In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • “Tricky” Connotations:Wonder Woman as DC’s Brand Disruptor
  • Charlotte E. Howell (bio)

If you frequented or followed certain “geek girl” blogs like The Mary Sue and the popular Tumblr DC Women Kicking Ass in 2013, you might believe that “tricky” was an adjective frequently used by producers and executives at DC Entertainment to describe Wonder Woman (and only Wonder Woman). In context on these websites, the word became a weapon, turning perceived sexist language into an indicator of atavistic business thinking regarding the capitalization of geek culture. Fans use “tricky” to scold an entertainment industry that describes Wonder Woman as tricky because they believe that geeks are mostly young, white men, even as research indicates women account [End Page 141] for “30 to 45 percent, depending on what metrics are used.”1 Because of this male-skewed thinking, comics-based franchises are marketed around this industrial construction of their audience, which creates barriers to producing female-led superhero franchises like Wonder Woman.

Regarding franchising, Derek Johnson argues, “Gender anchors cultural negotiations over what franchising is and how we might value those serial production practices and serial narratives defined as franchising.”2 As female-friendly online spaces with a focus on the supposedly “masculine” realms of geek culture and comic books, these websites disrupt the primary gendering of superhero franchises as by and for men. The idea of Wonder Woman being “tricky” was seen in these female-supportive sites as part of the male-focused thinking that was one of DC’s many public relations and business model problems. In “Fangirls in Refrigerators: The Politics of (In)visibility in Comic Book Culture,” Suzanne Scott points to sites like these as a reaction to the pervasive perception that “comic book culture is male defined … [and that perception] has permeated both the collective consumer consciousness and the spaces in which those [consumer] exchanges take place.”3 Thus, these sites can be seen as a subculture within the increasingly prominent comic book–cum-geek culture. They offer prime spaces in which we can see the struggle over the signifier “tricky”: spaces in which the “geek girls” (and Wonder Woman fans of all genders) steal the term and make it carry, as Dick Hebdige writes, “‘secret’ meanings: meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued subordination.”4 On these websites and in other spaces in which Wonder Woman adaptations are publicly discussed, “tricky” gains secret meanings for those who resist the normalized notion that the target superhero audience is comprised of teenage boys who would automatically resist female heroes.

From 2013 to the present, “tricky” has carried connotations of DC’s failures and sexism as a result of this resistant discursive turn. But “tricky” itself, as a term, has a longer history as part of comic-book adaptation discourse. The adjective was used by a DC executive during the development of Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009) to describe the history attached to comic-book characters generally, and “tricky” appears in the trade press to describe negotiating fan expectations several more times in the ensuing few years.5 In general, it was used to describe the costuming and aesthetic challenges [End Page 142] involved in translating an illustrated medium to live action; the look and its close connection to the character’s brand was key.

In today’s franchise-heavy media climate, the power of a marketable character is significant. However, DC’s approach to Wonder Woman is more about intellectual property to be branded and marketed than about character. As such, industrial expectations appear to focus more on the former with an intended audience of (male) comic-book fans instead of Wonder Woman fans, who are constructed as more feminine and feminist on the basis of how and where potential Wonder Woman pilots were developed between 2010 and 2013: one as a superheroic Ally McBeal by David E. Kelley for NBC and another for the female-skewing CW network. Before it becomes attached to Wonder Woman media projects, the term “tricky” most often appears as a general catchall and is used only a few times regarding Wonder Woman specifically. It is the Wonder Woman fans who weaponized...