William Moulton Marston was one of the leading psychologists of his time, but these days he’s not known for his work studying the human mind—he’s known as the guy who created Wonder Woman. But that doesn’t mean his psychology research and work in comics were separate, they weren’t. In fact, his scientific theories directly influenced the creation of his iconic heroine.
“He thought that comics would be a good way to influence the youth of America,” says author Tim Hanley, who explores Marston’s colorful personality in his book Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine. “So he very intentionally got into superhero comics to espouse his psychological theories to a young audience.”
Marston’s primary aim with Wonder Woman was to acclimate young boys to the idea of powerful women, to help pave the way for a social upheaval that he felt was inevitable.
“Marston believed that women were superior to men, and that they were going to take over the world very, very soon,” Hanley says in Episode 260 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “He found that men were dominant, and forced compliance in their relationships, whereas women were able to induce a willing submission in relationships, and he thought that this would be a better way for the world to run.”
However, Marston’s feminist message was undercut somewhat by his propensity to depict Wonder Woman tied up with ropes or chains. Bondage and submission are fitting metaphors for Marston’s psychological theories, but the sheer quantity of bondage imagery—and the degree to which it focuses on women—borders on the obsessive.
“Even a character like Captain Marvel, who got tied up all the time, had bondage in about 3 percent of the book’s panels,” Hanley says. “Wonder Woman was 27 percent.”
After Marston’s death in 1947, Wonder Woman passed into the hands of other creators, who have tended to downplay or ignore his ideas about female superiority and bondage. By the time Lynda Carter played Wonder Woman in the 1970s, the feminist movement had adopted the character as a wholesome icon of female empowerment. But Hanley says it’s interesting to delve beneath the surface and explore the offbeat origins of these sorts of characters.
“I like unearthing these really cool histories of female characters that don’t get the attention they deserve,” he says. “All the attention goes to Batman and Superman and the boys, when there have been female characters over the years that are absolutely fascinating and unique.”
Listen to our complete interview with Tim Hanley in Episode 260 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Tim Hanley on sexuality in Wonder Woman:
“The Amazons were definitely lesbians. Just the practical nature of it—it’s 3,000 years, there’s no men, things are going to happen. Marston himself was an advocate of what he called ‘female love relationships.’ He wasn’t keen on male homosexuality, but he thought that sexual relationships between women were natural—they were so loving, they had so much love around, why not share it with each other? … Then decades after Kanigher left Wonder Woman, he said, ‘Yeah, all the Amazons were gay, that’s how I wrote them.’ And today, actually, Wonder Woman is canonically queer—in the comics—her writer Greg Rucka recently revealed that she was bisexual, and it’s been established in the comics as well.”
Tim Hanley on Gloria Steinem:
“Steinem and many of her associates had grown up with the 1940s Wonder Woman—so all of the Marston stories, all of these great tales of a strong female character working alongside other women, fighting in the War, saving the Earth from space aliens, everything. It was great. And then they get this Wonder Woman today who has no powers and is sad about her boyfriend all the time, and it’s just sort of a mess. And she wants to see the original Wonder Woman back, and Steinem actually knew the publisher of DC, so she went into the offices a few times to campaign for the return of Wonder Woman, and DC agreed, and brought the classic Amazon Wonder Woman back. … So it was this huge feminist celebration of Wonder Woman. They kind of adopted her as a mascot.”
Tim Hanley on the new Wonder Woman movie:
“There have been some interesting critiques of the movie in terms of race, because while there are some people of color in the movie, they’re not necessarily in the forefront, and there are certain stereotypes—there’s a Native American character named ‘Chief’ who uses smoke signals. And while there are some Amazons who aren’t white, they’re not necessarily given a big role. So it’s a great movie, but also there are ways to do better. So some of those critiques have been really interesting and thoughtful, and written really well. No one who’s critiquing the movie seems to be out to trash it. They seem to think this is a good movie, and there are ways that we could be even more inclusive moving forward. And I think that’s kind of what Wonder Woman is all about, is being inclusive and being a hero to everybody.”
Tim Hanley on Wonder Woman’s costume:
“There have been redesigns over the years, but they never last for more than a few months, because people want the iconic Wonder Woman. [In the early ’90s] she had this weird leather bra thing with a blue jacket, and it was terrible. And then in 2009, DC did a huge revamp of Wonder Woman where they gave her pants and a leather jacket. It was a huge thing, it was all across the news. They were trying to update Wonder Woman, which is never a good idea, they never do that well. And that lasted about a year before they went back to a more classic look. They’ve tried different things over the years, but people want to see her in what we expect Wonder Woman to wear.”
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