May. 24th, 2017

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We are one week away from the very first major motion picture starring Wonder Woman. It "only" took 75 years to get her up there...


Wonder Woman, despite her status as the world's most famous superheroine, has always been a complicated bundle of contradictions to unpack. She was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston in 1941 as an antidote to the testosterone-fueled antics of Superman and Batman, who (some critics said) were a little too close to the fascistic ubermenschen we were fighting at the time.

Marston, in a sense, had been building up to Wonder Woman his entire life. He was a remarkable character on his own: as a researcher, he spearheaded the theory that you could tell if a person was lying by monitoring changes in physiological responses--yes, the basic principle of the lie detector.

As an undergraduate at Harvard in the early 1900s, Marston immersed himself in the myriad aspects of American feminism: the political writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Sanger, the all-female sci-fi utopias of authors like Charlotte Perkins Gilman ("HerLand"), and the growing power of the suffragette movement, which would culminate in 1920 with women earning the right to vote.

Marston firmly believed that women, in many ways, were the superior sex, and it was only male repression that kept them in chains. Chains and bondage, in fact, were a major theme in Marston's writing--and his personal life.

It is not widely known that Marston was a polygamist, living with both a wife and a mistress (two children with each) in a blended household that was (apparently) a happy environment for all. (Olive Byrne, Marston's mistress, was the niece of Margaret Sanger herself.) And if you've ever idly wondered if Wonder Woman's golden lasso of truth was some kind of kinky bondage toy, let me put your mind at rest--it absolutely was a kinky bondage toy.

I could go on and on here, but if you want to know more, just read Jill Lepore's "The Secret History of Wonder Woman" -- a fascinating study of Marston and his creation, and a sort of odd-angle history of American feminism.


Marston took a mandate from publisher M.C. Gaines and filled the character of Wonder Woman with every personal theory about the superiority of women (and his personal psychosexual kinks) that he could squeeze into a kid's comic book. But when Marston died in 1947, his idiosyncratic feminist vision died with him. The character drifted, her message of empowerment lost in the sexism of the comics industry.

(In the 1970s, DC tried to "update" Diana by stripping her of her powers, putting her in a white pant suit, and having her learn kung fu from a wizened Chinese martial arts master. Did not go over well. Writer Denny O'Neil--a former teacher of mine!--pretty much admitted, "Yeah, I don't know what I was thinking there.")

The Wonder Woman TV series of the late 1970s boosted WW's profile considerably--but it also embodied the contradictions inherent in the character. On the one hand, the stupid plots and the general campiness of the series worked against taking her seriously as a superhero...

But on the other hand, Lynda Carter just plain embodied the part. No matter how dumb the writing, no matter if the costume looked kind of ridiculous, Carter projected dignity, compassion, and strength. (And if you tuned into this week's Supergirl, Lynda Carter is still a beautiful woman projecting dignity, compassion, and strength as the President of the United States.)

This has been the problem all along: Wonder Woman was created to be a feminist icon, but she was created by a man who reflected decades of feminist theory through his own peculiar lens. And when her creator died, she was handed over to men who had no clue about the ideals that were part of her creation in the first place. Before now, Wonder Woman hasn't had the opportunity to truly fulfill her seemingly limitless potential as an inspiration to both men and women.

But maybe that's changing. WW's 75th anniversary last year produced some excellent, thought-provoking comics (printed and on the web); she's on TV as part of the Justice League Action cartoon; and on June 2, Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins look like they're ready to kick ass and take names.


I want the movie to be great. I almost need it to be great. The big protest march aside, this has been an awful year for women around the world. Women's rights are under assault, and they're in danger of being rolled back to a frightening degree. I see fear in certain men--fear of women's dreams, women's desires, women's power, fear manifesting in repression, hatred... violence.

I know a movie isn't going to change anything in the real world; but symbolically, Diana needs to leave Paradise and come to Man's World to show us all what a powerful woman can do.


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