Wonder Woman: Feminist Icon, Male Fantasy

Wonder Woman's creation shows why the male gaze fixates on feminist liberation narratives.

Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman is a pretty good movie. As superhero fare goes, it’s nice to see a character who is more interested in saving and savoring life than pounding things. But now, a trailer for another nonfiction film has surfaced about the character’s real-life origins. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women appears to fawn over the story of Wonder Woman’s perverted creator, who carried on a long-term open relationship with two women–which you can read about here in the Atlantic. His sexual life is lovingly rendered in the banal hues of our post-sexual revolution cinema: dark shadows, irony, the oppression of morals, and the revolutionary appeal of polyamory. If the film stays true to formula, the takeaway will be something like this: non-traditional sexual relationships in the past were subversive and therefore worth remembering and celebrating, even in their excesses and complications.

But to my mind, Wonder Woman’s male creator, William Moulton Marston, was not a complicated man, but a representative sample. He was a guy who wanted to have sex with multiple women at the same time. He did this by studying psychology and becoming an advocate for a particular narrative of female empowerment that denigrated monogamy as restrictive and patriarchal. His academic work defended sexual deviance of all kinds as natural to humanity. He held that women were superior to men.

And it worked! He carried on an open relationship with two comely feminists, his wife and a former student (Margaret Sanger’s niece) for pretty much his whole life. In Wonder Woman, he created the ideal female consciousness that could consent to such an arrangement. Diana hails from an island full of single Amazons. She has no father or male guardian (her parentage by Zeus was a modern revision). She has no sexual hang ups–this theme comes through in Jenkins’s film when Diana can’t understand why Steve Trevor is so nervous about sleeping next to her and when she nearly undresses in public. She regards marriage as a foreign thing and the mores of the human world as constricting. This noble theme was illustrated in the comics by Diana’s nemeses constantly tying her up. But there was more to it than that. The images’ references to BDSM bondage play were unmissable even in the 1940s, when moral activists successfully sought to ban these and other comics from the mainstream press (The Atlantic piece writes this off as all just lovable kink.) It is clear that feminism, for Marston, doubled as pornography.

It is not hard to see how. Wonder Woman is, above all a female character that has no need for a man, and this is where feminist liberation ideology converges most strikingly with pornography that caters to men. More than any kinky fetishes, the most potent male fantasy is to enjoy sex without responsibility–to enjoy the semi-anonymous company of a woman without meeting the less exciting duties of a household’s moral and financial obligations or shoulder a wife’s feelings, or defend her honor. Wonder Woman can handle herself.

The question the trailer for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women poses is whether our present feminist, sex-positive culture is still under Marston’s sway. It turns out Marston’s women ended up performing the two necessary roles of a household: his wife had a career while his lover stayed at home with their four children (two from both partners)–while he got to more or less just kind of hang out. How Marston could be simultaneously an advocate for female empowerment and a lecherous layabout supported by two consenting women breaks The Atlantic’s brain: “How the underemployed, emotionally demanding Marston got to remain the overbearing patriarch is a bit of a puzzle.” Is it?  “He believed women…should run the world” so his women ran his world while he sat back. He wasn’t needed after all.

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