By Noah Brand
Because Rachel Edidin is unable to post this week, she arranged a guest columnist. Noah Brand generously agreed to help her out. — Ed.
There’s a lot to love about the original William Moulton Marston run on Wonder Woman. Especially if you like bondage and discipline. For me, though, the awesomest part of those strange, didactic old stories isn’t Wonder Woman at all; it’s her sidekick, Etta Candy. Etta, unlike most Golden Age sidekicks, wasn’t a miniature Wonder Woman in looks or personality. She was her own person, more feminist in many ways than Diana herself, and unlike any character before or since.
Etta Candy was a student at the fictitious Holliday College, where she was the leader of the Holliday Girls, a combination sorority/band/commando unit that she would bring in whenever Wonder Woman needed help. How many sidekicks are sufficiently badass to have their own team of sidekicks?
Here’s her first appearance, along with the Holliday Girls (Yes, she later went from being a blonde to a redhead. Lots of girls do that in college.):
Let’s take a moment to look at her body and her attitude about it. Etta is short, and she’s fat. Not a little plump, not fake Hollywood Janeane-Garofalo faux-fat, actually fat. And she’s surrounded by all these girls who are a clear foot taller than her, with figures like Wonder Woman’s. Does Etta look embarrassed to you? Does she look self-conscious, ashamed, any of the things a girl who looks like her is expected to be? Hell no. And it’s not just those five panels; go over every page Etta’s ever appeared on, and look for a single moment when she apologizes for or is ashamed of how she looks. You won’t find one. While you’re at it, find me another female character with the same body and the same attitude about it. Check the 40s, check the present. No, go ahead, keep checking. I’ll wait.
Etta likes her body. She’s aware that some other people don’t; the villains are especially prone to calling her rude names. She does not, however, feel obliged to give a damn about anyone else’s opinion.
She’s also frankly sexual; look at her intro panels again. She likes men; likes ‘em plenty, and so do all her friends. Even Wonder Woman was stuck in her chaste-longing deal with Steve Trevor, but Etta and the Holliday Girls got to just plain like men. Indeed, when Etta would get herself in trouble, it was usually over a handsome face. She doesn’t want to land a man, isn’t dreaming of being a housewife or a helpmeet; she just enjoys them. More than any other female character of her time, Etta is able to want men without needing them. She feels as much shame about this attitude as she does about her big round butt. And why? Because Etta Candy is utterly without fear—social or physical.
She throws herself right into whatever kind of trouble is going on without even a second’s hesitation. Fighting Nazis, going to Atlantis, astrally projecting herself to Mars (seriously), whenever Wonder Woman needed backup, Etta was there. Even Robin, second-best sidekick of the era, would occasionally express reservations, lines like “But Batman, how can we defeat all of them?” Etta, never. She would throw down with anyone from Axis agents to actual deities without a moment’s hesitation, and it always worked. Well, usually. Generally speaking. A solid majority of the time, it worked.
Actually–and again in sharp contrast to her contemporaries like Robin and Bucky–Etta didn’t get beaten and captured that often. Indeed, most of the time it was Wonder Woman who was imprisoned (gotta have some reason for her to be tied up, after all) and Etta and the girls who came riding in to help her out.
The manner of the Holliday Girls’ arrival was always memorable. Generally they’d show up playing instruments and singing, as in this scene where they’re busting into a U.S. military base:
Even when they’re captured and ticked-off at Etta, they give her a hard time in song form.
By now the alert reader will have noticed the most common emotional state for Etta and her friends: joie de vivre. They go on these adventures with Wonder Woman not because of some oath of vengeance, not because of an ideology, but just because going on adventures is freakin’ awesome. They’re young and fearless and tough, and they find it enormously fun to go get captured and sing at people and get in fights. This isn’t just subtextual, by the way–it’s explicitly their in-story motivation.
Throughout Marston’s Wonder Woman, there’s constant strong messages of female empowerment. Not in some abstract sense, either; Marston gives us page after page of explicit statements that women can make themselves stronger, take control of their lives, and be their own heroes. Etta Candy and the Holliday Girls are the strongest manifestation of that message. Through nothing more than shaking off societal expectations, Etta made her college cohorts a team of heroines able to take on any challenge and have a hell of a time doing it. Her ethos was also theirs: don’t be afraid of who you are, and do what you can do without stopping to ask permission. Every hero expresses a different philosophy, but Etta’s was better than most, and damn near revolutionary in the context of her time.
Etta’s mostly forgotten now, retconned out decades ago as too silly and fat, retooled as a military officer with a couple extra pounds, made safe and acceptable and nonthreatening. But for me, she will always be the short, fat, crazy-ass college girl diving headfirst into adventure because nobody gets to tell her what she’s not allowed to do.
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Noah Brand blogs a bit at noahbrand.blogspot.com
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