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Wonder Woman and her lesbian, feminist, bondage themes




Wonder Woman being paddled by an enormous toddler
Wonder Woman being paddled by an enormous toddler
Wonder Woman being paddled by an enormous toddler
Wonder Woman and other Amazons dress up as deer and pretend to eat each other
DC Comics


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Unless you live under a rock, you probably know by now that Marvel will just about take over the world of movies for the next few years, bringing together multiple franchises into one Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It's comic-book storytelling coming together on a huge scale, something that DC Comics has working on as well with its upcoming movie, "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." That film, scheduled for release in 2016, not only features the two titular heroes, but will additionally throw Aquaman, Cyborg and Wonder Woman into the fray.

The inclusion of Wonder Woman is particularly notable — she's an eminently recognizable superhero, but she's never had her own live-action movie. And while that should change come 2017's film "Wonder Woman" (to be played by Gal Gadot), the lack of material is representative of a general indecision as to how to write that heroine, and much of that stems from the origins of the character and the life of her creator, William Marston.

Marston's life has been getting more focus recently, as Jill Lepore's new book, "The Secret History of Wonder Woman," delves into the details of his biography. Noah Berlatsky is also working on a related book, titled "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peters Comics, 1941-1948." It's an effort to link Marston's life to the comics he created.

Berlatsky joined us on The Frame to talk about Marston's views on lesbianism and submission, how to interpret Wonder Woman within the framework of feminism, and why there hasn't been a Wonder Woman movie.

Interview Highlights:

 

Who was the target audience for Wonder Woman?

Everybody read comics in the 1940s. There aren't demographic studies, but they had circulations of a million copies for each issue, so there was a very large audience, and I think lots of people read them. They're fun the way kids literature is fun. There are giant space-traveling kangaroos, there are goofy jokes; they're meant to be enjoyable, goofy, kids literature, which also happens to be about teaching kids and adults that women are great and everybody should be a woman — whatever gender you are — and that submission is the way to go.

(In case you want goofy fun, here are some great clips from the 1970s live-action TV series)

Why does submission and bondage occur so frequently in Marston's comics?:

Marston believed that women were superior to men and that they should rule. And the reason that he felt they were superior, basically, was because women are better at submitting. So he sort of saw Wonder Woman as the prototype of the love leader who's going to teach men and women to be submissive. And the Wonder Woman comics are filled with images of people being tied up — there's a story about the Mole Men, who are these evil, blind, twisted creatures living underground, and they enslave women. And Wonder Woman goes down and teaches them all that what they need to do is have the women rule them. Then they all get their eyesight back; it's not subtle.

Is Wonder Woman a feminist character?

Well, Marston was always very aware of female readers and of female viewers, and he's very aware of lesbianism, right? Because there's every reason to believe he lived with a couple of lesbians. So when Marston presents sexualized images of women, they're not intended just for men, pretty much explicitly, both within the comics — there's lots of lesbian bondage play which is not especially sublimated — and in terms of who he thought his readership was. So the idea that attractive images of women and feminism don't go together would not be something that Marston would agree with at all, partly because he's aware of a lesbian audience.

Why hasn't there been a Wonder Woman movie yet?

In part, some of these things are just kind of bad luck. If Marvel* had liked Joss Whedon's script, we'd have a Wonder Woman movie already. Many people often talk about sexism, and I think that the big superhero companies are not used to marketing for or thinking about a female audience often, and so I think that they're sometimes reluctant to try superhero movies with women. And I think Wonder Woman also presents problems for interpretation, right? On the one hand she's a feminist icon; on the other hand, she's a sex symbol, and while that was not a problem for Marston, for many audiences today, reconciling that can be tricky.

*Berlatsky misspoke when he said "Marvel" as Wonder Woman is part of the DC Comics world of superheroes.

Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He's also editor of the website Hooded Utilitarian, and you can find out more here about his upcoming book, "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peters Comics, 1941-1948."



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