My 2-year old daughter plays on the beach in a tiny red, white and blue swimsuit, her chest emblazoned with a winged yellow “W” that needs no explanation. Unlike Dora the Explorer and Ariel the Mermaid, cutesy characters popular with the toddler set, Wonder Woman is a full-grown Amazon, created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston to serve as “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should rule the world.”
Yet, the kiddie bathing suit didn’t come from a hipster purveyor of “feminist baby clothing,” but mass-market Old Navy, advertised without apparent contradiction alongside pink sparkly ballerina dresses and “Daddy’s Little Girl” pajamas. Similarly, Under Armour, the sports-apparel giant with the macho street cred of being the official NFL outfitter, has authored a “womanifesto,” enacted in part in the release of fitted Wonder Woman tops and SuperGirl sports bras. Warner Brothers will begin shooting a Wonder Woman feature film this fall.
Seventy-four years after Wonder Woman’s birth, we are in the throes of a full-blown Wonder Woman moment.
Three new, very different books participate in this Wonder Woman frenzy and try to explain it. Together, Debora Spar’s Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection (2013), Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014), and Noah Berlatsky’s Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-48 (2015) pose common questions: Who is Wonder Woman? What is Wonder Woman’s relationship with the history and, more excitingly, the future of feminism, particularly in a moment when women are both exhausted and excited by the desire to gracefully have and do “it all,” superhero-style?
Spar never mentions Wonder Woman, but her legacy is clear for contemporary women in the near-manic pursuit of superwoman status in the form of the perfect job, family, hair and waistline undertaken by many girls and women in our so-called “postfeminist” era. It is Spar’s unlikely status as a feminist theorist –she at one point describes feminism as a movement “greedy to its core” — that yields Wonder Women’s freshest and most jarring insights. She engages feminist theory seriously, even if to express disappointment with what it offers today’s women and girls hell-bent on achieving Wonder Woman status.
For example, Spar concedes that conventional notions of beauty primarily function to oppress women, but declares it unrealistic to jettison the demands of the beauty-industrial complex. Indeed, she acknowledges that amid her intense responsibilities, she expends energy taming her curly, ethnic hair into what is widely, if problematically, considered a more professional style. Spar supplements this apparently mundane admission with a fascinating calculation: over a lifetime, women lose five years attending to basic ministrations like manicures and makeup which, by middle age, intensify into a veritable “arms race of enforced youth.” These facts are unsurprising, though Spar’s honesty is: Admitting participation in mainstream beauty culture has been rightly called the last feminist taboo, and is rarely addressed beyond shadowy corners of the feminist blogosphere. This is a notable contribution given abundant research indicating that women of all backgrounds devote economic and emotional energy to their physical appearances.
But as the historical treatments offered by Lepore, and even more so, Berlatsky, show, Spar’s coiffed, overachieving, wife-to-be is definitively not the evil-avenging, otherworldly, ambiguously-but-explicitly sexual Wonder Woman that Marston envisioned. The two might converge in the marketplaces of 2015, but this speaks primarily to the fluidity of Wonder Woman as a cultural symbol, rather than to her limits.
Historian Jill Lepore explores the “secret history” of both Wonder Woman the comic book series and Wonder Woman the cultural icon. Through extensive archival research and in luminous prose, Lepore primarily traces the career and personal life of Marston, who conceptualized Wonder Woman in the early 1940s. Most salaciously, Lepore reveals his secret, “non-conformist” polyamorous domestic arrangement, which included not only Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, his wife and longtime sweetheart, but also Olive Byrne, his undergraduate student who mothered two of his children, and other itinerant “love leaders” who convened at gatherings Lepore calls a “sexual training camp.”
Wonder Woman emerged from this bizarre world, representing Marston’s fantasies, failures and contradictions. Imagined to incarnate a feminist ideal of the perfect admixture of love, power and beauty, Wonder Woman was intended to counteract masculine exemplars of brutishness and indelicacy. In 1972, Gloria Steinem reflected on the Wonder Woman comics of her childhood and felt “amazed by the strength of their feminist message.” This is precisely the legacy one imagines Marston hoped for. By contrast, a central purpose of Lepore’s narrative seems to be to qualify the legitimacy of Marston’s feminism. For his supposed innovations in the field of psychology, Lepore points out his unseemly affinity for manipulating the emotional responses of young women. For the radical potential of Marston’s rejection of bourgeois marriage, Lepore intimates an environment of manipulation and duplicity.
Berlatsky, an expert in comics conversant in queer theory, arrives at almost the opposite conclusion through his close interpretation of Wonder Woman’s comic panels: Marston successfully reconciled the apparently incongruous acts of binding women in chains (among other ostensibly demeaning actions) and empowering them. Marston emerges as a creative genius, pioneering acceptance of female, alternative and queer sexualities a good three decades before the sexual revolution — and in a comic book, of all places. Berlatsky wholly rejects Lepore’s argument that the explicit examples of binding, chaining and whipping furnish clear evidence of the line where Marston’s feminism faded into fetish. To make this point, Berlatsky turns to feminist theories of rape to argue that even violent submission can bring erotic pleasure to apparent victims. In depictions of rape and incest, however, it requires a major analytical leap to discern the “feminist vision… at the heart” of Marston’s vision. At the same time, Berlatsky’s insightful interpretation of the comics illuminates many subtle examples of sexualized content that, taken together, convincingly suggest a liberatory agenda not apparent in Lepore’s reading.
A shared engagement with the cultural product that is Wonder Woman unites these three diverse books. It is truly remarkable to consider that the same symbol can plausibly suggest hypersexual lesbian ecstasy (Berlatsky) and symbolize the supremely conventional dream of a “white wedding… in Vera Wang” (Spar). Wonder Woman represents at once everything and nothing, but thanks to these three books, we now have a much better sense of who exactly is inspiring us, and how we might embrace, but not enforce, Wonder Woman’s example on ourselves, each other and our girls.
A longer version of this review essay was originally published at Public Books.
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