Last week, PBS aired their latest installment of Pioneers of Television and the focus of the show was superheroes. It was an entertaining program, with lots of fun, behind the scenes information, and Wonder Woman got an entire section centered around an interview with Lynda Carter. Near the top of the show, Carter said:
The creator of Wonder Woman really felt that girls needed a hero too, and developed Wonder Woman.
Which is what’s generally believed. These days, Wonder Woman is an iconic symbol of female strength, embraced by women of all sorts. Wonder Woman is THEIR hero, created for them. However, Carter is wrong.
Wonder Woman became a hero for girls, largely because she was the only real female superhero for decades, but that wasn’t her creator’s original intent. William Moulton Marston was a unique feminist who thought that women were superior to men. Men were aggressive and cruel, while women were peaceful and kind, and so he thought that women should be in charge. In fact, he thought that women WOULD be in charge. To Marston, female rule was inevitable. Girls didn’t need a hero, because they were well on their way to becoming heroes themselves. Boys needed a female hero to prepare them for the coming rise of women.
In the early 1940s, superhero comics were full of men fighting and threatening and generally being dominant jerks, reinforcing exactly what Marston hated about men in power. So he came up with Wonder Woman as an antidote for this “blood-curdling masculinity.” Wonder Woman had all the power of her male counterparts, but was loving and kind. He wanted boys to see how much better things were when women had power, but he needed something else to keep them interested.
For Marston, sexuality was a key component women’s power. He thought that there was a thrill inherent in submitting to a woman and having her control you, which is why women would eventually take over. Men would actually like life better with powerful women in charge. This may speak more to his own sexual tastes than anything else, but it’s what he thought nonetheless. So he filled Wonder Woman with bondage imagery, showing the Amazons tying each other up, Wonder Woman tying up people with her lasso, and Wonder Woman getting tied up herself. This was a pretty common scene:
The bondage imagery was a metaphor for women being in control, and it was also intentionally sexual. It was meant to excite male readers, to give them a small taste of how much fun it would be if women were in charge all the time.
Obviously, this is kind of a screwed up theory, and contradictory. It’s feminism and fetishism all rolled into one, and it’s all sorts of bizarre. However, at the core there was a feminist message. It was just packaged in a manner that was overtly sexual and aimed at boys, and that in many ways objectified the character.
Which brings us to Beyoncé.
While watching the Super Bowl halftime show, I was struck by the similarities between Beyoncé’s persona and Marston’s approach to Wonder Woman. Because this is the sort of thing I think about when I watch a football game, because I’m a nerd. There were some surface similarities, what with her outfit and boots roughly resembling Wonder Woman’s usual garb, but there were was more to it than that.
The show had a definite feminist vibe, or at the very least an incredibly strong message of girl power. EVERYONE on that stage was a woman: the band, the dancers, everybody. Beyoncé moved around the stage with the utmost confidence, singing songs like “Independent Woman” and others that embodied her perennial theme of what Nathan Rabin has labeled “Fuck you, I’m awesome.” Beyoncé’s songs are very assertive in terms of her own power and desires, particularly as they pertain to her womanhood, and by surrounding herself onstage with an all-female team that message was thus extended to them as well. All in all, it was a very empowering show.
At the same time, this was a show for boys. Much like Wonder Woman was a lone woman in a sea of male superheroes, so too was Beyoncé a rare female presence smack in the middle of a testosterone-fueled, all-male event. The sexy outfit, the shaking of her assets, the rolling around on stage, and the regular suggestive glances at the camera were, much like Wonder Woman’s bondage, intentionally sexual and aimed squarely at men.
(Or ladies who enjoy other ladies. I’ve got some lesbian/bisexual women in my Twitter feed and the show went over huge with them too).
So what we’ve got is a message of female empowerment presented in a sexualized manner for male entertainment, which is basically what we had way back in the 1940s with Marston’s Wonder Woman comics. Girls love Beyoncé too, just like girls loved Wonder Woman in the 1940s, but in both cases the presentation is aimed much more at a male audience.
Some would say that one side trumps the other: The message of female empowerment rises above the objectification of the heroine OR the blatant sexualization of the heroine contaminates any message of female empowerment. I think we should just let the contradiction stand. The world is complicated, things are bizarre. Wonder Woman represents female superiority AND her creator’s fetishes. Beyoncé is all about the power of women AND her show was meant to turn on a male audience. It doesn’t have to be either. Wonder Woman and Beyoncé encapsulate both sides, for numerous and complicated reasons.
So whenever someone says that Wonder Woman was created for girls, just think of Beyoncé. It shouldn’t be too hard, really. If you’re anything like me, you’ve had “Crazy in Love” stuck in your head off and on for the last decade.