The history of Wonder Woman is, in many ways, as complex as the history of American feminism. At least, that is the impression I was left with after reading Jill Lepore’s book The Secret History of Wonder Woman in preparation for seeing Patty Jenkins’s film, Wonder Woman.
The character was born in 1941, right as the United States was entering WWII. She is the brainchild of William Moulton Marston, who drew inspiration as much from early 20th century suffragettes as he did from the Varga pinups. Wonder Woman was a sexy, scantily clad superhero. Her dual nature, rooted in early feminism on the one hand, and in traditional standards of female sexuality on the other, is reflected in the early comics, in which Wonder Woman is frequently depicted losing her superhuman strength when she is chained or tied up by a villainous man. The binds were purposefully both symbolic and erotic and generated a great deal of controversy among concerned parents.
Domination and submission between the sexes seem to have been a preoccupation of Marston’s, who held a press conference in 1937 to announce that the “the next 100 years will see the beginning of an American matriarchy.” For Marston, Wonder Woman was the prototype for these coming matriarchs. And he did not just see her superior to men in physical strength, but also in moral strength. She did not just fight bad guys, she fought fascism. In the early comics, Wonder Woman was a social activist, organizing workers against unfair labor practices and exposing corruption. In 1943, she even became president of the United States.
Yet, for all his regard for women, Marston had complicated and not altogether equitable relationships with the women in his life. He lived in a ménage with his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, and mistress, Olive Byrne, that began when he gave an ultimatum to his wife, telling her that she could either accept Byrne into their home or he would leave her for Byrne. The trio reached an agreement whereby Holloway would be able to work outside of the home, while Byrne raised the family’s children (Byrne gave up pursuit of a PhD to do so). To outsiders, Byrne was the family’s widowed housekeeper with two small children (and, conveniently, no pictures of her deceased husband). Both women contributed to Marston’s career in various ways, though it was typically Marston who took the credit.
Lepore’s book provides a thoughtful portrait of Marston’s unconventional family. Despite her initial hangups, Holloway would later go on to say that eventually everyone would be living in situations similar to theirs. Byrne and Holloway lived together for decades following Marston’s death. Byrne maintained the ruse until her death, refusing to admit the truth even to her own children. Polyamory may indeed be the relationship paradigm of the future, but I would like to think that women, as well as men, would have the option of multiple partners, including men willing to raise their children. Surely the coming matriarchs will demand it.
After the end of WWII and Marston’s death in 1947, Wonder Woman and the women who had been part of the work force during the war were relegated to more traditional roles. Wonder Woman’s new writer replaced her boots with ballet slippers and her fierce independence with a desire to get married. The early comic included an insert called “Wonder Women of History” that profiled important female figures like Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth. The Wonder Woman comics of the 1950s included a lonely-hearts advice column. Not until the second wave of feminism would Wonder Woman resemble her former self, when Ms. magazine featured her on the cover of its first regular issue and she became something like a feminist icon again.
It is perhaps appropriate that the release of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman is coinciding with a modern resurgence of feminism. And Jenkins has crafted a distinctly modern Woman Woman. Yes, Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot) is still sexy, but she is not coquettish. Yes, she is still scantily clad, but in a way that is more reminiscent of an athlete than a pinup.
In the movie, we know Wonder Woman as Diana. We meet her on the island of Themyscira, home of the Amazons, where Steve Trevor (played by Chris Pine), an American spy posing as a German pilot, crashes his plane while fleeing the Germans. Upon hearing of the brutality of WWI—the War to End All Wars—Diana becomes convinced that Ares, god of war, is behind the conflict and that she must stop him so that the war can end. She leaves Themyscira with Steve to find Ares.
In the comic, this journey takes place in Wonder Woman’s invisible plane, replaced in the movie with a small sailboat. This allows one of the funnier exchanges of the film to take place, in which Diana tells Steve about an Amazon treatise on human sexuality that concludes with the finding that while men are essential for procreation, when it comes to pleasure they are “totally unnecessary.” This moment foreshadows the status of men in much of the rest of the movie, in which Diana is truly the hero and the men are almost totally unnecessary. And to the degree that Steve is essential, it is because he shows Diana the side of humanity that is worth fighting for and believing in. The role reversal is incredibly refreshing.
When I was a little girl, my grandmother read Pippi Longstocking to me whenever I visited her. I loved Pippi. The character was strong enough to lift her horse over her head, lived alone in a big house even though she was just a little girl, and could hit the bullseye every time she threw a dart. To this day, when I walk by a dart board, I look at it and think: what if?
Wonder Woman seems to have a similar effect on women. Because she is capable of doing incredible things, it suggests that all women are capable of doing incredible things. As Gloria Steinem might say, she shows women that we can be instruments rather than ornaments.
And yet, like most women, Wonder Woman still has some patriarchal baggage. As much as I enjoyed the movie, I found myself wishing that the character had some of Deadpool’s humor or the depth and complexity of Dark Knight’s Batman. She is still a reflection of the dual forces in women’s lives. Women may finally yield power, but they are restricted in that power, often forced to adopt a somewhat humorless and insipid facade.
The laughs in Wonder Woman tend to be at Diana’s expense rather than at her behest. The character is uncontroversial, thoroughly good, almost innocent. We are ready for dark, tortured male heroes: their secrets and flaws have a humanizing effect. But in art as in life, what humanizes a man more easily demonizes a woman, so our heroines are pure, not quite fully rounded out.
But despite her flaws, Wonder Woman is a celebration of female strength, both physical and moral. She may not be the prototype for the coming matriarchs, but perhaps she will inspire them.
This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.