Every superhero has their origin story, but Superman, as the hero who started the superhero genre, has a particularly iconic beginning. He was created in 1938 by two Jewish men from Cleveland who sold the rights to their idea to a New York publishing house for just $130. In this same year, the average cost of a new house was $3,900, Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds caused panic of an alien attack across the country, the US approached a decade of dealing with the Great Depression, and Germany began persecuting its Jewish citizens.
Just three years later, in 1941, a middle-aged Harvard psychiatrist best known for developing the lie detector technology created Wonder Woman. By this time, the average cost of a new house increased by $175 while average wages only increased by $20 per year, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane—a satirical look at a media mogul running for political office—debuted, and Japan ordered a devastating strike on Pearl Harbor, forcing the US to enter World War II.
The time of Superman’s and Wonder Woman’s origins was fraught with both creation and destruction, affecting all Americans and prompting each citizen to do their part for the war effort. Women took up factory jobs, as depicted in Norman Rockwell’s beloved Rosie the Riveter. Images of brawny, sweat-glistening men on steel beams and roadways began popping up everywhere, such as in Herschel Levit’s Take It Away. As Erika Doss describes in her essay, “Manly Workers and Pin-Up Girls,” written for the exhibition catalog accompanying Men of Steel, Women of Wonder, it was “as if these symbols of manly might and movement might propel America out of the Great Depression and into a better tomorrow.”
Superman famously stands for the values of truth, justice, and the American Way. Although citizens pitched in to support the war effort in the 1940s, Superman filled the void of powerlessness in a moment of national crisis. His brawn, physique, and good looks exemplified the mainstream values of mid-century America, making him an American symbol that could be utilized to support the common good on the war front, often appearing on covers fighting Nazis or arm in arm with the military, though never actually going to war in the story arc of the comics themselves. In fact, comic books were used as propaganda by the US government during World War II to convince young boys to grow up and become soldiers, strong and righteous like Superman. But as the world moved into the Cold War, Superman’s abilities–and his aptitude for good–were questioned. For example, in Laurie Anderson’s 1982 song, “O Superman,” the Man of Steel is a stand-in for the concept of power, something to be respected and feared.
Wonder Woman’s strength, on the other hand, lies in her ability to use her feminine qualities to her advantage. The character’s creator, William Marston, studied emotional behaviors to create his famous
heroine. From this research, he concluded that a positive female role model would be one who was as strong as a masculine archetype, but still loving like a feminine one, something he called a “love leader.” As Jill Lepore discusses in her book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, “[she] was a product of the suffragist, feminist, and birth control movements of the 1900s and 1910s and became a source of the women’s liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s.” However, as Bart Beaty points out in “The Spectacular Banality of the Superhero” (found in the exhibition’s catalog), Wonder Woman has a complicated feminism that is less focused on “the inclusive and diversity-driven potential of intersectionality.”
In short, Superman and Wonder Woman are complicated heroes. They were both created to represent the ideals of their times and to be the saviors of a country that needed it in times of uncertainty and chaos. They were (and still remain) defenders of the innocent, and all that was seen as good and righteous in the collective mind of a country determined to keep democracy, decency, and its way of life alive. Each superhero became an idealized version of their respective genders, even though Superman is an alien and Wonder Woman is a goddess. But are they all things to all people? Perhaps truth, justice, and the American Way is not about being the smartest, toughest, or even greatest country in the world, but about representing the moral and ethical ideals that American democracy is meant to stand for.
Don’t miss Men of Steel, Women of Wonder – on view now through April 22!
[Header photo: St. Superman (2016), Valentin Popov]