Do We Need Wonder Woman?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

My two-year-old daughter plays on the beach in a tiny red, white, and blue swimsuit, her chest emblazoned with winged yellow Ws that need no explanation. At a glance, the suit appears of a piece with the branded Dora the Explorer and Mermaid Ariel gear sported by fellow toddlers frolicking on the shoreline. Unlike her animated little sisters who harken from the cutesy realms of Nick Jr. and Disney, however, Wonder Woman is a full-grown Amazon, invested in 1941 by her creator with the heady mission to serve as “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who,” he believed, “should rule the world.”

The kiddie bathing suit didn’t come from a hipster purveyor of “feminist baby clothing,” but mass-market Old Navy, advertised without apparent contradiction alongside pink sparkly ballerina dresses and “Daddy’s Little Girl” pajamas. Similarly, Under Armour, the sports-apparel giant with the macho street-cred of outfitting NFL players has authored a “womanifesto,” enacted in part in the release of fitted Wonder Woman tops (along with SuperGirl and BatGirl sports bras) for adult women. Warner Brothers will begin shooting a Wonder Woman feature film this fall.

Seventy-four years after Wonder Woman’s birth on a remote island utopia, we are in the throes of a full-blown Wonder Woman moment.

Conspicuously absent from these and the many other high-street representations of the superheroine, however, are Wonder Woman’s chains. In her mid-20th-century comic book and Lynda Carter incarnations, Wonder Woman was centrally defined by her bondage in, and ongoing struggle to elude, the literal chains (not to mention manacles, ball gags, and leather straps) her various male captors deployed to restrict her. Today’s Wonder Women are represented as so profoundly liberated that those restraints have vanished, suggesting that our current enthusiasm for Wonder Woman is demarcated as much by an erasure of everyday women’s struggles as by the triumphs of feminism. 

Seventy-four years after Wonder Woman’s birth on a remote island utopia, we are in the throes of a full-blown Wonder Woman moment.

The apparent ease exhibited by Wonder Woman in this slew of contemporary products can be understood as a symptom of controversial “have-it-all” feminism. The growing Wonder Woman market implies a sense that the chains that once made the struggle (in high boots, leotard, and loose hair, no less) for justice painfully real are but a distant memory; we even have t-shirts (and swimsuits and sports bras) to prove it. Policy expert Ann-Marie Slaughter argued most polemically in The Atlantic that women can’t have or do it all, and that the insistence otherwise by well-intentioned feminists sets up women to fail in the impossible ambition to simultaneously achieve as scholars or CEOs while nourishing a brood of hyper-scheduled kids with homemade fare. Effectively, to be Wonder Women. Sheryl Sandberg entered the discussion—or what unfortunately often devolves into disagreeable debate—to similar controversy, insisting that, indeed, women can’t do it all, but that what they should do is “lean in” more aggressively professionally rather than recline their way out of career advancement on the assumption they will eventually prioritize family responsibilities. Despite their differences, both Sandberg and Slaughter have been widely criticized for directing their comments to a narrow segment of privileged women.

But these conversations are also generationally limited; they address adult women who already identify as mothers and professionals. What is the place of have-it-all feminism in the lives of girls and young women? And what does our Wonder Woman moment have to do with it? Happily, new youth-culture icons with a decidedly feminist cast abound, beginning to challenge Barbie’s longstanding incumbency: Queen Elsa from Disney’s Frozen is no mere princess, values sisterhood above all, and finds happiness only when she “lets go” of any pretensions and embraces all parts of herself. Futuristic Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games is all sculpted muscles, swagger, and survivalist savvy. There is the industrious, crafty Goldie of the more underground GoldieBlox, a clever and aspiring builder created by a Stanford engineer dismayed by the gender-segregated world of construction toys. Elsa, Katniss, and Goldie trump Barbie as role models any day, but for their intellectual, physical, and social-emotional prowess, these modern-day heroines gain credibility by performing traditionally male labor—ruling a kingdom, kicking ass, and solving quantitative problems—while looking quite like Barbie.

More so than philosophical essays or self-help books, these cultural products point to one of the most maddening quandaries facing girls and young women today. Generations of feminist activism have achieved unimaginable levels of political and professional equality, but these new commitments are often layered on top of the traditionally feminine responsibilities of maintaining our faces and families. The ongoing pressure for intellectually impressive women to tend to their appearance, to rouge and pluck, and, as the years pass, even to nip and tuck, feel especially retrograde, a vestige of patriarchal expectations that just won’t die, no matter how hard we pummel them with dog-eared copies of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1991).

Yet another branch of feminism, albeit one that gets less airtime today, elevates rather than disdains femininity, even in its most conventional forms. Historians such as Kathy Peiss and Nan Enstad have long sought to portray the particular fascinations of women—fashion, makeup, child-rearing, dancing—as worthy of sustained inquiry, rather than as precluding serious political subjectivity. Recently, exasperated Cosmopolitan editor Joanna Coles explained on National Public Radio that the world should be able to understand that women can be “interested in mascara and the Middle East.” Coles might well have inserted “motherhood” into her comment as well. From this vantage point, Wonder Woman, with her mission for a world order adjudicated by women, her flowing tresses and shiny hot pants, embodies this juxtaposition, and suggests its potential to be something other than imprisoning.

<i>Wonder Woman Makeup</i>. Mbragion / Pixabay.

Three new, very different books participate in this Wonder Woman frenzy, and also try to explain it. Together, Debora Spar’s Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection (2013), Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014), and Noah Berlatsky’s Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941–48 (2015) pose several common questions: Who is Wonder Woman? Whom did her creators intend her to be and what has she come to represent in contemporary American culture? What is Wonder Woman’s relationship with the history, and, more excitingly, the future of feminism, particularly in a moment when women are both exhausted and excited by the desire to gracefully “have” and “do it all,” superhero style?

If Wonder Woman in the 21st century suggests an affinity to the models of womanhood represented by Elsa, Katniss, and Goldie, to Spar, growing up in the 1970s, it was Charlie, the character in the ad campaigns for the eponymous perfume, who appeared to have it all. Spar frames her narrative with recollections of her adolescent admiration of the reedy blonde career gal who sailed effortlessly down the street in a tailored suit with a briefcase in one hand and toddler in the other, practically floating in a sweet-smelling cloud of department-store fragrance. Spar never mentions the Wonder Woman comics or television program (she grew up on Highlights) in her 227-page exploration of the popular legacy of what she fairly presumes is the culturally familiar terrain of the “wonder woman idyll”: the near-manic pursuit of superwoman status in the form of the perfect job, family, hair, and waistline undertaken by many girls and women in our so-called “postfeminist” era.

Spar, president of Barnard College since 2008, has enjoyed a wildly successful career in academia and administration, marked by the seismic shift of leaving, after many years, the highly male environment of Harvard Business School for her current position running Barnard, an all-women’s college. Despite a 1992 revelation (while breast-pumping and commuting at LaGuardia airport) that “having it all” wasn’t everything she thought it was cracked up to be, it was only when Spar joined Barnard that she thought deeply about a crucial development of her lifetime: the ripple effect on American women and girls of second-wave feminism, a movement she had deliberately avoided—thanks to media representations of brash, unshaven radicals—for most of her life. Equal parts memoir, social theory, and self-help, Wonder Women covers the cycle of life from girlhood to middle age (Spar is in her 50s). The narrative follows Spar’s “good girl” youth, her simultaneous pursuit of academic excellence and the pristine dollhouses her parents refused to buy, her struggle with anorexia, her falling in love, her existential grad-school ruminations, her transition to motherhood, and her career ascent, concluding with advice that expands upon but echoes Slaughter’s conclusions.

It is Spar’s unlikely status as a feminist theorist—she at one point describes feminism as a movement “greedy to its core”—that yields Wonder Women’s freshest, and most jarring, insights. As a skeptic, she engages feminist theory seriously, even if to express disappointment with what it offers today’s women and girls hell-bent on achieving wonder-woman status. Regarding The Beauty Myth, which argues that conventional notions of beauty primarily function to oppress women, Spar concedes the point. But given that many powerful women adhere to certain shared aesthetic norms, she asks, how feasible is it to jettison the entire beauty-industrial complex? Not very, is Spar’s blunt answer. Indeed, she acknowledges that amid her intense professional and personal responsibilities, she chooses to spend time and energy fighting the (familiar to this writer) battle of taming her curly, ethnic hair into what is widely, if problematically, considered a more professional coif. Spar supplements this apparently mundane admission with a fascinating calculation: over a lifetime, women lose five years attending to the basic ministrations of manicures, makeup, and hair. By middle age, Spar writes, the shapewear and highlights and abdominal workouts intensify in a veritable “arms race of enforced youth.” These facts are unsurprising, though her honesty is: talking openly about feminists’ complex participation in mainstream beauty and body culture has been rightly called the last feminist taboo, and is a topic mostly addressed in still-shadowy corners of the feminist blogosphere, and far less frequently in women’s health magazines. Significantly, Slaughter’s lengthy treatise never mentions the role of beauty standards in women’s life experiences, and Sandberg is similarly terse on these themes—notable omissions given abundant research indicating that women of all social classes and ethnic groups devote economic and emotional energy to their physical appearances.

It is truly remarkable to consider that Wonder Woman can be used to plausibly represent both hypersexual lesbian ecstasy and the supremely conventional dream of a “white wedding … in Vera Wang.”

Less convincingly, Spar raises doubts about a core tenet of feminist thought: the idea that gender is socially constructed. Rather, Spar flirts with biological determinism, arguing that most women are collaborative and process-oriented and want to bear children at a particular time in life, a phenomenon that perhaps “goes back to our vestigial roles as feeders of children and killers of meat.” Furthermore, Spar would do well to consult the rich work of feminists of color such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Audre Lorde, and more recently, Roxane Gay. While she is simultaneously more aware of her individual privilege and more sensitive to the broader history of women and theories of feminism than Sandberg, Spar relies heavily on anecdotal evidence to flesh out her Wonder Woman paradigm. For example, it is hard to imagine that of all the women Spar consulted in office hours or at pizza rap sessions at her apartment, almost none envisioned an alternative life path to heterosexual marriage and eventual homemaking.  

Barnard attracts many young women precisely for its tolerance around gender and sexual diversity, yet Spar’s informal research revealed no such heterogeneity. Paradoxically, she goes to great lengths to show the diversity of women who subscribe to the “marriage myth”—the pert blonde southerner at HBS who (sort of) jokingly demands a “big rock” in class and the European women who plan to balance family and career—but the spectrum she lays out is disappointingly, and given the tenor of these conversations on college campuses, I fear inaccurately, narrow. Curiously, it is only a “quiet but steely Korean,” identified by her ethnic difference, who commits to privileging career above all else. Is the modern-day Wonder Woman’s “quest for perfection” a burden borne only by white heterosexual women? If so, Spar should explore why, rather than casting it as normative.

But as the historical treatments offered by Lepore, and even more so, Berlatsky, show, blonde, corporate, Madison Avenue-sanitized Charlie (or the less polished “Charlotte or Charlene” Spar proposes for the 21st century) is definitively not the evil-avenging, otherworldly, ambiguously-but-explicitly sexual Wonder Woman that her creator, William Moulton Marston, envisioned. If the two converge in the branded versions of Old Navy, Under Armour, and the multiplex, this speaks primarily to the fluidity of Wonder Woman as a cultural symbol, rather than to her limits.

Historian Jill Lepore explores the origins, or “secret history” of both Wonder Woman the comic book and Wonder Woman the cultural icon. Through extensive archival research, Lepore primarily traces the career and personal life of William Moulton Marston, who conceptualized Wonder Woman in the early 1940s. In luminous, engaging prose, Lepore follows the tumultuous and scattershot career of the eccentric Harvard psychologist, who defined himself as a suffragist, developed the lie detector, fell from academic grace, and dabbled in the law and in Hollywood. Perhaps most interestingly—and certainly most salaciously—Lepore reveals Marston’s secret, “non-conformist” polyamorous domestic arrangement, which included not only Sadie Elizabeth (Betty) Holloway, his wife and longtime sweetheart, but also Olive Byrne, his undergraduate student who mothered two of his children, and other itinerant “love leaders” who convened at gatherings Lepore likens to a “sexual training camp.”

Wonder Woman emerged at the intersection of these worlds, representing Marston’s fantasies and failures as well as his contradictions. Imagined to incarnate a feminist ideal of the perfect admixture of love, power, and beauty, Wonder Woman was intended to counteract masculine exemplars of brutishness and indelicacy. In this sense, though Lepore doesn’t contextualize it explicitly, Marston’s vision is commensurate with the “maternalist” feminism deployed by many suffragists and women activists in the early 20th century: advocating for women’s rights based on the idea that women are essentially different from, and morally superior to, men.

There are two parts to the big reveal implied in the “secret history” of Wonder Woman. The first is that she was based specifically on three women who adopted highly unconventional gender and sexual roles: Betty Holloway, the breadwinner and matriarch of the motley Marston clan; Olive Byrne, the androgynous, sophisticated undergraduate who succumbed to Marston’s charms while serving as his research assistant and who later surreptitiously mothered his children; and Byrne’s celebrity aunt, birth control activist Margaret Sanger, whose commitment to free love and a global campaign to liberate women from their reproductive biology inspired Wonder Woman’s distinctly female form of heroism.

<i>Wonder Woman</i>.  B. Baltimore Brown / Flickr.

The second is that the glorious heroine and her imaginary world emerged from the decidedly seedy backdrop of Marston’s checkered career. For example, Marston’s research on women’s emotions led him to undertake with Olive an extended study of a sorority’s ritual induction of freshman with a “Baby Party,” in which pledges dressed like infants and were paddled in a dark room by upperclasswomen. “What more the psychologist and his assistant did together that year was hard to say,” Lepore ominously intones, but within a few months Marston was introducing Byrne to Holloway as “somebody special.” Another signal event was Marston’s development of the lie detector. He championed it as a scientific breakthrough, but it yielded unverifiable results and was excluded from admission to court in a famous murder case, Frye v. United States (1923), just before Marston was prosecuted for fraud. Every one of these events and characters shows up in the Marston comics.

In 1972, at the outset of Ms. Magazine, Gloria Steinem reflected on the Wonder Woman comics of her childhood and felt “amazed by the strength of their feminist message.” This is precisely the legacy one imagines Marston hoped for. By contrast, the central purpose of Lepore’s narrative (besides recounting an intriguing tale) seems to be to qualify the legitimacy of Marston’s feminism. For his supposed innovation in shifting the field of psychology from philosophy toward clinical observation, Lepore points out his unseemly affinity for manipulating the emotional responses of young women and his general disregard for emerging scientific norms. For all the radical potential of Marston’s rejection of bourgeois marriage, Lepore intimates an environment of manipulation and duplicity.

The tanking of Marston’s career provides one narrative arc of Secret History and a lens on his failures, especially when contrasted with the herculean labors of his consorts. He lumbered about their rambling home engaged in various fruitless projects while Betty worked so hard in various Manhattan offices that she struggled to name a single leisure activity in which she participated. Olive parented and freelanced, penning sycophantic Family Circle columns about Marston under a pseudonym while caring for the children. For every tale of Marston fighting to ensure that Wonder Woman wasn’t relegated to a supporting role in the Justice League (he exploded when she once appeared as a secretary), Lepore reminds her readers of Marston’s fixation on restraining and binding his creation with painstaking, almost obsessive, specifications as to the types of harnesses, chains, gags, and collars required. Finally, if Wonder Woman was supposed to embody women’s highest hopes, why didn’t Marston hire radical cartoonist Lou Rogers, who had worked with Sanger, to bring her to life, instead of leaving the work to “a team of male cartoonists” overseen by Marston? The answer can only be, Lepore intimates, that Marston’s feminism, if articulated with far more energy and explicitness than characteristic of most men in the era, was informed as much by his personal appetites as any genuine desire to advance women’s political agenda.

Berlatsky, an expert in comics conversant in queer theory, mines some of the same primary sources as Lepore but arrives at almost the opposite conclusion. Marston emerges as a creative genius, pioneering acceptance of female, alternative, and queer sexualities a good three decades before the sexual revolution, and in a children’s comic book of all places. Berlatsky’s subtitle, Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-48, is purposefully provocative, and sketches out his central purpose: reconciling the apparently incongruous acts of binding women in chains (among other putatively demeaning actions) and empowering them.

Indeed, Berlatsky takes Marston’s feminism at face value, and bolsters his interpretation with deep reading of feminist and queer theory. Eschewing monogamous marriage was a deliberate act to flout heteronormative convention, Berlatsky argues. Because women were arguably the most oppressed by gender norms, it was Betty and Olive who benefited most from Marston’s courageous decision. Berlatsky understands Marston’s 1928 Emotions of Normal People as a breakthrough in taking women’s emotions and identities seriously, acknowledging female difference without demeaning it. Marston, Berlatsky argues, was a pioneer, insisting that women were worthy objects of study, not a lecher seeking personal pleasure from research forays of questionable intellectual value. A passage such as that in which Marston describes intercourse as a “vagina captivating the male body,” foreshadowed queer theorist Julia Serano’s articulation of this woman-centered version of intercourse by nearly a century, cementing to Berlatsky Marston’s status a feminist visionary.

Marston emerges as a creative genius pioneering acceptance of female, alternative, and queer sexualities a good three decades before the sexual revolution, and in a children’s comic book of all places.

It is the Wonder Woman comics rather than the icon that fascinate Berlatsky, and he builds his argument primarily around a close reading of the many instances of bondage that occupy its pages. To Lepore, the explicit examples of binding, chaining, whipping, and restraint furnish clear evidence of the line where Marston’s feminist principles faded into personal fetish. Not so for Berlatsky. What Marston did was reveal that bondage could be erotic and exciting to women. Building in part on his experiments, Marston was constructing a hitherto unimaginably sexually empowered woman who could transform apparent submission into pleasure. To make this point, Berlatsky turns to feminist theories of rape to justify the notion that even the most violent forms of submission can be erotic, and ostensibly pleasurable, to those who appear to be victimized. In what seems a questionable analytical leap, he relies on the confession of childhood rape fantasies by an anti-rape feminist to make this point. It is a stretch in these cases, not to mention the instances of incest, to see the “feminist vision … at the heart” of the comics, or to see Marston’s vision as particularly “sensitive treatment” of these “taboo topics.”

Berlatsky does acknowledge the male voyeurism in certain panels where alternative interpretations are tough to fathom, such as the experience of the Holliday Girls being strapped to the walls of Pluto’s castle for the sole purpose of providing ornamentation. At times, he concedes, the comic can devolve into “women in cages, or women enslaved, for the enjoyment of male viewers.” It is a relief once Berlatsky clarifies that he is not a Marston apologist, so the reader can concentrate on appreciating Berlatsky’s close reading of the comic panels, from which he teases out many more subtle examples of sexualized content that, taken together, convincingly suggest a liberatory agenda not apparent in Lepore’s reading. For instance, when Berlatsky points out that Etta Candy’s offhand remark that she doesn’t care about “catching a man,” because “candy you can EAT,” is uttered with a “little nub of something” held in Etta’s “thick masculine digits” in proximity to [Wonder Woman’s] crotch, the presence of the image combined with his astute analysis brings a surprising insight—that Marston perhaps did have a lesbophilic agenda—to life. More, and better placed, images throughout the book would allow the reader to better appreciate such astute observations.

Wonder Woman, with her exotic heroism, her muscled—deliberately “not Hollywood”—legs, her enjoyment of bondage, queerness, violence, and hyperfemininity, expands the boundaries of the feminism most historians associate with the 1940s, a context Berlatsky might have explored to emphasize his point. Currently, the order of the chapters, which Berlatsky admits is arbitrary, squanders an opportunity to show how Wonder Woman developed over time. Similarly, the interspersed references to popular culture and contemporary examples (such as the Real Housewives, Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, or a Japanese incest scare in the 1980s) do not always shed light on this mid-century product, and can feel more like disconnected musings (perhaps a function of the fact that this book originated in blog form). Still, this particular weakness bears testament to Wonder Woman’s powerful and protean symbolism. To Lepore she represents feminism’s limitations, to Marston its grand, global, liberatory potential.

A shared engagement with and deployment of this cultural product, Wonder Woman, unites these three diverse books. It is truly remarkable to consider that the same symbol can be used to plausibly represent hypersexual lesbian ecstasy and the supremely conventional dream of a “white wedding … in Vera Wang.” Similarly, to Marston, as both Lepore and Berlatsky understand him, feminism is love, and Wonder Woman represents that “love leadership.” By contrast, to Spar’s modern-day wonder women, love is sappy and pre-feminist; rather, sexuality is instrumental and, if unsatisfying, at least not distracting from the pursuit of perfection. Wonder Woman represents everything and nothing.

So what do we do? Burn the mini maillot and seek out more appropriate role models free of awkward BDSM habits and a penchant for spangled leotards?

Spar’s book is purposefully prescriptive, but Berlatsky and Lepore’s historical and theoretical explorations provide useful answers as to how we might envision a socially productive version of Wonder Woman. Secret History unearths the illuminating information that Wonder Woman was a composite character, reassuring that no one woman could truly hope to excel in all the ways she does: as a breadwinner, a mother, a writer, and an activist (all the while gracefully netting bad guys with a golden lasso). Similarly, at Berlatsky’s best, he reminds us of how Wonder Woman’s non-normative forms of sexuality and womanhood actually challenge sexism.

A less commercially available Wonder Woman product, a viral poster entitled by feminist twin-sister artists Sarah and Catherine Satrun, posits one version of what this new model might look like. “We Are All Wonder Women!” features a lasso-brandishing phalanx of Wonder Women of various shapes, sizes, colors, and physical abilities, looking equal parts heroic and unapologetically feminine even as they show off their bodies, tiaras, and styled hair in a kind of beauty-pageant lineup. Advocating for inclusion and cooperation rather than ranking and judgment is a tall order in a society that enshrines individual achievement and in which social justice movements have often fractured along these same lines of race, gender, and ability. But it’s one worth pursuing, and worth enlisting Wonder Woman in championing.

On my own office bulletin board, tucked behind flyers advertising lectures about educational policy and economics and slavery, is a postcard of Wonder Woman, circa 1950. She is looking upward, eyes trained on some distant goal, her sculpted arm reaching forward and her wavy hair blowing back. The other walls more prominently feature alternative forms of “feminist #inspo” art, from Audre Lorde quotes to a poster dotted with black and white photos of real-life heroines such as Madeline Albright, Shirley Chisholm, and, yes, Margaret Sanger, their diverse faces gathered under the banner of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s well-worn quote, “Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History.” These pioneers inspire in their colossal achievements and vision, but there is a specific magic about the fantastical Wonder Woman that impels me to take a moment to gaze at her image when the desk piles high with papers, I skip the gym, miss a deadline, or just feel especially exhausted. I invest that particular version of Wonder Woman with my own particular dreams of what might be possible, for me, my daughter, and women at large; 74 years of the Wonder Woman franchise suggests others feel similarly. Thanks to these three books, we now have a much better sense of who exactly is inspiring us, and how we might embrace, but not enforce, Wonder Woman’s example on ourselves, each other, and our girls.