For my final project, I decided to create a paper doll with a series of outfits. The outfits are meant to be different variations of the Wonder Woman character as a way of keeping the theme of my body of work produced over the past year. The costumes I chose to recreate were ones that are memorable (such as Golden Age Wonder Woman and two others inspired by Gal Gadot and Linda Carter’s portrayal of her on screen) or marked moments of distinct change for the character (such as the “New Wonder Woman” from the late 1960s and DC Bombshells’Rosie the Riveter-inspired Wonder Woman). This project continues the work I have done on Wonder Woman with regards to portrayals of Wonder Woman’s costume and body that I have conducted over the course of the semester. Creating these paper dolls was more than a simple art project, it allowed me to consider how clothing often dictates gender and also had me considering differences between garb and clothing, something that I believe is blurred, or at the very least, skewed when one is critically examining superheroes.
Constructing the dolls was deceivingly complicated. I have made work like this in the past— I created a series of paper people with linking hands that were meant to look like iconic British writers from various literary movements—but I had never made clothing that I did not actually glue onto the model. This made me pay much more attention to what I was doing because I had to make sure that the costumes adhered together and would not fall apart. The most challenging part of creating the dolls was making sure that the hair was removable; it took me many test-runs and a lot of torn paper hairstyles before I managed to get the technique down.
With the focus of my project centering on Wonder Woman, creating this project gave me time to unpack why creating paper dolls was actually a critical project and not just me sitting at home cutting various sheets of construction paper into clothes. Choosing to use a faceless, genderless figure as my model exemplifies how gender is largely defined by presentation. If I were to hand you the doll without the clothing, you would not know if it were a man or a woman, meaning that the doll itself is only gendered when the costumes a put on it. I also chose not to give the dolls any facial features as an homage to Amish folk dolls, which are intentionally devoid of facial features for Biblical reasons such as the production of idols as well as a way of avoiding the sins of vanity and pride.
I chose a paper doll as my artistic medium because I have always associated them with the kitschier elements of Midwestern Americana. Growing up I spent every stiflingly hot summer in Oklahoma with my grandmother, where I spent most of my time playing with old Kewpie dolls at her best friend’s antique shop or perusing her extensive collection of paper dolls. My grandmother has collected paper dolls since her own childhood, often reminding me that when she was growing up at the back end of the Great Depression, it was the only toy her parents could afford. We used to go through her giant binders of paper dolls and she always made me feel special by including my own drawings of dolls into her collection, telling me that they were her favorite ones.
I loved going through them with her and admiring all of the beautiful women with beautiful clothes. Thinking on this now, paper dolls serve as a metaphor for women’s expectations over the course of most of U.S. history: beautiful and delicate but something that should be kept indoors. Because I did not have the time to make a cross-stitch, another artifact of Americana, paper dolls seemed to be another way that I could blend folkloric and nationalistic symbols with the body, effectively conducting bodylore work.
Part of the reason I constantly come back to Wonder Woman is because I think she is an astounding locus of commentary on gender, sexuality, and bodylore. William Marston distinctly decided that Wonder Woman had to be sexy in order to draw the attention of readers and she is still the longest-running and most popular female superhero in the DC Comics franchise to date. Costumes and garb, one of the very first topics our class discussed, was something I kept thinking of while creating these paper dolls. For Wonder Woman, her superhero identity is the garb and her alter ego, Diana Prince, is the costume. And of course, Wonder Woman’s garb/costumes are memorably patriotic. Wonder Woman’s position as patriotic pin-up and a feminist icon, compounded on the notion of comic books serving as the last vestiges of American folklore, makes her amazingly interesting and worthy of research.
I thoroughly enjoyed this project because it allowed me to break from the typical research paper and engage with the material we learned in class in a unique way that was both fun and informative. An added bonus of this assignment beyond it deviating from the traditional final was that it became a way to be productive but also partake in a form of self-care; I was creating something that was for class but also allowed me to incorporate something I enjoy (crafting) with something I knew I needed to do (classwork). As someone that does not consider themselves particularly artistic, I am very proud of what I made, and I am so pleased that I was able to combine my obsession with Wonder Woman with my obsession with American kitsch. Maybe I will frame it so that my grandmother can add it to her collection of my work.
Meghan Morris is a graduate student at Old Dominion University’s Institute for the Humanities. She has a Bachelor’s of Arts with a concentration in English Literature and Women’s Studies from Old Dominion University. She is a novice scholar interested in topics related to gender, sex and sexuality, media and pop culture, and American Studies. She enjoys coffee and (good) memes.