The Myth of Wonder Woman

William Moulton and Elizabeth Holloway. PC: Moulton ‘Pete’ Marston

So finally the much ado about (definitely something) ‘Wonder Woman’ has subsided. A female superhero who so far was only a sidekick in other male superhero movies, has her own thing now, her own story solely focused on her.

Last summer I decided to tag along with my friends for the (in)famous batman vs. superman movie. With all the assignments and deadlines, it didn’t take much to put a very sleep deprived grad student such as me, off to sleep. I only woke up with a startle at the landing of wonder woman on the battlefield in that movie. While my friends enjoyed a good laugh at my expense, I was genuinely surprised by her entrance. I can write a book about how disappointing I find (B/T/K/H/<insert whatever letter you like here>)ollywood’s depiction of women. I have grown up accustomed to disappointment. I took nothing away from that movie for spending my precious time and $17 on it except for my wonder for ‘Wonder Woman’.

What followed was a long obsession with studying her character. Who made her? Why did they make her? Why does her story progress the way it does? Why did this character come up when it did? Why so late in the movies and how come so early in history?

I am not sure why more people aren’t talking about all the people who were behind the creation of Wonder Woman. There were 2 main (and then some) characters of this story. William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway. I find their stories and characters (if you will) even more wonderful than ‘Wonder Woman’ herself. So let me take you on this ride. If you are not up for it, you can skip to the last few paragraphs of this blog post. I swear, I have a point that is more important than a comic book superhero and her creators.

Elizabeth Holloway was a remarkable woman by all standards. It was 1910 and this young American “package of dynamite”, “whip-smart tomboy” decided that she was going to get herself a proper education. To quote from Boston University’s Alumni notes: she started off with an A.B. in psychology. And then set out to fulfill her ambitions of law school. She applied to prestigious universities across the United States. Harvard Law did not accept women as a rule and usually turned them over to Radcliffe college. This was a policy Harvard continued up till 1950.

It is so common to come across such stories right? Yes? We tend to gloss over them because we are so used to them. I want to put this little tiny factoid into perspective.

2017-1950=67 years

Up until 67 years ago, Harvard Law did not admit women as a rule. This is at best a generation or less ago.

A few years back I found myself in a hot debate with a classmate over feminism. He believed that the overall statistics of female representation in every profession were so poor that there had to be something fundamentally missing in them. He shouted in exasperation, “Where are all these wonder women you talk about?” At other times, my very educated (sometimes even Harvard educated) male colleagues and friends have pointed out to the “unfair” advantage that women seem to have in higher education admissions. “Why should I pick up the weight?” (Several exhibits ,stored for another day, another blog post, from history are proof, that this small little question summarizes the ultimate human tragedy).

So here’s a picture. Just a generation ago, however bright you may have been, if you were a woman, you did not have access to the best educational and professional networks as a rule. Like, no questions asked. You were out because you were a woman and that was that. Today we publish report after report citing the lack of women in any meaningful decision-making sphere of life and today’s young expect them to make up for such blatant exclusion, obsolescence from the system in just 1 generation.

If you ever opened Harvard’s registers and simply counted the women who ever graduated from there, obviously, they would fall terribly short in numbers. But this would never be because women did not try or weren’t good enough. It was because, Harvard did not want them, something that no western publication will ever bring to your notice.

Coming back to our story, our heroine rejected Radcliffe politely, “lovely law for ladies”, and “because those dumb bunnies at Harvard wouldn’t take women”, opted for Boston University. She asked her father for support and he had this to say to her: “Absolutely not. As long as I have money to keep you in aprons, you can stay home with your mother.” Courage is a rare trait but lucky for Elizabeth (and for the rest of us), she took up many odd jobs over the next few months and managed to save enough to pay her tuition. She married William Marston around the same time and would go on to financially support him through his professional (mis)adventures as well for the better part of his life. She graduated one of only 3 women in 1918 from BU.

Once again, while William Marston started his doctorate in Harvard’s psychology department, and because women could not do so, Elizabeth had to settle for a Masters at Radcliffe. The couple worked on physiological responses to emotions and William would go on to invent the polygraph. William never recognized Elizabeth as a collaborator in his work but many writers and researchers who built upon his work in the future referred to her work directly and indirectly.

Head on to her wiki page and it is not difficult to see that Holloway was by all measures a ‘Wonder Woman’ for her times. She was a career woman at a time when society was not ready to accept her as such. “She indexed the documents of the first fourteen Congresses, lectured on law, ethics, and psychology at American and New York Universities, and served as an editor for Encyclopædia Britannica and McCall’s magazine.” In 1933, Marston became the assistant to the chief executive at Metropolitan Life Insurance, a position she held until she was 65 years old. It was not by accident that someone like her could not become an acclaimed Professor or professional, it was very much by that day’s design.

William and Elizabeth ran a household that is modern and original even by today’s standards of family life. Elizabeth not only accepted Olivia Byrnes, a paramour William developed during his brief stint as a Professor but supported him, their 2 children and Olivia’s 2 children fathered by William throughout their lives.

William Marston wanted to create a new superhero who would conquer not with fists but with emotions and love. “Fine,” said Elizabeth. “But make her a woman.” Comic books were going through bad press during the 1930s. William Gaines, the founder of DC Comics released Superman in 1938, Batman in 1939 and Marston’s Wonder Woman in 1941 as a face saving movement for comic books. It is a succinct reflection of our society that it took so long to make a movie solely dedicated to Wonder Woman even though all 3 superheroes were introduced to the world within 3 years of each other. (A sentiment also captured in this Daily Show segment).

I don’t know what to make of William Marston. While on the one hand he declared that he created Wonder Woman to “combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men”. On the other hand, his explicit sexualization of wonder woman was deliberate, stemming from such ideas as: “the secret of woman’s allure, is that women enjoy submission—being bound.”, or, “You can’t have a real woman character in any form of fiction without touching off a great many readers’ erotic fancies. Which is swell, I say.”(1)

Marston drew heavily from the works of Margaret Sanger, the leader of the birth control movement in America. But he was also determined to keep this a secret. Wonder Woman’s staff artist, Harry Peter was involved in the suffragist and birth control movements of the time both of which used ‘chains’ as a dominant symbol of bondage. However Marston’s interpretation of these chains was very sexual and eventually problematic.

Very predictably, it can only be so long that a strong, independent, sexually charged woman strolls through public imagination before she invites censorship. As in history, as in religion, so in comic books.  This pattern is sadly, a pattern.

The National Organization for Decent Literature (led by Roman Catholic priests, surprise surprise!) set the wheels in motion by blacklisting Wonder Woman for being insufficiently dressed just one year after her release.

A decisive blow came when a psychiatrist and activist, Frederic Wertham, created so much noise against Wonder Woman and comic books that a U.S. Congressional Inquiry was set up to explore the psychological impact of comic books. Wertham testified as a direct retaliation to one of Wonder Woman’s female board members, “As to the ‘advanced femininity,’ what are the activities in comic books which women ‘indulge in on an equal footing with men’? They do not work. They are not homemakers. They do not bring up a family. Mother-love is entirely absent. Even when Wonder Woman adopts a girl there are Lesbian overtones.” This was in 1954. Today while the CBFC in India refuses to certify ‘Lipstick under my Burkha’, not much has changed.

It was only in 2010 that Wertham’s private papers were made public. It was discovered that his hatred for Wonder Woman had more to do with professional jealousy with the said female board member rather than any real social apprehensions about Wonder Woman. (You could google the meaning of the word ‘douchebag’ at this point if you don’t already know what it means). Anyway, the hearing ruled at the time, “The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.” The said female, Lauretta Bender, was duly removed from Wonder Woman’s advisory board.

After 3 decades, in 1985, Wonder Woman found an unexpected savior. George Perez. A star artist at DC Comics, he was not a fan of Wonder Woman as she existed back then. But for the right reasons. To quote him, “The stories were rather silly. She was basically the male concept of what a female hero was, with the stereotypical trait that they gave to a lot of their female characters, in which she was worried more about having a date than saving the world.”(2) He set upon redesigning Wonder Woman doing more justice to her character and making up for all the dilution and mismanagement of her storyline.

So we are back to the present day. Some of you may wonder, “so whats the big deal?”, “Its just another comic superhero, movie character etc.?” or even “I think the mainstream depiction of women is really just a social, cultural problem. It has nothing to do with anybody’s bottomline.”

Here is an article from The Economist “Equipping people to stay ahead of technological change”. Head on to the last paragraph of this op-ed: “Not everyone will successfully navigate the shifting jobs market. Those most at risk of technological disruption are men in blue-collar jobs, many of whom reject taking less ‘masculine’ roles in fast-growing areas such as health care.” The article outlines several remedies such as education, training programs, relaxed certification requirements etc. etc. but no where in those 1000 words do I find even a remote suggestion for fixing the perception mismatch of what the common person thinks as ‘feminine’ (and sometimes by default derogatory) jobs and what a ‘man’s gotta do’.

If the future of productivity and economy depends on improving efficiency, it depends as much on recognizing that the old norms of what a man should do and what a female should do did not have very ethical or humane origins to begin with. It depends as much on opening our minds to consider new possibilities in contradiction to old definitions. Today’s advancing technology exposes and challenges some of those archaic and hypocritical structures with each passing day and the best suggestion ‘The Economist’ has is essentially, ‘lets just babysit some of them through it till we can create an alternate reality where we provide jobs that they will find acceptable’. Yeah sure, good luck with that.

We live in a world where the work that women do in shaping the future of humanity (literally by raising children) and safeguarding the health of families has no formal recognition in that ever enigmatic metric of honor, GDP. Apparently I am not alone in thinking this. I could write a book on the damaging effects of this inequity (but that’s for another day, another blogpost).

Its ironic that while the sun was forced to set on Wonder Woman citing a lack of motherly activities in her depiction, in the real world this same work carries little formal economic importance. The strength of many wonder women who exist in our daily lives is completely ignored by just about everything and everyone. So much so, that the leading publication of the western world is claiming that many would rather do no work than ‘feminine’ work. I know this maxim holds true enough on this side of the globe.

Ultimately, the people who will be better ‘equipped’ for the future (that is not so far away in the future) will not always be the smartest people trained in the latest AI fad or management profession. It will be people who will be willing to readjust their old beliefs to adjust to the new possible freedoms of our times.



2 thoughts on “The Myth of Wonder Woman

  1. Pingback: The Future of Work, but first Now & the Near Future | Quintessence

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