The Wonder of It All

Wonder Woman contemplates the war of the sexes.
Wonder Woman contemplates the war of the sexes.

When Gloria Steinem needed a powerful feminine icon to put on the cover of her new magazine for and about self-empowered women, she chose Wonder Woman. The first Ms. Magazine even published a companion volume of WW stories from her Golden Age, when she often lectured young girls about the importance of letting no man get the upper hand. These were eight or so stories, carefully chosen for one important reason: Wonder Woman, invented by feminist psychologist William Moulton Marston, and modeled after his assistant/companion Olive Byrne, was like her creator, a bit of a freak, and WAY into bondage. Steinem wanted a figure that fit neatly into her narrative of empowered womanhood, and wanted no part of the bondage.

Wonder Woman’s star spangled hot pants, magic lasso (more bondage!) and surprising feminist history- Olive Byrne’s aunt was none other than birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, her mother, suffragist Ethel Higgins Bryne- make her fascinating. Harvard historian and New Yorker contributor Jill LePore’s Secret History of Wonder Woman tells the tale well, with detailed research and tempered language, despite the story’s more sensationalistic elements. Comics don’t always get respectful treatment when they step into the reflected glare of the ivory tower. And it’s no different here. LePore approaches the tale from the perspective of “first wave” feminism’s long transition into “second wave”, and is clearly out of her element in the subject of comics history-as a later foray into comics and feminism proves. More on that later. But in trying to place Wonder Woman within the context of a medium that once featured plenty of female characters and creators, then suddenly didn’t- as my previous post outlines- I sought out two other books from a growing list of critical literature about comics.

Wonder Woman was born of feminism and fetish. Her creator, a relentlessly self-promoting psychologist with three Harvard degrees and four kids by two different women, had a belief in women’s superiority as civilizing leaders, and a fondness for the trappings of kink. He lived and raised children with both his legal wife, also a dedicated feminist, and Byrne, who wore cuff-like bracelets similar to Wonder Woman’s. The language of bondage and submission infused the comic, where women including Wonder Woman often fell into heavy bondage as a reminder of the folly of letting men rule them. Lepore treats this quirky history somewhat dispassionately though she sniffs prudishly at WW’s “kinky boots”. And she never really explains how Wonder Woman links first- and second wave feminism, though WW’s ignominious descent into a domesticated limbo during the repressive 50’s exactly mirrors feminism’s disappearance from the front pages.

Bondage remains the unspoken 800 pound gorilla in the room, in all of these books. LePore and Trina Robbins (see last post) ignore it as much as possible, reporting, but not analyzing it. Steinem tiptoed around it. Daniels gives an excellent history of reactions to it, and DC’s struggle to reel it under control while not upsetting the applecart- WW was selling well, even better than Superman and Batman some months. Tim Hanley, in Wonder Woman Unbound cooly quantifies it, counting and graphing each panel to prove that, yes, the least kinky WW comic had more bondage scenes than the most kinky of any other comic. Only Hanley passes any sort of judgement: the bondage, especially in concert with Marston’s strongly feminist rhetoric, was “problematic.” He confronts the controversy: where some have maintained that her (Marston’s) fetish imagery disqualifies her as a feminist icon, Hanley concludes “Wonder Woman was both feminist and fetishist.”

After Marston’s early death in 1949, DC , the company that bullied Siegel and Schuster into giving up the rights to Superman, showed Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Hollaway Marston the door, despite their role as Marston’s assistants, and took the opportunity to reconfigure the character. Les Daniels tells this story without sugar coating in A Complete History of Wonder Woman. Robert Kanigher presumably had a mandate to eliminate the problematic bondage and submission elements as the censorship movement gathered steam. He never had any affection for the character (He is known mainly for his work on DCs iconic war comics, many images from which were swiped by Roy Lichtenstein for such irony laden pop art masterpieces as “Blam!”, which I credit with starting two complex conversations- about both appropriation in art and creator’s rights in comics, here.)

His work on WW however can best be described as Comics Code Authoity- era hack work, and under him the character sank into complete irrelevance, even as the girls who’d loved her during Marston’s didactic feminism grew up to initiate second-wave feminism.

The CCA was created by scared publishers, seeking not to protect creative expression from censorship, but to protect corporate profits from Wertham style crusades. It, along with the general paranoia of conformist, 50’s America, led to a period in comics when crime must not pay, and a bland, stereotyped vision of family life as the ultimate good must always triumph. Since superheroes, the dominant genre in comic books, were usually lone, pulp-style vigilantes written by lone, underpaid hacks as the censorship shrank the industry, the family narrative was difficult to fit in. This led to a bizarre phenomenon in 50’s and 60’s DC comics, noted in Hanley and others, which can be described as the pseudo, or faux family. Thus did Batman and Robin, after insinuations about their sexuality arose acquire a rival/wife/mom figure, Batwoman; and Wonder Woman, in Kanigher’s ad hoc style, become a mother figure to her own teen and toddler selves (through time travel). She also allowed puppy-like Steve Trevor  to turn the tables, in direct disobedience to the Amazon code- she was now pathetically desperate to marry him. This was a bondage of a far different, and more insidious sort.

Worse was to come, as in the late 60s, post Kanigher, DC sought to revamp the character. They chose a stylish yet retrograde solution, given the times: WW was stripped of her powers and her mythological roots and became a swinging London clothes horse.

Enter Gloria Steinem. Steinem, a reader of WW as a girl, was a friend of Warner’s Steve Ross, who’d just bought DC. Steinem was outraged that WW had been stripped of her powers. As abruptly as it appeared, the new WW was gone, and the old appeared on the cover of (the Steve Ross-supported) first issue of Ms. Magazine. It was a return, of sorts to her feminist roots, though DC was very slow to catch up. A plan to install one of Marston’s assistants as editor of the character in the heyday of second-wave feminism fizzled, even as the ERA itself died. The always available, ever-hackneyed Kanigher was brought back. The character drifted through different iterations, retcons and reboots, never re-finding her feminist soul, even as the role of women in comics, as outlined in Mike Madrid’s useful Supergirls, slowly grew. Meanwhile, A radical backlash led by Ellen Wills against Steinem’s self-improvement-as-empowerment style of rhetoric led to Steinem’s bizarrely being accused of working for the CIA.

Since then, both Wonder Woman and feminism have struggled to define themselves. WW has haltingly revisited her mythological roots in the 80s George Perez era, and after a detour as a well-hootered sword and sorcery hero during the 90’s “Bad Girl” style that fueled the fanboy/ speculator boom, has returned to it, as well as the idea of family in a recent Brian Azzarello/Cliff Chiang epic as she protects an earthling’s child by Zeus . It was a refreshing take, though Azzarello was not able to add much of the Greek Canon’s characteristic sexual tension because Wonder Woman had already hooked up with Superman in another book, and DC’s marketing strategy, as always, trumped the esthetic requirements of graphic art.

WW is now being authored by a husband and wife team in the stereotypically boob-a-licious DC house style. There will soon be a movie released, though fanboys on the web were quick to criticise the lead actor, Gal Gadot for being “too skinny”, fanboy code-speak for too flat chested. Whatever the proper bust metrics the character requires, there is a lot riding on this movie. the big screen has a tendency to define a character, for better or worse.

Wonder Woman’s relation to family, men, and her role as a feminist icon have never been resolved to this day, and like feminism itself, hasn’t resolved a role for men in the ongoing struggle for equality, yet hasn’t really defined women’s role either.

LePore got herself dragged into this ongoing schism when the New Yorker, having apparently decided she was now the resident comics expert at the magazine, handed her a copy of A-Force, an alternate universe tale of an all female superhero team written by the well-regarded G. Willow Wilson, who’d gained a name for herself in feminist circles of the comics blogosphere for Ms. Marvel, a fresh superhero tale featuring a teenaged girl superhero who also dealt with the uncertainties that teen aged girlhood entails, as well as being a Muslim in Tea Bag America.

Abandoning the assiduous research and restrained, non-sensationalistic narrative of Wonder Woman for the arch flippancy of the New Yorker’s lead-off commentary section, LePore promptly handed it off to her pre-adolescent sons, an odd and somewhat stereotyped choice, given that mainstream comics haven’t primarily targeted children in well over 40 years, when the direct market took over from corner drug store newsstands. Predictably, Lepore reports the youngsters loved it, because… boobs. However, LePore again sniffed at the “pervy” costumes. But A-Force, when I checked, was fairly restrained in its costuming by comic book, or even athletic wear, standards. “If Dr. Lepore is categorically opposed to latex, she should consider trolling a different genre.”G Willow sensibly advises.

Wilson posted a very passionate response (here) to LePore’s “perplexingly shallow, even snarky” non-review, and the internets had a good larf about a comic book writer taking on the imperviously high brow New Yorker’s Midtown snark. But in fact, G. Willow, (who has, after all, been herself published in The Atlantic and in the New York Times Magazine) lands not a few haymakers. She closes:

“I imagine Dr. Lepore and I want the same thing: better, more nuanced portrayals of women in pop culture. What I don’t understand is why someone in her position would, from her perch a thousand feet up in the ivory tower, take pot shots at those of us who are in the trenches, doing exactly that.”

And neither do I.

What the perpetually marginalized medium of comics has to say about feminism, what feminism says about comics may not be of import to Jill Lepore. But it has become a force in pop culture is where society’s murmurings become custom. WW is bound (heh) in various author attitudes toward women and family and has never developed a clear voice of her own. Rebels, lovers and hacks created her, their vision shifting like mis-registered color on a comic page. Now their their creation hits the big screen. What tales they might tell if bound in her wondrous magic lasso and forced to confess the truth: unsure of their own direction, they created a character both supremely powerful yet oddly powerless, dreaming a kaleidoscopic picture of the perfect woman. She floats, star spangled golden, bound in our hopes and dreams.

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