Friday, July 7, 2017

Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman

The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014) is a weirdly fascinating book, bent on showing that any subject you can think of is as much a piece of history as any other, and the oddest can be made to shed light on its own age and probably ours as well. The story of Wonder Woman may be the oddest work of history I have read in this century. It involves bigamy, birth control, feminism, the invention of the lie detector, the rise of comic books, World War II, and much more besides. The fascination comes not so much from the subject matter as from Jill Lepore's way of writing about it. She has a great gift for setting scenes: Harvard's psychological laboratory in the early 1900s, with Doktor Professor Munsterberger and his assistants subjecting undergraduates to pseudo-scientific experiments; rallies by suffragettes; the strange domestic world of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman's creator.

Marston was a pioneering experimenter in psychology and responsible for the first physiological "lie detector," based on blood pressure. He was fired from several universities for his unorthodox views and excessive curiosity about sorority initiations, and his publications were mostly ignored. To the rather common (at the time) psychological view that people mainly needed to get over their hangups about sex he added strange theories about dominance and submission that extended those categories to such a broad range of human behavior that they lose most of their surface meanings. (For example, he thought that we all have to submit to living in society and abiding by its rules.) I never understood what he was getting at, and I don't think Lepore does, either.

Marston continued to teach when he could, but without a professorship he needed some other way to support himself. He tried writing movie scripts and served for a while as a consulting psychologist in Hollywood; he got a law degree and tried to practice law. Nothing took.

Fortunately for Marston he married a woman who was much better at earning a living than he was, Elizabeth Holloway. The two had been high school sweethearts and their marriage seemed pretty much inevitable to everyone who knew them. But circumstances of their careers led to their often living apart, and during one of their times apart Marston fell in love with one of his students, Olive Byrne. Marston presented Holloway with an ultimatum: let Byrne move in with them or he would leave. Holloway accepted. According to Lepore, she did so partly because she wanted to have children and keep her career, and the world of the 1920s provided few ways to make that happen. Holloway's strategy was that she would work and her husband's lover would raise her children.

Somehow it worked reasonably well. Not perfectly, but then Byrne was a troubled soul who was suicidal when she met Marston, not the sort of person who lives happily ever after under any circumstances, and Marston was a high-functioning lunatic. Each of Moulton's wives had two children, and they were all raised together. They told the census taker that Byrne was Marston's widowed sister-in-law, and she created an imaginary husband who died just after her second child was conceived; her children never found out that Moulton was their biological father as well as their adoptive one until decades later. Moulton died in 1947 but Byrne and Holloway continued to live together until their deaths, eventually moving together to a condominium in Florida, known to their descendants as "the ladies." It's a little lesson in how people can sometimes find companionship and happiness where you wouldn't expect.

Byrne was, among other things, the niece of Margaret Sanger, advocate for birth control and in the 1930s the world's most famous feminist. This ties the story to the feminist world of the early 20th century, which Lepore sketches in some excellent passages. Marston and Holloway were both also feminists, and all got to know Sanger well. Marston once said of his famous creation, “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.”

After a lifetime of failed schemes, Moulton finally hit it big with Wonder Woman in 1942. Wonder Woman was a huge success, quickly becoming the third best-selling comic in America after Superman and Batman. She was a strange character, raised among Amazons, armed with a lasso that forced everyone caught in it to tell the truth, so strong as to be almost invincible unless she could be bound or placed in chains, which rendered her weak.

Moulton (and Wonder Woman's) obsession with bondage flowed from two sources: his strange psychology and feminist iconography. Suffragettes and feminists were always appearing in public in chains or gagged or both, to symbolize the oppression they hoped to throw off. That's Margaret Sanger above, who was banned from speaking at Harvard and then appeared on stage gagged while a male friend made a speech on her behalf.

This kind of imagery was everywhere.

And yet Marston's obsession with ropes and chains seems to go far beyond necessary to make the political point; in his instructions to his artists he lovingly detailed exactly how Wonder Woman should be bound in each of these scenes.

But anyway that didn't keep Wonder Woman from being a huge hit, especially with girls. Among the girls who grew up loving Wonder Woman was Gloria Steinem, which is how WW ended up on the cover of the first regular issue of Ms. Magazine.

It is, as I said, a strange story, not especially important but interesting nonetheless. Thinking back on it, what strikes me most is what it says about creativity. Fantasy and science fiction writers are always being asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" In the case of William Moulton Marston, Lepore has been able to track down the origin of almost every piece of the Wonder Woman saga. Some of it comes from classical literature as reinterpreted in novels of the 1920s, including pulp novels about Amazons; some comes from early 20th-century feminism; some from Marston's strange psychology and obsession with chains; some from his lie detector experiments; some comes from the politics of 1942; some from his time as a college professor with too much interest in sorority girls. Many of the characters are obviously based on real people; the villain Dr. Psycho was based on Marston's old instructor Munsterberger. Lepore shows how much Wonder Woman owes to other stories of Amazons, other comic books, other female superheroes. By the time she is done there isn't much left to explain, except for the hard to explain gift of style that sets successful writers apart from the ones whose very similar stories never get read. Lepore has it, which is why her books, including this one, are such a pleasure to read.

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