In the marketing blitz leading up to Wonder Woman, the first big-screen feature to focus on the Amazonian superhero, one story stood out. When the Austin-based theater chain Alamo Drafthouse Cinema announced a women-only screening, a succession of men expressed their displeasure on social media, some calling the event sexist. Alamo Drafthouse responded by adding more “No Guys Allowed” screenings to their roster.
The brouhaha became great free advertising for the film because feminism—or rather, an amorphous “girl power” version glossed up and sanitized for mass consumption—has never been more popular. In fact, female celebrities can face a kind of political litmus test on the subject. When Elisabeth Moss, lead actor of the new Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, was asked during the Tribeca film festival in April whether she thought the show was feminist, she replied, “For me it’s not a feminist story. It’s a human story, because women’s rights are human rights.” Following an online backlash, Moss told the Huffington Post, “OBVIOUSLY, all caps, it is a feminist work. It is a feminist show.” How times have changed since 1941, when Wonder Woman made her debut in DC Comics alongside Batman and Superman; back then it was more controversial to assert one’s feminist views than to deny them.
The original Wonder Woman, created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, espoused what he called “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” In The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014), author Jill Lepore explains how the character arose from the suffragist and birth control movements of the early 20th century, which in turn were fueled by feminist utopian fiction based on the Amazons of Greek mythology. Marston conceived of Wonder Woman as a warrior princess from the magically shrouded, all- female Paradise Island, who ventures into the modern world mainly to fight masculine evil, destruction, injustice, and intolerance on behalf of democracy, freedom, and equal rights for women.
According to Marston’s wife, Elizabeth Holloway, Wonder Woman’s core philosophy of love came straight from Woman and the New Race (1920) by Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. “Women should rule the world,” Sanger writes, “because love is stronger than force.” Marston and Holloway were fans of the book, as was Olive Byrne, who was Sanger’s niece and Marston’s live-in mistress. According to Lepore, Marston was indulged sexually, emotionally, and financially by Holloway and Byrne, who worked to support him. He had two children by each of them, and the whole family—including another of Marston’s lovers, Marjorie Wilkes Huntley—lived in a sprawling house in Rye, New York, that they called Cherry Orchard. Marston may have advocated for a matriarchal society like that of the Amazons, but as Lepore notes, “a matriarchy Cherry Orchard was not.”
Marston was also interested in bondage. “[His] idea of feminine supremacy was the ability to submit to male domination,” expained Sheldon Mayer, Marston’s editor at DC. Marston insisted that Wonder Woman be bound in every issue of the early comics, and though he had no problem with readers being turned on by this, the binding served a higher purpose than the erotic. As a psychologist he argued that men tend to be anarchic and violent, that women tend to submit to loving authority, and that we could all live in peace if we subscribed to the “Love Allure” philosophy of the Amazons. Yet whenever Wonder Woman is tied up or men weld chains to her gold bracelets, she breaks free. This was meant to represent women “breaking their chains,” Lepore writes, and invoked the imagery of the suffragist movement and the abolitionist movement before it. It also coincides with what Marston truly believed; despite his many contradictions, he declared in a press release for Wonder Woman’s first issue that “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women.”
Wonder Woman is never bound in the new movie; in fact the great irony, given the male backlash that preceded the release, is that it’s so innocuous. Promoting the movie, director Patty Jenkins (Monster) and star Gal Gadot have described it and themselves as “feminist,” and indeed the movie upholds the principles laid out more explicitly in the comics. The new Wonder Woman—who goes by her Amazonian name, Diana—echoes Margaret Sanger’s idea that love can triumph over force (“I believe in love,” the heroine proclaims at the finale). But no one here is calling for women to rule the world. Diana is more of a gender egalitarian than a radical feminist: her love for a man, the dashing American intelligence officer Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), is coupled with a clunky third-act realization that some men are bad but the good ones make mankind worth saving.
In the comics, after Steve crash-lands on Paradise Island, Diana flies him back to the U.S. in her invisible plane and arrives amid World War II, when women began to enter the workforce in higher numbers and realized they had value outside the home. For some reason—perhaps to distinguish this Warner Bros. release from Marvel’s World War II-themed Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)—the setting has been moved back to the World War I era; Diana believes that Ares, the god of war, is behind the human conflict and that only she can stop him. Despite all the feminist branding and allusions to toxic masculinity—one villain inhales a poison to make himself stronger and scarier—Jenkins tries not only to include men on Wonder Woman’s side but also to make male viewers feel better about a woman saving them. That Steve immediately identifies himself to Diana as one of “the good guys” proves this is a movie pitched at red-blooded American males too. v