The Secret Lives of Words: Amazons, Wonder Woman and the sleeping giantess

Rick LaFleur, More Content Now

Wonder Woman, the superhero(ine) of DC Comics fame, was conceived in the 1940s and has a mythic lineage dating back to antiquity. But Diana Prince, WW’s “civilian” alias, has never been the superstar of her own feature-length movie until now. The latest installment in the DC Extended Universe series, “Wonder Woman,” with Israeli army veteran, model and actress Gal Gadot in the title role, opens in theaters across the U.S. on June 2. In view of controversies that erupted over women’s issues during the recent presidential campaign, leading to the Women’s March on Washington Jan. 21 and revival of lobbying for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution, the film’s premiere could not be more suitably timed.

The idea for the character grew out of the women’s movement that had continued to gain force after passage in 1920 of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote after a decades-long struggle. Inspired by leading feminists of the day, psychologist William Marston and his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, along with illustrator Harry Peter, created Wonder Woman and her basic storyline, drawing on the legendary Amazons of Greek mythology. Their Nazi-fighting heroine debuted in a December 1941, story in “All Star Comics #8” and appeared the next month on the cover of “Sensation Comics #1,” both ultimately merged with DC.

As the Women’s Liberation Movement gathered momentum in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the leading lady of superheroes graced the cover of the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine in 1972 and battled villains in made-for-television movies that aired in 1974 and 1975. Two TV series followed, both starring Lynda Carter. The first, which ran a single season on ABC, was set during the 1940s, like the DC comic. The second, “The New Adventures of Wonder Woman,” had a contemporary ‘70s setting and aired for two seasons on CBS. The show was dropped after 1979, which happened also to be the initial deadline for states to ratify the ERA. Intended to guarantee women equal rights under the Constitution and first proposed to Congress in the 1920s, efforts to pass the amendment were vigorously renewed during the ‘70s but failed to garner sufficient votes for passage and so, like Wonder Woman, faded into the background for a time.

Supporters of women’s rights did not give up, however, nor did Hollywood producers attuned to the shifting currents of American society. In 2016 the USPS issued a set of Wonder Woman stamps, the United Nations appointed the superheroine as Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls, and the character made her powerful live-action debut on the big screen backing up two male DC champions in the film “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

Now Gal Gadot, reprising her role in that movie, takes center stage in this June’s “Wonder Woman,” to be released in 2-D, 3-D, and IMAX 3-D. WW’s 2017 incarnation, endowed with extraordinary powers and “emotional intelligence,” as Gadot remarks, draws from both her feminist and Amazonian roots. Living on the mysterious island of Themyscira, the millennia-old but perpetually youthful Princess Diana, daughter of Zeus and the Amazon queen Hippolyta, is visited by a downed American fighter-pilot, who describes the terrible conflict in which he is involved (WW1, which the U.S. entered just three years before American women earned the right to vote). Disguised as Diana Prince, the ever-compassionate heroine enters the fray and succeeds as no mere man could — despite, or perhaps because of, her preference for peace and love over war and hatred.

The legend of the Amazons is best known to us from Greek epic and art. In one popular tale, Penthesilea, daughter of the war god Ares, leads her Amazonian band to aid the Trojans, whose city has been besieged by the Greeks. In a moment of high drama, the Amazon queen and Achilles, greatest of the Greek heroes, meet in a duel on the plain outside Troy. Penthesilea fights mightily at first, but then is struck and drops to her knee. Determined to slay her, Achilles raises his spear and at the very instant of plunging it into Penthesilea’s breast, their eyes meet and the Greek warrior is overwhelmed by the queen’s prowess and beauty — though too late to stay his weapon’s thrust.

Like so many legends, the Amazon story is grounded in historical fact. Aided by DNA findings, researchers have examined hundreds of ancient graves containing weapons and the remains of their battle-scarred owners, once assumed to be men but now proven to be female warriors. In her recent book, “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World,” Stanford University scholar Adrienne Mayor gathers evidence for the existence of nomadic hunter-warrior horsewomen of ancient Scythia, the vast territory stretching from the Black Sea to Mongolia. While the patriarchal Greeks wanted their women at home, and certainly not on the battlefield, they were familiar with cultures, on the fringes of their world, in which women fought alongside men or even independently.

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California) recently declared her intention to renew the fight for the ERA. In an interview for USA TODAY, Speier observed, “We have awakened a sleeping giantess.” I’m reminded that in some versions of the Trojan War myth the tables are turned and Penthesilea slays Achilles, by driving a spear into his ever vulnerable heel. The warrior queen’s Amazons, our American suffragettes, and DC’s Diana Prince — to paraphrase Helen Reddy’s ‘70s feminist anthem — they are women, hear them roar, they are too big to ignore . . . they are invincible.

Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is UBI FERA SUNT, a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.