Is Wonder Woman a “pinup girl” or a feminist icon? The question dogged a United Nations campaign that featured the superhero as a symbol of self-empowerment for girls and women.
While some feminists may have felt triumphant when the United Nations announced the end of the Wonder Woman campaign this month (in an earlier Times article, a United Nations spokesman said that the campaign had merely run its course, and that the end had nothing to do with the uproar), one loyalist was not going to sit by as her cape was dragged through the mud: Lynda Carter, the actress who starred in the 1970s television show “Wonder Woman.”
Of the pushback that accompanied the campaign, Ms. Carter believes that some of it may be because “the U.N. didn’t put a woman in there.” The ambassadorship was announced just weeks after the United Nations passed over several women to be secretary-general.
Now 65, she is preparing to pass her golden lasso to Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress who will appear in next spring’s film version of “Wonder Woman.” Ms. Carter took time from acting (including a role as the president on “Supergirl” and a governor in the coming film “Super Troopers 2”) and career as a singer (she just competed a four-city tour and is recording her third studio album) to discuss the complex legacy of her Amazon princess alter ego. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Q. There seems to be some disagreement about what a feminist icon should look like.
A. What I find interesting is that they didn’t look at the larger picture. I agree that the issue of gender equality is much larger than any character is, and I understand that a comic book character should not be representative of something that is that important. I agree with that. What I disagree with is this idea about Wonder Woman. She’s an iconic defender, she’s archetypal. It’s the ultimate sexist thing to say that’s all you can see, when you think about Wonder Woman, all you can think about is a sex object.
What about those skimpy outfits?
Yeah, so? Superman had a skintight outfit that showed every little ripple, didn’t he? Doesn’t he have a great big bulge in his crotch? Hello! So why don’t they complain about that? And who says Wonder Woman is “white”? I’m half-Mexican. Gal Gadot is Israeli. The character is an Amazonian princess, not “American.” They’re trying to put her in a box, and she’s not in a box.
Did you ever think of your character as sexy?
If you think of the ’70s, that was miniskirts and bikinis. I never really thought of Wonder Woman as a super-racy character. She wasn’t out there being predatory. She was saying: “You have a problem with a strong woman? I am who I am, get over it.” I never played her as mousy. I played her being for women, not against men. For fair play and fair pay.
Some critics called Wonder Woman a “male fantasy.” But wasn’t the show more aimed at girls than boys?
I still have women at airports coming up to me saying: “Oh, you don’t know what it meant to me. That show got me through this difficult time, that difficult time.” That’s really where the fantasy became a reality, where Wonder Woman became something much more than a TV show or a comic book. And I’ll tell you this, when women recognize me in airports, I hold them in my arms and they cry. If a guy comes up and says, “Oh my God, I had such a crush on you when I was a teenager,” I say: “Talk to the hand. I don’t want to know.”
Wonder Woman, of course, was not your first experience being celebrated for your beauty. How did it feel to get your first burst of fame by winning the 1972 Miss World USA pageant?
That’s so funny. I did one beauty pageant — one! I had been on the road as a singer, I came home, and I entered one beauty pageant. I didn’t like it very much, because there was no talent in it. I just thought it was stupid. I still do.
You always said that music was your first love. When you were a teenager playing in a band with Gary Burghoff [who later played Radar on “M*A*S*H”], did you guys ever think you two would end up making it big in Hollywood?
No, I was 16. We were just a local band, and then I went with another band, and another band, and finally started doing some recording, mostly jingles and some session work. I was doing some writing and plugging along, as every other girl who goes to L.A. does, and then I finally got “Wonder Woman.”
I guess “The Flying Nun” and “Bewitched” were about female characters with superhuman powers, but “Wonder Woman” was really a breakthrough in terms of television superheroines. Why did the show strike such a chord with girls watching at home?
There was this idea that inside every woman is a secret self. It’s much less about the color of your skin, much less about your height or weight or beauty, but it’s the attitude, the strength of character, the fight for rights: the beauty within, the wisdom within.
At the height of your fame in the 1970s, you were voted the most beautiful woman in the world in one poll. Does that sort of thing change the way you see yourself in the mirror?
I’m sure I went and looked. And I’m sure I had no makeup on and I’m sure I went, “Huh, really?”
You have been open about your struggles with alcohol and finding sobriety. Was that all about the post-“Wonder Woman” blues?
Yes and no. I think that that was more about my bad marriage. I went through some tough times, and it brought solace at the time. But of course, that just rears its ugly head and bites you. But now it’s coming up on 20 years since I’ve been sober.
Along with your second husband, you were big figures on the D.C. social circuit. Do you still get out there the way you did?
We’re still pretty active politically. Less so now than we used to be. But no. The era of Beltway parties that include both sides of the aisle, it just doesn’t happen anymore. People used to talk to each other, they worked things out, they tried to get things done. They stopped talking to one another. It’s just gotten so ugly.
Nowadays, you are primarily a singer, and your band recently played Jazz at Lincoln Center. Tell us about your act.
My band is too big to be considered a cabaret band. My band’s 10 people. They’re more like mini-concerts, I guess you’d call them. But I’m in the process of doing my third album. I’ve been writing quite a bit, and sometimes my son will say, “Hey, Mom, you’d sound really good doing that song.” So I’ll do the Lone Bellow, “You Never Need Nobody” or the Black Keys. I just recently put in my show a Billie Holiday song, “You’ve Changed.”
This fall, you returned to the small screen playing another female superhero of sorts — the president of the United States — on an episode of “Supergirl.” What was your inspiration for the role?
It was Hillary. I’ve known Hillary Clinton for 35 years. She is the kindest, most wonderful human being, she has an infectious personality and smile and warmth and personality and true nature. She grew up in a time where you had a be a certain way to be taken seriously. Now you can be whoever you want. You don’t have to be serious. You can be feminine and powerful at the same time.