Corsets & Comic Books: Wonder Woman Breaking Gender Roles
The history of sex has been a hard one to swallow. Wars against pleasure have fueled the fears that too much of a good thing will inevitably take over and destroy us. In our faith, in our politics, we are divided. Good and evil, right and wrong, we are both scarce and infinite. Somewhere in our history we grew to believe that without rigorous control over ourselves and others, pleasure would inevitably devour us all into the fiery tongues of hell.
Society has swung from extremes – from orgied parties celebrating the decadence of Gods, to corsets wrapped around crumpled ribs, frothing with cloth and shielding us from the dangers of the natural female form.
Our history is freckled in fractured female voices. Voices stifled by this fear of pleasure and subdued into violent silence. Women were there though, carefully shaping and influencing from the shadows. They weren’t just hanging about idly wishing there were more pies for them to bake (a problem I quite honestly struggle with). No, no, they were tactically finding ways to contribute to shaping this grand country, it’s policy and its people. We’ve heard the quote, behind every great man there is a woman. I do believe that to be true. Like it or not, we work well together. Slowly the stories of those women are trickling out, but damn, was it hard to find them.
Most of my searches for women in sexual history resulted in hilariously few results. Most were along the lines of: What does your woman’s sexual history mean about her? Vaginismus and the history of your a woman. There were a couple disturbing takes on how our liberation was detrimental to our psyche, and pages and pages and pages on women scientists being sexually harassed. We’re trying to liberate our genitals here folks, and harassment makes that harder for everyone. If you’re not clear on consent yet here’s a hilarious british introduction to it. Unconscious people don’t like tea, guys. Put the tea down.
She, like most women of history, was a culmination of influences, stifled and repressed. She was too sexy as she saved the world and this was deemed dangerous. Using comics and corsets at first, I’ll later introduce more recent silent heroins of sex.
Wonder Woman was created by Dr. Martson, a scientist, psychiatrist, and professor who employed folklore to inspire the post-war generations to come. His character, WW, riddled in kink and color, was challenging the accepted female roles in society. He believed that post-war society would surely evolve into a matriarchy, and did not entertain that we were equals. Martson believed that women were superior to men due to their heightened sense of justice and compassion. He wanted to inspire girls to this role and prepare the boys for what was to come. He was a strong advocate for the emerging strength of women and wanted to make a comic that embodied the growing strength and voices of women, who were themselves like wonder woman, exploding out of their independent confines.
The woman he married, Elizabeth Holloway Martson, had been arrested for the illegal distribution of birth control. She fought for women’s rights, especially for women breaking out of the bonds of marriage. His lover was the secret inspiration for Wonder Woman’s cuff. She lived in the same home as his wife and raised the children as the other two went out to work.
Controversy over Wonder Woman’s sexuality, scarce clothes, and rogue character was constant with claims that the youth was being inspired to violence. In response, Martson took his study to a trauma doctor as a consultant who reported: “She believes Dr. Marston is handling very cleverly this whole ‘experiment’ as she calls it. She feels that perhaps he is bringing to the public the real issue at stake in the world (and one which she feels may possibly be a direct cause of the present conflict) and that is that the difference between the sexes is not a sex problem, nor a struggle for superiority, but rather a problem of the relation of one sex to the other.”
He had been a psychiatrist for years, and knew the delicate lines between smut and story. “Harmless erotic fantasies are terrific…it’s the lousy ones you have to look out for,” he claimed. Another one of his beliefs was that these outlets for our natural eroticisms integrated a certain arousal and appeal that would invite this type of female archetype into American society, as had been done by ancient cultures in the past.
“Bondage became a frequent symbol of the necessary system of submission…” that Martson believed essential to the evolving political climate. The ropes and chains WW was constantly breaking out of were symbols of the typically accepted icons of feminist liberation that were being used across the Americas for other feminist protests.
Submission of the masses was a prerequisite for the evolution of our society. He believed that in order for women, the more just and peaceful of the species to rule, men would have to submit control. Furthermore, everyone would have to submit to the needs of society as a whole.
In other arguments, Marston encouraged that women enjoyed the submissive nature of being bound. He proclaimed that, even in the comics that tended to more sadistic, masochistic, murder scenes, the point was that WW broke out of those chain and successfully freed herself.
In 1954, Fredric Wertham a psychiatrist who wrote A Seduction of the Innocent, testified that these comics were poisoning youth and turning them into juveniles. This contributed to the tragic sterilization of comic culture. New codes were established that dictated, “under its terms, comic books could contain nothing cruel: ‘all scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, [and] masochism shall not be permitted.” There could be nothing kinky: “Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at, nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.” Last, but not least, there could be nothing unconventional: “the treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.”
Wonder Woman was the first of DC comics to adapt to the new guidelines. It’s needless to detail the inevitable demise of Wonder Woman, when she chooses to give up her super powers so she can focus on her life around Steve and own a boutique.
Grotesquely stunned? Yes, me too. Did you just lose your lady boner forever? Also me too.
Bender was a child psychologist with a focus on aggression. Martson took the comics to her for her opinion on the so called danger of comic books on the developing mind of children. “If anything in American popular culture was bad for girls, it wasn’t Wonder Woman; it was Walt Disney… The mothers are always killed or sent to insane asylums in Walt Disney movies,” she said. “This argument fell on deaf ears.”