So we did it. We made the perfect female superhero movie. Mission accomplished. It’s not surprising, when you consider that since her inception in 1941, Wonder Woman has had to be a perfect woman just to survive.
For over seven decades, Wonder Woman has been held to impossibly high standards born of male sexual entitlement. The original culprit was her creator, psychologist William Moulton Marston.
Marston believed that women are naturally more honest and submissive than men and that those virtues made women better suited for positions of power. These erotically charged qualities helped convince comic book publisher All-American Publications to publish Wonder Woman.
It’s hard to take Marston’s early 20th century proto-feminism seriously in 2017, given the evolution of feminist politics away from biological gender essentialism. Gender politics have historically been informed by bad science and questionable psychological methods and Marston’s a prime example. Marston invented the polygraph, AKA the lie detector. It was his biggest achievement in a scattered and ultimately unsuccessful academic career.
His work with the machine informed his belief that women are more honest and virtuous—women lied less than men when interviewed. But the polygraphs are notoriously unreliable; it was clearly a means of justifying his theories that were grounded in his own kinky proclivities.
In his view, women are also naturally sexually submissive. According to Jill Lepore, Harvard University historian and author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Marston said that “women enjoy submission — being bound.” That is the “secret of woman’s allure.”
When Marston pitched the female superhero to All-American Publications, comics were under fire for their violent and sexual content. According to Lepore’s research, Marston said, “the comics’ worst offense was their blood-curdling masculinity.”
Marston pitched Wonder Woman as the antidote. She would be the perfect woman: submissive, hot and virtuous but also strong “like a man.” Her Lasso of Truth comes directly from his shaky psychological research. Her one weakness is being tied up, which negates her powers. But as often as she is tied up, she breaks herself free and she herself also ties up her enemies. That bondage is her Kryptonite is certainly a metaphor for female oppression/liberation but it is also an obvious reflection of Marston’s own sexual interest in female submission. Wonder Woman is everything Marston wanted in a woman: strong, hot, virtuous and kinky without being too dominant.
It also encapsulates the challenge Wonder Woman has always faced: She needs to be strong and independent but still appeal to men sexually so as to not be too intimidating. She is the perfect Tinder girl: “I can go hiking and be dirty but ALSO wear a cute dress and eye liner.”
Despite being one of the oldest superheroes, Wonder Woman had to wait decades longer than her fellow Justice League heroes for her own movie because she had to prove her worth in a way that her male counterparts never had to.
She was a founding member of the Justice League, along with Superman and Batman. Countless iterations of both men have been filmed. For God’s sake, they made a movie of Ant-Man, a man who shrinks to the size of an insect and plays with other ants, starring the guy from Clueless. All the while, no hint of a female blockbuster.
Granted, she starred in a (highly sexualized) ‘70s TV show and appeared in some cartoons but not her own live action, highly publicized movie akin to The Dark Knight or Thor. When Wonder Woman was green-lit, the pressure was on. If it didn’t do well, we would never see another major female superhero movie, at least for another several decades.
And boy, is it doing well. The film’s reviews are a stark contrast to DC’s recent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which The New Republic’s Tim Grierson called “an indigestible mope-fest.”
Rotten Tomatoes scored it at 95 percent, slightly higher than The Dark Knight’s 94. Forbes’ Mark Hughes called it “everything you want in a superhero movie, and absolutely what the DCU needed now to help put the sense of uncertainty and negative expectations to rest.” He acutely summarizes the challenge with the female superhero: Wonder Woman flies onto the screen amidst an avalanche of ill will and sexist expectations. The movie has to be perfect just like she herself has to be perfect.
So she was made perfect. She is strong and independent but also shaves her armpits. Her character is nurturing but sassy. The movie is unlike other superhero movies in that she isn’t portrayed as a larger-than-life character (ironic, considering she is a demigoddess). Critics consider her more human, more relatable. The filmmakers avoided what The New York Times’ A. O. Scott called “the reflexive power-worship” of films like The Avengers or Man of Steel. That is the man stuff.
The female superhero can’t compete against her male counterparts in those terms, so she must be stuffed into the “woman” category of relatability, humility and strictly sexy fierceness.
And it’s only on those terms that she was allowed to exist at all.