woman character, so you sort of have to think of it in those terms, that he’s really doing something kind of revolutionary.

Brad Means: Revolutionary, way ahead of its time, if Wonder Woman were real, she would’ve never made it, would she?

Dr. McNug: Well, there are people who say Wonder Woman was real, that she’s very much modeled on his wife, Elizabeth Marston, who also was a psychologist, and she coauthored some of Bill’s works. She had a master’s degree in psychology, and she was really the one who supported the family, sometimes, when he was off writing films and other things. You know, she went to work for MetLife, and according to family lure, she’s the one who told him, when he was thinking about this new character, “Make it a woman, Bill, make her a woman.”

Brad Means: That’s great. Who are today’s Wonder Women? And, we have, you know, countless women doing incredible things, but let’s take it to the level of Wonder Woman, let’s take it to superhero status, who are today’s Wonder Women?

Dr. McNug: Oh my gosh, there are so many women who do amazing things, that’s a great way of putting it. I think it depends on, what do you boil down being a superhero to? I mean, obviously, we have some amazing female athletes, if we think about that kind of competition, et cetera, but I also wanna think about people like Malala, the girl in Afghanistan who’s campaigning, against all odds, for women’s education. If we think about being a superhero as the dedication and courage you have in your heart to change the world, you know, that’s another way of thinking about it, so, I think there are probably lots of Wonder Women, maybe some right at home, that you aren’t even thinking of.

Brad Means: Yeah, that was my next question. It starts with Mom, or Grandma, or sister, doesn’t it?

Dr. McNug: Sometimes, and I think, as a person who teaches history, and I like to get people’s stories, I always say, “Go ask your grandparents their stories.” You know, “Did your grandmother… “Was she a welder during Second World War?” Who knows? You know, I was in my late 20s before I discovered that my great-aunt had actually played professional women’s basketball in the 1940s.

Brad Means: Really?

Dr. McNug: She just never talked about it, right? You know, so, I mean, there are those really interesting stories of the people who are out there, and the women who are out there, doing things, that maybe they’re sort of quiet about.

Brad Means: Just a couple of more questions, you mentioned role models, and you mentioned how, at the beginning of the interview, that Wonder Woman, indeed, created a spark in so many people, what about today’s generation of girls who are going to the movie and seeing, probably for the first time, this woman, who we’ve loved since the ’70s, at least, you think it could change their path?

Dr. McNug: I think it’s so amazing that little girls… Excuse me, little girls are growing up in a world where they’re going to have a big screen Wonder Woman as their role model, perhaps. And it’s amazing when you see the pictures of little girls dressed in these costumes, with their swords, being very fierce, because again, the film, it really does get to the heart of Wonder Woman, is she’s exciting, there’s a lot of great physicality, there’s great fight scenes, but she’s also good, she’s caring, and she’s really this sort of whole package for girls, and for boys, but particularly for girls to see that, and to think about being that, is a very exciting thing.

Brad Means: Yeah, and that really goes back to her origins, coming from a place where kindness ruled the day, and compassion, on this island of all women, and then, coming over to the rest of the world and trying to impart those qualities, and I do think that is still going on today through her. Did you ever get a shot of the necklace, Marlena? Yeah, just before you go, I wanted to get a shot of that, and there’s a reason for it too, because I put teachers above all others in the category of Wonder Women, and so I think, as an associate professor… Yeah, make sureit’s totally… I think, as an associate professor at AU, you’re in that category as well, Doctor, impacting others, creating that spark, just as Wonder Woman herself does.

Dr. McNug: Well, thank you.

Brad Means: Absolutely, it’s a pleasure to have you, and thank you for talking about Wonder Woman. I told you before the interview, my co-anchor, Jennie Montgomery, wants you to go on her show, Jennie, to keep talking about it.

Dr. McNug: That’s great, yeah, any time. It’s a lot of fun, so this is great.

Brad Means: Well, I’ve learned a lot. Thank you, ma’am, so much.

Dr. McNug: Okay, good. Thank you.

Brad Means: Absolutely. Dr. Ruth McClelland-Nugent, Associate Professor of History at Augusta University.

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The Means Report first aired in January of 2009 offering coverage that you cannot get from a daily newscast. Forget about quick soundbytes -- we deliver an in-depth perspective on the biggest stories. If they are making news on the local or national level, you will find them on the set of The Means Report. Hosted by WJBF NewsChannel 6 anchor, Brad Means, The Means Report covers the topics impacting your life, your town, your state, and your future.