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Wonder Woman: Feminist Icon, Feminist Failure, or Both?
If you’re old enough to remember the 1970s, Lynda Carter playing the title character in the TV show Wonder Woman (shown above) from 1975 to 1979 remains what you think of when you hear the name of the heroine Wonder Woman. Sadly, one of the oldest (and one of the first female) superheroes seems stuck in time for these past 35 years. In Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine, comic book historian Tim Hanley looks back at the 1940s origins of the Amazonian as well as how the character has evolved in response to changes in American society since the 1950s. While some claim Wonder Woman as a feminist icon, others label her a feminist failure. After reading Hanley’s “curious history,” you’ll find it harder to fall back on the easy labels and see that Wonder Woman’s a little bit of both.
Hanley’s the perfect writer to tackle the star-spangled siren of the comic book. His blog, Straitened Circumstances, discusses not only Wonder Woman, but also women in comics in general. On Bleeding Cool.com, Hanley’s monthly column “Gendercrunching” challenges the comics industry and readership to focus on the gender bias still plaguing the medium, sometimes even crunching the numbers on plot lines and women writers and artists to makes his case even clearer—a statistical bent he also uses to great effect in his book. With his close, academic readings of the comics, Hanley achieves his goal of “rediscovering the forgotten history of Wonder Woman” and, therefore, “understand[ing] her journey to her current iconic status and flesh[ing] out Wonder Woman as a character and not just a symbol.”
Hanley’s curiosity over Wonder Woman’s curious career begins with her curious creator, writer and psychologist William Moulton Marston. Marston “wanted to impart to his readers a specific message about female superiority,” Hanley writes. Marston’s feminism didn’t hold that men and women were equal. Instead, he believed that women were superior and could bring about a more just and peaceful society than what men had achieved so far, especially in the midst of World War II. Wonder Woman’s women-only homeland of Themyscira thus became a utopian ideal. In the context of wartime America, Wonder Woman became “a superpowered Rosie the Riveter, constantly encouraging women to join the auxiliary forces or get a wartime job,” Hanley argues. While Wonder Woman inspired women to realize their full potential, she also prepared young boys reading the comics for the coming matriarchy, which Marston was devoutly believed would come after the war.
To illustrate the inevitable matriarchal utopia, Marston created what Hanley calls an “inverted world” in which, instead of being the damsel in distress, Wonder Woman rescues the main male figure, Steve Trevor. Wonder Woman continually rebuffs Steve’s advances, casting aside the idea that all women want is a husband and children. Even Wonder Woman’s secret identity as Diana Prince becomes a “critique” of the “good girl” stereotype of other comics. Hanley beautifully contrasts Wonder Woman/Diana Prince with the early relationship between Lois Lane and super-jerk Superman, who tormented and belittled Lois purely for her gender. Diana Prince’s put-on frailty before the amazingly inept Steve Trevor thus becomes Wonder Woman’s “performance art” in which she accentuates the stereotype to reveal its absurdity.
Marston’s “worldview was unique, remarkably progressive, and all of his theories were channeled into his creation,” Hanley praises the creator of Wonder Woman, adding that Marston’s stories “still stand up as strikingly feminist seventy years later, even compared to modern comic books and female characters in today’s books, TV shows, and movies.” Alas, Marston’s worldview came with complications, particularly a connoisseur’s eye for bondage, which went far beyond just the heroine’s “golden lasso of truth.” “For Marston,” Hanley defends, “bondage was about submission, not just sexually but in every aspect of life.” For the female utopia to happen, men must submit control, but everyone must submit individual desires to the greater goals of society. Bondage became a frequent symbol of that necessary system of submission, one that still bothers people looking for a feminist visionary in Marston and a feminist icon in Wonder Woman. Hanley believes that Marston’s feminism and fetishes are inseparable. “To state that this fetishism invalidated Wonder Woman’s feminism, one would have to ignore the undeniably unique and progressive elements of the character,” Hanley concludes. “Both approaches [i.e., choosing just one side of Marston’s world] are wrong; Wonder Woman was feminist and fetishist.”
As complicated as Wonder Woman’s feminist message was, you would expect that the climate would become more rather than less receptive after the 1940s. However, feminism and Wonder Woman took a step back in the 1950s, with Wonder Woman’s regression due in part to the death of Marston in 1947. “As years passed, new creators further convoluted the character, muddying her odd yet feminist origin,” Hanley writes. “While American women grew from complacent housewives to protestors for women’s liberation, gaining new strength and independence as they moved forward, Wonder Woman fell backward.” Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, author of the 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent that led to the Comics Code Authority that had a chilling effect on comics and comic sales, charged Wonder Woman with corrupting youth through lesbianism (a charge that Hanley gives a full and serious examination in the context of modern attitudes). The CCA forced Wonder Woman (and all comics) into an age of silliness and strict conformity to gender stereotypes that lasted until the late 1960s, when, in the wake of Marvel Comics’ success with more realistic superhero storylines, DC Comics decided to follow suit. “More realistic” for Wonder Woman meant giving up her powers, living as Diana Prince, and centering her life around Steve Trevor. “The depowered Wonder Woman was one of DC Comics’ first attempts to respond to the new tone of the 1960s comic book industry,” Hanley recounts, “and it failed spectacularly.” Focused more on mod fashions and the affections of Steve, Wonder Woman had become a feminist failure.
In the 1970s, however, as liberal feminism fought for women’s rights, Wonder Woman resurfaced as a feminist hero. Ms. Magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem oversaw the July 1972 issue featuring Wonder Woman on the cover (and nominating her for president!). Hanley sees liberal feminism failing Marston’s original vision by calling for equality between men and women rather than a world in which women are superior. Likewise, the Lynda Carter television show of the second half of the 1970s continually emphasized Wonder Woman’s exceptionalism, her uniqueness unattainable for other women. Beauty queen Lynda Carter visually reinforced Wonder Woman’s problematic power, which was essentially the opposite of Marston’s original dream of every woman holding the potential of being a Wonder Woman, if only given the chance.
As Hanley points out near the end of his book, Wonder Woman’s the superhero everyone knows but knows nothing really about. When Batman or Superman died, it made the mainstream news, while Wonder Woman’s died twice in that same span with little notice. “The blank slate Wonder Woman of today is an icon,” Hanley concludes, “but by focusing on only that, her history and humanity are lost.” Rather than praise Wonder Woman as feminist icon or damn her as feminist failure, perhaps it’s finally time to allow her to exist as a character full of fascinating contradictions and capable of raising important questions. “Wonder Woman has so many facets and incarnations, and within them lies a character who is both bizarre and brilliant,” Hanley says. “To forget her past is to miss what makes Wonder Woman such a great hero.” The battle of the sexes goes back to the beginning of time, but Wonder Woman’s played her part, however problematically, for seven decades now and won’t go down without a fight.
[Many thanks to Chicago Review Press for providing me with a review copy of Tim Hanley’s Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine.]
The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.
- One especially mysterious thing about the asteroid impact, which killed the dinosaurs, is how it transformed Earth's tropical rainforests.
- A recent study analyzed ancient fossils collected in modern-day Colombia to determine how tropical rainforests changed after the bolide impact.
- The results highlight how nature is able to recover from cataclysmic events, though it may take millions of years.