A fem­i­nist icon — ex­cept when she wasn’t

A new Won­der Woman film in­ter­rupts a trend of male su­per­hero movies, but the char­ac­ter’s past hasn’t al­ways been so em­pow­er­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - MOVIES - BY MICHAEL CAVNA michael.cavna@wash­post.com

Dur­ing World War II, as Su­per­man and Bat­man arose as main­stream pop sym­bols of strength and moral­ity, the pub­lisher that be­came DC Comics needed an an­ti­dote to what a Har­vard psy­chol­o­gist called su­per­hero comic books’ worst crime: “blood­cur­dling mas­culin­ity.”

Turns out that psy­chol­o­gist, Wil­liam Moul­ton Marston, had a plan to com­bat such a crime — in the star-span­gled form of a fe­male war­rior who could, time and again, es­cape the shack­les of a man’s world of in­flated pride and prej­u­dice.

That cre­ation was Diana Prince, who, upon land­ing in Amer­ica from her iso­lated Par­adise Is­land, donned the iden­tity of Won­der Woman.

On one hand, Marston was a man of pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally stat­ing that a great women’s move­ment was afoot. On the other hand, he em­bod­ied some knuckle-drag­ging ideas, too.

He in­sisted that Won­der Woman be chained or oth­er­wise bound in ev­ery is­sue, telling his DC ed­i­tor that “women en­joy sub­mis­sion” — even as the tor­tur­ous teth­er­ing sparked reader com­plaints. Marston was well aware, though, that bro­ken chains were also a pow­er­ful fem­i­nist sym­bol of eman­ci­pa­tion. And Marston — whose sci­en­tific work led to the de­vel­op­ment of the lie-de­tec­tor test — also out­fit­ted Won­der Woman with the em­pow­er­ing golden Lasso of Truth, whose coils com­mand ve­rac­ity from its cap­tive.

One thing Marston was less than truth­ful about was him­self: He se­cretly lived in a polyamorous re­la­tion­ship with two fem­i­nists: his wife, lawyer El­iz­a­beth Hol­loway Marston, and his for­mer col­lege student Olive Byrne, the niece of birth­con­trol pi­o­neer Mar­garet Sanger. Each of the two women bore him two chil­dren.

Out of this com­plex ori­gin story born of a com­pli­cated mind, Won­der Woman made her de­but in All-Star Comics in 1941.

Ahead of the June 2 release of the new “Won­der Woman” film — which, as the char­ac­ter’s first ma­jor solo fea­ture film, it­self pushes back against mar­ket­place dom­i­na­tion of male su­per­heroes — here is a time­line of her fem­i­nist, and less-than-fem­i­nist, his­tory.

1941: The cre­ation: Ac­cord­ing to lore, Marston didn’t ini­tially have a fe­male char­ac­ter in mind when mulling a su­per­hero less mas­cu­line than Su­per­man. But Marston later char­ac­ter­izes it as a nat­u­ral so­lu­tion, say­ing: “Women’s strong qual­i­ties have be­come de­spised be­cause of their weak­ness. The ob­vi­ous rem­edy is to cre­ate a fem­i­nine char­ac­ter with all the strength of Su­per­man plus all the al­lure of a good and beau­ti­ful woman.”

Upon be­ing hired as an ed­i­to­rial ad­viser at All Amer­i­can/De­tec­tive Comics, Marston sells his Won­der Woman char­ac­ter to the pub­lisher with the agree­ment that his tales will spot­light “the growth in the power of women.” He teams with not a woman but rather male artist Harry G. Peter to cre­ate her tiara-topped, flesh­flash­ing at­tire.

Won­der Woman first ap­pears in All-Star Comics No. 8, wear­ing bracelets sim­i­lar to those worn by Byrne, Marston’s for­mer student turned lover. The bracelets, ac­cord­ing to Won­der Woman’s prose, were “fash­ioned by our cap­tors” as phys­i­cal sym­bols that “we must al­ways keep aloof from men.” The New Yorker’s Jill Le­pore, au­thor of “The Se­cret His­tory of Won­der Woman,” writes that her look, with a nod to the era’s sexy Varga Girls, is “the suf­frag­ist as pinup.”

Spring 1942: Just one of the guys — sort of: Within a half­dozen is­sues of All-Star Comics, Won­der Woman be­comes an honorary mem­ber of the DC su­per­hero team-up Jus­tice So­ci­ety of Amer­ica, yet her of­fi­cial po­si­tion long re­mains “sec­re­tary” — a strik­ing dis­tinc­tion com­pared with her fel­low he­roes.

Sum­mer 1942: Solo star­dom: Won­der Woman proves so pop­u­lar that she gets her own comic book with Sen­sa­tion Comics. Her rise was as­sured, Martin Pasko writes in the book “The DC Vault,” “by an epi­demic of hero wor­ship that would seize the home front as [men] went off to war.” As Rosie the Riveter be­comes iconic, and women fill men’s shoes back home, read­ers of all ages more read­ily em­brace the tough, well-mus­cled fe­male hero. Within a few years, Won­der Woman has 10 mil­lion read­ers and her own syn­di­cated comic strip.

1950s: The rise of soapy ro­mance: Con­gres­sional over­re­ac­tion to “Se­duc­tion of the In­no­cent” psy­chi­a­trist Fredric Wertham’s ques­tion­able find­ings about the “ef­fects” of comic books on chil­dren leads to the Comics Code Author­ity — es­sen­tially the pub­lish­ers’ con­sent to soften con­tent. As a re­sult of this crack­down, su­per­hero and hor­ror comics ebb and ro­mance sto­ries rise. Fol­low­ing the trend, Diana Prince — who left women-only Par­adise Is­land with the crash­land­ing mil­i­tary hero Steve Trevor — be­comes a more do­mes­tic-minded fig­ure whose thoughts are of­ten on mar­riage and mod­el­ing, when not work­ing as a “lonely hearts” colum­nist.

Late 1960s: Full sur­ren­der: The sac­ri­fice is com­plete: Diana de­cides to sur­ren­der her su­per­pow­ers for the sake of be­ing near Steve. Two decades af­ter Marston’s death, that nar­ra­tive reg­is­ters as a far cry from the cre­ator’s stated sen­ti­ment, when he wrote, “Won­der Woman is psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­pa­ganda for the new type of woman who should, I be­lieve, rule the world.”

1972: Cover woman: Won­der Woman boosts her per­cep­tion as a fem­i­nist icon by ap­pear­ing on the first cover of Glo­ria Steinem’s Ms. mag­a­zine, thus ty­ing her im­age to the women’s rights move­ment.

1973-1975: TV star­dom: Won­der Woman in­creases her pres­ence and pop­u­lar­ity on tele­vi­sion, join­ing the an­i­mated se­ries “Su­per Friends”; mak­ing her live-ac­tion small-screen de­but in a 1974 made­for-TV movie star­ring Cathy Lee Crosby; and then get­ting her own Emmy-nom­i­nated net­work se­ries star­ring the iconic Lynda Carter. Won­der Woman “en­com­passes ev­ery­thing great and pow­er­ful about be­ing a woman, and Lynda took it all se­ri­ously,” “Won­der Woman ’77” writer Marc An­dreyko told the DC Comics fan site.

1997-1999: Se­ries scut­tled: NBC works on de­vel­op­ing a new live-ac­tion se­ries in which Diana Prince will work as a UCLA pro­fes­sor of Greek his­tory. De­spite na­tional cast­ing ef­forts, the se­ries is shut down be­fore a frame is shot. Mean­while, back in the comics, John Byrne is en­joy­ing a mem­o­rable mid-’90s run on “Won­der Woman” by pre­sent­ing her as a mus­cu­lar god­dess.

2009: Point­ing to a re­turn: Won­der Woman gets some solo screen glory again. Keri Rus­sell voices the Ama­zon-tribe su­per­hero in WB/DC’s direct-to-DVD an­i­mated movie “Won­der Woman,” with Lau­ren Mont­gomery as the di­rec­tor.

Septem­ber 2016: The ru­mors are true: DC writer Greg Rucka con­firms the long-stand­ing the­ory that Won­der Woman is canon­i­cally gay. Rucka tells Comi­cos­ity: “By our stan­dards where I am stand­ing . . . The­myscira [Par­adise Is­land] is a queer cul­ture. I’m not hedg­ing that. And any­one who wants to pre­var­i­cate on that is be­ing silly.”

Oc­to­ber 2016: Am­bas­sador Prince: The United Na­tions names Won­der Woman as an honorary am­bas­sador, in­tend­ing to move her be­yond su­per vil­lain­bat­tling crime-fighter to help raise aware­ness of gen­der equal­ity for “the em­pow­er­ment of women and girls as a crit­i­cal com­po­nent for a peace­ful and pros­per­ous world.”

In De­cem­ber, the United Na­tions drops Won­der Woman af­ter many of its em­ploy­ees ob­ject to a char­ac­ter they say in a state­ment is an overtly sex­u­al­ized fig­ure — “the epit­ome of a pinup girl” who now em­bod­ies “a large-breasted, white woman of im­pos­si­ble pro­por­tions, scant­ily clad in a shim­mery, thigh-bar­ing body suit with an Amer­i­can flag mo­tif and knee-high boots.”

June 2, 2017: The film open­ing: “Won­der Woman” will mark the first solo film for a su­per­heroine in the DC Ex­tended Uni­verse, and the first DCEU release to be di­rected by a woman, Patty Jenk­ins. And yet, Jenk­ins says in an in­ter­view: “I don’t think of my­self as a fe­male film­maker and I don’t think about ‘Won­der Woman’ as a fe­male film. She’s a ma­jor su­per­hero.”


TOP: Lynda Carter starred as Won­der Woman in a 1970s net­work tele­vi­sion se­ries.


ABOVE: On Fri­day, Gal Gadot be­comes the lat­est ac­tress to por­tray the su­per­heroine when “Won­der Woman” opens in movie the­aters. The Warner Bros. film is the first DC Ex­tended Uni­verse release to be di­rected by a woman, Patty Jenk­ins.


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