Wonder Woman: An Appreciation

For long afternoons in the office answering e-mails and grading papers, I like to keep a little folder full of junky TV episodes handy: these chores become so much less arduous with episodes of All in the Family, Mr. Show, or Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist keeping that restless part of my brain occupied as they unspool on my alternate monitor. Far and away my favorite though is the original Wonder Woman, all three seasons of which I had a fairly legitimate excuse to purchase on DVD back in the early stages of writing my superhero dissertation – which of course makes no mention at all of this once-popular primetime TV series.

After David E. Kelley’s recent stillborn attempt to reboot the Wonder Woman character on TV, I was tempted yet again to revisit Lynda Carter’s adventures as a campy distraction from a dreary day of grading and administration in the office. But as risible, childish, and downright campy as this show is, it does hold a certain charm that always keeps me coming back for more, and that can even be strangely addictive.

Beyond the show’s more lascivious aspects, that consistently invite male viewers to ogle its well-endowed protagonist’s foregrounded physique and fuck-me outfits, the show does also hold some appeal for those looking for a glimmer of feminist attitude in late-1970s American TV narratives. Frequently cited as an icon of female empowerment, Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman is, at least, a somewhat independent-minded heroine whose athletic abilities and affable on-screen presence make for an appealing role model for young girls, I guess.

The character’s independence is undercut to some degree by the background presence of hunky Lyle Waggoner as her alter ego Diane Prince’s superior: the idea of a woman protagonist without a male superior was obviously too threatening for mainstream American entertainment, even in the somewhat more radical 1970s. But it’s hard to see Waggoner’s character as anything more than a token male figure on the show, boringly mouthing exposition for Carter’s character to follow up on, and dimly oblivious both to his assistant’s true identity, and to her ridiculously obvious feminine charms. One might even make the argument that he is the one being objectified here at least as much as Carter is, embodying an attractive but ultimately passive form of masculinity, perfectly happy to sit around and make phone calls while Wonder Woman goes out and takes care of business. The obvious delight Carter’s character takes in keeping him fooled, as well as his historic nude poses in the first issue of Playgirl magazine, would seem to validate this perspective somewhat.

But perhaps the most endearing aspect of Wonder Woman is its nostalgic value. Not so much in the sense of direct nostalgia for a cultural artifact from my personal past, as my only childhood encounter with Lynda Carter was her guest appearance on The Muppet Show, where she showed off her vocal chops, and where Miss Piggy memorably transformed into Wonder Pig. This nostalgia is instead a feeling of appreciation for a fantasy TV show that isn’t annoyingly self-reflexive and ironic, but was fully unembarrassed to give a weekly dose of gloriously cheesy superhero wish-fulfilment. In other words: Wonder Woman is fun because it’s not afraid to be deliriously silly, and especially with all the soul-searching superheroes of our contemporary popular entertainment, that’s kind of awesome.

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