Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore

This week I'm reviewing The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a book which charts the life of William Marston, the creator of the iconic superheroine, in fact the most popular superheroine by almost every metric by which such things are judged. It also, to a lesser extent, talks about Marston's wives, Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne, as well as the variety of influences which culminated in the creation of Wonder Woman in the 1940's. Although Wonder Woman was the last thing Marston produced in his long, and rather checkered career, it is by far the most enduring. With access to documents and papers which have for decades been hidden from the public eye, Jill Lepore is able to craft a narrative which explains the numerous influences which came together to create one of DC's Big Three, a history which has not been thoroughly explored before because it was hidden.

I was first made aware of this book a little over a year ago when there was a promotional article included in Smithsonian, specifically this article. I had been vaguely aware of the identity of the creator of Wonder Woman, William Marston, which had been public knowledge for quite some time. I had also been aware of his somewhat less than traditional domestic arrangements, which had been public knowledge for considerably less time. What I didn't know was the body of suffragist literature and imagery from the 1910's, including the use of chains, ropes, and gags, which served as one of the influences for the bondage imagery so prominent in Golden Age Wonder Woman comics. However, I felt that the Smithsonian article protested a bit too much in saying Marston was in no way interested in practices that we would call BDSM today. (Specifically the amount of detail which Marston spends talking about the placement of chains in surviving scripts implies, to me, far more than a casual interest.) So I was a little concerned that this novel would try very hard to deny those influences.

To my pleasant surprise, Lepore actually builds a much stronger case than the one in Smithsonian, which reads much like a watered down summary of one of her topics. On the one hand, Lepore admits that yes, Marston seemed to have an interest in what he called ''love binding'' and there is evidence he was involved in at least one sex cult so we cannot say that his interest in bondage was purely platonic. However, Lepore also does an excellent job of providing example after example of imagery and literature from the suffragist movement, a movement both Marston and Holloway experienced in their impressionable college years, which we certainly would be foolish to discount as an influence on Wonder Woman some thirty years later. In fact there is an entire genre of literature about an island inhabited by women who rule in peace before men arrive, very similar to Paradise Island in the Wonder Woman comics.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me is that the early feminists of the 1910's experienced some brief successes, especially after the 19th Amendment secured the right to vote in 1920, and women made tremendous gains in higher education and in the workplace. However, shortly afterwards, in the late 1920's and into the 1930's, women were pushed away from these areas and back towards the home as their proper place. I find this interesting because there is a similar event in the 1860's after the emancipation of blacks across the country. Initially black men, especially in the south, see incredible gains and are heavily involved in local government and enjoy a number of benefits. However as time goes on, those benefits are slowly pushed back under the regime of Jim Crow, which would persist for another hundred years until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's. Women, likewise, saw this brief period of advances, before suffering a push back from the establishment which would require later generations to fight against. (And in both race relations and gender relations we are still struggling with an imbalance in the United States that we are trying to rectify, with limited success.)

Wonder Woman, at least in her early years of the 1940's, comes out as a strong advocate of the feminist agenda, proving that women can do it just as well as men. This message became even more important as women became critical to the wartime economy of America during World War II, replacing the millions of men drafted in military service. Unfortunately even in the heady days of the 1940's Wonder Woman drew criticism for being untraditional, which only increased with the general fervor against comic books in the 1950's. Like so many other women in the 1950's, Wonder Woman was pushed into a more ''domestic'' role and eventually lost all of her powers, much to the frustration and annoyance of her fans. But with the resurgence of feminism in the 1960's, Wonder Woman has, and continues to be a powerful icon of feminism, although exactly what brand of feminism remains in dispute to this day.

One of the things I found most interesting about Marston's life, as it's recounted in this book, is the sheer amount of things that he failed at. He practiced law for a time, but was utterly uninterested in the practice and soon abandoned it. He taught at a number of universities, but due to a variety of poor judgements and minor scandals on his part he was kicked further and further down the academic ladder until finally being blacklisted from any academic position whatsoever. As he was quick to remind everyone at every opportunity, he invented a lie detector device, measuring systolic blood pressure, but it never worked to the satisfaction of anyone but himself. He worked briefly in film in an advisory capacity, but so irritated studio executives he was soon dismissed from that as well. In fact, considering the amount of complaints he got, it's a surprise he wasn't booted from Wonder Woman as well, but Marston's supreme confidence in himself and what he believed carried him through setback after setback. In fact Lepore, who does an excellent job of narrating her book for the audio version, fills every line from Marston with a voice supreme self-confidence bordering on impetuous arrogance. Truly he was a man immune to criticism and failure.

Overall, I think this was a very interesting book and I highly recommend people read it. I've only managed to touch on a handful of the subjects covered in the book and I think anyone interested in feminist history will find this a fascinating, if somewhat lurid read.  My one frustration was the shift very early in the book from talking about Marston and Holloway to talking about Olive Byrne. It probably was worse because I was listening to the book instead of reading, but it was rather confusing to begin talking about Ethel Byrne and Margaret Sanger, pioneers of the birth control movement, when we were just previously talking about Marston and Holloway. However, this is clearly a work of passion for Lapore which is made apparent in her loving narration. (And, as I said, she manages to put arrogant self-confidence, which Marston seemed to have in no short supply, into every one of his lines.) I definitely recommend it for everyone to read.

- Kalpar

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