Why doesn’t Wonder Woman wear a mask?

Limited Collectors' Edition JLA  VOL5 NO C46 AUG-SEPT 1976

My bicentennial Limited Collectors’ Edition JLA VOL5 NO C46 AUG-SEPT 1976

Originally written for a recent Radio 4 programme pilot about “masked men”. 

In bicentennial year 1976 on first trip to the USA, I first confronted the conundrum of Wonder Woman and masks in three comics I bought.

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While most of her male superhero colleagues were white collar middle class drones, hiding their Don Draper-ness behind masked all in ones, Wonder Woman, with no mask, in her garish stars and stripes pants seemed to be hiding nothing and everything.

An illegal immigrant from some mysterious place. Only Superman shares an understanding and a mask free disguise in a pair of geek glasses. Wonder Woman’s mask was being smart and plain. Apart from a brief 60s Emma Peel style experiment as a karate kicking mod boutique owner, her alter ego Diana Prince was, depending on the era, a drab military intelligence officer, a multilingual interpreter at the United Nations, and only in the mid 70s getting some status as a deputy to the male head of the UN Crisis Bureau. A talented worker bee in a state hive. In an office full of male colonels or detectives Diana Prince is often in the background, quietly overhearing crucial information.

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Aged 8 I first saw Wonder Woman in a mask. In one comic, a white mask sent by an enemy attaches itself to her face. But in the companion issue, a reissue of one of creator William Marston’s original bondage themed stories from 1943, Wonder Woman is tied up in a leather gimp mask and heavy chains to try to escape from a tank of water; Houdini Style. It’s all for charity. A twisted and schizophrenic society girl, Priscilla Rich, aka The Cheetah, ties her up with her own unbreakable lasso.

Wonder Woman escapes of course, tearing off that leather mask with her teeth, and maintains a kind of chaste innocence throughout. Like a lot of women who began work in World War Two, she just gets on with things, whatever the male idiocy around her. And a battle is set up in the comics of controlled and seething female emotions that can be unleashed for good or ill. There is plenty of testosterone-fuelled madness, too. But in the hands of its male writers, Wonder Woman’s mask-less Amazonian super power is balanced by her alter-ego: an invisibility mask of ordinary female-ness. And a lot of bondage imagery.

You can listen to my interview with Jill Lepore on her book The Secret History of Wonder Woman on Front Row BBC Radio 4 Thursday December 4th at 715pm and iplayer after.

 

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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