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Wonder Woman's Barbara Minerva is a complicated queer villain
In the 1980s, classic DC bad-girl the Cheetah went from being a minor villain to a terrifying powerhouse in one storyline, and she has been perfectly matched for Wonder Woman ever since. The original Cheetah, Priscilla Rich, and her follow-up, Deborah Domaine, were rich white women driven to take up the mantle of the Cheetah mostly due to vanity and a desire for the spotlight. Their fights with Wonder Woman were a lot of fun, but they never felt especially threatening to someone with Diana's powers.
During the George Perez run on Wonder Woman, the Cheetah was reimagined as something right out of a horror film. Barbara Ann Minerva was just as rich and vain as her predecessors, but she was also driven, ambitious, and intelligent. Now a werecat struggling with the power bestowed upon her by an ancient god thirsting for blood, the Cheetah was just as powerful as Diana and possessed of murderous rage that the princess couldn't hope to cope with.
Barbara Ann Minerva first appeared in 1987 in Wonder Woman #7. From the beginning, she is cruel and ruthless and fixated on obtaining Wonder Woman's Golden Lasso of Truth. Her agonizing transformations into the mythical Cheetah have left her dependent on a drug made of leaves and blood. This drug is given to her by her assistant Chumo, who is bound to serve her due to his loyalty to the god Urzkartaga.
Barbara Ann's introduction as the Cheetah was unsettling for myriad reasons. She's a demanding, ruthless British archaeologist and heir to a massive fortune, which is a complicated role to have in and of itself. Add stereotypical portrayals of Africans speaking in phonetically-written accents to the mix and Barbara's abusive attitude towards her "servant," the first appearances of Minerva make for some pretty dicey reading material. Even throughout several retcons, the generally stereotypical portrayals of Urzkartaga's followers remain mostly unchallenged by writers. Yet, one thing is always true, and that is that Barbara Ann Minerva is a terrifying person.
In Minerva's most recent retcon, she is still an archeologist and a prodigy who travels, not in search of Urzkartaga or his followers, but because she is looking for the Amazons in hope of helping Diana, which casts her motives in a different light from the very start. Her more recent incarnation also runs with some of the themes of sexism that went mostly without comment in the original story. For instance, Urzkartaga decreed that his Cheetah guardian must be a virgin. Minerva was not a virgin, so she was cursed with incredible pain and uncontrollable transformations into a blood-craving monster as a result of Urzkartaga's spitefulness. In the original incarnation, this is portrayed as a just punishment for a ruthless opportunist, while in the retelling, Minerva is a victim of sexist traditions.
There are also the obvious connotations of her body turning against her and causing her pain and anger in correspondence with moon cycles, and the fact that she is so punished explicitly as a result of her sexuality and gender. In a more recent read, Barbara is also queer, which adds layers to her story. The way she strives to navigate the world by challenging patriarchal power structures is genuinely admirable, but in every version of her character, she quickly learns that life is more complicated than that, and she has battled monsters only to become one herself.
In all her many versions, Minerva's desire for immortality and to either be free of or at the very least to not be defined by the painful disability that requires her to walk with a cane always plays a role in her transformation. Though villainized portrayals of disabled people who would do anything to free themselves of their pain are certainly another stereotype in and of themselves, Minerva's longtime struggle does add a degree of sympathy for her character that doesn't excuse her actions, but makes them more understandable. She is still an immensely wealthy woman, she can't negotiate with the way her disability, her sexuality, or her gender allow her peers to callously dismiss her discoveries. It is this need to prove herself to people that ultimately don't care that is her undoing in every incarnation.
In Greg Rucka's run on Wonder Woman's fifth volume, Minerva had a relationship with Etta Candy before her transformation into the Cheetah. This is unfortunately only sparsely touched upon, but the complexity of their feelings for each other when Minerva returns to her original form after committing multiple brutal murders is fascinating. Minerva's stern, scolding nature is counterbalanced by Etta's enthusiasm and hope, but despite how much they care about each other, Minerva believes herself to be inherently grotesque and it isn't long before she is transformed into the Cheetah once more. Despite her attempts to make amends, Minerva is often doomed by forces beyond her control.
Media like Indiana Jones glorifies the life of archaeologists, while in the real world there are constant questions of ethics that come into play when looking at the legacy of archaeologists. In her later retcon, Minerva attempts to be a dashing hero, but unlike Indiana Jones, she is nearly destroyed. Likewise, while Wonder Woman is a character entrenched in mythology and ancient gods, Minerva seeks to play with forces beyond her control in a culture that is not her own, and she is viciously punished for it. In many ways, Minerva's story is where the fantasy of heroism and fame is brutally crushed as she must recognize the limits that society has placed on her and grapple with the legacy of cultural theft that led to her success in her field to begin with.
Even at her most heroic, Minerva remains a woman who has committed visceral murder in service of a bloodthirsty god. Yet, she overcomes her terrible curse and actually helps Diana in times of need commonly enough that she can't be simplified to just a self-serving heiress in the way the original Cheetah and her immediate successor were. In the end, Barbara Minerva is always going to be complicated, even intrinsically villainous, but she is a villain whose story and motives make uncomfortable, surprising sense. This is why she is always going to be a perfect nemesis for the logical but painfully empathetic Diana of Themyscira.