Wonder Woman!

     “Wonder Woman:  Bondage and Liberation” opens with Ben Saunders speculating as to why interest in the comic has declined so steeply since its inception.  One possible reason provided is the contradictions inherent in her character; the author cites another source when describing her as a “warrior-pacifist, a feminist sex symbol, a foreign-royal-turned American-immigrant, and a devout pagan living in a secular age” (37).  He then goes on to argue the chapter’s central claim: that Wonder Woman defies binary oppositions and is instead “deconstructive,” meaning that the contradictions she embodies force her readers to remember that binaries restrict common understanding of concepts (such as gender). Challenging these ideas – by freeing them of the expectation that they must live in opposition to each other – allows us to widen our frame of thought to to include how “the difference between such paired terms can change” (38).  Some of her seemingly contradictory attributes include:

  • Although Wonder Woman is commonly recognized as a symbol of feminism and female agency, she is authored by a male. Saunders introduces criticism that Marston wrote Wonder Woman “to promote his own theories about gender, sexuality, and personality types” (45), specifically the idea that men deny themselves what women won’t –  the pleasure that is found in embracing submissiveness – but that men can learn to embrace submission (if there is a willing “Love Leader,” a sexually “advanced” female, to teach them!) (50).
    • This introduces a secondary paradox:  If an individual desires submission, is it still possible to feel dominated by a more powerful authority?
  • Wonder Woman’s ancestry – the Amazonians – conjures a variety of definitions and connotations, including “bitch,” “mannish,” “warrior,” and “fallen woman,” making it difficult to ascertain the intention behind – or reception of –  her background.
  • Wonder Woman challenges the opposition of man and woman by exhibiting physical strength and performing actions typically reserved for men. Similarly, Steve often takes on the role of  “damsel in distress” and does not feel threatened by Wonder Woman’s strength but is attracted to it.
  • Wonder Woman’s promotion of female empowerment paired with images of sexual bondage and eroticism that frequently depict scantily clad women captive in chains or ropes.  
  • Evoking images of spirituality, Wonder Woman teaches “submission-as-liberation, a freedom-in chains, that can only come from surrender to the loving authority of divinity” (64).  To be truly free, one must embrace submission to a higher power. There is strength in obedience and surrender. The spiritual and the erotic are not mutually exclusive.

Some examples include….

Is it…. Or is it….
Page 165, 2nd row, 1st column Entrapment?  Wonder Woman and Etta are enclosed in a net; their captors threaten to murder them as sacrifices to the “Sacred Elephants.” Power?  Wonder Woman argues that “sacrifice is good for the soul” and seems to believe they will benefit from this experience.  She is also eager to visit the Secret Temple – of course, this could be an extension of her confidence that she is not truly captive because she can break free at will.
Page 154, last row, 1st column Sexist?  Wonder Woman is described as “any other girl,” implying not only that all “girls” are the same, but that despite her heroics, Wonder Woman is primarily interested in something as trivial as clothes. Feminist?  Wonder Woman’s new outfit is a signifier of her powers, which she will use to save lives, fight crimes, and right wrongs – all with strength and bravery that had previously been reserved for men.
Page 125, last row, last column Reflective of typical gender roles?  Wonder Woman’s clothing is revealing, while Steve is completely dressed in formal attire.  Wonder Woman’s only reason for being on Earth is to gain proximity to Steve; she sacrificed all of the benefits of life on The Paradise Islands to follow him. A challenge to typical gender roles?  Wonder Woman regularly saves Steve, who takes on the role of “damsel in distress.” Steve recognizes that Wonder Woman’s strength surpasses that of both men and women, and is attracted to her regardless of her breach of traditional gender roles.


I wonder….

  • Is it possible for Wonder Woman to be simultaneously erotic and feminist?  If so, does the comic successfully marry the two?
  • Does Wonder Woman successfully promote the idea that there is freedom in submission?  Is this a valid claim, or did we just step out of Wonder Woman and into 1984?
  • Is anyone familiar with the “metaphorical interchangeability of sexual and spiritual desire” that “was established” in “Song of Songs”? (68).  I’d love to know about this!
  • Is it reasonable to view Wonder Woman as a Christ-figure?
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5 thoughts on “Wonder Woman!

  1. Does Wonder Woman successfully promote the idea that there is freedom in submission? Is this a valid claim, or did we just step out of Wonder Woman and into 1984?
    Jacky you did a remarkable analysis regarding Ben Sander’s article. After I studied your questions I couldn’t help but remember an article that I read concerning bondage and the psychology behind it. If we consider Freud’s viewpoint regarding submission and freedom being correlated then the answer will be an absolute no, they are not. Furthermore, Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual would support the aforementioned statement by stating that there must be a trauma that has caused this type of deviation in any of the stages (oral, anal, phallic, latent and genital) that makes the person so attune to submission and bondage. However, the act of making a choice is a result of freedom but also it is a responsibility, ergo it is a chore. If an individual consciously chooses to be submissive he/she is freeing his/her consciousness of any type of issues that might appear. For many, this is the ultimate act of trust, to confide in someone else to make the calls and enjoy the ride while it last. Regarding Wonder Woman, I think that is what is been portrayed. The fact that a man trust a woman implicitly to save his “arse” serves a prove of that. The ultimate message that surrounds this particular comic is that society should yield and welcome a new structure rather than impose the pre-established gender expectations.

  2. While reading “Wonder Woman” in the 21st century, there were some complications regarding feminist and gender issues that intertwined with each other throughout the comic. She is a superhero who challenges traditional gender roles yet, accepts them in some way. Was Moulton Marston mocking and degrading women or was he defying the norms of society at that time? If she was meant to be a role model to all women, then why was she being portrayed as a symbol of submission and sacrifice to man? After all, Wonder Woman was fashioned by a man who basically wrote her lines and actions to mirror “about their fantasies, wishes, and fears of those authors than about historical reality” (Saunders, 39). Throughout the comic book, Wonder Woman tricks her opponents into believing that they have drugged her or captured her by submitting to them. These scenes complicate the meaning of feminism because it depicts all women as deceivers to her audience. Reading the entire comic book in a woman’s point of view, I didn’t know if I was offended or honored? I had a unclear feeling about which side the comic book is on.
    However, Marston was modern and way ahead of his time because of his relationship with two women and his wife being a psychologist and attorney herself. Analyzing his life, we could understand his desire for a modern approach during that period. As a psychologist, he wanted to fight against the other comic book heroes. In Wonder woman, Marston emphasizes the modern ideas that he believes in through her image “about gender, sexuality, and personality types” (Saunders, 45).

  3. Is it reasonable to view Wonder Woman as a Christ-figure?

    This is a controversial question from a religious viewpoint. It would challenge the very heart of the Catholic Church’s patriarchal dogma on many levels, particularly in resolving the notion that, as a daughter of Eve, Wonder Woman is emblematic of original sin and the catalyst for Man’s expulsion from paradise. How then can she be a messianic avatar meant to bring peace and salvation? How can she be her own savior?
    There is certainly evidence to suggest a Christ-like comparison. Her origin plainly displays the notion of miraculous birth. Hippolyte forms her from clay (feet and all) and the goddess of Love breathes life into her. She comes of age in an idyllic utopia that is literally called Paradise Island but leaves after exposure to the outside world where she undertakes a mission to rid mankind of evil (or sin). At one point, she even enters the Astral Plane to visit a land where submission is freedom-has she become a Holy Ghost? She performs superhuman, almost miraculous, feats in service to Goodness, and as previously pointed out, is frequently bound into seeming submission by the forces of the ungodly only to turn the tables on her oppressors and liberating her allies (disciples? Could Etta Candy be her Simon Peter?) in the act of freeing herself.
    One trait that seems to go unnoticed regarding Wonder Woman is that, while having the strength of Hercules and the speed of Mercury and the beauty of Aphrodite, she also has the wisdom of Athena. As such, she is both a master strategist and a sage jurist. This enables her to outwit her opponents as easily as she might smash them while always in the enviable position of knowing that she is doing the right and just thing.
    So, by willingly allowing herself to be placed in bondage and torture, Wonder Woman demonstrates, as Christ does, that such an act of suffering is really a path to salvation.

  4. Jacky, you did an excellent job summarizing Saunders’s arguments and articulating some of the incongruencies in Marston’s comics that Saunders touches upon, in his chapter. I have to be entirely honest, I’m not a feminist in the “traditional” sense (I believe the sexes are equal and should be treated, as such; however, I, personally, don’t endorse the notion that they should pioneer towards this idea of “sameness”), and therefore, I’m not sure exactly how confidently I can criticize the parameters of “what IS” and “what IS NOT,” feminist.

    However, from what I understand of the feminist movement and from what I’ve read in Saunders’s chapter, it’s certainly understandable to see why Wonder Woman is problematic as a feminist icon. As you mentioned Jacky, Marston was a male writer, and while that doesn’t necessarily disqualify him from having a voice regarding feminism or speaking about female ideals, it certainly complicates his position. It complicates his position in the same way that we can see Austen’s authorship to be complicated in her manifestation of male characters. In Austen’s romances, she often crafts these chivalrous, sensitive, and romantic men of great wealth; these male characters often serve a vital role in the story’s plot and transcend their position of “romantic figure,” but at the same time, they function more as a literary trope and Austen’s conception of ideal manhood than they do as a realistic male characters.

    Similarly, with Wonder Woman, she embodies this conception of “ideal feminist womanhood,” or she’s supposed to, right? But, in the same way that Austen is primarily writing these male characters so that her female protagonists can have a rich boyfriend who will save the day, the fact that Wonder Woman is being published as a potential representative of sexual bondage, kind of destroys her identity as a powerful, feminist figure, IN MY OPINION.

    I think this is the problem with female characters in comic book publication, in general. By publishing them as sexualized, scantily-clad characters who are often being tied up, it diminishes their potential as powerful, important characters who assert equality with their covered-up, male counter-parts. While it could be said that male superheroes are also sexualized in comics, I think the position of female superheroes as items of sexuality ultimately compromises their role as feminist icon.

    I know Saunders concludes his chapter with a more hopeful assertion regarding Marston’s manifestation of Wonder Woman as a simultaneous Dominatrix and Bondaged Lover, but while reading through Saunders’s criticism, I just found myself questioning how Wonder Woman could effectively serve as a symbol for feminine power and authority, if her plot is being so constrained by her identity as a sex symbol.

  5. Very good post and the questions mirrored my own . Deconstructing WW certainly raises more questions to which there are more questions than answers (Deconstruction is loopy like that in my head). Saunders points out that the company were confused as to WW’s target audience. I think to understand that we have to figure out Marston better. He’s quite a character with his ideas on feminism and sexual bondage, at least as far as Saunders’ critique of him. As far as the sexual bondage in WW, does her position as “lead lover” in any way determine the strengths or weaknesses of her being a feminist icon in any manner? Didn’t Saunders mention Marston as having enforced his own views rather than a sourced study of anthropology, sexuality and sociology? if he’s right, then there is a danger of our reading of WW (in 1941) getting lost in translation. Just like the Superman Chronicles, there is a lot of relativism of the times. Would the editors at DC allow stories just like the ones we read to be printed today OR would they not even be relevant and be dismissed as something conjured by Robert Crumb?
    “Failing between Freud and Foucault as he does, then, Marston inevitably suffers by comparison with either. His theories probably could not be more out of place in modern intellectual culture” (70)

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