I love Superheroes. I grew up reading comics that my dad would collect from the Newsagent on a Friday afternoon on his way home from work. There was always genuine excitement on a Friday as me and my sister waited expectantly at the window (along with 2 confused Cocker Spaniels), waiting on his arrival with our next instalment. As the years progressed, so did our taste and DC and ‘The Beano’ were replaced with ‘Jackie’ and ‘Look In’, but my love of Superheroes remained. I recently discovered a box in the loft of all my old annuals and, with genuine excitement, some very old DC and Marvel editions. It was as exciting reading though them cross-legged on the floor that day as it was all those years ago as a child, and that timeless and generational appeal is quite a rare and wonderful thing. But there is one hero that holds my interest more than any other, and since her reappearance onto the big screen alongside Superman and Batman, it seems I am not alone.
Since as far back as I can remember, I have had a rather healthy obsession with Wonder Woman (evidenced by a very dog-eared and well-fingered photograph of me doing my best Lynda Carter impression aged around 3 – something which was clearly encouraged and enabled by my very own motherly wonder woman and fan of ‘girl power’ long before The Spice Girls were even born). But it’s not just me. Wonder Woman has been adored since her first appearance in print in 1941, and with every new generation comes a new army of wig-wearing wonder wannabes, cosplaying and guising (‘trick or treating’ for the young and non-Scots among you), all desperate to emulate that Carter magic.
But what does our heroine represent? Well, I’ve discovered that this is where it all starts to get a bit interesting. With the reigniting of Wonder Woman through the Amazonian goddess that is Gal Gadot (even her name sounds majestic) the Wonder Woman of the Carter generation is no more (a loss worth mourning in my opinion) and, through this new vessel, represents for a new generation what Lynda Carter once offered for mine: Sexuality and power (whilst staying eternally young and flawless. Naturally). But is this what her creator William Marston had in mind when Princess Diana of Themyscira made her way to the mainland?
When Superman was created, he was the imaginings of (primarily) Jerry Siegal. Seigal started drawing and writing comic strips aged 14 and knew that this was where his life was going. Superman was originally introduced as a bald villain but, after being badly received by the comic reading public, was reborn as the strong, handsome, cape-wearing hero we all know today. My point? Superman was (seemingly) the bi-product of another idea gone bad. He was the sketching and re-sketching of a cartoonist who wanted to sell comics, not a Kryptic allegorical vision born in the middle of the night.
And then there is the Dark Knight himself (I would like to make it clear here that I love batman. Fiercely). Surely someone so complex and damaged was a representation of the inner psyche of Bob Kane? Well, according to Bob Kane during an interview in 1989…no. Kane, a cartoonist at heart, wanted a piece of Superman’s action in the finance department and so, to make him a millionaire, he created the most famous millionaire of all. But, disappointingly, there is more Diego than Kane in Bruce. Kane took the concept of Zorro and created Wayne, borrowing inspiration from the drawings of Da Vinci to exchange Zorro’s black horse for the batmobile. Kane talks about being both fascinated by and scared of bats as a child (a glimmer of hope for the injection of originality?) but the character from the 1926 silent movie ‘The Bat’ provided the identity of the alter ego, and a searchlight with the bat signal in the middle used in the film provided the bat signal for batman. So, again, my point? A cartoonist creating a character for functionality; to suit the comic reading masses; to compete with Superman (ironically topical).
And then Wonder Woman arrived.
It would seem that the secrets of the creation (and creator) of Wonder Woman are as complex and ironic as the dual identity of Diana herself; a story that is so steeped in mystery and un-truths, that it is almost difficult to see where the fiction ends and the reality begins. And that makes her all the more fascinating. So fascinating that Jill Lepore made it her business to ensure that the secrets of Wonder Woman were revealed.
Marston’s identity as her creator was, to begin with, a well-kept secret. As the owner of three degrees from Harvard and of the (dubious) accolade of being the man who invented the lie-detector test (the ‘lasso of truth’ is much catchier, surely?) not to mention a life spent practicing law, experimental science and, finally, psychology, Marston was an unlikely cartoonist and creator of the war-time (remember, this is 1941) symbol of feminism, equality and social justice. But he was nonetheless. And for very real and personal reasons.
Wonder Woman, unlike her male counterparts, was very much the metaphorical representation of Marston’s personal message. He was not just experimental and indecisive career-wise; He loved strong, ambitious women and believed that the ‘New Women’ of his generation should rule the world. He married Sadie Holloway, a successful graduate who was not prepared to sacrifice her career for the confines of married life – something that would have been essential given the time. As a supporter of the feminist movement, he found this agreeable but found an unorthodox solution in Olive Byrne for his desire for conventional family life: Polygamy.
So how does Marston’s encouragement of his wife combining a career and motherhood, while his live-in lover stayed at home to ‘raise the children’ apply to Wonder Woman? Well, if you consider that the true identity of Olive Byrne’s role in the house (and in Marston’s life) was kept a secret for many years, and alter egos and back-stories were created to conceal this, not to mention his self-confessed love of bondage, then the link becomes clearer. “You can’t do it all, you’re not Wonder Woman you know.” Does this sound familiar? Because how is it possible to have it all – the kids, the career, the satisfied man, the fabulous hair – without a mundane alter ego? Is the version of you that you portray at work the same version of you that you portray at home? Is that the point – that you cannot (as a woman), in fact, have it all, unless you have a Batman or Marston to assist you? Or is there something else at play here? Something else we all see in Wonder Woman? I think so.
Maybe a short history lesson will help…When Wonder Woman made her first outing in her own comic, Ares and Aphrodite (the original goddess) are seen to be arguing over who should rule the world: Ares championing the men, Aphrodite (long before Beyoncé made it her tag-line) for the women. To cut a long story short, Ares enslaves all women but Aphrodite gives Hippotyta (the Amazonian) a ‘magic girdle’ that bestows great power and strength, which is used to defeat the men (who are led by Hercules); Hercules promises peace, then lies and steals the girdle, and the women are enslaved once again. Aphrodite gives the Amazons the power to break the chains but decrees they all wear metal bracelets as a symbol that men should never be trusted, and they all travel to ‘Paradise Island’ where men are banished. Diana is born from clay (well, there are no men) and is named ‘Princess of Paradise’. Inspirational stuff. Until she falls in love with the survivor of a plane crash (and first man she lays eyes on). She is gifted with the honour of travelling back to America with Steve Trevor (Yes, really) to teach the world the way of the Amazons. She has great power, strength, speed, beauty and wisdom…then gives it all up in a heartbeat for a man she just met to become Batman’s secretary (to promote the empowerment of women – it is the 1940s after all).
So THAT outfit: the girdle – which interestingly is (I think) most truly represented by Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman with not a star-spangled banner in sight, the metal bracelets, the blatant celebration of the female form …symbolic of the enslavement by men and the power of the women to free themselves of their rules? Well, that depends on how you look at it. How many women do you know who would choose to dress like Wonder Women as the ideal outfit for fighting crime if there were no men around? If we had created Wonder Woman, she would have been freeing herself from the confines of Doctor Psycho wearing comfortable lounge-wear and sensible shoes. But would she hold any appeal to us if that was the case? Is the fact that they were all running around Paradise Island unapologetically embracing their sexual appeal without the validation of men the point Marston was making – that women should be free to be who they want to be in a free society? Are women not relieved to find themselves in a situation where they are surrounded by women only and know they can be themselves for themselves and NOT for the validation of men? I think so. Or perhaps he was making the point that all men needed to be rescued by an Amazon woman – confident enough to embrace her sexuality and strong enough to change and sacrifice her own world to suit his surroundings while spreading the message of the ‘New Woman’.
The truth is we will never know the answer now or the exact point Marston was trying to make. But I do know that I would not be nearly as fascinated by Wonder Woman if she had been running around in a track suit. Even as a very young child, I was fascinated by this women in stars and stripes, flaunting her womanhood in a way I had never seen before (and really have never seen since) and freeing herself of the physical and metaphorical imprisonment of societies evils…
Yes, ok. Clearly I didn’t think that when I was a wee girl reading and watching the adventures of the Princess of Paradise, typing and answering the phone for the Justice Society (as a reward for her heroics) but she always held a special place in my heart in a different way to the male superheroes of the time. You have to remember that the 70s, the 80s – even the 90s to a certain extent – well, they were different times. Marston’s women of the 1940s were not the norm. Girls were required to hide their ambition, their bodies, their sexuality. Strong women were to be feared and women with ambition? Well, they were to be spurned. You had to choose: be beautiful or be academic, but don’t try to be both. But there we found Wonder Woman, in her too-tight boob tube and hotpants, always in the background sticking two-fingers up at anyone who suggested we buy into such bullshit. And that is precisely what we loved then and love now. For each generation, Wonder Woman offers the young and the old a reminder that women can actually have it all (while ageing beautifully). We multi-task, be everything to everyone and successfully juggle multiple personalities to suit the audience; we can be tender, caring and selfless and put others before ourselves always. But we all have the Amazon warrior in us; we all have the sense of injustice and crave the equality that we will never stop fighting for.
And I believe (truly) that this is what the very young to the very old recognise in Wonder Woman. This is why I still feel genuine excitement when I see her or hear Lynda Carter’s name (I follow the actual Wonder Woman on Facebook). And maybe Gal Gadot is not as significant in a sexually different age. But I know that any time a little girl chooses the famous bullet-stopping Wonder Woman pose over a duck pout is a victory for Amazons everywhere.