Graphic Mythology: A False Feminism

The panels I have selected for this post come from Wonder Woman stories written by William Moulton Marston and drawn by H. G. Peter, and they disturbed me for a number of reasons. These were (and some more contemporary cartoons are) drawn so as to make harmful or destructive practices seem innocuous. Take, for example, the following illustration:


This is from an issue in which Wonder Woman visits an imaginary place called Grown-Down Land. Here, you can see that she is bent over the knees of an over-sized child who is spanking her with a hairbrush. Her wrists are bound. A small crowd of infants smiles and applauds in approval (due to image quality, I have shown only a portion of the original page), thus adding public humiliation to the debasement. Perhaps worst of all, Wonder Woman winks at the reader to indicate that she is playing along with and possibly even enjoying the mistreatment. Her high-heeled boots are cocked playfully in the air. The implication is that women like this sort of thing. Admittedly, it’s a rather mild representation, but I wonder how imagery like this feeds into the “no means yes” mentality.

In this next panel, she is shown in a submissive posture while further acting out her part in the game to the delight of her infant audience. This is an all-too-common, pornographic device, and the accompanying words are in the clichéd language of a juvenile, male fantasy. Keep in mind that the author was a Harvard-educated, grown man (a psychologist with a Ph. D.). I find this panel demeaning not only to women  but to children as well (especially in light of society’s problems with childhood sexual abuse). The behavior pictured is explained in the context of the story as something that should be encouraged rather than grown out of. It also bothers me that such a relative few of those who have commented on these same images have had much of anything disapproving to say about them.


 This last series of excerpts is from a different story and is similarly disturbing despite being dressed up as an adapted re-telling of stories from Greek mythology (not that the ancient Greeks were exactly clean-minded in such matters). Nothing more need be said about these and the previous drawings except that they might be regarded as the product of an outwardly restrained society overly fascinated by sex.





So you might think this mild or even comical given today’s cultural climate. After all, the genie is out of the bottle, and there are far more graphic portrayals of sex and rape in current comics. But at least these are painfully, often grotesquely, obvious. They pose a danger of their own by mixing the raising of awareness with sensational entertainment. And there is worse material out there – MUCH worse – that lacks any semblance of social conscience. It might be helpful to remember what I said about outward restraint. Many of the former restraints of our culture are gone, and this feeds into a problem which I discuss in a later paragraph. But the subtle can be just as devastating because it does not self-identify. The line might not seem as appalling when crossed.

These themes of spanking, bondage, and discipline are pervasive in the early issues of Wonder Woman. The images are of women being forcefully controlled, and in some cases, they benefit from this and are ultimately grateful. Wonder Woman herself is often tied up either playfully or by criminals.



What do portrayals of women voluntarily participating in and enjoying games of abuse and disrespect say about the negative acculturation of boys when it comes to their attitudes about women? How has such thinking contributed to the so-called rape culture and the ongoing epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses? I should note here that different studies suggest that roughly 10% of college males have anonymously admitted to behaviors which satisfy the legal definition of sexual assault but that approximately four out of five of these offenders think they have done nothing illegal. Notice that the “games” depicted above are represented by the tone of the drawings as being safe, “character-building” fun – something along the lines of “teaching her a lesson.”


 Trying to redeem salacious imagery with contrived plot lines and  occasional and stereotypical feminist statements is weak and at least somewhat insincere. Should we believe that empowered playthings are truly empowered? What do you think? Was Marston a champion for women’s liberation (in accordance with what he claimed was his motivation for creating Wonder Woman), or was he yet another behavioral scientist with sexual fetishes?


p. s. The portrayal below by Alex Ross takes a much more dignified view of a character whom I think has been largely wasted in comparison to her mythic potential. Some still choose to claim her as a feminist icon, but most of the portrayals I have seen are over-sexualized as compared with Winged Victory in the Astro City series by Kurt Busiek.

Wonder Woman by Alex Ross
Wonder Woman by Alex Ross

27 thoughts on “Graphic Mythology: A False Feminism”

  1. It’s amazing to me that anyone could claim that this is feminist or empowering for women, even back then. The issue of female superheros being dressed skimpily and sexualized has been discussed at length, but you make an excellent point here about how this sexism comes through in specific scenarios. Of course in superhero adventure stories, the hero is going to be captured and restrained at times, even punished. So when is it sexist to show it happening to a female superhero? I find it useful to imagine the same scenario with men instead of women. Would you ever see a male superhero bent over a young boy’s knee and spanked? Would you ever see men bent over and liking being whipped, or trussed up and put in a pie by other men? No, you wouldn’t, because it would be obviously homoerotic and also make the male heroes look weak. Whereas the fact that it makes the female heroes look weak to be the subject of abuse (and liking or at least accepting it) appears to be a bonus, keeping them in their place.

    Another interesting article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment. You made a good point about capture and escape for the sake of a story, and I agree that a reasonable mind can tell when something has sexual overtones. I teach at a women’s college, and I have always been disgruntled by efforts to label sexual appeal as empowerment since they feed back into the same historical problem. It seems that society will allow the empowered plaything to act tough as long as she gives men what they want.

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  2. Speaking generally… we have a lot of unfortunate local and worldwide history to overcome. Some things were so bad that some bad things done now pale by comparison, which is how you sometimes get away with some of this stuff in comics… by saying “it used to be worse” and while that is a truth, it doesn’t mean we can’t always strive to be better.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Cool, I look forward to that. Most of my comic strip is general silliness, so what I do with my female characters doesn’t have quite the same weight to it… though I did do a self-reference bit last year where a couple of my female characters noted, essentially, that they didn’t appear often and were often poorly written… probably by a man. I have ambitions of being able to write stronger/serious stuff one day, though… so poking fun at myself for now until I learn better techniques.

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    1. The creator and his product are good cases of good and bad mixed together. In other words, it’s a human enterprise. Still, I like the idea of moral and ethical standards. We need those for a basis of reflection in honestly assessing ourselves. Take care.

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  3. It’s something Wonder Woman’s appreciators have struggled with through the decades, for sure. There’s a lot of “what the…” when you read early issues. I’d like to think this character has grown in depth and complexity over the years. Yet, we still see debates in comicdom that focus entirely on her costume. The struggle goes on.

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    1. Thank you. In looking over some of the early stories, i can’t throw this character away. Her presentation is too nuanced for that. This is one of the reasons I chose to concentrate on her for the last few posts. It’s a good discussion starter.

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  4. You’re spot on that William Moulton Marston was playing with or working out his own sexual fantasies. And the way he chose to do this is interesting, sort of sad too in a way. He chose to do this out in plain sight for all to see. Sure, he might even agree with you that all the bondage depictions were, as you say, “the product of an outwardly restrained society overly fascinated by sex.” And, in the end, he got to do it and the results continue to live on to this very day and influence new material. Very mixed bag of things there. Okay, so there’s a place for this sort of thing–but in comics that kids read? No, that is definitely weird, to say the least.

    And yet, despite it all, there is a compelling character that emerges. Gloria Steinem was right to dust off this character and rebrand her as a feminist icon of sorts.

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    1. As I said in a comment to another reader, I have trouble seeing how bondage can be construed as legitimate or healthy in any form of real life practice. I realize that characters are sometimes bound for the sake of plot tension, but the images I included mostly fell into a different category, especially those of women playfully binding and/or spanking each other. I have daughters, I work at a women’s college, and I am concerned about how women are portrayed in popular culture. Thank you for your comments. You’ve given me some ideas. Take care.

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  5. Yes!!! I see you found the image I referred to. I agree. We have rape, sexual harassment in comics a lot, but most of them are presented under a dark light. I still think Wonder Woman is a true feminist, (not a ‘feminazi’) but back in the day she was the one who was throwing the rock. It’s kind of embarrassing and pathetic.

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  6. This is quite shocking. I wasn’t aware of wonder woman series at all (Now I’m glad I wasn’t). Its the innocuous way of infiltrating a germ of an idea into minds. Or perhaps, he is just representing the average male mind?
    Interesting artcle.

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    1. If you read some of the posts which follow, it might give a better sense of balance. Not all representations of this character are bad. I picked on some from the Golden Age of comics. I also comment on female characters in my blog category, Literary Legislation (black strip on the left of my page). Thank you for your comment.


  7. As a young feminist female I actually adore Wonder Woman, especially the early works. I think Marston was a very, very odd fellow but a lot of the early works helped to define her as a character today. To be fair, there are some bits that are quite inappropriate but also there are a lot of scenarios and dialogue in the early comics that make me proud to be a female and inspire me as a person. Part of my eagerness to overlook the negative probably stems from the lack of strong, well written female characters, especially in comics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate such thoughtful observations. You might want to read to read the preceding and following posts to the one you read. In total, they offer what I hope is a more balanced perspective. They look at Wonder Woman within the broader context of how women are and could be portrayed in comics. I understand that so much of what we do as human beings is neither fully good nor fully bad. Take care.

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