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The Contradictions of Wonder Woman

14kaplan-master1050Wonder Woman is an interesting comic character that makes me…well…wonder.

According to the historian, Jill Lepore, she was created in 1941 as a tribute to early feminism. But Lepore makes the case that Wonder Woman was a character full of contradictions. She the brain child of her comic creator, William Moulten Marsden. Marsden has an interesting backstory. An unusual chap, he studied at Harvard and lived with two women and fathered children with both women. He also supposedly invented the lie detector. But Lepore also connects the idea of Wonder Woman to Marsden’s interest in the suffrage movement and suffragette principles of equality. How do these contradictions manage to coexist together?

Marsden, the somewhat creepy creator of Wonder Woman, was also full of contradictions. He graduated from Harvard in the early 20th century, was a feminist, a psychologist, and claimed to invent the lie detector, lied quite a bit about himself, his accomplishments, and his personal and professional life. He also seemed to be pretty into bondage in his portrayal of Wonder Woman. Lepore points out,

“Not a comic book in which Wonder Woman appeared, and hardly a page, lacked a scene of bondage. In episode after episode, Wonder Woman is chained, bound, gagged, lassoed, tied, fettered and manacled. She’s locked in an electric cage. She’s winched into a straitjacket, from head to toe. Her eyes and mouth are taped shut. She’s roped and then coffined in a glass box and dropped into the ocean. She’s locked in a bank vault. She’s tied to railroad tracks. She’s pinned to a wall. Once, so that she can be both entirely bound and movable, her fettered feet are welded to roller skates. ‘Great girdle of Aphrodite!’ she cries. ‘Am I tired of being tied up!’ (233)

So how does that fit with Marsden’s admiration for progressive era feminists, suffragettes, and advocates of family planning and birth control like Margaret Sanger? Jill Lepore, in an interview, said, “there’s no simple story here. There are a lot of people who get very upset at what Marsden was doing…’is this a feminist project that’s supposed to help girls decide to go to college and have careers, or is this just like soft porn?’” the-secret-history-of-wonder-woman-cover-of-ms-july-1972-art-by-ross-andru-and-mike-esposito

After reading this intriguing historical biography of Wonder Woman and her creator Marsden, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of ourselves creeps into our research, our work, and our writing. One of my professors in graduate school firmly believed that what we study is a way to exorcise our own demons. On the other hand, I know many people who work and live according to their talents and gifts, not necessarily connected to their childhood experiences or ‘demons’ from their pasts.

And yet it is difficult to not make some sort of connection between our interests and the way we live, the life we create, and the legacy we leave. I’m particularly fascinated by 20th century US history. One of the reasons I like 20th century history is because it is recent and more complex since many people are still alive to argue about what happened from their perspective. The stories of my grandparents take place mostly in the 20th century, which might be some of my earliest memories of history piquing my curiosity.

How much about a person can we truly understand by studying their work and interests and daily life? I do not have a definitive answer, but I do think that Lepore’s book demonstrates the complexity and nuance gained by understanding the creator of pop culture icons like Wonder Woman. Her inherent contradictions makes more sense if I understand the inherent contradictions in her creator.  After all, most of us are full of contradictions.

Then again, I’ve always liked accessories.  Wonder Woman did have some very cool magical bracelets.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

One Comment

  • Monica deRegt says:

    I always assumed that the blatant contradictions being made in the character of Wonder Woman were a bit of a statement. I’ve never researched Marsden or any of this, but was he trying to make a point somehow about the fact that this is what women face, literally and figuratively, no matter how strong they are? Or is he making a statement about the irony of the fact that this (her bondage, costume, etc.) is what sells, despite the illusion of the “powerful woman”? In a way it reminds me a little of the Archie Bunker show…we all laugh at how ludicrous his character was, but it pointed a finger at reality.

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