With the release of the Wonder Woman film in 2017, the superhero joins other DC characters that have become s staple in popular culture. Wonder Woman has appeared in television, comics, cartoons, and advertisements. The origins of the character reveal an interesting history and a more eccentric individual who created the character. William Moulton Marston (1893-1947) was a psychologist, inventor, and comic book writer who conceived the idea of Wonder Woman . Comic books may seem like puerile entertainment to some, but they do have adventurous stories and impressive art. The stories they tell either have social commentary or a wider message. Marston’s creation was made specifically to promote feminist ideas and gender equality. Marston was a supporter of the suffragist movement and women’s rights. He had unconventional views about gender relations and lived a life that was rather scandalous at the time. William Marston lived in a menage a trois with his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byne. These two women were inspirations to the creation of Wonder Woman and also gave some of their input into the character. William Marston could be described as many things: a visionary, fetishist, and a possible charlatan. However, these descriptions do not accurately capture a more complex figure. The DC comic book character he created was and continues to be more than just a cartoon character.
William Moulton Marston did have a feminist vision of society. His thinking was to say the least different from the average man in terms of gender relations in the 20th century. Marston quote reveals much about his feminism when he stated “not even girls want to be girls as long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power.” Martson believed that women would one day acquire their rights and go on to lead the world to a new era of peace. He did not think this would happen in his lifetime, but thousands of years. The early comics do possess suffragist imagery. The cartoons of Annie Lucasta Rogers featured women in chains. During the 1910s her cartoons appeared in various news papers devoted to the women’s suffrage movement. The constant theme of chained woman in her cartoons was to demonstrate women’s lack of freedom in society. Martson continued that imagery in the Wonder Woman comics in the 1940s.
When Wonder Woman was in a predicament her adversaries in most stories would tie her up. This was not just a simple trope, but had a deeper meaning. Either through her strength or wit Wonder Woman would escape captivity and defeat her nemesis. Her triumph was a metaphor for women’s struggle for equal justice and the elimination of the oppression of women. This message may not be as obvious to a reader who was just exposed to Wonder Woman comics. To the creators it was subtle when inserted into stories giving small psychological suggestions to devoted readers of the comic.
Marston was progressive in the sense he was more accepting of different sexual orientations, sexual fetishes, sadomasochism, and transvestism. His book the Emotions of Normal people claims these elements of sexuality and fetishism are not abnormal. These are characteristics unique to individuals. This was written before the sexual revolution in which many of the conservative mores and practices were challenged. Moulton thought such characteristics were not just normal, but were inherited through the nervous system. This can be debated, considering environment also influences an individuals existence. Olive Byne and Elizabeth Holloway contributed to this book with research and writing. Although it was ignored and never got Marston the academic respect he desired, it does provide further insight into his thinking. Marston believed that some required emotional reeducation to accept the parts of themselves that were considered “abnormal” but were in reality normal. Women’s desire to be independent, free, or strong was not abnormal even though society condemns such attributes in women. Only when people change there emotional state in Marston’s view would society radically change. William Moulton Marston was certain that one day women would rule the world. Matriarchy he stated would be a possibility in the distant future.
Marston gave was convinced in his own words ” The next hundred years will see the beginning of an American matriarchy- a nation of amazons in the psychological rather than physical sense.” His predictions got even more bizarre saying “in 500 years, there will be a serious sex battle and 1,000 years women will definitely rule this country. “Marston’s predictions seem exaggerated, although may be he was talking more so about the possibilities of the rising second wave and third wave feminist movements. Women have become more powerful compared to women of the past. The nation almost had a female president sooner than what Marston predicted in 2016.
The idea that their are amazons in the psychological sense, rather than physical is interesting. Men did not dominate women due to their greater physical strength. The unequal access to property, education, income disparity, and legal protection ensured women’s subordination to men. A woman could be physical powerful, but if she has no legal. economic, and political power she could still be vulnerable to an oppressive social system. If Marston was alive today, he could be possibly shocked by the fact women in sports have in a radically different manner changed perceptions about femininity and what it means to be a woman. The female athlete has culturally become a Wonder Woman straight out of a comic book. When Martson created Wonder Woman he wanted a character that presented both beauty and strength. Strength specifically physical strength was considered a male only attribute, is no longer incompatible with beauty or womanliness. Women have never to this extent in human history have developed themselves physically. Women are beginning to define what is beautiful to them, rather than have the concept dictated to them.
Title IX has allowed for the rise of many women athletes. With modern media such as the internet and television the public is getting exposure to to these women with impressive physiques. It seems there is a level of acceptance for the modern day amazon. These women however do not have the desire to establish a matriarchy or dominate men. Unlike Wonder Woman, they do not battle super villains or go on adventures. William Mouton Martson’s prediction of matriarchy is clearly wrong. He was right in the regard that the sexes will have more equality in the future. Assuming there is not a collapse in civilization, progress can be achieved. Yet, there is always the threat or reactionary movements or political and ideological extremism. These threats can happen in both democratic and authoritarian political systems. Martson’s battle of the sexes is unlikely to happen seeing as men and women need each other. It is also erroneous to assume that women want revenge for past abuses. Ever since, Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 election more women have become politically active in the United States and are seeking to run for office. William Marston ‘s prediction of waiting 1,000 years for more female leadership could come sooner than one thinks. Various nations have in the past and present have had female leaders. The US lags behind in this regard. William Marston took the position of cultural feminism of the 19th century, which regard women as more peace loving and that female virtues would lead to a less turbulent society. They emphasized that women’s difference made them morally upright . The problem with this argument was that it promoted gender stereotypes and stated women’s superiority. There is no “superior sex” and women are not all peace loving and nurturing individuals. There are instances in which women participated in war or contributed to their conduct. It is a myth that the world would be more peaceful if women were in control. The ethnic, national, and cultural hatreds are too powerful. Marston’s theories of the future were not accurate, but it is obvious that he was a firm believer in progressive era movements. This included not only the suffrage movement, but the birth control movement. When Emmeline Pankurst was banned from speaking at Harvard University in 1911 for the Harvard Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, this had an impact on Marston. The Harvard freshman became more staunch in his support for women’s rights in the face of this act of censorship. When Martson entered the comics world he had already acquire a vast amount of knowledge about the women’s movement and had a Ph.D in psychology. This allowed him to create not just a cartoon character, but an icon and symbol for women’s equality.
When Maxwell Charles Gains got into contact with Marston, comics were facing criticism. The father of the modern comic book realized that this new industry was facing a public relations problem. Critics claimed comics were an awful influence on children and were too violent. Marston thought that comics were enriching to children. The issue as William Moulton Marston saw it was that there were too many male superheroes promoting “blood curdling masculinity.” Marston realized that a female superhero would stand out as something unique and also promote his beliefs. If young girls saw a strong woman, they would have the desire to become strong independent women in adulthood. The intent was to use this entertainment medium to influence young people’s ideas about women by means of psychology.
Exposure to certain images in youth does influence attitudes and mores. Here by showing Wonder Woman as a positive figure, the strong woman will not hold a negative connotation. There was special attention given to character design. Wonder Woman’s design was based of the Esquire Varga Girls centerfolds of the 1940s. The women were not rail thin, but more athletic looking and fuller. Her costume even resembled the swim suits that the models would wear. This was later redesigned to have Wonder Woman wearing a skirt. H.G Peters was responsible for the development of the character design. The final version William Moulton Marston was satisfied with. Originally Marston wanted the character to be called Suprema, however Wonder Woman seemed to be a better fit.
Wonder Woman would then make her debut in All Star Comics # 8 in 1941. From that point on she would become of the most recognizable female superheroes. Wonder Woman was unique in the sense that she broke the prevalent trope of damsel in distress. The only roles in comics that women characters filled were either supporting cast , wives, mothers, or a person for the male hero to rescue. William Moulton Marston would continue to write Wonder Woman stories for the comics until his death in 1947. The last years of his life were devoted to his creation an embodiment and symbol of female empowerment.
There is another side to Dr .Marston involved sexual fetish. The most obvious fetish was bondage that appeared in Wonder Woman comics in the 1940s. Wonder Woman many times was either chained or her enemies were restrained. The breaking of the chains is also a political metaphor, yet it also has a sexual nature to it. There is a relation between dominance and submission in regards to women and men. Marston with his theory was that if men submitted to women’s loving authority, this would create harmony among the sexes. Domination and submission should be traded off between the two sexes. To William Moulton these are harmless sexual fantasies and as long as they do not depict extreme violence or degradation, they are healthy expressions. Submission was not an awful attribute in his view. Dominating and imposing attributes he thought were. There also another element that is ignored. There is an emphasis on Wonder Woman’s immense strength and athletic ability.
This was clearly based on certain sources. The amazons in Greek mythology were warrior women noted for their skill in battle. Drawing on that context this would be an obvious attribute to give the Wonder Woman character. The women that William Moulton Marston knew had athletic backgrounds. Elizabeth Holloway was a field hockey player in college. Olive Byne also played basketball, which is of important significance. Basketball was one the few sports women got access to on US college campuses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Alice Marble who served as editor for the comics between 1942 and 1944 was a tennis champion. Besides the bondage theme, he wanted Wonder Woman’s athleticism and physical strength emphasized throughout the comic. Wonder Woman in the comics played baseball, ice hockey, tennis, and swims in some issues There was even one in which she established a chain of fitness clubs. These comics show that Marston had more than just a simple admiration for the female form. His fetish could have been cartolagnia and sthenolagnia.
This arousal from the demonstration of strength and display of muscles seems more apparent in Wonder Woman’s fights and general strength feats. Even other characters take notice of her physical abilities. The golden age version of Wonder Woman only loses her strength when her wrists are chained by a man. The metaphor basically being accepting an oppressive system will never improve anything, because Wonder Woman only loses her power if the is done willingly according to Aphrodite’s law. There has been a segment of men who enjoy a powerful woman whether it is either mental or physical power. William Moulton Marston even explained that ” frankly Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman, who I believe who should rule the world.” Moulton’s new type of woman is one that is powerful mentally, physically, and also has a loving nature.
The new woman has apparently arrived in some sense. There is a female presence in occupations that were mostly male dominated. Women are emerging in the science and technology fields. This combined with areas associated with masculinity such as sports, politics, and the physically demanding occupations means that there has been progress to a new archetype. The development is disjointed and there are disparities that still face women depending on which nation. The same prejudices and hatreds remain. Marston’s new woman has arrived. The new era of peace, however may never come. That theme may have come out the desire to see World War II end. Fascism was terrorizing the world and the idea of a peaceful future was something desirable. Mouton would be very impressed with the women of the modern world and specifically how certain women embody the Wonder Woman principles.
Some women even look more Wonder Woman than what Marston could have imagined. The strides that have been made in such a short period of time are impressive and there is much work that has to be done. Marston’s strong women were the wave of the future and his love for them presented itself through the comics he wrote for. The lasso of truth is not just a tool of Wonder Woman, it is a part of bondage imagery. Wonder Woman used it to make her enemies confess, simultaneously the image of dominatrix becomes apparent. Critics were quick to recognize this imagery. These depictions were mild compared to a modern day standard. There were even complaints from the National Organization for Decent Literature about Wonder Woman’s costume being too revealing . That Catholic organization added comics and specifically Wonder Woman to their banned list of books. Maxwell Gaines tried to even get Marston to reduce on the bondage imagery by 1943. Marston was never going to eliminate the bondage theme completely, so a solution was made by Dorthy Roubicek to restrain Wonder Woman in different ways.She was the editor of Gaines and was able to placate member of the editorial board. The amazing element is that the early Wonder Woman comics combined feminism, sexual fetishism, psychology, action, and adventure into a truly unique comic.
William Moulton Marston also tended to be somewhat charlatan in certain ventures. His odd combination of careers demonstrated this dimension of his personality. Marston was part inventor developing one of the early polygraphs. The lie detector test Marston claimed was a great discovery in the detection of lies. He claimed it was the science of the detection of deception. Marston even went as far to publish a book called The Lie Detector in 1938. This was not an academic work, but was really attempting to sell an idea to the general public. There really is not a scientific method of detecting lies. Marston argued this anyway with little evidence or research. This was more apparent with the publicity stunts Marston organized having press conferences and even erecting a booth at the 1939 World’s Fair. The problem with the polygraph is that it cannot repeat the same results. There is a possibility that a competent liar could pass the test with no problems. Marston claimed to be the master of detecting lies. It was apparent that his findings were fraudulent. The first time Marston entered in business it ended in fraud. He was an unsuccessful lawyer and failed to get his polygraph results as admissible evidence. Marston only worked for Universal Studios for one year in 1929 as a consultant before being terminated. The world of academia had pretty much by the 1930s rejected him. Demoted from chairmen of the psychology department to adjunct professor at American University few took an interest in his theories. William Marston made limited effort to explore new elements of psychology, instead focusing solely on his theories. The promotion of the polygraph may have been out of the need to create financial stability. This also explains why Wonder Woman carries a lasso of truth. It is her personal lie detector. There was a showman and conman element to Marston. However, the support for the women’s cause was genuine.
William Moulton Marston was a fascinating figure. He was a mad who live with both his wife and mistress and they provide input as wells as inspiration to the creation of Wonder Woman. He could not hold a job for long and was hoping someday his theories would get notoriety. The body of work he produced related to psychology appeared in academic journals or books for the general reading public. This is either forgotten today or merely part of an archive. Marston would not become a Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, B.F Skinner, or an Abraham Maslow. Ultimately he would be remembered for his contribution to the golden age of comics. Wonder Woman was the first female superhero to have her own comic. Her popularity rivals Batman and Superman’s. There is an enduring legacy and she will continue to part of DC’s star characters. Marston did make one prediction that was correct: women will no longer accept secondary status forever. The eccentric psychologist and writer would be proud of the real life superwomen changing the world everyday.
Pollitt, Katha. “Wonder Woman’s Kinky Feminist Roots.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 14 Oct. 2014. Web. 09 June 2017. <https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/11/wonder-womans-kinky-feminist-roots/380788/>.
Lepore, Jill. The Secret History of Wonder Woman. New York : Vintage Books ,2015 .