Wonder Woman is the hero all women can look up to. Or so she’s supposed to be. Wonder Woman was created during a time when not all women were perceived as equal, or even as women. Wonder Woman, historically, has been a hero for white women exclusively.
Wonder Woman’s fellow ‘40s feminist icon-in-arms, Rosie the Riveter, has also been created by white America for white America, despite the fact that women of all races helped with the war effort. Nowadays, Rosie the Riveter’s iconography has been updated to include women from all races and backgrounds. If we compare Wonder Woman to Rosie, has the Themysciran Justice Leaguer been updated in a similar way? Has Wonder Woman’s brand been extended to include women of color, and if so, how well have women of color been represented?
Nubia: Wonder Woman’s Sister and the Strong Black Woman Trope
The creation of Nubia in 1973 was in direct response to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In fact, many DC characters, including Apache Chief, Samurai and Black Lightning, among others, were created as part of the comic book industry’s recognition of the effects of the civil rights movement. However, like many attempts to create diversity by nearly or all-white comic book writers and illustrators, Nubia was well-intentioned, but still laced with stereotypes, starting with her name.
Nubia and the DC characters aforementioned all have one thing in common — their names denote their ethnicity, which only reinforces their “exotic” position in an all-white superhero pantheon. Instead of being named something in relation to their powers (i.e. Wonder Woman, Superman) or an idea (Batman, who uses the iconography of bats to evoke the human fear of darkness), these characters are named something that directly ties to their skin color. Did Nubia have to be named “Nubia” in order for comic book readers to realize she’s black? Certainly not. But her name continues the idea that whiteness is “default” and acceptable, whereas anyone else has to be explained away.
Secondly, Nubia’s backstory is both tragic and laced with the “strong black woman” trope. Nubia, who is Diana’s sister, was kidnapped by Ares to be raised in the ways of war on Slaughter Island. Nubia is stripped from the loving environment Diana grew up in on Themiscyra and when she returns, she is showcased in a way that speaks to the stereotypes about black women — she is loud, brash, and demanding thanks to her childhood of war training. She views Diana as a threat to her title as Wonder Woman, and even though Nubia is supposed to be seen in a sympathetic light, her characterization and her storylines often put her in the odd position of being Wonder Woman’s adversary. All of this speaks to a severe lack of knowledge about how to write black women, much less characters of color as a whole, to where they act and speak as real people, not cobbled-together stereotypes.
One of the final times we see Nubia in her original form is in SuperFriends #25 in 1979. She has become the leader of an African nation whose women are treated as second class citizens. Wonder Woman comes to liberate them, but Nubia appears, reasserting that she is the Wonder Woman for these women.
The storyline is a textbook case of “white savior.” If Nubia is the Wonder Woman for this nation, why does Diana feel the need to step on her sister’s territory? Why didn’t she already know her sister’s whereabouts? To be more pointed, why did the writers feel that only Diana could save a nation of African women? While Nubia may be their Wonder Woman, the writers have undercut Nubia’s own power by suggesting that she’s not strong enough to rid this nation of Man’s stronghold of her women.
Nubia has been later altered over the years as a subject of Hippolyta’s sister Antiope, and eventually as an alternate Earth’s Wonder Woman. But Nubia (whose name had been hilariously revamped during her Antiope days as “Nu’Bia”, as if that makes her name less problematic) still remains a character with largely untapped potential.
Phillippus: Wonder Woman’s Mentor and the Caregiver Trope
Philippus, who was created in 1987, is Hippolyta’s Captain of the Guard, loyal devotee, and eventually, Philippus became Hippolyta’s lover. She was also young Diana’s mentor.
Philippus as Diana’s mentor is something that should make Philippus more well-rounded. But the idea of having Philippus as Diana’s mentor also something that could be seen as reinforcing her status as “second best”; her role as mentor is still reminiscent of other black characters in film, television, and comics that stay within a “caregiver” or even a “Mammy” framework. This framework is part of America’s fascination and hatred of black America, particularly black women. While black women are thought of as being white femininity’s rival (aka Nubia pitting herself against Diana), black women are also expected to rear and comfort whiteness, from the slave caretakers of white children, to the maids and nannies who have worked in white homes, to the Mammy figure that serves as inspiration for Aunt Jemima syrup, to Philippus, a character who isn’t typically seen as a character within this trope, but is still written as a caretaker for Diana.
Since Philippus was created in the ‘80s and continued to be a part of the Wonder Woman storyline, it’s clear that she was developed to better showcase black characters, and to be fair, a lot has been done with her character in order to further diversity in a more conscious time. But regardless of how well-intentioned her story has been, there was — as there always is with any character — a way for unconscious biases to seep through the cracks.
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Source: Slash Film