Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review of The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Book #4. The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore. Hardocver.

Anyone familiar with comic book history knows about the creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston. He was a psychologist who was involved in the creation of the lie detector machine, and lived with both a wife and girlfriend while he was writing Wonder Woman. His views on gender and sexuality filtered were on display in his work, which at times bordered on propaganda for equal rights and his particular view of femininity.

So to a lot of comic book fans, the basic outline of the history in this book was not previously a “secret,” although many of the details certainly were. Lepore does a good job explaining the details of his biography to readers, and details how he developed his particular take on feminism. She does a very nice job comparing scenes in Wonder Woman to literature from the feminist and suffragist movements, as well as from his own life and relational experiences.

Marston’s battles with his DC Comics editors are also covered, as Marston bristled at charges that the rampant bondage in his stories was problematic. The popularity of the character had the effect of pulling her out of Marston’s control, as she appeared in other character’s books. In those, she was reduced in power and authority to a great degree, even serving as the Justice Society’s secretary, rarely joining them in adventures. His death from polio caused the character to lose that fire that Marston imbued her with, but she has remained popular to this day.

There is a lengthy section devoted to his work on the lie detector, and the downward spiral that his academic career seemed to take as he devoted much of his energies to this project, which of course failed to become a credible source of evidence in legal cases. The most surprising (or “secret”) part of the story was that one of the women in his household wrote articles for the popular press extolling Marston, not revealing her relationship with her subject.

There has been a small dust-up recently, in which some of Marston’s descendents have questioned Lepore and her methods. But I am more likely to trust the Harvard professor who has been nominated in the past for a National Book Award. Even though Lepore did have a story to tell, in general I trust her objectivity more than that of the family.

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