Wonder Woman Was Created by a Feminist Bondage Fetishist Who Wanted a Matriarchal Utopia

William Marston wanted girls to know they could do anything boys could do better. And in chains.

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Mar 21 2015, 5:11am

William Marston, the psychologist and comic author who created Wonder Woman, believed that the only way to save the world from war was for women to rule the world and for men to become more like women. Marston was, among other things, a noted psychological researcher and an enthusiastic bondage fetishist; he believed comic books were a great form for educational, anti-patriarchy propaganda. Wonder Woman was designed to bring the world to matriarchy through confronting abuse and modeling girl power, genderfucking, bondage play, and erotic mind control. Writer, comics expert, and editor of the Hooded Utilitarian blog Noah Berlatsky explores the badass genesis of Wonder Woman in his latest book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948. VICE recently spoke with Berlatsky about misandry, lesbianism, and Marston's radical feminist agenda.

VICE: I never thought that comics were purposely written to change the world before I read your book. You say Marston was a radical feminist psychologist who invented Wonder Woman as bondage-filled "psychological propaganda" for world peace. Is this kind of agenda common in comics? How did you make the discovery?
Berlatsky: I don't think this agenda is very common in comics! At least not in the corporate superhero comics of the 1940s that Marston was working on. Most of the creators at that time were working class, often Jewish, and were coming out of a pulp milieu; they were mostly interested in making money and providing entertaining product.

Marston on the other hand was a WASP and a former academic... and a big old crank, too. His vision of a matriarchal utopia is pretty well-known among folks who read those comics—he isn't exactly subtle about it—so I knew more or less going in. Reading more of his psychological theories and his academic work, I was surprised at how directly he believed comics could be propaganda. There's one great story where Wonder Woman's scientist friend Paul von Gunther projects images of Wonder Woman into the brains of iniquitous industrialists in order to get them to submit and become good supporters of the war effort. So the idea that images of Wonder Woman could make men (and women too!) submit to an erotic matriarchal utopia is something Marston promotes very directly in the comics.

I loved the parts where you talked about the lasso of truth, mind control, and stamping eroticized images of Wonder Woman on evil men's minds to turn them into Reformandos who fight patriarchy. I used to do erotic hypnosis—fem dom mind control—for a living. Sometimes I thought I was changing the world by brainwashing these men to be better people, but other times that seemed like an insanely lofty goal for phone sex. Do you think fem dom mind control can just inherently be something that disrupts patriarchy?

Marston would be beside himself with joy to hear that you had ambitions to change the world with erotic hypnosis. He would kiss your feet (as it were).

I talk a bit in the book about whether women [acting] as dominatrixes is feminist, or can disrupt patriarchy. The conclusion I came to was, "it depends." There have been a number of feminist theorists—like Tania Modleski, for example—who are really skeptical of the way people like [Georges] Bataille and Sascher Masoch [the Austrian writer for whom masochism was named] use masochism. Masoch loves the idea of strong women, but his love seems connected to the idea that strong women subvert or parody the Patriarch, not the Patriarchy.

Men hate men; misandry is one of the main modes of the patriarchy. Guys love the idea of overthrowing other more powerful guys and putting themselves in their place. So, for Masoch, there's no feminist agenda; the dominatrix is about subverting the male law in the name of some other guy, basically. And in fact at the end of Venus in Furs, Masoch talks about how he plans now to pick up the rod and is ready to put aside childish things and (the implication is) to beat women.

But Marston has a real feminist agenda, I think, not just in the sense that he wants to put women in power, but in the sense that he wants to overturn the patriarchal idea that power should rule, or that the strongest should rule. Marston sees erotic submission as important not because it puts men down but because submission is actually for him a virtue. Erotic submission is about releasing control to the one you love, for him. So, yes, I think that is opposed to the values patriarchy tells us are important, and I think it has feminist implications, or can have feminist implications when coupled to a belief in women's power, and women's right to power, as in Marston's worldview.

Your book discusses how some of the comics show symbolic incest, the denial of the mother figure, and then Wonder Woman and the Holliday girls come to the rescue and there is some pretty sophisticated symbolic healing and re-integration. Can reading the comics be healing?
I don't know that I'd thought about the comics in terms of healing directly. Marston intended the comics to be inspiring and reassuring for girls. He has a lot of sequences where he says directly: women can do anything! Women are better at sports than boys! Here, Wonder Woman will show all you girls how to perform fantastic feats while wearing chains, because you are all awesome (especially when wearing chains)!

There's one issue where it's about how people resist the idea of women contributing to the war effort, and Marston explains that women working in the war effort is actually awesome and vital. I think he was making a very deliberate effort to encourage girls to see themselves as strong and capable and awesome. Gloria Steinem, for instance, took that to heart, and said it inspired her.

So there's that sense in which you could say he was healing, or counteracting, some of the negative stereotypes or messages girls get. I think that's the more comfortable feminist message. But, you know, there are those chains too. One of the messages he was trying to counteract was the idea that girls shouldn't be sexual, or should be afraid of sexuality, or should be ashamed of a sexual desire to submit, or to dominate, or both at once. The comics present sexuality and bondage play as something that's fun for girls and for children of all ages.

At the same time, I think Wonder Woman #16, and some of the other comics, also present sexual abuse and violence as clearly evil—something that should be fought and condemned—while at the same time not condemning children's sexuality, and acknowledging that sexual control is something that people often enjoy, without it being evil or wrong. That's a really difficult line to walk. Marston's take on those issues, and his acknowledgement of both children's sexuality and of sexual abuse, could be important for our culture.

Marston was also addressing boys; he thought boys could love strong female heroes too, both in the sense that they could see them as desirable, and identify with them or want to be them. So, if there's healing, it's for boys as well as girls, and part of the healing is the idea that boys can be girls; that everyone, of every gender, can be sisters.

So when you talked about the necessity of integrating with one's shadow self, that wasn't about healing from trauma?
No, of course that was about healing from trauma and from sexual violence and reintegration. I think the comic was talking about the necessity or power of female/female relationships, and mother/daughter relationships, in healing from trauma. I'm just hesitant to say that the comics themselves would heal people. People's response to art is so individual. I'm sure Marston would like to think that the sympathetic representation of trauma could be healing.

Would you say that the comics are meant to be instructional?
To some degree. It's certainly supposed to demonstrate the seriousness of sexual assault. It very much insists that listening to children when they say they've been assaulted is vital. And he absolutely wanted people to look to mothers as love leaders who would lead them on to utopia and healing.

I mean, Marston's comics are always meant to be instructional. He called them propaganda.

It's awkward to mix the kinky propaganda and the serious propaganda against child abuse, but that was one of Marston's gifts. And that mixture was reflected in his life as a therapist and a sex radical polyamorous kinkster...
He didn't actually work as a therapist,which may well have been for the best! He was a psychological researcher—and yes, his theories about how dominance and submission were "normal emotions" were definitely reflected in the comics. He was also a huckster; he worked on inventing the lie detector (which never actually worked, of course) and he'd then use the lie detector in ads for Gillette, I think. And he did stage performances with the lie detector. He was a big old kinky carny.

As you say, he was polyamorous. He lived with his wife Elizabeth and Olive Byrne, who was his lover and almost certainly Elizabeth's as well. Living with two bisexual women definitely seems like it was important to his theories and his comics. In his psychological work he wrote about how lesbianism made women better mothers, better sexual partners, and just better all around; basically he thought that lesbianism made the world a better place for everyone, of every gender and age range. And his comics are filled with lesbian bondage play, often modeled on his (idiosyncratic) academic work on sorority initiation rituals.

At one point, you quote Marston saying that lesbianism benefits all people. What do you think? Is lesbian sexuality good for everyone?
I would say that Marston's particular lesbian utopianism is... somewhat hard for non-cranks to credit. I do think that the stigmatization of homosexual desire, lesbian or gay, is bad for everyone though, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Marston especially felt that female/female friendships and female communities were important for society, both in supporting women and as an alternative to patriarchy. I think that that's true, and that acknowledging the homoerotic bonds in those communities as a potential source of pleasure is better than living in a state of paranoia and shame.

Do you think comics can be effective propaganda? Did Wonder Woman "work"?
It's always hard to know what effect art has or doesn't have, isn't it? There are feminists, like Steinem and Trina Robbins, who talk about the way that Wonder Woman has inspired them. And I know another dominatrix or two who has said that they found the comic inspiring and titillating when they were young—so I think Marston would consider that a success.

Marston would be at least provisionally pleased with the advances in women's rights and gay rights, and glad that Wonder Woman is still around and still a touchstone for feminism and for sex and sexuality too. We don't have the matriarchal utopia he wished for, but maybe he moved us a little closer to it than we would otherwise have been. I like to think so, anyway.

Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948. On March 23, he'll be giving a talk on Wonder Woman at the Institute for Public Knowledge in New York City.

Follow Noah Berlatsky and Tara Burns on Twitter.

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