Wonder Woman versus chauvinism

Documentary explores character’s changing role in feminist movements of the 20th century and beyond

A Wonder Woman impersonator

In many ways, the comic book character Wonder Woman is very much a product of the time in which she was conceived — World War II America.

Her trademark costume — star-spangled blue-and-white panties, American flag-red corset with gold adornments, the yellow headband with the red star — is rife with the patriotic fervor that bled into so many comic books at the time.

And yet the history of Wonder Woman is rich and compelling. In her original incarnation she stood alone amongst her comic book brethren as an empowered female character, and when her fans grew up, they raised her up as a symbol for feminism. Gloria Steinem, when she launched Ms. magazine, put an illustration of Wonder Woman on the cover of the magazine’s first issue with the headline, “Wonder Woman for president.” (Stories teased: “New feminist: Simone de Beauvoir,” “Money for housework” and “Body hair: The last frontier.”)

A documentary showing Feb. 5 at the International Film Series, Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines, directed by Kristy Guevara-Flanagantraces Wonder Woman’s history, from the strange intents of the psychologist who created her to the Linda Carter television show to the Riot Grrrl movement of the ’90s. The documentary, only 62 minutes long, isn’t just a look into Wonder Woman, the character. It’s a snapshot of how various women’s movements since the ’40s have hoisted up Wonder Woman as a symbol of empowerment.

The story of Wonder Woman is loosely based on the Greek myth of the Amazonian warrior women, who serve Aphrodite, goddess of love. Diana is the daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, on Paradise Island, where nary a man can be found. One day a wayward fighter plane crashes onto the island, carrying a refugee soldier named Steve Trevor. Trevor tells the Amazons of the raging war outside the island, and the Amazons hold a tournament to decide who should accompany him. Hippolyta bans her daughter from competing, but Diana dons a mask and proceeds to win. She becomes Wonder Woman and joins Trevor in the fight against the Axis.

Wonder Woman at first had just a few superpowers. She was near-impervious to physical harm, she wore indestructible bracelets that repelled bullets, and she wielded a magic lasso that would force whoever it ensnared to tell the truth.

Wonder woman and a child at a convention; Carmela Lane, immigrant and mother, shows off her Wonder Woman tattoo

The truth-telling lasso was a mark of the man who created her. Wonder Woman was the brainchild of psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston, who invented a lie detector that monitored changes in systolic blood pressure. Marston took a long route to comic book writing. He spent the ’20s teaching psychology at Tufts University and American University; while there, he developed a behavioral theory focused on four personality traits: dominance, inducement, submission and compliance (DISC).

He developed some rather crackpot theories as well, detailed by Geoffrey Bunn in “The lie detector, Wonder Woman and liberty: the life and work of William Moulton Marston,” published in History of the Human Sciences. In a grand spectacle in front of press, movie industry types, camera operators and more, Marston hooked women up to his lie detector and showed them film clips, each tailored to elicit one of the DISC traits. He sorted the results by hair and eye color.

“The experiment more or less proved,” wrote The New York Times, “that brunettes enjoyed the thrill of pursuit, while blondes preferred the more passive enjoyment of being kissed.”

This bizarre categorizing of women elicited its fair share of smirks and skepticism as well, but it attracted the attention of the movie industry, which Bunn says was interested in ways of measuring an audience’s reaction to films. Marston consulted with the film industry for a few years, and then he began writing psychological articles for magazines such as Esquire and Ladies’ Home Journal. That work caught the eye of a comic book publisher, and he eventually pitched the concept for Wonder Woman, who was a conglomeration of his two polyamorous lovers — his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and his one-time student Olive Byrne.

Marston was never coy about his motivations behind the character.

“Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” he said. “What woman lacks is the dominance or self-assertive power to put over and enforce her love desires. I have given Wonder Woman this dominant force but have kept her loving, tender, maternal and feminine in every other way.”

A still from the film; Linda Carter, who played Wonder Woman, discusses the role

Marston imbued her magical weaponry with hidden meaning as well.

“Her bracelets, with which she repels bullets and other murderous weapons, represent the Amazon Princess’ submission to Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Beauty,” Marston said. “Her magic lasso, which compels anyone bound to it to obey Wonder Woman … represents woman’s love charm and allure by which she compels men and women to do her bidding.”

A big part of Marston’s Wonder Woman shtick in those early days was “loving submission” to authority, which the heroine preached as the solution to the world’s problems. (Of course, academics and kinky folk have interpreted “loving submission” other ways. Google it. Most of the results won’t be about comics.) Diana and her Amazon sisters spent lots of time playfully tying each other up, and Wonder Woman’s enemies often found ways to bind her. But if a man were to shackle her wrists together, she would lose her power, Marston’s not-so-subtle comment on women’s role in society. (Wonder Women takes the tack that there was nothing particularly sexual about Wonder Woman’s penchant for getting tied up. It was simply a trope in comics at the time: Villains tied up women; heroes rescued the girl. But Wonder Woman defied convention by always freeing herself.)

The documentary discusses Wonder Woman’s early days as a bastion of feminist ideals, and her subsequent loss of agency after Marston’s death in 1947 (At one point, Diana loses her super powers and opens up a clothing boutique). Wonder Women doesn’t linger too long on any facet, however. The documentary instead briefly touches on the multiple facets of Wonder Woman’s story, interviewing Steinem, Carter, Lindsay Wagner (star of The Bionic Woman), “comic herstorian” Trina Robbins and more.

Also in the documentary are touching interviews with an avid and adorable fourth-grade fan named Katie and a sequence from a video class taught to high school girls. (One girl had the excellent idea of starting a TV show where tired TV tropes could go to a clinic to gain more depth. Make this show!) The documentary may not quite satisfy every curiosity a viewer might have about Wonder Woman, but it certainly provides a taste of the character’s rich history, both in fiction and as a symbol in popular culture.

At the IFS screening, Boulder-based screenwriter and book publisher Tod Davies (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) will team up with British indie movie producer Margaret Matheson (Antonia’s Line, an Oscar-winning film that screens at the IFS the following night) to lead a discussion and Q&A after.

The documentary may be short. But if you lovingly submit to the fact that you won’t be bombarded with information, it’s a very quick and enjoyable watch.

Wonder Women screens 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5 at Muenzinger Auditorium. Tickets are $7, $6 for students and seniors. Visit www.internationalfilmseries.com for more information.

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