Students delve into “The Secret History of Wonder Woman”

Photo by Sarah King
Photo by Sarah King
Photo by Sarah King

Students and staff across campus gathered in Cabell Library to hear Jill Lepore speak on her novel and VCU’s assigned reading for incoming freshmen, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” last Wednesday.

The book details the creation of Wonder Woman by comic book artist William Marston in 1941, and the character’s position as a feminist symbol.

In the last two semesters, the feminism underlying Lepore’s novel has been the topic of discussion for VCU students on both campuses, connecting students across a vast array of majors and enriching the general understanding of the women’s civil rights movement.

This discussion left some readers wondering how accurately feminism is represented in Wonder Woman’s creation.

The student-led presentation on the lack of feminism in “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” was conducted by students Teri Smith, Oliva Beech and Sarah Danial two weeks ago in anticipation of Lepore’s arrival.

Smith, Beech and Danial began their presentation earlier this month with Emma Watson’s speech at the United Nations about the common misconceptions of feminism.

“For the record, feminism, by definition, is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes,” Watson said in the video of her U.N. presentation.

The panel went on to describe the history of Marston, which is often synonymous with the history of Wonder Woman. In order to understand the extent of Wonder Woman as a feminist icon, it is necessary to evaluate Marston as a feminist.

The students pointed out that, though claiming to support women’s rights in the wake of the suffrage movement, Marston often contradicted the underlying ideology of feminism.

“He seemed to really trumpet feminism and women’s rights in public, but at home had a continued affair with Marjorie Huntley,” Smith said.

Wonder Woman, along with most other women throughout the history of comics, are hypersexualized, the panel argued next.

“It is important to realize the disadvantages that come with being one of the only female superhero icons. It’s the issue of hypersexualization,” Beech said. “Wonder Woman, for example(–)the only way you could get people take interest in her is to have something that’s visually appealing.”

Beech explained the negative interpretations of the gagging and bondage of Wonder Woman, a common theme throughout Marston’s comics depicting the character.

To demonstrate this, the panel showed a picture of the Avengers, where Black Widow was shown facing away from the camera, displaying her sexualized body parts. Immediately afterward they showed a comic drawn with the males being sexualized as Black Widow was, with her facing forward in a normal fighting stance.

This touched on the issue of internalized misogyny, suggesting the latter picture has a humorous effect whereas the former picture was completely normal upon first glance.

“On the other hand, Wonder Woman is almost combating the idea that women ‘are asking for it’ and should cover up,” Danial said.

The audience unanimously agreed that women have the right to sexualize themselves and wear what they want, so in a way Wonder Woman’s apparel coincides with feminism as well.

In Jill Lepore’s talk, she briefly reminded the audience of the history of Marston, noting that in order to understand the history of Wonder Woman, the reader must first understand his.

“Wonder Woman’s origins lie in the very early history of the feminist movement, during the 1910s,” Lepore said. “Her history since then has often mirrored the movement itself, and it’s been through a lot of changes.”

Throughout the presentation, Lepore countered the interpretation of bondage in Wonder Woman’s comics as anti-feminist. She suggested that these images were not meant to be sexualized, rather reflect the ideology of the suffrage movement underlining the early 20th century.

Lepore explained the political cartoons of that era, which heavily influenced the creation of Wonder Woman, often had women break free from metaphorical bondages labeled as things like “prejudice,” “prudery” and “man’s superiority.”

The panel described Marston’s relationship with Olive Byrne, a woman whom he threatened to leave his wife Sadie Holloway for if Holloway did not allow her to live with the married couple.

Lepore had a different interpretation of the relationship between Byrne and Marston’s wife, Holloway. The two were close, and reared four children together. They lived in the same house from 1925 until Byrne’s death in 1988, four decades after Marston’s own death in 1947.

Though it seems as though Marston may have held a superior position in his household, contradicting the equality he supported through his work, Lepore suggested the two women Marston was involved with romantically held an appreciation and acceptance of each other, suggesting the arrangement was not entirely crafted by Marston.

“They were family,” Lepore said. “Readers often want to know whether they were lovers, but people who live together for the whole of their lives don’t leave a lot of historical evidence behind about their relationship because they don’t write letters to one another.”

In addition, Byrne and Holloway named their own children after one another, hinting at the affection. Marston would later publish a book suggesting women’s superiority as well as the possibilities of successful open relationships such as the one he held at home.

Lepore has visited multiple campuses to discuss “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” and said she has found a common theme.

“Students are often fascinated by how much of the history of Wonder Woman involves the history of higher education for women and how much of the early comics takes place on college campuses too,” Lepore said.

Kristen Lair-Baker, Contributing Writer

1 Comment

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