Myth_Understood: Wonder Woman: Feminist icon or Exploitative Fantasy? Part 1

Myth_Understood: Wonder Woman: Feminist icon or Exploitative Fantasy? Part 1

Wonder Woman has long been regarded as a Feminist icon, but a deeper look at her history shows a more schizophrenic identity...

In the modern Age of comic book movie properties it seems even “B” & “C”- list heroes get comic book movies: “Blade”, “Ghost Rider”, “Elektra”,… even “Ant-Man” is getting a turn. And yet one of the oldest, most popular heroes has seen little to no media attention since the 70’s. Of course that hero(ine) would be Wonder Woman – a character with pop culture recognition comparable to Superman and Batman, yet lacking in the same level of media exposure that most other characters get.

It would be wrong to presume that her lack of exposure is totally a matter of sexism – There have been women characters in pop culture, that garnered a massive fan base: Ripley, from the Alien movies; Buffy, the Vampire Slayer; Xena, the Warrior Princess ; Sydney Bristow from J.J. Abrams’ Alias; Storm and Rogue of the X-men. It’s obvious there is a fan base out there for female super heroes/ action characters, but does Wonder Woman ‘s status as a feminist icon help or hurt her in today’s market? Better still, is that status actually deserved?

Secret Origins

Created by Harvard psychiatrist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman was created in 1941 as a prototypical feminist ‘role model’ for both boys and girls. According to Marston himself, Wonder Woman was developed as:

“…psychological propaganda for the new type of woman, who should rule the world…What woman lacks is the dominance of self assertive power to put over and enforce her love desires. I have given Wonder woman this dominant force but kept her loving tender maternal and feminine in every other way…”

If this is a progressive mission statement by today’s standards, it’s was even more so during the early 1940’s. In fact, during World War II, WW’s popularity was not only tied to the patriotism of the US entering the war, but also to the new rights of women in the American workplace. In effect, it was a win /win situation for the character – and for the first time a female superhero sold comic books and newspapers as well as her popular male counter parts Super Man and Batman.

Still there was a particular subtext running through her comic that was disturbing to some keen eyed critics. Through the first few years of her adventures, Wonder Woman found herself and a plethora of female characters, constantly bound and chained; sometimes at the behest of evil captors, and sometimes in a “benevolent” playful way by her Amazon sisters and friends.

According to her creator – the notion of bondage was to cut down on the amounts of violence in the stories, and yet the female villains typically had fettered slave girls to do their bidding, while the Amazons used lassos and magic girdles to capture and subdue their prisoners. Soon it was established that the only way to de-power and subdue Wonder Woman (or ANY of the Amazons for that matter) was to have her bullet deflecting bracelets chained together by a man. Obviously, once word got out all of the villains kept a blow torch and some chains handy, leading to countless escape scenarios for the Amazon princess. Ironically, to remove Wonder Woman’s bracelets was to send her into a murderous, berserker rage ; she needed the bracelets for self control, a plot point recently updated and returned in the “New 52” version of the character by Brian Azzarello.

Still, Marston insisted there was nothing unsavory about Wonder Woman’s adventures despite the weak protests of his publisher and partner M.C. Gaines. Nevertheless, while Gaines approved and published the adventures as they were conceived, there were definitely female critics that took issue with Wonder Woman from the outset. One such critic, Josette Frank of the Child Study Association of America, wrote in a letter dated Feb.17, 1943,

“There has been considerable criticism in our committee concerning your Wonder Woman feature both in Sensation Comics and in the Wonder Woman magazine. As you know I have never been enthusiastic about this feature…Nevertheless this feature does lay you open to criticism from any such group as ours, partly on the basis of her costume (or lack of it) and partly on the basis of sadistic bits showing women chained , tortured, etc…”

In a response on February 20th of the same year, Marston took umbrage to Frank’s letter, responding at first with a personal attack calling her “an avowed enemy of the strip” and continued to offer his rationale of the situations he created.
“Sadism consists in the enjoyment of other people’s actual suffering…Since the binding and the chaining are the one harmless painless way of subjecting the heroine to menace and making drama of it; I have developed elaborate ways of having Wonder Woman and other characters confined.”

And yet his rationale of the Amazons could hardly be deemed as ‘feminist’ by today’s standards as he continued in his letter to state:

“…confinement to WW and the Amazons is a sporting game, an actual enjoyment of being subdued. This, my dear friend, is the one truly great contribution on my Wonder Woman strip to moral education of the young. The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound…Women are exciting for this one reason – it is the secret of women’s allure – women enjoy submission, being bound. This I bring out in the Paradise Island sequences where the girls beg for chains and enjoy wearing them.”

There were heated exchanges sent back and forth from advisory boards to the publisher, from the publisher to Marston and so on. Marston didn’t deny the content of bondage in Wonder Woman per se, but rather had his own particular view of what it meant. This kept his publisher Gaines , walking on eggshells as William Marston kept a regular correspondence with the advisory board. Their exchanges carried on throughout the rest of the year, with M.C. Gaines apparently trusting the expertise of the Harvard professor, but still feeling uneasy on some level. It was a letter received in September of 1943 however that confirmed his suspicions.

Sent from a sergeant in the 291st Infantry, the letter was addressed to Marston’s pen name “Charles Moulton” and stated

“I am one of those odd , perhaps unfortunate men who derive an extreme erotic pleasure from the mere thought of a beautiful girl chained or bound…Have you the same interest in bonds and fetters that I have?”

The note was received by the awe struck publisher, Gaines. “This is one of the things I’ve been afraid of (without quite being able to put my finger on it),” he told Marston. Marston, however, insisted it was impossible to write a female character without someone having some kind of erotic fantasy about her. As far as he was concerned, there were a number of things that people could be “passionate” about in regards to women. Gaines apparently agreed enough to let him have his way until Marston’s death in 1947.

Constant Reinvention

With her creator’s death, Wonder Woman soon passed on to different editors. While initially attempting to maintain the same type of adventures, the book soon took a turn to the non-feminist Romance genre of the time. Despite the issues of bondage in the earlier issues, Wonder Woman was perceived as a wartime hero and an icon of strength and independence to both girls and boys. Now, with her first foray into Romance comics, The cover image showed her being carried across a bubbling stream by Col. Steve Trevor.

It’s not hard to imagine boys bypassing the book altogether at this point, which is apparently what happened. Sales plummeted as DC tried to make Sensation Comics and Wonder Woman into ‘romance book’ material. Any male demographic was lost, as the publisher now solely sought after girls with attempts to make the character a baby sitter, lonely hearts newspaper columnist, even fashion model. These attempts also failed to boost sales and by the mid 1950’s, Wonder Woman’s comic was drop from monthly to bi-monthly status. This started an ongoing trend that sticks with the character to this day: whenever sales get low, a drastic re-invention is issued and inevitably everything that came before is tossed by the wayside.

The cycles of creation lead to vastly different interpretations of the character over the years. During the period of her original stories, plots centering on marriage were non -existent. However, with the death of Marston they became a mainstay in the 50’s and 60’s. There seemed to be a constant threat of Wonder woman getting married to an alien or monster or some sort of bizarre suitor, which doesn’t seem in line with the proto-feminist idea that Marston envisioned.

In the 1950’s there were also a number of ‘imaginary stories’ where the focus was on the teenage and baby versions of Wonder Woman ; Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot respectively. Sometimes these younger versions would simultaneously assist the adult Wonder Woman on adventures, disregarding any proper sense of time and space.

By the mid 60’s, these stories ran their course and lead to Wonder Woman being reinvented yet again by Denny O’neil and Mike Sekowsky. This time the title of the book was changed to Diana Prince – Wonder Woman, featuring a now depowered WW who now had to rely on the training of her martial arts mentor I-Ching and her hand to hand combat skills. The star spangled costume was gone, giving way to 60’s era mod clothing & hairstyles.

These creators were doing a radical new feminist version of WW, showing how capable an ordinary woman could be with focus and training. Or so they thought. This run of issues was called out and criticized by no less than feminist icon Gloria Steinem herself, as she denounced the creative team for de-powering the character and making her new mentor a male. An avid fan of the character, Steinem featured the original design for Wonder Woman on the premiere cover of MS. Magazine: co-opting her image as part of the feminist movement. With criticism of a depowered Wonder Woman reaching a fevered pitch, DC Comics relented and quickly returned the Amazon back to her classic state.

The 70’s gave way to the 80’s and soon there was a need to revamp not just Wonder Woman but all of the characters in the DC Comics stable. After almost 50 years of constant stories, the company found itself mired in endless continuity. It was time to wipe the slate clean for the DC Universe, and reboot the major characters with an event called “Crisis on Infinite Earths”: Superman was revamped by writer- artist John Byrne, Batman had been reconceived with help from writer-artist Frank Miller, but as of yet there was no vision for reinventing Wonder Woman. It wasn’t long though before artist George Perez felt the need to ‘step up’ and volunteer his services to rebuilding the Amazon princess from scratch.

Check back on Tuesday for Part 2 of Wonder Woman: Feminist Icon or Exploitative Fantasy!
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