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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


This week I finally got around to reading Jill Lepore's 2014 book THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN. Prior to reading it, I'd heard only a few vague comments to the effect that the author had used the story of Wonder Woman's genesis as an excuse for tub-thumbing the history of American feminism.

This is essentially true. But this need not have been a strike against Lepore's book. Gerald Jones' 2005 MEN OF TOMORROW manages to talk to address the greater culture of America within which Superman and some of his Golden Age contemporaries were created, and at the same time, he manages to show how the character's mythos grew within the published comics: the evolution of Superman's powers, his relationship with Lois Lane, the utilization of kryptonite, and so on.

Unfortunately, the only facets of Wonder Woman's stories that interest Lepore are those that mirror items from the biography of creator William Moulton Marston, his collaborators ("co-wives" Sadie Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne), or from the feminist literature that had arisen in the early 20th century. If one knew nothing about Wonder Woman's mythos upon starting the book, one's knowledge would be only minimally augmented.

That's not to say that I don't respect the huge amount of research Lepore devoted to the cultural matrices within which Marston conceived his famous character. The author devoted considerable time to the "First Wave" of American feminism and to conservative resistance to this agenda, which included Marson's alma mater Harvard University. Although Lepore could have become bogged down in pointless detail, in my view she keeps just the right amount of minutiae on the people who influenced Marston's intellectual and academic development-- though I suppose some might find fault with the name-dropping of figures only tangentially associated with that development. For instance, William James is mentioned simply because he headed Harvard's nascent psychology department, not because he directly influenced Marston.

Most often, the trivia Lepore rescues is interesting, as when she mentions that Marston briefly worked for Carl Laemmle right at the point when Universal Studios began converting from silent to sound films. True, Marston's involvement in classic Universal horror films was probably confined to making psychological analyses of test-audiences, but Marston's involvement in these early forms of film-fantasy may have contributed to his use of the grotesque in WONDER WOMAN comics.

A much heftier "big name drop" is that of Margaret Sanger, lifelong advocate of birth control and aunt of Olive Byrne, who both lived with Marston and his wife Sadie and bore two of his children, though the public fiction was that they were the offspring of Marston and his legal wife. Sanger admittedly has little influence on the creation of Wonder Woman, even as a philosophical influence on Marston and his family of collaborators. Still, since I've often heard her name linked with an American eugenics movement, I was intrigued to read Lepore's take on it: that Sanger only courted these hardcore conservatives as a means of legalizing contraception. Still, her success there was limited, since she founded an organization called the American Birth Control League, yet ended up being forced to resign from it since the conservative members didn't care for her feminist priorities. I can't help remarking that this would not be the first time a liberal feminist would ally herself to a strangely conservative bedfellow, as per Andrea Dworkin's praise of Jerry Falwell's stance on pornography.

It's perhaps inevitable that it takes Lepore a long time to get around to saying anything much about
Wonder Woman, because Marston wasn't precisely devoted to the profession of creating superhero-like fantasies. Marston had a very peripatetic career, bouncing around from academia to book-writing to seeking practical applications for his most famed invention prior to Princess Diana: the lie-detector. Still, Lepore, despite having had access to many of Marston's personal papers, never gets close to the emotional core of her main biographical subject. Perhaps that's because Marston, as much as his famous character, is secondary in Lepore's mind to her exegesis of American feminism. The one thing that emerges is the sense that if Marston had been successful in any of his earlier endeavors, he probably would not have ended up getting involved with the world of comic books. Lepore sedulously cites the ways in which Marston's bondage fantasies may have grown out of his observation of collegiate hazing, and how he fought to keep those fantasies in the adventures of Wonder Woman, despite the protestations of DC editor Sheldon Mayer.  Yet one never gets any speculation as to why such fantasies were so important to Marston, though Lepore isn't averse to psychologizing him on other matters-- nor whether or not Marston was right or wrong to place such fantasies within the context of juvenile entertainment.

My biggest criticism of Lepore, however, isn't her omission of the Amazon Princess' mythology. It's that she doesn't dole out her criticism of historical figures with an even hand.

For instance, Lepore informs us that DC's psychological consultant Josette Frank allegedly quit the company because she couldn't stand Marston's bondage fantasies. Yet another contemporaneous consultant, Lauretta Bender, had no problem with said fantasies. Lepore makes no judgment of either woman's tastes.

Yet Lepore DOES find time to assail the reputations of two DC comics creators. She can't find time to actally say much about Wonder Woman's origins, or powers, or villains, but she can roundly condemn the way the character was relegated to the role of secretary in the Justice Society. With no proof whatever, Lepore attributes this development solely to longtime comics-scribe Gardner F. Fox, apparently with the belief that Fox was free to treat DC's characters however he pleased, rather than being under the aegis of his editors. This was a straw-man attack on Fox, as proved by the research of fan-essays like this one, indicating that the minimization of the heroine's role in the Justice Society probably came about because Marston demanded control of all WW stories. As a fan of the work of Gardner Fox, I would say that on the whole most of his work supports the cause of empowered heroines, and that whatever he did with Wonder Woman in the JSA title is most likely the result of editorial priorities.

Lepore is on somewhat stronger ground in painting Robert Kanigher-- the man who eventually took over writing and editing the WONDER WOMAN franchise after Marston's demise-- as being less than passionate about the character. While I can't claim to have read all of his stories with the character, in general  I would certainly agree that WONDER WOMAN was nothing but a paycheck to Kanigher. Yet, Lepore oversells the idea that Kanigher was an unregenerate anti-feminist, conveniently overlooking that he has some strong credits in creating comic-book heroines, ranging from 1947's BLACK CANARY to 1970's ROSE AND THE THORN. Both Kanigher and Fox deserve the role of "anti-feminist reactionary" far less than Frederic Wertham, who viciously berated the Wonder Woman character as "anti-feminine." Lepore might have drawn comparisons between Wertham and many of the other anti-feminists she discusses in the early part of the book, given that Wertham also wanted images of women to reflect domesticity. But Wertham, like Frank and Bender, gets a pass for some reason.

Given that Lepore devotes so little attention to Wonder Woman's mythology, save where it illustrates some point of real-world history, I suppose a better title might have been "The Secret BACKSTORY of Wonder Woman"-- because a "history" it ain't.


Travis Langley said...

This post pleases me. I've had trouble finding reviews that take a genuinely critical look at Lepore's book.

Gene Phillips said...

Glad you liked the essay; thanks for dropping a note.