“Wonder Woman is not relatable.”
Yes, the dreaded “R” word. And if you’ve encountered this proclamation, what usually follows is a discussion of all the ways in which Wonder Woman is apparently so un-relatable. “She’s too powerful!” “Her costume is stupid!” “I don’t get the Amazons!” “She doesn’t have a secret identity!” “She’s a girl and girls have cooties!”
…and so on.
But I, not unlike Agent Smith, would like to share a revelation I’ve had in my years following Wonder Woman. May I present to you a small scene from Justice League #3 (2011), which served as her introduction to the book:
Really look at this scene. Soak it in.
Now ask yourself: how is anyone supposed to relate to this woman?
I mean, let’s look at this scene. We have a character wandering around the street with a lethal weapon—at one point drawing it on an innocent bystander. She then spends the rest of the scene questioning what ice cream is and pontificating how wonderful it is.
Readers are not looking at this and thinking, “Oh, she’s a stranger in a strange land trying to learn our customs.” People are looking at this and thinking, “This woman is a freak and an idiot.” (Not to mention a pretty crummy ambassador—or is that even in continuity anymore?)
Which brings me to my point: has it never occurred to anyone that maybe the reason people don’t relate to Wonder Woman is because she’s rarely portrayed as a relatable character? Now some might say I’m overreacting to a rather inconsequential scene that was probably intended to be “whimsical” and “charming.” But now let’s look at the series pitch for the new Wonder Woman television series that is currently in development:
“She comes from a remote, secluded country and until now has spent most of her life as a soldier and a leader on the battlefield. Because of relentless brutality of her life at home, [Diana] looks at our world with absolute awe and astonishment. She’s delighted and just as often horrified by the aspects of everyday life that we take for granted: skyscrapers, traffic, ice cream. It’s all new and fascinating and sometimes slightly troubling to her. [Diana] is completely unschooled in our world, our culture, our customs. And she’s completely inexperienced at interpersonal relationships. She has no social filter, does not suffer fools, and tends to do and say exactly what’s on her mind at all times. She’s bluntly, refreshingly honest. She can tell when you’re lying to her. And she doesn’t have time or patience for politics or tact because she’s too busy trying to experience everything our world has to offer. There are too many sights to see and things to learn and people to care for. Hers is a true, noble, and generous heart. And she will fight and die for the people she loves. [Diana] is a fierce warrior with the innocent heart of a romantic and she will fight to the death to make the world safe for innocents and true romantics everywhere.”
There! You see it? Again with the ice cream! We are being presented with a character that doesn’t comprehend ice cream. Our superhero protagonist cannot understand food. And we’re surprised people aren’t relating to this character? There’s “stranger in a strange land,” and then there’s “no deductive abilities whatsoever.” And this is from a character who is supposed to be blessed with the “Wisdom of Athena.”
Okay. Exaggeration aside.
What I’m really getting at is this is symptomatic of a greater recurring problem. More often than not, when a writer—who is unfamiliar with the character, and even some who are—attempts to portray Wonder Woman, what they emphasize is all the ways she’s not like us. They focus on how she’s from this distant, magical island. That she’s a product of gods and was raised among a people with customs unlike our own. She adheres to this philosophy that writers insist is strange and incompatible for modern thinking. That she’s (gasp!) a woman—and no one can relate to those wacky womens!
So of course fans don’t relate to Wonder Woman. More often than not, when she’s presented to them, all they get is a reminder of all the ways in which she is nothing like them. Ordinarily, what you’re supposed to do when dealing with a fantastical character or context, you try to emphasize how, despite coming from this strange world, the protagonist is not so different from us.
Look at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. The opening act of the first movie is spent in the Shire hanging out with the Hobbits where we see that, even though these characters exist in a world of magic and monsters, they’re just like us. The Hobbits are ordinary folk. They like to hang out, relax, go to the bar, and smoke weed.
Or look at Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. Luke may live a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, but we see he’s just a regular kid. He lives on a farm and he wants to the see the world (or galaxy). He wants adventure and to do big things with his life. We get him and we relate to him…even if he hangs out with robots and aliens all day.
Here's another example that actually reveals another reason readers fail to relate to Wonder Woman. This is a page from DC Universe: Last Will and Testament. A one-shot issue where, on the eve of some apocalyptic battle, we see how various DC heroes and villains deal with the prospect they might all die tomorrow. An interesting concept that could offer intriguing insights into the various characters and who they are.
Once again, we're being reinforced with how not like us Wonder Woman is. She's living in an archaic time and, hilariously, "she doesn't know crap about love." So we're not seeing Wonder Woman as a relatable human being we can empathize with. She's a freak from a bizarre land no normal person could possibly understand.
But another thing about this scene I find we see very often—particularly outside Wonder Woman's own title—is how we get stories about Wonder Woman, but are not her stories. What do I mean by that..? Well look at this scene...we don’t really see how Diana deals with the possibility of inevitable doom. The entire section is told from the perspective of Donna Troy. So we’re not getting into Diana's head and gaining insight in how she reacts to the situation—we’re getting insight on how Donna reacts to how Wonder Woman deals with it.
We're being told how to see Wonder Woman and how to regard via another character's eyes. And if we’re can't get inside Diana's head and see for ourselves how she deals with situations, what she wants, or why she wants it...how can we relate to her?
This all ties back into what I’ve been saying—how can fans relate to Wonder Woman when she’s so rarely written to be a relatable character?
***UPDATE (June 2017)***In the wake of the Wonder Woman movie, I've noticed an increase of traffic on this post, and I'm assuming it's because the film features a similar scene with Diana and ice cream.
Now even though my harping on the ice cream bit was only to address a larger topic regarding how Wonder Woman is frequently depicted, I feel somewhat obligated to address it.
Without going into a full review--here--let me first say I really enjoyed the movie. Major props to Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot, and all others involved for doing what many thought was impossible.
And as for the ice cream scene, I would argue that the movie is an example of executing the idea right. I thought they successfully played the "fish out of water" thing without making Diana appear foolish or un-relatable.
So yeah, if you've stumbled across this post because of the movie, don't think me a crabby kill-joy who didn't want any humor in Wonder Woman. I still think the scene, as depicted in the comic at the top of the page, doesn't work, but the movie got it right.