Is Wonder Woman an icon for female empowerment? Or is she eye-candy and bondage fantasies?
| Someone once said that, “Ginger Rogers could do everything Fred Astaire did; only she did it backwards, and in six-inch heels”. Batman and Superman have dominated since the Golden Age of Comic’s. There is only one woman who could battle beside them as an equal; even in high heel boots and a strapless bustier. That one woman is Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman’s character, as created by William Marston, has been turned into a feminist archetype. She serves as a goddess symbol, and ideal woman on many levels. Some of those levels have been criticized for being cruelly exploitative. Some of those levels are aspirations still worthy of today’s woman. Wonder Woman’s breast revealing bustier could be interpreted as eye-candy for lusty men. There is also the controversy regarding the multiple bondage scenes in every issue. Then again, she is also longest running heroin comic of all time. Not to mention the fact that she holds the title as the only girl who’s been able to keep up with superheroes like Batman and Superman for nearly 40 years.
Which leads one to debate: is Wonder Woman just another caricature for men’s perverted fantasies? Or is she something more? Is she a representation of the gifts that lay inside every young woman as long as they can resist male domination? Was Wonder Woman’s stoic grace mightier than a perverted pen?
Wonder Woman’s inception into comic book media began in the December 1941 issue of DC Comics' popular All Star Comics. (St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture). Before she was Wonder Woman, she was the daughter of the Hippolyta who is Queen of the Amazons. The Amazons were refugees of Greece looking to escape a destructive male-dominated society. The women claimed an island in the Bermuda Triangle as their home. It is surrounded by a magnetic field which hides their location from the rest of the world. Women from this island are trained from birth to be as strong as Hercules, as wise as Athena, and with the competitive drive of Ares and Apollo, all combined with a capacity for love like Aphrodite’s.
The majority of superheroes are usually off-shoots of a science lab gone awry, an alien from another planet, or perhaps a mortal with an inner code of vengeance for some massive injustice. Like the mutant orphan Spiderman’s quest to avenge his Uncle Ben’s death; or Batman’s repressed orphan issue’s, Superman is an orphan also. But unlike her most infamous cohorts, Wonder Woman never had a father figure, or even a male role model. Amazon Queen Hippolyta asked the goddess Aphrodite for a daughter to keep her company. Aphrodite told her to form a child made from clay. Aphrodite blew the breath of life into the clay, and thus was born Princess Diana. Her mother parents are very much alive inside her. This is what makes her wholly feminine approach to every situation so remarkably believable.
Wonder Woman chose to leave her Paradise Island to come to America when American Intelligence officer Steve Trevor accidentally crash landed his plane onto her island. The Princess Diana, as she was named at home, nursed him back to health. Much like an “English Patient” she fell madly in love. Princess Diana is intrigued by America, which is a society dominated by men. She sneaked her way into a competition to see who could go back to America with the handsome captain. She entered the competition by using a disguise, and won. Thus she earned a reward- her protective outfit. This included a lasso that when wrapped around someone they would be forced to tell the truth. She was also given as a reward two bracelets that were stronger than any other substance on Earth. The bracelets were the also a key to Diana’s downfall, i.e., her Achilles heel, her kryptonite. The only time Wonder Woman could lose her power was if the bracelets were chained together. Even this was done with a specific empowering message. In the origin story written by Marston, the Amazon women are saved from the tyranny of Hercules by their goddess Aphrodite, but with only one hitch: they "must wear wrist bands always to teach [them] the folly of submitting to men's domination" (Daniels.150).
Most importantly, she was chosen to go back to America with Pilot Steve, and thus began her adventures battling Nazi’s and protecting human rights from tyranny and mad super villains. She integrated herself into society as a nurse She was a healer of men. She comes to enlighten and protect. Wonder Woman chose to live as a repressed mortal, much like Superman uses his secret identity to include himself in society. Superman’s version of a human man, from his alien perspective is weak, insecure, and awkward. Wonder Woman’s version of a human female is just what ladies needed to see. Diana Prince, her mortal alias, is an educated professional. She is confident, capable, and self-sufficient. Those are the two most important words for a woman of the WWII era- self-sufficient.
Wonder Woman stands as a testimony to feminine strength. I specify feminine strength as opposed to masculine strength because she used a different, less violent, approach to crime-fighting versus her super-peers. She always used wit, not war, as the means to achieve just ends, not revenge. “Wonder Woman does not shoot bullets or heat-rays; she deflects them. She does not beat the truth out of captives; she ties them up and lets the properties of her lasso mesmerize the truth from them. She does not hide in darkness, loom over criminals, and attempt to "'strike terror into their hearts'" because she knows them as "'a superstitious cowardly lot'" (O’Neil 37). So leave the steroids and the pissing contests to the men. Wonder Woman had a job to do.
Another way that Wonder Woman’s crime-fighting methods differed from her male counter-parts was because her methods involved self-actualization, (admitting truth with the magic lasso) and then reform (criminals were sent to Transformation Island). This was a more productive approach as opposed to the typical stalk then strike method.
There is however, an aspect of the Wonder Woman comic book series that has haunted both myself and her critics for many years. After long deliberations on the subject, I now understand the symbolism behind the repetitive bondage theme throughout her history.
William Marston has a very subjective history with women. He was married to an academically successful and talented wife named Elizabeth. He graduated with a BA from Harvard University in 1915; a LLB from Harvard Law School in 1918. He also earned a PhD in Psychology from Harvard University in 1921 and worked as a teacher at the American University. After teaching at American University in Washington D.C. and Tufts University in Medford MA, Marston traveled to Universal Studios in California in 1929, where he spent a year as Director of Public Services. () Olive Byrne was his mistress whom he met when she was a graduate student in the psychology department. Eventually he told his wife about Olive, and she moved in and they lived together quite openly as a ménage trios. He had two daughters by each wife. Elizabeth continued her academic career and Olive stayed home and took care of thier daughter’s.
To quote the library of rotton.com, “ If he was writing comic books today, Marston would be eaten alive by the morality police.” This is true considering he was once quoted telling the artist at D.C Comics that for his last wonder woman script he "called for seventy-five panels showing women in bondage" (Daniels 75).
I believe that Wonder Woman’s strengths have endured as a contradiction to what excessive bondage drawings might immediately represent. William Marston’s symbolism of a powerful woman in sexually submissive positions was admittedly intentional. Marston was even quoted on his motives on writing Wonder Woman. “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don't want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with the strength of Superman plus all of the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” If the girls are going to always be represented as the victim, or the weaker species, who would want to be on the losing team?
Girls want to grow up to be strong women. We see the advantages boys have because they are usually faster and stronger. We are conditioned to believe that we cannot protect ourselves because we are inundated with images of women being perpetually saved. The restraints come into psychological balance when one can handle both aspects; the physical strength of a man combined with the mental endurance of a woman. A man’s strength lies in what pain he can inflict. A woman’s strength lies in what pain she can endure.
The majority of these scenes take place with Wonder Woman being tied to large phallic shaped object. The interpretation may be a contradiction to his message. Whenever Wonder Woman was in peril, it was because she was tied down to a penis. She persevered every time. She has 40 years worth of publication, two television shows, and a movie in the works to be released.
I have always taught my children that violence is what a person resorts to when they are not intelligent enough to work their way through a situation. Wonder Woman represented women at their most brilliant. She was unconditionally a lady. She could be touched, but not held. She was intelligent, resourceful, strong, and consistent in her moral code. Regardless of Marston’s original intentions, or personal life, Wonder Woman stands proudly in pop culture history as the most wondrous woman of our time.
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