Now, I've discussed how for all people complain about how un-relatable Wonder Woman is, I contend it's largely because she's so rarely written as a relatable character. Further, the key to making a character relatable or not lies mainly in the abstract, intangible, but universal concepts that can be found in a character's motivation.
Wonder Woman most certainly has a motivation and one I would argue is relatable enough. And her backstory is critical to that motivation. But I think, like Superman, it’s one that works better when actually seen played out rather than summarized or distilled into a simple sentence or blurb.
So...what is Wonder Woman’s backstory and motivation anyway?
Or at least, what was it, before the Nu52 happened—but that's a rant for another time.
So you’ve got the Amazons; a race of immortal women created by the Greek gods to spread peace and tolerance to the world, but are also highly skilled warriors. Think a similar vein as Jedi or the Elves in Lord of the Rings. Long story short, they’re not trusted and ultimately rejected by mankind. So the gods set them up on a magical island called Themyscira where they can live forever in peace while also guarding a gateway to hell called Doom’s Doorway.
So the Amazons are chilling on their island for thousands of years in isolation. But the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta, she wants a daughter. The gods send her message to make a child out of clay and they bring it to life—bing-bang-boom, our hero Diana is born. But the gods have their own plans for this kid, which is why they also give her superpowers. And thus, Diana grows up honing her abilities and training as an Amazon warrior—also raised believing her people’s beliefs in peace and tolerance.
And it’s here we see where Diana starts to develop her motivation. She’s spent her whole life on this little island—she wants to see the world. The gods gave her these great abilities—for what? So she can just stay on one little island for all time? She believes she has a destiny—that she’s meant for something great. She wants a purpose.
Diana finds her purpose when Steve Trevor crash lands on Themyscira, which signals the time for the Amazons to hold their Contest to find a champion to leave the island and act as ambassador. She enters and wins the contest against her mother’s wishes and comes to the world of men where she becomes Wonder Woman and finds the purpose she was looking for. She finds an imperfect world where she can utilize the great power granted her by the gods to defend the innocent, fight evil, and spread peace—believing mankind to be fundamentally good and decent.
(FEW NOTES REGARDING THE ORIGIN:
When William Moulton Marston first created them in the 40's, the Amazons' background was simpler and they were just an idyllic and highly advanced civilization hidden from the rest of the world. The history and purpose of the Amazons were expanded in the George Perez reboot after Crisis on Infinite Earths. Also, Perez had the gods more involved with Diana's abilities than Marston. And finally, in the 40's, World War II was a large factor in the Amazons holding their Contest. Under Perez and most subsequent modern tellings of Diana's origin, it's the machinations of Ares or some evil force that makes the Amazons send a champion.)
Now...does my little summary there sufficiently convey why Wonder Woman is Wonder Woman?
Honestly, I don’t even know. Granted I’m being somewhat succinct, but like I said, I’m not sure it’s something that works when simply explained. Played out in a Year One style story, fully fleshed out, certainly. As a movie, in action, I think can work (hint, hint).
But the abstractions are there. A kid looking for adventure that wants to see the world. A hero seeking their destiny. A young idealist who believes they’re meant for great things. Simple, basic, but intangible concepts—easily relatable to anyone.
There’s all sorts of potential for conflict and universal themes that can be addressed—and I mean beyond the trite Saturday morning cartoon gender-equality message of: "Remember boys, those women-folk are people, too. And remember you wacky feminists, not all men are boogers either. Now you know and knowing is half the battle!"
But I can devote a whole other blog post on that subject in itself.
Hell, Diana’s origin story can easily be structured as a Joseph Campbell “Hero’s Journey.” Her Ordinary World on Themyscira, wanting to do something with herself. The Call to Adventure in the form of a herald—Steve Trevor and the Contest. By winning the Contest and leaving Themyscira for the first time, she Crosses the First Threshold. Once in the Patriarch’s World, she encounters Tests, Allies, & Enemies. And so on.
Another thing I might argue: Wonder Woman is—or rather, is supposed to be—a peace-orientated character. While she is a warrior and will fight when she must, her first instinct in any situation should be to find the peaceful solution first. Now, consider that against the greater DC universe—where it’s absurdly common for people to resolve their issues by dressing up in garish costumes and engaging in fist fights. In reality, it’s normal to want to resolve a problem without violence—unless you’re psychotic or an asshole.
So if you think about it, Wonder Woman—the fantasy Princess, given life by gods, raised on a magical island—is actually one of the more reasonable, sane, and rational-minded people in the DC universe. If she gets into a fight, it’s because she’s dealing with nutty, disturbed people that don’t want to listen and would rather engage in city-wide brawls. I don’t know if that makes her more relatable, but I think—if nothing else—it makes her more likable.
But here's the catch and here's where we can't have nice things:
How often is she presented in that light? Nowadays, Wonder Woman is more likely to be the first to charge into a fight, sword drawn, crying for blood. And on the rare occasion a writer does remember she’s supposed to be a peace-minded character, it’s usually to show how lame, boring, or preachy she is.
But what's perhaps even more troubling is how, honestly, I think a lot of the creators who have attempted to portray Diana have no idea what her motivation is or how her backstory's forged it. More than a few have openly admitted as such. It pretty frustrating how certain creators cherry-pick or retcon key elements of Diana's history and not realize the ways that should fundamentally alter pretty much everything about Wonder Woman as a person.
And if the creators don't know or understand the character, what chance do fans and readers have?