If we look at other movie offerings, such as the superhero reboots and the insatiable appetite Hollywood has for franchises with established fan bases, then continually bumped dates for the “Wonder Woman” film project—from 2011 to (currently) 2017—lends a lot of credibility to those feminist fans who allege the project keeps getting postponed because of sexism. And it’s not just the movies. In 2011, David E. Kelly produced a much-hyped TV pilot that only NBC seriously considered and then passed on when they saw that pilot. At casual glance, it looks like Hollywood doesn’t want to do a female superhero project. I suspect, however, that Hollywood is simply having trouble figuring out how to write this female superhero.
Writing “Wonder Woman” is complicated. And she is complicated in a way that makes women, and everyone else, confused about womanhood and feminism and power. Casual observers of the heroine think of her as a female Superman in service of truth, justice, and the American way. But “Wonder Woman” is not that.
Wonder Woman creator William Marston wrote the comic as pop-culture propaganda for men, to train men for the coming female dominance through themes of sexual bondage. Marston sought to entice men with a smart and scantily clad warrior woman, whom villains repeatedly bind and punish but who always breaks free and binds them, to their ultimate pleasure. Wonder Woman’s kryptonite was a man binding her hands, which drained her of all will and super strength. She would use her wits and feminine wiles to escape and then bind them back with her golden lasso of truth, which made them happier people. The repeated lesson: men can rule women physically, but are better men when women bind them.
In short, Wonder Woman is a heroine for matriarchy—rule by women. This is enough to complicate culture’s current feminist battles. Declared feminists prefer to keep hidden the question of whether feminism strives for equality of women or superiority of women. There is a clear majority only for equality, so the declared feminist movement tries to claim superiority by speaking popular lines about equality. The resulting confusion has reduced the movement to rubble, and reviving the “Wonder Woman” franchise will only accelerate the remaining demolition. (That link is merely an example, not a history. The relevant part starts at: “I also learned that when you’re a committed feminist, it’s sometimes confusing to reconcile your ideals with your desires.”)
A Dip Into the Psyche of Wonder Woman’s Creator
Marston wanted Wonder Woman to prepare society for rule by women, but he did not succeed, mainly because the facts are not in his favor. Rule by women is just as bad an idea as rule by men; it is just bad in other ways. Marston did not realize this logical truth because his understandings about women and truth was shallow, naive, and preoccupied with his own pleasure.
Among fans, the basics of Marston’s story are commonly known. Lately, however, in part to fuel more “Wonder Woman” projects, books on Marston and his creation have appeared. The two best known: “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” by Harvard professor Jill Lepore, and “Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine,” by Tim Hanley.
The sum up: Marston was a psychologist otherwise well known for his invention of the lie detector test.* He was also a common-law polygamist with a bondage fetish, most likely as a submissive. He lived with three women, one his legal wife. He had children by two of them, his wife and a younger woman who raised the children. He had a bondage relationship with the third woman. He apparently used Margaret Sanger, eugenicist and founder of Planned Parenthood, as one of his inspirations for the heroine (she is the daughter of the queen of an all-female island, which makes for more than a hint that only the elite reproduce sparingly) and the bracelets that bind Wonder Woman were inspired by the bracelets that the woman who raised his children wore.
Even this little bit of background provides plenty of fodder to complicate cultural debates about women, sex, childbearing, and domesticity. Sexism hasn’t stalled the project. Worry over a minefield of potential accusations of sexism has.
The books cover the background of Marston’s indoctrination gambits, the industry’s changes to the comic based upon their read of the market, and public’s reaction to those changes. They also show the intellectual feminist preference for the themes of matriarchy.
Wonder Woman Catches Hollywood Between a Rock and Hard Place
There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut winner for the best version of “Wonder Woman,” hence Hollywood’s reluctance. She was popular in her original Amazonian, all-women-are-superior origin story from the Golden Age of Comics, roughly the 1930s and ’40s. But she was also popular with her modified origin story of Diana Prince, the woman who was a superior being from an enlightened-but-not-perfect society of women from the Silver Age.
(The Golden and Silver Ages are about the comic industry as a whole, with most comic hero series breaking at the end of the Golden Age, when the end of World War II dried up desire for hero stories. The industry moved on to horror stories, which some blamed for post-war behavior problems with children. Soon a ratings and standards board was born, the horror comics were stopped, and the publishers rebooted the hero stories to kick off the Silver Age. Notably, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman ran though this time. The writers did modify their origin stories, with Superman’s and Batman’s tragic origins getting a little thematically lighter, and Wonder Woman’s fantastical origins getting thematically darker, not for her but for her society of women, who were no longer a perfect master race.)
Anyone trying to write a Wonder Woman movie these days has to sort though all of this. Go too heavy on the superiority of women themes, and you’ll give away the declared feminist game. The silent majority does not care for the Athena Doctrine, which essentially states that the world would be a better place if kinder, gentler women ruled. The best and most concise renditions of that doctrine are, in fact, Wonder Woman links. See the lyrics of the ’70s show with Lynda Carter (embedded below) and the Queen’s Bullets and Bracelets speech in the pilot episode.
Go too heavy on the sexual bondage themes and you’ll not only rate the movie out of the popular viewing necessary for blockbuster money, but also upset the older, puritanical, and radical faction of declared feminists who view female sexual objectification as always bad, even if—maybe especially if—it is being done to make Second Wave Seal of Approval (TM) feminist ideas more appealing to men.
Here’s How a Wonder Woman Movie Could Work
What would likely work best for movie success involves diluting the bondage and dominance themes and the superior gender themes by essentially using the Silver Age origin story of WW as an exceptional woman from an enlightened but not superior society. She is just another hero who happens to be a woman. But that is wide open to fan critique, feminist and purist, that it isn’t “Wonder Woman.”
Layer on the factionalism, suffocating pieties to politically correct thought, and trigger etiquette, and a Wonder Woman project is a pop-culture perfect storm, one no one can model with enough certainty to attempt. Witness the 2011 TV pilot, which faced multiple complaints about just the costume. They took out the American elements of the eagle and stars (of course) and added rubber tights. Fan complaints ranged from “not American anymore” to “too porny.”
Then that reboot of an iconic feminist myth actually ended with Diana finding out from Steve Trevor that he was already married. Sad and lonely, she went home… to her cat…and filled out an online dating profile. I guess the writers were trying to make the heroine relevant to American Everywoman. It is a tic in modern myth rewriting. The hero is just like us. Apparently, the David E. Kelly crew thought powerful women might be powerful by day but lonely cat ladies by night. That wouldn’t raise objections. None at all.
In a movie, some faction would surely find something wrong. Would the studio or the screenwriters take the blame for sexist themes? Which sexist theme would ignite protest? From which faction? Anything goes.
Prior to the social-media age, the old adage about no publicity is bad publicity probably made sense. But with social media, some bad publicity won’t be overcome. And “Wonder Woman” pretty much guarantees some of that bad publicity. About the only certainty in the project is that feminists would cry “sexist!” over something. Given Wonder Woman’s origins, they’d probably be at least a little right.
* Not only did “Wonder Woman” not fulfill Marston’s intent, but also, his lie-detector test is generally considered not reliable evidence as it is relatively simple to beat for any who knows how it works. Marston’s ideas are not standing the test of time.