(This was all news to me. So the theories advanced here are kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants.)
Wonder Woman’s archnemesis Cheetah was apparently introduced in No. 6.1 of the original, Marston-penned Wonder Woman line (1943). The original Cheetah was Priscilla Rich.
via the wiki, Cheetah’s first appearance, 1943. Cover art by Harry Peter.
Priscilla Rich was depicted as a young, insecure debutante who suffered from a split personality developed because of her inferiority complex. Following a benefit dinner, Ms. Rich’s alternate personality became dominant, triggered by an encounter with Wonder Woman, whose superiority to earth women activated Ms. Rich’s coping mechanism for her low self-esteem. This other self, Cheetah, continues to come out from time to time to try and kill Diana, foil her plans for good, etc.
I noted with interest in researching her that, in a lot of the panels I read, it seems that Ms. Rich’s alter ego, Cheetah, actually hates the Priscilla personality almost as much as she dislikes Wonder Woman.
Priscilla retreats to her room and collapses before her makeup mirror. There she sees an image of a woman dressed like a cheetah. “Horrors!” she cries, as she gazes at her evil inner-self for the first time.
“Don’t you know me?” replies the reflection. “I am the REAL you — the Cheetah — a treacherous, relentless huntress!” The image commands her to fashion a Cheetah costume. “From now on,” intones the reflection, “when I command you, you shall go forth dressed like your TRUE self and do as I command you…”
It is not terribly difficult to see metaphors here for female cattiness. I think it goes back to what I wrote about earlier, the empty need for women to best each other. Ms. Rich and Wonder Woman had no actual beef: why did Ms. Rich create one? Because she felt insecure.
And why does Cheetah hate herself almost as much as she hates Wonder Woman?
I think because she despises her own weakness, and, as Cheetah, she sees her Priscilla personality as hampering her goal to become the greatest woman alive.
So a) she makes something out of nothing because b) she feels badly about herself, doubly over. That’s crazy and yet so true and typical.
She does not want to, but she must. Why? It is so unnecessary, just as it is unnecessary for women to gang up on one another in real life, too. But they always do.
Final note: the IGN ranked Cheetah in 2009 as the 69th Greatest Comic Book Villain of All Time, which is great synchronicity for our 69-day project.