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An Amazon's tiara - the cultural history of Wonder Woman
This Purim, as thousands of girls around the globe dress up as Wonder Woman, we shed more light on the myth and facts behind the fabled princess.
Why is Queen Esther the most popular Biblical heroine for Purim costumes? While the Bible isn’t lacking in powerful heroic women that young girls might aspire to be – Deborah was a judge, Yael killed Sisera – Esther seems to be the people’s choice since Italian Jews decided to make Purim into a carnival around the year 1500.
The reasons for Esther’s popularity might sound familiar. She has a book named after her, has a secret identity that she chooses to reveal at the right moment to save her people, makes a moral decision despite the great risks it might mean for her own well-being and, yes, is an orphan who becomes a queen. If you thought Disney invented the idea of the princess-heroine, think again.
Another popular princess-heroine has similarly become a popular role model and hero for women, though her connection to Judaism is less obvious: Wonder Woman.
At first glance, Wonder Woman hails from the other great culture that shaped Western civilization, the Greeks. She was one of the first female comic book heroes (but not the first, which was Miss Fury created by June Tarpé Mills) and by far the most successful.
Like Esther, Wonder Woman has a secret identity, that of Diana Prince. She is able to make difficult choices to protect the innocent. She is also a princess.
Not only is she extremely Hellenic – as illustrated by her catchphrase “Suffering Sappho!” – she stood in contrast to the other two of DC Comics’ “trinity,” Superman and Batman, characters she fights alongside, as being the one not created by Jewish-Americans.
Until Israeli actress Gal Gadot came and picked up the golden lasso in the 2017 film Wonder Woman and the soon-to-be released Wonder Woman 1984, the character had few, if any, Jewish connections.
However, the cultural icon has a fascinating history in her own right.
Her creator was psychologist William Moulton Marston, a highly original thinker who believed women should rule the world.
He invented a machine meant to detect lies through measuring blood pressure. The modern polygraph was a follow-up to it, though it ultimately proved faulty. The golden lasso used by Wonder Woman, a magical binding rope forcing those bound to speak the truth, can be seen as a similar fantasy device.
As we mark March 8, International Women’s Day, it’s a thought worth having. What women, and men, have gained can always be taken away – and unless we know how we got what we have now, we may end up losing our way forward.
Wonder Woman is not seeking equality to men, she is superior to them. Early feminist works took on the literary device of Utopian fiction to suggest women, by nature, have qualities men lack.
Wonder Woman was created by Marston to break the chains of prudery and man’s superiority, a visual image used by one of the first American female cartoonists, Lou Rogers.
That image harks back to the suffragist claim that, as slaves were placed in chains due to race, women are enslaved due to their sex. Feminism evolved to focus on equality between men and women rather than superiority. This, and much more, is expertly discussed in The Secret History of Wonder Woman by historian Jill Lepore.
Wonder Woman is an Amazon (superior to men) who wishes to educate “man’s world” to prove that she and other women are equals. She is able to use force, but her lasso is a restraining weapon that has the side effect of reforming those who are held by it.
The character’s popularity skyrocketed soon after her debut, due in large part to factors that led to the popularity of superhero comics overall, like the prevalence of hero-worship for larger-than-life characters as men went off to fight in World War II.
Despite Marston’s feminist views, Wonder Woman has not consistently been treated as a feminist symbol. This can be traced back to 1942, when Wonder Woman joined the Justice Society of America, but as the team’s secretary. The writer who wrote these stories was not Marston, and he did not like the character one bit.
This trend went on until Wonder Woman #203 by writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Mike Sekowsky. Named in irony “Special Women’s Lib Issue,” it dealt with a variety of real-world issues such as cat-calling, workers’ rights and the general norm of women earning less than men that Diana had to deal with without her superpowers.
Fans were enraged and a new creative team was called to take over the title, this time, with all the powers of the original Diana.
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem – outraged that Wonder Woman was depowered – placed the iconic Marston version of the character on the cover of Ms. Magazine’s first issue. It also led to a successful television series in the 1970s, starring Lynda Carter.
The show became iconic and had a strong influence on both the comics and on many fans’ nostalgic memories. Marston may not have changed the world, but he did partly shape the youth of America.
Yet even a harmless fantasy might contain more than meets the eye, as shown in the 2017 film Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman, which is based on real events from Marston’s life, and that of his two female partners, but has a different focus.
The film, directed by Angela Robinson, focuses on sexuality. Marston is presented as a pro-fetish, pro-kink man lucky enough to find two women, his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne, with whom to share his interests and build a family. He is presented as brave, objecting to censorship at the cost of having his comics burnt and getting hit by a neighbor after his family is called out as so-called freaks. It is an inspiring film for anyone who cares about sexuality, including a fantastic performance by actor John Joseph Field in the role of Charles Guyette, called by fetish researcher Richard Perez Seves “The Grandfather of American Fetish Art” in the same-titled 2017 book.
Marston wrote as far back as 1928 in Emotions of Normal People that all sexual deviancies are normal. Yet the family was never outed by anyone. Likewise, the publisher of Wonder Woman never threatened that unless Marston cut out the BDSM parts of the comic, he won’t be “able to protect you anymore” as the movie claims.
According to child psychologist Laura Bender, the comic wasn’t sexually charged, adding that you cannot teach perversion to children. Reading Batman and Robin, she suggested, doesn’t make anyone who isn’t already gay into one. Frederic Wertham, in his book Seduction of the Innocent, argued that comics indeed cause delinquency and homosexuality; his one claim that carried weight was that Wonder Woman had BDSM subtext.
Marston fought to end misogyny, but it didn’t just go away. Rather, it simply manifested in a new form. Wonder Woman wasn’t exempt from facing this new form of misogyny, which writer Grant Morrison illustrated well in his series Wonder Woman Earth One, where classic Wonder Woman villain Doctor Psycho is rewritten as a “Master of Seduction” who claims women can be “trained like dogs.”
Morrison also made some other bold decisions in honoring and bringing to the surface many of the hidden themes in Marston’s original comic, most notably that lesbianism is spoken about openly as the only sexual norm possible in an island of women. Writer Greg Rucka established in 2016 that Wonder Woman is openly bisexual.