Wonder Woman by Noah Berlatsky (book review)

July 7, 2017 | By | 2 Replies More

The sub-title of Noah Berlatsky’s ‘Wonder Woman’ book is ‘Bondage And Feminism In The Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948’. Psychologist William Marston created Wonder Woman feeling that there was a need for a female counter-part to Superman but not necessarily a duplicate. As she and her female team were often tied up, Berlatsky contends that this was a bondage fulfilment. Although I suspect bondage might have happened behind closed doors in our reality, I doubt it was publicly widely known until the 1960s which does tend to make Marston a forerunner exploiter in the comicbooks an odd assertion because I doubt the readers would have made such a connection neither. If anything, all they would have seen is captured women being tied up. What else would they make of it?

As Berlatsky points out, super-heroes only got tied up 3% of the time and women 42% of the time but I wish he’d looked further and how many times each sex got knocked out and I suspect that would have balanced the numbers. Men hitting women all the time would have been frown upon. I was reading Alter Ego # 147 at the same time and discovered a comicbook page on page 60 from Fawcett’s Marvel Family showing Mary Marvel, a character who is much younger, also tied up. Does that imply bondage for teens as well or is Berlatsky reading far too much into the needs of keeping captured characters tied up?

Something I wish Berlatsky had acknowledged was Wonder Woman wasn’t the first costumes super-heroine, as Miss Fury arrived in 1941 a year earlier, Wonder Women in 1942, there were two Miss Americas, one at National Periodicals in 1941 and at Timely in 1943 and the aforementioned Mary Marvel at Fawcett starting in 1945. It’s hardly like there wasn’t many of them around or not having their own stories or even being tied up. Oh, in case anyone is keeping count, as a co-star Bulletgirl arrived in 1940 and probably the earliest co-star although might have tied with Hawkgirl in the same year. I raise these details as Berlatsky draws comparison between Wonder Woman and that 1960s newcomer Spider-Man or rather specifically his origin. His speculation was that a newcomer Spider-Woman wouldn’t be asked to trip an escaping felon. I had a long think on that and would probably counter with would a woman be as nerdy or then a big-headed as Peter Parker or might have done so regardless? Equally, in keeping with the origin, she might have tried and failed. Marvel Comics did speculate as to what would have happened had Spidey stopped the burglar in What If? Vol 1. # 19 in case anyone is keeping count.

I’m not entirely sure if Berlatsky got the scene between Aphrodite and Wonder Woman on page 97. Setting up a scene, you can’t always have characters in the same perspective and it’s as much a matter of framing than belittling. Mind you, on page 116, you can’t get away from the fact that Wonder Woman is being whacked on the rear by a kid with a hairbrush and not minding. However, when you consider how strong she is, the wink to the audience is more a case of she isn’t hurting me rather than enjoying the experience.

When Berlatsky gets into lesbian connections in Wonder Woman, I look at his examples and think it’s down to interpretation and in that he’s blowing things out of all proportion. It isn’t as though the Amazon is making any moves on her female co-stars. Take, for example, the piece of candy that Etta Candy holds in her hand. Any comcbook artist in any era told to draw a character with any sweet in their hand has to ponder on how to make it look ‘realistic’ and visible in a small panel. Back in the 1950s, American candy did look like that and, yes, you would hold it in two fingers because a fist would hide it and makes it easier to draw. To put sexual connotation to it doesn’t make sense. Can you see a script where Marston has to explain precisely to artist Harry Peter what he wants to represent back in the 1940s? You might say what you want but you then leave it to the artist for interpretation.

I looked up the history of the Amazons on Paradise Island and in those days of innocence, an all-woman community didn’t raise that much of an eyebrow at the time because the mythology of that was the way it was at the time was never questioned. It’s what Amazons did. I doubt if there would have been much of a similar reaction to the naked Spartans running around for the same reason had any publisher chose to do stories about them. Things were a lot more innocent back then and I doubt if Marston was out to revolutionise the world to his way of thinking or home life. All he want to do was write a strong woman character put into American society. The only in-built weakness Wonder Woman and her Amazon family had was if they were tied up they were effectively enfeebled. If you knew that was their weakness, wouldn’t you use it?

Berlatsky draws comparisons to Ian Fleming’s character Pussy Galore from his James Bond novel, ‘Goldfinger’, which was written in 1959, some 18 years later. Hardly a fair comparison. Fleming was still old school and so were any thoughts on lesbians and how they can be turned to preferring men by having sex with them. When I read the novel, I never saw it as a rape as Berlatsky insists and seems inflamatory. Bond was snogging Miss Galore (he says to avoid any misinterpretation by using her Christian name) before intercourse took place in the barn to get her on his side. As we know in modern day, some lesbians have had sex with men or even bisexual or even used it to take advantage of the man. All I’m saying is putting it down to one choice doesn’t make much sense, let alone related to Wonder Woman.

In the conclusion, Berlatsky admits at the beginning that he isn’t very keen on the Wonder Woman variations over the decades even if he rescinds this a little in the finale. Over the decades, all super-characters have been reinvented for each generation and changes in society. I tended to think of the early 1960s Wonder Woman as a bit of a potty-mouth considering how many times certain words were replaced with a variety of punctuation marks but I put that down to the times.

If you haven’t thought I haven’t been objective throughout, then remember Marston’s desire with creating Wonder Woman was to have a female character on par with Superman. He was after equality, not a woman screaming for help whenever she was in a jam. Although my other female examples from the same time period weren’t screaming Mimi’s, some of them are still around so it isn’t all to do with power but continuity.

Contrary to Berlatsky, the Lynda Carter starred TV series of ‘Wonder Woman’ might not have been the best show at the time, hit easily by budget not to have powerful opponents, it did revitalise the comicbook at the time. None of this was helped by her always seen in the second tier at DC Comics. Of course, the new film has changed this all again but looking at her comicbook current power specs where Wonder Woman is more powerful than Superman, I tend to think that is a mistake as well. Any character should be formidable to keep going but too much power reduces the problems.

Super-heroine costumes have always been designed to show off their curves. With her own form of near invulnerability, Wonder Woman has gone for ease of movement than protection. Unlike the Amazons of legend, we should be grateful neither Marston or National Periodicals/DC Comics chose to have the Amazon self-mutilation of removing one breast to make using a bow and arrow easier. He also neglects that the artist Harry Peter’s version also had a skirt on for a time before switching to a more practical tight shorts. Changes are often practical and sensible and probably stopped some boys developing a desire to look up women’s skirts.

Although Berlatsky gives some interesting observations, he does tend to live in something of a bubble in this book and doesn’t look at the other implications that Marston was doing with his character. He dwelled on something which is old news to comicbook fans but not added anything to do with the social implications, namely Marston’s desire for female equality. Expect yourself to react as you read this book like I did but it will also make you think.

GF Willmetts

July 2017

(pub: Rutgers University Press, 2015. 251 page sparse illustrated indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £27.95 (UK), $17.87 (US). ISBN: 978-0-8135-9043-1)

check out websites: http://www.rutgerspress.rutgers.eduand www.eurospanbookstore.com

Category: Books, Comics, Superheroes

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

Comments (2)

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  1. EamonnMurphy says:

    Hi Geoff,
    Spider man tripped up a felon not a feline. Even editors make mistakes, nyah nyah.

    In general I agree with you that all this sexual interpretation of 1940’s comics is over the top. Even nowadays super heroines getting tied up doesn’t mean anything sexual and they can eat candy without suggesting other things too. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    I did read somewhere that Ian Fleming liked to lash ladies now and then but he was of that public school ilk.

  2. UncleGeoff says:

    Hello Eamonn

    It could have been a Black Cat. Felicity Hardy gets everywhere. Only one mistake in how many reviews??!!

    Wonder Woman’s magic lasso was used against men and had them over her control but no one said she was a dominatrix.


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