Culture

The Bondage-Bound, Feminist Origins of Wonder Woman

Gal Gadot in ‘Wonder Woman’/Image © Warner Bros.

Orgies, a sex cult, polyamory, lie detectors, and bondage. While that sounds like the makings of a fascinating word association game, those words do have one very particular thing in common – well, besides the obvious. And that very particular singular thing happens to be a pop cultural, feminist icon with roots stretching back to 1941. This particular icon now has the distinction of cracking the glass ceiling of comic book superhero movies – an endeavor that was previously the province of only the manliest and often surliest of super men, although capes were purely optional. We are, of course, talking about Wonder Woman, who is set to make her big-screen debut on June 2.

Fortunately, buzz indicates that “Wonder Woman” is a smashing success and DC has finally, arguably mercifully, created the first good film of its budding cinematic universe. I’m sure the fact that “Wonder Woman” stars a woman and was also directed by a woman are mere coincidence. After all, if we ignore the fact that women make up fifty-two percent of cinemagoers and overlook female-led blockbusters like “The Hunger Games” franchise, “Hidden Figures,” the two latest “Star Wars” entries, “Pitch Perfect,” “Bridesmaids,” etc. and etc. and etc., it’s easy to see why conventional wisdom indicates that women simply do not put butts in increasingly comfortable theater seats. But, I digress. So, “Wonder Woman.” With the character due to make her big-screen debut, this seemed the perfect occasion to take a look back at her too-bizarre-for-fiction origins.

In her 2014 book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, historian Jill Lepore recounts the oft-salacious and wickedly fascinating story of Dr. William Moulton Marston and the creation of Wonder Woman. The character of Wonder Woman was created by Dr. Marston in 1941 as a full-throated – and unsurprisingly curvaceous – answer to what Marston described as “the blood-curdling masculinity” of comic books. Marston was, in some ways, a study in contrasts. He was the creator of the modern lie detector test, but spent his adult life in a cloak of secrets – from his time in a sex cult in the 1920s  to a long-term, polyamorous relations with two, and occasionally three, women. He was an avowed feminist who nonetheless allowed his decidedly progressive feminist ideals to become hopelessly entangled with his fetishistic obsessions. While Marston was fully aware that chains and the breaking of bonds were powerful feminist symbols, he was also wont to drop such chestnuts as “women enjoy submission” – an aside to his editor at DC – and this excruciating bit from an essay he authored titled Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics:

“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power. Not wanting to be girls they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peaceloving as good women are.”

For Marston, Wonder Woman was a means to both advance his feminist beliefs – tainted though they were – while also easing the public into one of the more taboo aspects of his sex life. Bondage, of which Marston was an undoubted enthusiast, were key to early Wonder Woman stories as this passage from Lepore’s book illustrates:

“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. She’s locked in an electric cage. She’s winched into a straitjacket, from head to toe. Her eyes and mouth are taped shut. She’s roped and then coffined in a glass box and dropped into the ocean. She’s locked in a bank vault. She’s tied to railroad tracks. She’s pinned to a wall. Once, so that she can be both entirely bound and movable, her fettered feet are welded to roller skates. ‘Great girdle of Aphrodite!’ she cries. ‘Am I tired of being tied up!’”

However, despite the obvious implications, Marston’s use of bondage was equally an indication of the overt feminism that defined much of his thinking. Wonder Woman’s consistently bound predicaments – and more crucially her invariable escapes – were a subversion of the typical damsel-in-distress stereotype. After all, in her earliest adventures Wonder Woman was rarely, if ever, saved by a man. It was her own strength and cleverness that carried the day. In fact, the de facto male lead, Steve Trevor, was, in his original incarnation, a bumbling figure whose pining love for Wonder Woman went unrequited and more often than not it was up to Wonder Woman to rescue Steve from some overly intricate predicament. If the trailers are any indication, at least some of this dynamic may have found its way to the big screen.

This was all part and parcel to the complexities of Dr. Marston, a man whose greatest influences ranged from Margaret Sanger – the founder of Planned Parenthood and whose niece, Olive Byrne, engaged in a polyamorous relationship with Moulton and his wife Elizabeth – to Hugo Münsterberg, a German psychologist who loudly espoused the inferiority of women. In spite of these conflicts, both of which planted seeds in Marston’s philosophy on women and feminism, Marston created the single most enduring female superhero in comic book history.

At her inception in 1941, Wonder Woman proved a massive success even while the more scintillating aspects of her adventures enraged critics. In fact, it was during comic’s Silver Age when Wonder Woman’s origin was revamped to lose the more overtly feminist trappings and Wonder Woman became more stereotypically feminine (i.e., she began to pine over her male companion, was often the damsel-in-distress, and opened a clothing boutique after surrendering her superpowers – and yes, that seriously happened) that the character’s popularity fell off. Thankfully, Wonder Woman rebounded to prominence as both a fan favorite and a feminist icon in the seventies after DC reinstituted a more Marston-esque status quo, although with considerably less bondage play. A return to her roots as a strong, complex female character made Wonder Woman popular again. Who’d have thought?