The Story of Wonder Woman
Sex! Bondage! Ethical Non-Monogamy!
June 2 will see the release of Wonder Woman, which retells the origin story of Diana Prince, the nigh-immortal warrior princess of Themyscira. Israeli actress Gal Gadot is playing the character, reprising her role from 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
While some viewers may be new to the mythos of Wonder Woman, many know the character from the classic 1970s television series, starring Lynda Carter, though true comic book fans know that her history stretches all the way back to 1941, and the peculiar relationship between William Moulton Marston, his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and his live-in girlfriend, Olive Byrne.
Even today, non-monogamous relationships are generally frowned upon in many traditional circles, and such an arrangement certainly isn’t for everybody, but back in the 1930s, William, Elizabeth, and Olive were said to have been in a completely amicable “throuple.”
William was a psychologist and inventor, and, after deducing the educational power of comic books, decided to use the medium to forward his progressive ideas. Inspired by his wife and their mistress, Marston, along with artist H. G. Peter, created Wonder Woman, a superhero who had all the strength of Superman, but who was also a champion of peace and love over war and hate. Wonder Woman is from Paradise Island (later known as Themyscira), an all-female utopia which represented Marston’s observations on the superior empathy, honesty, and capabilities of women.
Wonder Woman’s two most iconic accessories are her indestructible Bracelets of Submission and her Lasso of Truth. The armlets are simply based on those worn by Olive Byrne, but the Lasso has its roots in Marston’s research into submission, lie detection, and erotic bondage.
Marston and his wife invented an early form of the polygraph machine, which used blood pressure data to deduce whether a subject was telling the truth. Beyond this, Marston’s research led him to believe that submission to empathetic authority was a positive and natural state, one which was necessary for an ideal society. To him, the best way to convey this idea was through the use of not-so-subtle eroticism. The Lasso of Truth wraps tightly around its target, compelling them to submit to Wonder Woman’s powerful will. Marston saw erotic bondage as a respectable practice, and had no qualms about expressing that belief. Unfortunately, this would later be used against him by the great enemy of art in comic books, Fredric Wertham.
After Bill Marston’s death in 1947, Wonder Woman continued to be written by other authors, though some of Marston’s more overt themes were toned down, but it was Wertham’s 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, which, combined with the sexist nature of the era, led to the utter derailment of the character (she was reduced to being the Justice Society of America’s secretary, despite being easily the most powerful member of the team), as well as the comics industry, for years to come. Wertham latched on to the questionably homoerotic subtext of Batman and Robin, as well as the so-called “anti-masculinity” of Wonder Woman, and used it as evidence that comic books were destroying America’s youth. It would be decades before Wonder Woman regained her place at the top of the pantheon of DC superheroes and wasn’t until she appeared on the cover of the first issue of Ms. Magazine in 1972 that Wonder Woman would return to being a feminist icon.
In the years since the publication of Seduction of the Innocent, most of Wertham’s findings have been debunked, and his methods have been refuted as manipulative and dishonest, and the films based on the works of Marvel Comics and DC Comics are some of the biggest money-makers in Hollywood. A big-budget Wonder Woman movie has been a long time coming, and it’s finally here, courtesy of director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot.
Will this new incarnation of Themyscira’s most famous warrior princess pay homage to the sensual past of the source material? Or will it play it safe and fall back on well-worn superhero tropes? We’ll find out when Wonder Woman hits theaters on June 2.
…Oh, and if you were wondering, after Bill Marston’s death in the 40s, Elizabeth and Olive continued to live together until Olive died in 1985. Elizabeth passed away in 1993, one month after her hundredth birthday.