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.