Rants, Feelings & Opinions

A Guide to Wonder Woman’s Kinky History

May 31, 2018

Wonder Woman isn’t just a spokeswoman for peace, feminism, and impractical clothing choices for wartime – she’s also an important character in the history of BDSM and nonmonogamy. Troy Michael Bordun revisits the contested history of Wonder Woman’s creator, the women in his life, and the sex-positive feminism they championed.

In the 2017 biopic Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S. [2004], Hung [2009]) reproduces the polyamorous relationship and the socio-economic conditions that might have led to the creation of one of the longest running characters in comic book history. Yet, this story doesn’t follow the usual “biopic” arc of a tortured genius who overcomes adversity for the betterment of humankind. Rather, Robinson weaves in and out of the lives of creator William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), his wife Elizabeth Holloway (Rebecca Hall), and their lover Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), never wandering far from the triad’s love story.

Marston, Holloway, and Byrne didn’t leave detailed records of their lives, so Robinson is forced to forego accuracy in order to channel the melodramatic. The film is moving —it is possibly one of the most positive treatments of non-monogamy in the history of cinema— but it doesn’t teach us much about the writing, development, and art of Wonder Woman a.k.a. Diana Prince, the comics industry, and the socio-political situation of the interwar period and into the Second World War. (The film omits Wonder Woman’s early battles with Nazis and Japanese spies, as well as the comic’s rampant racism.)

All that said, we deserve a parallel discussion about Professor Marston and Marston’s first year writing Wonder Woman, a character he authored until his premature death from cancer in 1947.

What’s in a name?

Marston was hired as an educational consultant at All American Comics after he was interviewed by Olive in a popular article defending the medium (“Don’t Laugh at the Comics,” Family Circle, Oct. 1940). All American Comics owner Maxwell Charles Gaines and editor Sheldon Meyer then tasked Marston with creating a female superhero, something that had never before been hugely successful. So the pen-name Charles Moulton — the combination of both Gaines’s and Marston’s middle names— was born. In the film, contrastingly, Marston stumbles into a store selling bondage wear, BDSM accessories and pornography. He then takes the French store operator’s name, Charles, thereby linking the comic directly to Marston’s personal interest in BDSM.

Accounts of the impetus behind Marston’s choice to adopt a pseudonym differ. Some claim it was a way for Marston to keep his scholarly reputation intact – he was a notable psychologist and professor at Radcliffe, Tufts, Columbia, and the New School of Social Research. While grilling Marston about his comics’ kink and latent homosexuality, Josette Frank of Child Study Association of America suggests that he took the pseudonym because he was worried about his public image: authoring comics could sully his scholarly credibility, including his invention of the systolic blood pressure test, a key component of the polygraph.

On the other hand, by adopting the pen name, it became more difficult to connect Marston and his unconventional relationship to the production of the character. If a wider public knew about Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive, they might not take Wonder Woman seriously. The triad’s unconventional relationship does hinder their day-to-day lives: both Marston and Elizabeth are fired from Radcliffe and one of their sons is bullied at school about his parents’ “immorality” (Marston fathered four children, two with Elizabeth and two with Olive). In terms of sales, Wonder Woman achieved immediate success. Gaines was so happy with Diana as the lead figure in Sensation Comics that, just a few months after her debut, he commissioned Marston with writing a quarterly Wonder Woman series (four to five issues all contained in one magazine). Wonder Woman was thus on par with Gaines’s Superman and Batman characters; these superheroes had their own successes with quarterly solo titles as well. With Wonder Woman’s move from the pages of Sensation Comics to her own title, Marston publicly announced his authorship and used his status as a psychologist and professor to legitimize Wonder Woman’s publication.

Sensation Comics #8, August 1942

What the big Idea?

Although she denies it, Elizabeth may have conceptualized Wonder Woman first. Her son Moulton a.k.a. Pete mentions in a 1999 interview, “My mother was a prime mover in getting Wonder Woman going. She nagged [Marston] for years: ‘We need a woman super hero, never mind the guys, we’ve got enough.’”The film has Marston invent the character himself, with Elizabeth and Olive initially laughing at his absurd idea. Professor Marston shows the eponymous creator wander into All American with his idea for Suprema, the Wonder Woman. He does a fast pitch and immediately Wonder Woman is commissioned. Of course, creating a comic book character didn’t just pop into Marston’s head, as the film suggests: the creator had deep interests in popular culture such as comics and movies well before Woman Woman’s debut.

Wonder Woman’s creation was fueled by Marston’s desire to promote his own brand of feminism. This feminism, however strange, is predicated on DISC theory, a psychological account of human behaviour developed by Marston which claims that 1) dominance is the drive to subjugate a weaker force and compliance marks the reluctant position of giving into the stronger force; 2) inducement is the act of convincing, even rewarding, a weaker force into willing submission; and 3) people are happiest when submitting to a loving authority. Generally, men are prone to the more aggressive forms of dominance and compliance while women operate with inducement and submission. Since women are prone to using inducement, Marston believed that they should be in power, ruling with peace and love.

Sensation Comics #1, January 1942

Inducement and submission form the backbone of this superhero icon. Wonder Woman is tied, bound, gagged, chained, paddled, and abducted in almost every issue in those first years of publication. But before we decry all this bondage as misogyny (it is, to be sure: “The secret of women’s allure,” Marston wrote, is that “women enjoy submission – being bound”), Wonder Woman often willingly performs helplessness. In a BDSM relationship, willing submission to a dominant is an exhibition of a power (to submit) and then generates pleasure. Similarly in Marston’s DISC theory: submission to a loving, not cruel, authority will lead to pleasure. The Amazon believes this to be the true and acts it out in her heroic tales. She is captured and taken to the villain’s lair, only to then defeat them. The baddies are then bound and chained, feeling compliant rather than submissive to Wonder Woman’s tough love. Diana also throws around her lasso of truth, usually tethering the bad guys to determine a plot or villain’s headquarters. “Frankly,” said Professor Marston, “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.”

As readers vocalized their sexual fascination with the BDSM scenarios, and critics and censors decried their opposition to them, Gaines grew increasingly alarmed at Marston’s emphasis on kink. Yet the author refused to cut back on the bondage. He wrote, “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.” But the BDSM extends well beyond Wonder Woman. The Holliday Girls, a sorority befriended by Diana, are highly eroticized as well. The inspiration for the Holliday Girls was Marston and Olive’s observations of the latter’s sorority at Tufts (in the film: at Radcliffe). In easily the film’s sexiest scene, Marston and Elizabeth watch Olive paddle a new sorority pledge at a “Baby Party” (freshmen dress up like babies and the older ones humiliate and paddle them), and yes, all three get aroused in this act of voyeurism, and yes, this is a real thing that happened (not Marston and Elizabeth hungrily eyeing Olive, but Marson and Olive observing the party and researching college girls and social rituals).

So if DISC theory is true, then young boys need to learn to voluntarily submit to women in all aspects of life – women will finally gain political power and sexual autonomy. Wonder Woman treads this fine line between eroticism and education, or maybe one reinforces the other.

Sensation Comics #2, February 1942

Who drew all this kink?

Bondage aside, Wonder Woman also resembles pin-up girls of the time. Pin-ups, a distinctly mid-century American phenomenon, were drawings of idealized and moderately sexualized women on calendars, magazines such as Esquire and Playboy, keychains, playing cards, and ashtrays. Artist Harry G. Peters clearly tried to mimic this in his vision of the Amazon.

Sensation Comics #3, March 1942

The image of Wonder Woman also drew on “good girl art.” Comics fan Nicky Wright observed that “scantly clad, amply proportioned” women were routinely featured in 1930s comics such as Jungle Comics and Jumbo Comics (published by Olive’s brother Jack). Women dominated jungle animals in fantasy fiction; wore short briefs, high heels, and metal bras in SF comics; and donned tight mini skirts and stockings in detective and spy stories. From Sheena to Phantom Lady, eroticized female characters, including the pin-up aesthetic, were an integral part of the comic industry’s success, yet glaringly absent from the film.

Sensation Comics #6, June 1942

What’s with all the bondage, really?

Fun fact: one of Marston’s posthumously published issues features 75 panels of bondage. With all this in mind, it’s tough to look past the kink. Even Robinson assumes that the Professor’s love triangle was also really into it. In part, it’s possible that Professor Marston is a positive response to the misconstrued BDSM practices in the Fifty Shades series (2015; 2017; 2018).

For example, Wonder Woman is said to be based on Olive’s appearance and the connection between Diana and Olive is made clear in a wonderful scene of Olive at Charles’s shop, dressing up in what will become Wonder Woman attire. This sequence introduces the triad to bondage in a workshop facilitated by Charles. There, in a trial run, Elizabeth asks for Olive’s consent before tying her up. I’m surprised Elizabeth didn’t then look into the camera, say “See how easy that was?”, and give a playful wink. Take that Fifty Shades! While explicit references to BDSM are there in the comics, the 1942 Wonder Woman didn’t pursue non-monogamy like one would expect given Marston’s interests, and instead relied on clichéd plot devices such as heteronormative love and jealousy.

Sensation Comics #10, October 1942

The real BDSM relationship amongst Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive is mostly speculation. In conversation with author Jill Lepore, their son Byrne claims he never saw any BDSM in their home (but we can’t believe everything kids see – if the triad were into BDSM, I doubt their ropes and whips would be in an easily accessible spot). Still, this doesn’t discount the role that it plays in the film and what it does to promote Marston’s non-monogamous views, feminism (or “feminism as fetish,” as Lepore puts it), and support for same-sex partnerships. Marston advocated for “female love relationships,” although Wonder Woman’s sexuality wasn’t fully addressed until George Pérez’s Wonder Woman #38, published in 1990. (Early critics like Dr. Frederic Wertham claimed Wonder Woman was a lesbian simply because she was husbandless and not a homemaker.) Yet after the writer’s death, this side of the story nearly disappeared, losing the metaphorical significance of Wonder Woman’s bondage and the theory that motivated her worldview.

Diana’s one weakness is that when a man chains her bracelets – bracelets inspired by Olive’s jewelry –  she loses her power. This inane device has a purpose: women, when chained, unwillingly comply with dominance (rather than submit to inducement). Breaking free, then, isn’t just a plot point but a call to feminist action.

Troy Michael Bordun recently taught a course on pornographic photography at Concordia University. His writings about porn and sexual representation can be found in Genre Trouble and Extreme Cinema: Film Theory at the Fringes of Contemporary Art Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), and Porn Studies, Synoptique, Cine-Excess, and Studies in European Cinema, among others.

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