There is no art, no poetry, no song, no human expression, in which the female breast is not celebrated and adored.
—Robert Anton Wilson, “The Book Of The Breast”
Wonder Woman is pretty much the most prominent “goddess”-type figure there is in the mythology of contemporary pop-culture, perhaps only second to Princess Leia. Though humans have seemingly “evolved” over the decades and millennia, this primal need throughout the masses for archetypal icons of femaleness remain, whether we want to admit it or not (new archetypes are another matter, and I’ll get to that in a future post).
But Wonder Woman, the subject of an upcoming big-budget motion picture, has had an extremely strange and ideologically-charged past. She is, ultimately, an enigma, a paradox…as contradictory, battled-over, and fluid as the archetype in our current era itself.
I. Wonder Woman, The “Bad” Feminist
In December of 2016, Wonder Woman’s status as honorary UN ambassador was dropped after a protest by feminists. The online petition that seems to have forced the UN’s hand listed the reasons for WW’s dismissal as follows:
Although the original creators may have intended Wonder Woman to represent a strong and independent warrior woman with a feminist message, the reality is that the character’s current iteration is that of a large breasted, white woman of impossible proportions, scantily clad in a shimmery, thigh-baring body suit with an American flag motif and knee high boots—the epitome of a pin-up girl.
It is quite clear from this statement that the Wonder Woman protestors really didn’t know a goddamn thing regarding the complexities of this character, her origins, and what exactly she represents; though if they did, chances are they might have hated her even more.
Of particular interest here is the idea that “a strong and independent warrior woman” and a female who is “large-breasted” apparently cannot co-exist; that somehow, the large breast, especially if prominent or uncovered in some way, is diametrically opposed to the idea of women’s liberation; a purposely offensive gesture towards women, a misogynist act by merely existing.
According to this mentality, to connect a potential female role model with sexual topics or imagery at all is to defile her, to rob her of her empowerment.
But let us go back another layer within Wonder Woman’s past.
II. Wonder Woman, Feminist Icon
In the 1970s, Wonder Woman was adopted as an icon of the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. Top feminist Gloria Steinem placed Wonder Woman on the cover of Ms. in 1972, accompanied with an essay singing her praises. She wrote:
Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values of the women’s culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women; sisterhood and mutual support among women; peacefulness and esteem for human life; a diminishment both of ‘masculine’ aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts.
Wonder Woman became the go-to superhero for little girls to idolize, the embodiment of female empowerment.
And in the process, she was neutered.
Because many feminist hagiographies and tributes to the character conveniently left out one little thing about Wonder Woman’s origins…
III. The Incredibly Mixed-Up Adventures Of Wonder Woman’s Creator
According to the book Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine, the character’s creator William Moulton Marston was an operatically eccentric figure who stood out even in an industry packed to the seams with such creatures. Psychologist, women’s rights activist, comic book writer, historical bondage gear expert, and Gillette pitchman, Marston was also apparently blessed with a childlike lack of self-consciousness.
The original Wonder Woman of the 1940s contained a lot of what might be considered “fetish” material, to a degree far higher than the usual campy fare for that time-period. Bondage—mostly of women, occasionally of men (mostly her boyfriend Steve Trevor)—was the centerpiece of many of these Golden Age stories, narratives seemingly sculpted in such a way as to show off as much of it as humanly possible.
But here’s the thing: I believe that Marston honestly didn’t see anything outré about the heavy (and quite on-the-nose knowledgable) amount of bondage and S&M imagery in Wonder Woman. That he consciously approached the comic with a stated agenda of “female empowerment” is clear.
But while Marston conceived “Wonder Woman” as a comic that might help bring about, in his words, “an American matriarchy” where “Women will lead the world,” it also became the favorite of males who found themselves unaccountably turned-on by all the images of bondage. Wonder Woman Unbound author Tim Hanley recounts the story of a U.S. serviceman who wrote the following fan letter to Marston:
I am one of those odd, perhaps unfortunate men who derive an extreme erotic pleasure from the mere thought of a beautiful girl, chained or bound, or masked, or wearing extreme high-heels or high-laced boots—in fact, any sort of constriction or strain whatsoever…Have you the same interest in bonds and fetters that I have?
Concern began to grow within and without All-American Publications (part of what would later become DC Comics) concerning the potentially kinky content of their comic books. Publisher Max Gaines helpfully provided Marston with “alternatives” to bondage imagery:
Miss Roubicek hastily dashed off this morning the enclosed list of methods which can be used to keep women confined or enclosed without the use of chains. Each one of these can be varied in many ways—enabling us, as I told you in our conference last week, to cut down the use of chains by at least 50 to 75% without at all interfering with the excitement of the story or the sales of the books.
to which Marston dismissively replied,
…you can’t have a real woman character in any form of fiction without touching off many readers’ erotic fantasies. Which is swell, I say—harmless erotic fantasies are now generally recognized as good for people.
William Moulton Marston was an American original, embodying all the inherent contradictions of America itself.
But it was not the Patriarchy who consciously turned Wonder Woman into a symbol of female empowerment and Women’s Liberation.
IV. Whitewashing Wonder Woman
It is really quite astonishing to me how many feminist readings and praises of Wonder Woman completely ignore her kinky past. Is it simply that many of these women, such as Gloria Steinem, profess to have been fans of the character but never actually read the comics? Or were these omissions purposely done?
I have to believe that Steinem, despite her claims to have read these comics as a little girl (meaning, she would have read the Golden Age material), never actually read these comics. Wonder Woman might have been powerful, and (depending on how you define it) “empowered” in these stories…but these were often rough, elemental, primal-type tales not only about relations between males and females, but especially in regards to how women treat each other.
Women in the original tales regularly tied up and dominated other women in these stories, with the figure of the “evil mistress” being a common one. Females regularly literally enslaved other females in these comics, leaving Wonder Woman with no other choice but to use violence (well…spanking) to solve conflicts.
But this was all ignored in the canonization of Wonder Woman by feminists during the 60s-70s because…honestly, I don’t don’t think many of them actually read the source material. They saw what they wanted to see: a ready-made “icon” (remember, this was the era of “Pop Art” and superheroes-as-camp) to reappropriate.
But denying this vital aspect of Wonder Woman and her origin created a schizoid-type paradox around her—one that crippled, rather than enhanced, her effectiveness as an actually defined character.
And again there is the idea that any connection with sex or sexual themes could destroy a woman’s ability to be a feminist or a role-model. The idea, of course, not only dovetailing nicely with hard-core Christian beliefs on the subject, but flying in the face of millennia’s-worth of goddess figures and female archetypes within the history of humanity.
V. The War Against Breasts
The female breast has long been connected with fertility. It was traditionally the first thing the developing human saw on a daily basis, that satisfied their hunger and kept them alive. A breast; probably, to the perspective of the small developing human, a really really LARGE breast.
As Robert Anton Wilson comments in The Book Of The Breast (a.k.a. Ishtar Rising):
No other power can withstand the paranoiac pragmatism that constantly reminds us that we must die, that all we build must crumble, that there is no point in anything. The erotic life-energy that takes two catenary curves and turns them into the supremely beautiful and desirable is the answer, and the whole answer, to such gloomy grousing. It tells us why we go on and will go on.
Those two hemispheres are, after all, the best things in the world.
But in contemporary culture, the large breast is often demonized as something offensive and oppressive; something that needs to be covered-up at all costs. Certainly, this was the opinion of many of those in the ultra-conservative religious Christian communities, those who crusade against pornography.
But it is often, paradoxically, also the opinion of some who call themselves “feminists.”
But what about the women who really have large breasts?
And how did breasts become ugly symbols of female oppression?
I think an examination of those specific questions is grist for the mill of a future post (I may move to Guam after writing it). But certainly, the figure of Wonder Woman—even to the present day, in which there are still fights going on as what is perceived as “too much” skin shown by this character—keeps these questions at the forefront of our minds.
VI. The Once And Future Wonder Woman (Goddess)
Now that we know that the origins of Wonder Woman lay with content that has been considered “kinky” by normie standards…doesn’t that just prove the protestors right? Certainly, a figure that has appeared in such material, and often with breasts prominent and skin exposed, shouldn’t be a role model?
But you see, that’s a value judgement; not “self-evident,” not objective fact. And it’s a value judgement that excludes a whole lot of women who don’t fit into this weirdly chaste vision of what the ideal feminist should be.
By denying Wonder Woman her true history, feminists of the 70s and 80s—some who have crusaded against material similar to her Golden Age adventures—deny the full spectrum of who this character really is.
Hanley in Wonder Woman Unbound concludes:
Dismissing the bondage imagery to focus on the positive, feminist aspects of Wonder Woman means that one would have to dismiss the theory of submission that’s at the root of bondage. By cutting away those roots, you lose the foundation of Wonder Woman’s feminism as well. To state that this fetishism invalidated Wonder Woman’s feminism, one would have to ignore the undeniably unique and progressive elements of the character. Both approaches are wrong; Wonder Woman was feminist and fetishist.
Similarly, by using “large breasts” as a reason to prevent Wonder Woman from being UN Ambassador, the protestors have marginalized a whole lot of women who—shockingly—may actually have large breasts themselves. The entire crusade against this sort of imagery in comic books (and related entertainment) itself is based on the most shaky of grounds.
You know, the first “hate mail” I ever received in ten years of writing online was from a woman who, in regards to an early version of my “voluptuous goddesses through the millennia” examples, said that I was an “asshole.” I was an “asshole” for writing that and merely suggesting that this seemed to be some sort of primal archetypal imagery.
But ignoring reality will not help us in any struggles. We can work with reality, we can re-shape it, but we cannot wholesale deny it. Denying it completely is not empowerment.