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When we think of fictional utopias, it’s hard to argue against Wonder Woman’s Themyscira as one of the most successful. Though it has come under several attacks in its time — from without and within — there is no denying that it has remained almost fully intact for quite a bit longer than most.
There is no way to separate Wonder Woman from her home any more than you could separate Superman from his Kryptonian heritage or Batman from his need to defend Gotham. Yet Themyscira is a very different place, with very different implications, than any other fictional place to ever appear in comics. While most other utopias in sci-fi and fantasy crumble within a single story arc, Themyscira has survived.
Where Even Is Themyscira?
Located somewhere in the middle of a vast ocean, the archipelago known as the Paradise Islands lies hidden from the eyes of man. The location of said ocean has changed many times, from the Pacific to the Bermuda Triangle to the Aegean Sea and beyond. Ultimately, it has been established as a floating space that need not be tethered to any singular spot on the map. Populated entirely by Amazons, the land is governed by Aphrodite’s Law, which grants the Amazons immortality so long as no man sets foot there.
Yet let history show that if there’s a patch of land that says “no men,” you better believe men are going to set their feet on it. Steve Trevor accidentally washed ashore during a fight against the Axis in World War II, and Diana entered a competition against her sisters to earn the right to accompany him to Man’s World. Her mother, Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, disapproved, but knew that to make her stay would be to lose her forever.
Yet places very much like Paradise Island had already made their first appearances well before the comics hit the stand. In Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s Herland, women give birth through self-reproduction. Education is highly prized, and women are completely self-sustaining and physically able to do what was, upon the novel’s release in 1915, considered widely to be “man’s work.”
Many of the inherent issues of Herland — the lean towards eugenics and the perpetuation of an inability to see women beyond their role as mothers regardless of living in a self-sustaining utopia — persisted in the Wonder Woman series. As with many early works of feminism centering white women, these utopias still carry very specific rule systems for what exactly is allowed and who is considered worthy of the benefits of feminism.
Also heavily referenced throughout the franchise is the poet Sappho, known for making a home on the island of Lesbos. Though Lesbos is indeed a tangible place, it has taken on mythical proportions over the years. Lesbos (perhaps obviously) inspired the word lesbian, as much of Sappho’s love poetry is believed to be written about women. Though Lesbos is a far cry from Themyscira, the idea of a society of Sappho’s women making their home there is forever associated with it in mythology, regardless of how accurate that depiction may be.
Themyscira became the official title of the island in 1987. Legend had it that this was the name of the Amazonian capital. When writer George Perez went to some length to strengthen the bond between Wonder Woman and ancient Greek mythology, this was adopted as the name of the island's capital.
In the beginning, the Amazons had chosen to live apart from humanity after being enslaved by Hercules. This story was adjusted more than once going forward to depict ever more graphic tales of sexual assault, enslavement, and abuse towards the Amazons from the son of Zeus. Despite the many highlights of the Amazonians, writers have put them through some unnecessarily brutal plot points. Rather than being portrayed as self-motivated healing as in their original incarnation, their society has been increasingly represented as isolated and irrationally hostile in the ensuing years.
Of course, when we look back over the history of Wonder Woman, a lot of men made up the creative team over entire decades of her history, and that brings its own set of challenges when you’re dealing with an island specifically meant to show a society that exists without male influence. The Amazons have not been treated particularly well by many creative teams, being mass slaughtered first by Darkseid and then the OMACs before those stories were ultimately retconned. There was also the somewhat bizarre inclusion of tribal warfare among the Amazons in which they were portrayed as being much more bloodthirsty and violent than initially suspected.
In Amazons Attack, the Amazons fared a full-fledged war on humanity, attacking major cities without explanation. This story arc went out of its way to portray Amazons as irrational and overly hostile to men. Though this was ultimately explained as the influence of Circe, the series itself didn’t do any favors for Themyscira’s image. Amazons have often been portrayed as vengeful and duplicitous since thus magnifying an inherent distrust of women in the text.
Despite the many steps and missteps along the way, Paradise Island continues to survive. As recently as G. Willow Wilson’s run on the character, we saw Princess Diana reflect the positive teachings of her home, continuing to fulfill her work as an ambassador for the Amazons. Indeed, Themyscira is at its very best when it’s teaching us something about how much more peaceful the world could be without gender oppression in it at all.