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Reader’s Den, Women's History Month

Reader's Den: The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Part 2

Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons.
Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons. Image ID: 1623706

Prior to reading The Secret History of Wonder Woman, my familiarity with the character was mostly limited to The Justice League of America and Super Friends appearances and the television series starring the incomparable Lynda Carter. I was always perplexed by her costume on the television series and especially how the underwater costume was less revealing than her everyday wear. In the documentary DVD Superheroes: a Never-Ending Battle hosted by Liev Schreiber, Lynda Carter explains that she never played Wonder Woman as "sexy," which may be why she was able to pull off such an inexplicable outfit so effortlessly.

In The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Lepore writes about how Marston never wavered on the bondage depictions in the comics and once summarily dismissed a list of suggested alternative "menaces" to the frequently used chains. In the aforementioned DVD series, comic book historian Trina Robbins discusses the bondage scenes that, although interspersed throughout the comics, never register with kids who only see her as a strong superheroine. 

Wonder Woman's costume has gone through an evolution throughout the years and probably a whole book could be devoted to just that. Nor was Lynda Carter the first onscreen Wonder Woman: a 1974 pilot starring Cathy Lee Crosby from That's Incredible  was never picked up. Other characters, like Wonder Woman's college friend, Etta Candy, did not fare so well from the transition to television. 

Wonder Woman DVD Season 1Early on, Wonder Woman's outfit evolved from Harry G. Peter's design after Marston's suggestion that she look more like a Varga girl, and after Marston nixed impractical and unrealistic and potentially dated sandal and halter top aspects.

Later on, censorship and the comics code influenced by Fredric Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent frowned upon most everything having to do with Wonder Woman, or Batman, for that matter. It also influenced the use, or rather disuse, of guns in comics. For example, Batman’s origin story with the robbery that destroyed his family was created to explain his dislike of guns. Traditional versions of Wonder Woman eschewed the use of guns. "Bullets never solved a human problem yet!" Marston's character exclaims (p. 200).

Wonder Woman's main accessory is her golden lasso of truth compulsion. In some later versions of the comics, she occasionally wields a sword, helmet, or other armor. In modern versions of Wonder Woman, she occasionally uses a gun or bow and arrow.  She wields guns in a 2-fisted action pose à la Chow Yun Fat in Hardboiled, in Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang's "Guts," but they are golden and metaphorical, the guns of Eros. There was a brief period in the '70s, often referred to as the Diana Prince era, where Wonder Woman donned a pantsuit and boutique fashions and her character was essentially a female James Bond, without the sexual exploits. Wonder Woman lost her powers in addition to her costume during these secret agent issues. Samuel R. Delany penned a few of these issues before DC interjected, citing Gloria Steinem as the reason for the change. However, Gloria Steinem was a supporter of Wonder Woman, writing

"Wonder Woman's family of Amazons on Paradise Island, her band of college girls in America, and her efforts to save individual women are all welcome examples of women working together and caring about each other's welfare. The idea of such cooperation may not seem particularly revolutionary to the male reader. Men are routinely depicted as working well together, but women know how rare and therefore exhilarating the idea of sisterhood really is.
Wonder Woman's mother, Queen Hippolyte, offers yet another welcome example to young girls in search of a strong identity. Queen Hippolyte founds nations, wages war to protect Paradise Island, and sends her daughter off to fight the forces of evil in the world...
Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values of the women's culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women; sisterhood and mutual support among women; peacefulness and esteem for human life; a diminishment both of "masculine" aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts."
—Gloria Steinem, in her introduction to Wonder Woman (1972), available online with your library card through Project Muse in The Superhero Reader (excerpt also available through Google Books.)

Before I read "The Secret History of Wonder Woman," I never really thought about the role of earlier comic characters in championing gender equality. I even found a few articles about Little Lulu and the impact that her comic strips had (see Comic Collector magazine, Winter 1984 issue "Sexual Equality: Little Lulu: The Real Heroine.")

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