S&C regular Matt Wingett explores the real-life origin story of one of DC Comic’s most recently reinvented superheroes and finds a surprising – and liberating – history.
So far this summer I’ve been to see Wonder Woman five times. Because of it, I’ve been reading the original comic books from the 1940s and doing my research into the evolution of the story. It’s no lie to say I’ve been obsessed with it from the moment I caught the very first early morning showing on the day of release.
Some of my friends greet that news with bemusement, others with a knowing grin, simply saying, ‘Gal Gadot is hot, right?’ Others get that there’s a mythic element in Wonder Woman that fires off my imagination. What’s clear is sexuality is not at the heart of my obsession with this story. You can get that on the internet, far more cheaply than laying out £10 a ticket each time.
For me, what has been so interesting is seeing a person discover her true self, watching her find out her purpose on the Earth, discovering her values, witnessing her struggles – and discovering with her what power she has in the world.
The central theme of a person realising who they are is supported by some extraordinarily deft and endearing acting from Gal Gadot, who genuinely comes across as naive and idealistic, thoughtful and curious. Watching her youthful ideals and beliefs broken on the wheel of experience, by the complexities and realities of modern warfare that jar so uncomfortably with the ideals she learned from generals at home is a dimension I didn’t expect. Superhero movies are, like their comic book fathers, usually drawn in four colours, and, though in the DC Universe there is a lot of shading, the lines are usually heavily defined. The tone for most superhero movies is bold rather than subtle. Not so, here.
In Wonder Woman, one reason the story has so much power is, although its characters are encountering the most extraordinary events, they behave with realistic responses and have genuine emotional interactions. They wrestle with real problems – not just just supervillains. Some are physical, some psychological, some philosophical. The story even grapples with a non-Christian conception of the nature of evil. Thus, the story, despite being told in the medium of a superhero movie, is mature. It is a tour de force in nuance.
Its maturity comes down to the seriousness with which the whole crew and director Patty Jenkins in particular has treated the central character. It must have been quite a responsibility for Jenkins to visualise and construct the reality Wonder Woman operates in and prevent it from falling into the usual “woman’s character” paradigms that dominate the film world – and especially the superhero film world.
A look at DC’s Suicide Squad reveals what can go horribly wrong with superhero movies’ treatment of strong women. Harley Quinn does not come out well from that film. She is drawn with paper-thin negligence. Apparently, in order to compensate for being powerful, she is made to wear the briefest of hot pants on which the director continually lingers. Her butt rather than her character is the point of interest for many scenes. It makes this expensive film (budget: $175m) look cheap. It’s a decision that appears to have been made to deliberately win over a primarily adolescent boy audience. Her derriere is an apology. ‘Sure, this woman is strong and complex. But you can still
fantasise about her body. So that’s just fine and dandy.’
In fact, in Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn is not complex. The writing doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do. It makes a character who should be smart, funny, cracked and crazy a bit of a soppy love dope. It’s all very familiar. Harley Quinn is emotional and teary because she’s in love. No danger there then. Hell hath no fury and all that. Familiar territory. A hysterical woman. Phew. Safe ground. We can all breathe safe in our beds, and pretend Harley Quinn is in it with us.
None of this easy adolescent sexualising comes through in Wonder Woman. Sexuality is not overplayed. The obvious point that on a women-only island, the love affairs of the fierce warrior race will be lesbian ones is never stated, and only implied in the most tenuous way when Princess Diana announces to Steve Trevor that Clio’s Treatises conclude that man is necessary for procreation but unnecessary for bodily pleasure.
Once in London, the norms of European society that are designed to repress women with restrictive clothing and through the exclusion of women from anything “serious” or political is dealt with – but again is given a light touch. There is no lecturing about women’s place in the world, there is no cheap point-scoring. Wonder Woman is not interested or bounded by these norms. She doesn’t need to react against them because they are not part of her culture. She knows her own mind and is her own woman. This self-confident woman without a strong overly sexualised component is rarely seen in film. It should be seen more.
Then there is her costume, which in this movie is conceived as a suit of leather and steel armour – a kind of Roman gladiatorial tunic. Perhaps unavoidably, it is nevertheless based on the shape of a basque, which Wonder Woman wore from her earliest outings in the comics. But because it is contextualised with fighting and physical prowess from the start, the basque doesn’t play any role in how one conceives of her. Indeed, when she sees a real basque in London, she is confused by its uselessness as armour. The paradigm is inverted through her eyes. Wonder Woman is, from the moment she hits the big screen in that costume, clear of the adolescent leching of Suicide Squad. She stands very much on her own feet as a warrior, quiet, concentrated, implacable and serious.
Thus the impression of the movie – which seems at last to have lifted this iconic figure out of the clutches of male fantasy…
How, then, am I to square these observations with the facts behind the original comics from World War II?
Yes, in those comics, Wonder Woman is equally tough as her film counterpart. She fights the God of War in those early comics just as she does in the movie. She vanquishes Axis agents and soldiers with brutal deftness. She even defeats the masked Dr Poison in one of her earliest adventures. All this is captured and carried forward in the film.
But there is another element in those early comics that has not been included in the movie. Bondage. Because the truth is, the Lasso of Hestia at Wonder Woman’s belt and the basque she wears were most likely born in the bedroom of her creator, Professor William Moulton Marston (pen-name Charles Moulton).
What then, in a bondage context, is to be made of the fact that Wonder Woman is continually portrayed in the original comics as breaking chains and bonds?
That women should break their chains and be free is part of the feminist message Marston, a professor in psychology and ardent feminist, intended. Indeed, Marston reinforced the message by adding that if a man welds Wonder Woman’s bracelets together, she is powerless – but if a woman does it, she is not. The message is clear: women should resist male oppression. Indeed, an early comic book adventure concludes with the advice that ‘women should watch themselves in this man’s world.’
And that’s where the Wonder Woman narrative gets both uncomfortable for those arguing a pure feminist point, and interesting. Because Wonder Woman was partially the by-product of a sexual experiment and love affair Professor Marston engaged in with his wife Elizabeth, and his student, Olive Byrne. Over many years, the three lived together in a menage a trois. They were so close that Elizabeth even named one of her daughters after Olive. Experimentation most likely included bondage, which at that time was coming to the notice of psychologists as a metaphor for sexual and social relationships. It’s on record that at least some of Olive Byrne’s clothing inspired Wonder Woman. Who knows how much more of Olive and Elizabeth are included in the superhero, too?
Whatever went on between those three lovers – and who knows what games they played together in the privacy of their own homes – the early Wonder Woman comics, with their violence, with women continually being tied up and escaping, with men overpowered, is very likely to have echoed the psycho-sexual games of this trio of lovers.
So, how does an enacted sexual fantasy sit with the modern Wonder Woman in the movie – she who is all about power and respect for women? Is it an uncomfortable thought that just like Harley Quinn’s hotpants, Wonder Woman’s bodice armour, lasso and long boots are the outcome of male sexual fantasy?
I think not. Firstly, because the heart is in a very different place between these two representations of women. Wonder Woman asserts power through her presence and her costume. Harley Quinn has power contained or parenthesised by being a sex object.
Secondly, because in the comics and then in the film, you see the progress of Freud’s old friend – sublimation.
That Wonder Woman was born from a bondage fantasy shared between three lovers should come as no surprise. After all, the imagination is the place where personalities are created. Sexual experimentation is the medium in which dreams and fantasies of a new and different self can first take root in reality. When the mind is abandoned to pleasure, when the guards of the superego are down, the true self emerges.
Through a chrysalis of abeyance, through the oblivion of pleasure the ego is for a while unseated and the imagination soars.
How you imagine yourself can have a profound influence on who you really are. In fact, in many ways, how you imagine yourself is who you are. Dominatrix, dominator, power broker, submissive, slave – they are all part of the libido’s raw energy for our identities. In different ways, either through suppression of such drives or release of them, sexual fantasies feed into the making of every one of us, giving us new possibilities to integrate into our normal, everyday lives.
When the individual feels the freedom to be creative with their own sense of who they are – and adopts the mantle they dream of in the privacy of the bedroom (perhaps an odd thought in the internet age) – then they have a secret identity known only to their lovers. How many of the other superheroes have a similar libidinous origin? Many, I would guess. The notion of a secret self waiting to break the bonds of the repressive norms of society is part of the appeal of the superhero, who becomes more truly themselves behind their mask and their costume. That Wonder Woman and perhaps Batman and Superman are forces for good beyond their kinky origins is exactly how sublimation works.
That such “deviant” drives should have created a feminist icon makes complete and utter sense. Once people are freed to play with their sexual personae, they can carry an internalised persona with them, into the world beyond the bedroom. Sublimated, such a persona becomes the personality born of the libido – the king, the queen, the ruler, the serf, the warrior, the holy man, the seer, the genius, the carer, the nurturer, the destroyer are archetypes drawn from the unconscious that connect through the libido to the conscious being.
In the modern day, like women all over the world, Wonder Woman has outgrown her bondage. Now we see her not as an archetype or sexual persona, but as a fully formed person: nuanced, rounded, subtle, fierce, clever, bold, wise, caring. She’s real in a way that no other superhero has quite achieved on film, and she doesn’t fit the convenient object-paradigms that patriarchy would like her to stay within. She is, in fact, a testimony to how far the women’s movement has come, from the days when she was only free to express herself in the popular sphere in four colours on pulp paper – or before that, in the privacy of the bedroom, where imagination knew no bounds.
Image credit: Wonder Woman Costumes: The evolution of a superheroine, by HalloweenCostumes.Com – part of an infographic showing the evolution of Wonder Woman costumes from 1941 – 2016