Friday, June 02, 2017

The Secret History of Wonder Woman -- Jill Lepore

The Secret History of Wonder Woman begins in 1903 when Margaret Sanger pulls a child from a snowbank.  That child was Olive Byrne, and she grew up to have an interesting relationship with William Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman.  Marston was a doctor of psychology who invented a lie detector, had a sketchy academic career, was a shameless self-promoter and something of a fraud.  He lived much of his live in a polyamorous relationship with Olive Bryne and his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, fathering two children with each of them.  At times there was a third woman in the group, Marjorie Wilkes Huntley.  

Marston's idea for Wonder Woman was a strongly feminist one, and that resulted in plenty of bondage stories of Wonder Woman breaking the chains that bound her.  Purely symbolic stuff, of course.   As Lepore puts it, "Not a comic book in which Wonder Woman appeared, and hardly a page, lacked a scene of bondage.  In episode after episode, Wonder Woman is chained, bound, gagged, lassoed, tied, fettered, and manacled."  Marston said in an interview that one benefit of WWI was that women "discovered that they were potentially as strong as men -- in some ways stronger."  This was part of the emphasis in his writing for Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman was in trouble with critics from the start, thanks to her brief costume and all those chains, and eventually the critics won out.  After Marston's death in 1947, the writer who took over the comic book changed everything for the worse, eliminating Marston's feminist message, and when Dr. Wertham came along, followed by the "Comics Code," things were even worse.  

Much of Lepore's information for this book wasn't known for years, and a great deal of it is revealed for the first time.  She provides 80 pages of ancillary material, including copious notes.  If you're thinking of seeing the Wonder Woman movie, you should check out this interesting, entertaining book.


Todd Mason said...
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Todd Mason said...

I have been meaning to get around to my copy for a while...i wasn't aware of Marston's sex life, and yet I'm unsurprised.

Of course, the most ridiculous traduction of the character in comics didn't come till the '60s wave of feminism was startng to assert itself, and DC's response was to make her utterly un-superpowered if also more modishly if also more modestly dressed. That didn't last long.

Unknown said...

The '60s era is commented on, but only briefly.

Dan said...

According to a bio I read, Patricia Highsmith tried to write for Wonder Woman but her work was rejected.

George said...

Loved THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN! Jill Lepore did a great job uncovering the real story behind this iconic character.