By Kerensa Cadenas and Noel Kirkpatrick
Pilot movie: The New Original Wonder Woman
Original airdate: Nov. 7, 1975
Noel: First off, Kerensa, I want to thank you for joining me to talk about Wonder Woman. I’m incredibly excited about discussing this show with you, and I think we’re going to have a very interesting time if the pilot movie is any indication of what’s in store for us.
But before we dive into the movie, I’d like to talk about our experiences and thoughts with Wonder Woman as an character, icon, and so on. My experiences with Wonder Woman come largely from animation, with her appearances in Super Friends and the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited series. It wasn’t until last year when I started reading the New 52 relaunch of DC Comics that I was reading Wonder Woman in comics. While I always liked her in the animated series (particularly JLU), reading her in the comics has made her one of my favorite characters.
What strikes me about Wonder Woman has been how she’s always been a feminist icon, even from her inception, but also just how very differently she’s represented even in the same continuity in the comics right now (she’s strong and compassionate in her own book, compassionate and completely unaware of how secret identities work in Justice League (and in need of Superman to teach her!), and the seasoned warrior in the current Batwoman arc). Wonder Woman seems to be, more than perhaps any other superhero I can think of (save for maybe Green Arrow in the 1970s), a character that writers are attempting to have in tune with the times they’re writing in, and I think we see that even here in this TV movie from 1975.
Kerensa: Noel, I’m so excited that you asked me to discuss Wonder Woman with you.
I’ve always loved comics, but didn’t really start reading them until high school. And the only superhero comic I read was Wonder Woman–it was usually a few issues here and there and never something I stuck with fully. While I admired her strength and compassion (and accessories), my feminist brain at the time was annoyed that she wasn’t as clothed as her male counterparts (a position, I have taken a less dramatic stance on).
My interest in Wonder Woman spawned the inevitable gifts of books on her history, pop-up books based on the first comic, the first season dvd. I find that interesting how differently she’s been represented currently–and I can see the appeal–I know there are other female superheroes, but Wonder Woman has always been the one to stand out. There are always rumors of new films and television shows developing and homegirl was on the inaugural cover of Ms. magazine in 1972 and was on the 40th anniversary cover this past September. Why do you think that Wonder Woman has become such a cultural icon–to stand out amongst the other female superheroes?
Noel: I think Wonder Woman has endured not because she was the first super heroine (and she likely wasn’t; there was a woman with x-ray eyes who appeared in a comic book in 1937, four years before Diana made her first appearance in All-Star Comics) but because she was the one created with such an intense ideology that has been with her, in one form or another, regardless of her incarnation. William Moulton Marston’s vision of Wonder Woman was so specific, so precise, that it wasn’t until his death 1947 that other writers started including Wonder Woman in other stories because Marston insisted on re-writing everything involving her.
And while that vision was a well-meaning one, it was one that was often kookily expressed sometimes with themes of bondage and slavery and dashes of pseudo-science. Marston once wrote, and I’m going to give the full quote here:
Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world. There isn’t enough love in the male organism to run the planet peacefully. Woman’s body contains twice as many love generating organs and endocrine mechanisms as the male. What woman lacks is the dominance of self assertive power to put over and enforce her love desires. I have given Wonder Woman this dominant force, but have kept her loving, tender, maternal and feminine in every other way. Her bracelets, with which she repels bullets and other murderous weapons, represent the Amazon Princess’ submission to Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Beauty. Her magic lasso, which compels anyone bound by it to obey Wonder Woman and which was given to her by Aphrodite herself, represents woman’s love charm and allure by which she compels men and women to do her bidding.
While that explanation is sort of intensely weird in places, and occasionally sexist-sounding despite its overall goals, it speaks to that compassion and love that throughout everything Wonder Woman has gone through is always a part of her, including being depowered and losing her costume in the late 1960s in the comics (and pissing off Gloria Steinem in the process), becoming a jiggle TV icon in the late 1970s, and whatever is happening to her all the different titles of the comics now. But it also defines Wonder Woman’s abilities as being because she was a woman. It’s aspects of that no other male hero, not even Superman, has access to, and there’s something really empowering and enduring about that.
And I think it’s to this pilot movie’s credit that those features of Wonder Woman are here, and it that they were something that producer Douglas Cramer was very keen to include.
Kerensa: That quote is so fascinating for many reasons. I agree that it’s so weird and yeah I get the overall goals. But at points it is so sexist sounding–basically saying that all women are maternal figures–and that her “weapons” are chosen because they aren’t weapons. So bizarre. But I do agree that there is something very empowering and enduring about all of this–especially in terms of feminism and the way that feminists in particular have latched onto Wonder Woman.
So, to the pilot movie? How much money do you think went into the lingerie/lycra budget? Joking aside, what were your first impressions?
Noel: Yes! To the pilot movie! I actually generally really enjoyed it. I mean, the dogfight between Steve Rogers and Drangel (played by Eric Braeden, who I almost did not recognize) was probably the worst actual part for me, but was in keeping with the show’s rather silly tone.
But that silly tone was tempered for me by the fact that Lynda Carter and Lyle Waggoner are playing everything fairly straight. They’re surrounded by the these terrific comedic actors, including Red Buttons, Henry Gibson, and Kenneth Mars, and so the show has this campy aura, but through both of them, but especially Carter, it never feels like it descends into actual camp, like the earlier Batman series.
Kerensa: I really liked it too, although, I think it was like, for me, a half hour too long. The end portion really started dragging.
Agreed, it’s totally campy, but Lynda Carter (babe city) just feels so earnest and genuine, you take her completely seriously despite the obvious silliness surrounding her. But the pilot movie included some of my favorite media things ever: montages, 40s vibes, double crossing lady spies, cheesy special effects and Cloris Leachman in glittery robes. Surface level, what were some of your favorite (and feel free to mention non-favs, I have some to mention) things that stood out to you immediately before we get into thematics.
Noel: I hear you on the dragging bit, especially the first time I watched it (the second time was a bit smoother). But there’s so much to set up in an effort to convince ABC to pick it up — it’s going to have the adventure element with Nazis and the romance element with Steve and the buxom ladies running about Paradise Island element and the Lynda Carter being awesome element — that I’m willing to let the slight case of bloat off the hook. With all those aspects of the show, that would appeal to a broad section of the TV audience, I’m still a bit flummoxed that ABC dragged its feet on picking up the show.
The 1940s vibe was a favorite of mine as well, and they really benefited from been produced by Warner Bros. in that respect as I imagine all those costumes and props (so many awesome cars!) were just packed up somewhere in a warehouse. I really enjoyed the Bullets and Bracelet show, particularly when that Nazi grandmother pulled out the machine gun and started firing away. An old woman with a gun is always funny, but the build up to it and her mock innocence about it — “Well, you said any weapon!” — just cracked me up. And I also really dug the fight between Wonder Woman and Nuremberg judo champ(!) Marcia. There’s no over-editing or fast cutting as is so common today, and as a result the fight feels more…authentic and brutal, and sort of called back the prolonged fight in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain for me.
I want to hear about some of the things you didn’t like, though. I mentioned the dog-fight (so much stock footage edited together, very over-the-top reaction shots to link things together), but nothing else really stood out as particularly bad to me. There’s the running along the beach on Paradise Island plus the actual competition to see who takes Steve back to the States and the whole body as spectacle business going on in those sequences, but I feel like that’s a wider discussion for us.
And, yes, we need to really talk about Cloris Leachman’s performance. Because it’s…it’s kind of bizarre to me, so I want to know what you thought about it.
Kerensa: I really loved all the Paradise Island elements as well, and I really hope that we get the opportunity to go back and revisit. It reminded me of this book I read in college, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, about a utopian society that was just women until men infiltrate. I wonder if that was any sort of influence in the creation of Wonder Woman, because they eerily match up–well minus the superpower parts. And obviously, the major woman power vibes of Paradise Island are a major draw for me.
And praise be for Cloris Leachman. Yes, it was totally bizarre, but I’m kinda obsessed with it and her? I feel like she was just having a lot of fun and you could tell just from her performance. I guess it didn’t feel that weird to me. Why was it to you?
Noel: I have not read that, but it sounds intriguing. I’ll pick it up soon.
It was just so…sort of manic, I suppose. She’s flitting about, fiddling with curtains and plant leaves, coughing at the incense burner, biting her lip and thumb as she describes man’s “barbaric, masculine behavior” and she sort of steps on her own lines, talking about sisterhood one second and then, in maybe half a beat, she rudely dismissing the advisor before running after her to make sure she’s kept informed of Steve’s condition. I suppose it could read as distraught about the potential for the island’s discovery, but it comes as very manic. It’s not bad, but even among the more comedic performances, this just feels very different from everything else.
I can’t deal with Steve Trevor, at all. Granted, this is obviously just from viewing the pilot movie, so I shouldn’t be too quick to judge, but he’s kind of awful. He just does nothing for me as a character at all. I feel like we are supposed to see him as compelling and charismatic, but I thought he was just a bland himbo. I understand that my girl, Diana, has never seen a dude before and that’s a large portion of her fascination/attraction to him, but him, really? He also seems like a skeeze, especially when at the end he says he can’t have an attractive secretary, basically insinuating he would sleep with her. Let’s put Diana in glasses! She’s unattractive now! However, on the flipside of this, I really am into that he’s essentially, at least in the pilot movie, the damsel in distress. She has to save him because he clearly can’t do it on his own. I’ll be interested to see if he gets any sort of character development, and if not, I’m hoping they get her a better love interest, she could do WAY better.
Noel: I’m withholding an opinion on Steve Trevor since he’s in a coma for much of the episode, BUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUT I’m totally with you on the himbo vibe. I mean, he’s so important to the war effort that he gets a splashy, above the fold mention of his disappearance as FDR announces rationing? C’mon. No guy, no matter how good looking he is, he can’t be that important to the war effort. Or else he’d be doing USO shows with Captain America. ….And now I want that crossover to happen. I do, however, think he’s there to be rescued a lot, or that he’s in constant need of Wonder Woman’s assistance. We’ll see how things play out.
I’m likewise waiting to see how the Diana Prince alternate identity goes, and if the glasses do make her completely unattractive. Personally, I much prefer her in the military uniform and the glasses, but that’s just me.
Kerensa: Let’s get into some thematics. You previously mentioned the function of the body in the pilot–do you want to elaborate on that?
Noel: Did I? I don’t remember that at all. [Ed.'s note: You totally did, dimwit.]
Kerensa: You had mentioned the body as spectacle which I think is really interesting, obviously in the context of what we are watching, but also in a larger superhero context as well. While many superheroes have some sort of supernatural power and of course Wonder Woman’s power does come from some sort of weird larger mythology–her strength is focused primarily within her body. It’s not like she can shoot fireballs with a finger or read minds or anything like that, but her power comes from a physicality that’s innately hers. And I find that interesting when it’s tied up with the general focus on women’s bodies, i.e. all the slo-mo jiggle shots, but there’s still a strength that for me kinda negated any kind of weird male gaze-type things that were happening. What do you think?
Noel: …I did mention that. Not all of that, of course, but you hit on what I was thinking about when I did mention it, and you isolated that quasi-contraction that the show engages in as well. So, yeah, Wonder Woman’s power is innately her’s, but it also belongs to every woman on Paradise Island as well. The sanctuary of that island allows women to develop to their fullest potential, both in terms of physical ability and feminist philosophy. It’s why there’s a contest to determine who brings Steve back the States, and why Diana doesn’t win every single competition: They’re all very powerful because they’ve been freed from patriarchy’s demands and mores. (Though how they developed an invisible jet I still don’t understand…)
But I’m intrigued by your assertion that all this women’s power kind of negates the male gaze stuff. I don’t know that it negates it, but maybe balances it out…? Allows the show to have its feminist cake and eat its female cheesecake, too? I mean, Diana and her friend didn’t really run on that beach to Steve so much as frolic in the surf. The competition is full of family-friendly running and jumping, all done in a gauzy, soft focus and and superimposition. Even the fight scene that I singled out for its choreography can be read as tinged with homosexuality, the same way we read those big fight scenes in (especially) 1980s action movies, giving it a decided titillation factor.
Kerensa: I agree on the maybe it doesn’t negate it so much as balances it out. Because you are right in saying that all the frolicking, et. al isn’t done so much in the context of the male gaze within (which I mean it certainly is for television purposes) the show, as I guess just the way Paradise Island operates. But now I totally want this show to instead have Diana end up with some equally awesome woman warrior Paradise Island lady instead of boring old Steve.
One thing that really stood out for me was in the end of the episode when Diana at the end of the episode when she’s talking to the Nazi spy lady has that brief monologue:
No, the Nazis don’t care about their women. They let you fend for yourself. And any civilization that doesn’t recognize the female is doomed to destruction. Women are the wave of the future. And sisterhood is stronger than anything.
I loved this quote, but it made me super sad too–considering this pilot aired in 1975–that while progress has been made, there’s still a lot that needs to be done. But that might be something much larger to get into as the show progresses.
Next week we’ll discuss “Wonder Woman Meets Baroness Von Gunther” and (most likely) some of Elana Levine’s Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s America Television. The idea will be to do one episode a week, except for the two-parters “The Feminum Mystique” and “Judgment From Outer Space.” The two-parters will be discussed a single entry as opposed to spread out across two weeks.