BY KEVIN ANDREWS
This article contains minor spoilers for Wonder Woman
"Put a metal collar on WW with a chain running off from the panel, as though she were chained in the line of prisoners. Have her hands clasped together at her breast with double bands on her wrists, her Amazon bracelets and another set."
Dr. William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-educated psychologist was responsible for the creation and initial, intimately described, depiction of the character of Wonder Woman, who first appeared in All-Star Comics, 1941. The company that owned the comics and characters such as Superman, Batman, and the Flash, would go on to become DC Comics.
"At her ankles show a pair of arms and hands, coming from out of the panel, clasping about her ankles. This whole panel will lose its point and spoil the story unless these chains are drawn exactly as described here."
The quotes above are taken from one of Marston's scripts, notes that were intended for the artist, and there certainly are many panels with the character clasped thoroughly in chains, something that endured even after Marston's death only half a decade after the now-iconic character's inception.
Maxwell Gaines, generally credited as the creator of comics and who tasked Marston with the creation of a female superhero, confronted the latter when critics protested the regular appearance of torture and sadism in Wonder Woman's panels.
Marston agreed that the scenes were questionable, but advised him to ignore the complaints, arguing that readers never cheered for the hero who was always on top of a situation; they rooted and empathised with those that were brought to their lowest before rising up.
Perhaps this line of reasoning sought to strike a balance between staying true to Wonder Woman's character and appealing to the valid business interest of keeping readers invested. In any case, he kept Gaines' support and the character stayed on the road he envisioned for a while longer.
Wonder Woman, alias Diana Prince
This brings us to today's most popular and widespread version of the character, Gal Gadot's portrayal of Wonder Woman, alias Diana Prince, on the silver screen. Prince's standalone entry to the current DC Comics movie version is set mostly during World War One (WW1), and then known as 'The War to End All Wars'. This moniker is also brought up during the movie by the titular character's romantic interest, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). The historical theme and setting of war were not chosen at random for her debut, nor were they simply a convenient thread to hang plot devices on.
When Wonder Woman first took to the pages in 1941, the US and much of the civilised world was in the second year of World War 2 (WW2). As many comic heroes were conceived around this time (Superman's first appearance was in 1938, Action Comics #1), it was perhaps inevitable that their adventures would be penned in response either directly or otherwise to the war. Marston himself believed that their, "worst offence was their blood-curdling masculinity."
Women had won the right to vote two decades prior to Wonder Woman's first appearance, but the movement to bring women's rights in parity to men's was still a growing force, and his exposure to it served to greatly inspire Marston's vision of Wonder Woman. It may also be interesting to note that comics made up roughly a quarter of the magazines requested by enlisted US forces during the same period (WW2).
If comic book heroes depicted taking on warlords and dictators in bloody aplomb, was a response to the ongoing war, Wonder Woman was Marston's response to their violence: A hero that defeated their enemies with love as well as strength and tactical ingenuity. A hero that could resolve crises without the reliance on the stereotypes of the male bastion. A hero that invalidated the need and even the desire for a 'damsel-in-distress.'
Wonder Woman has the prominent weakness of temporarily losing her abilities should she ever be chained by a man (dubbed 'Aphrodite's Law' in the comics). This is why so many plots exist in which she doesn't simply pull them apart, but it may be telling that such a scene is not present in this year's movie, nor in her previous appearance in Batman vs. Superman. Neither Wonder Woman nor her alias Diana Prince is ever chained literally, but they are certainly restricted by other indirect means.
Marston, of course, was no stranger to bucking the trend himself. He had a mistress who lived with him and his wife in a polygamous relationship. These women, Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Marston, respectively, are also said to be among the chief influences behind Marston's vision for Wonder Woman. Byrne's mother was a suffragette, Ethel Byrne, who had co-founded the United States' (US) first birth control clinic alongside her fellow feminist sister, Margaret Sanger.
Marston had also witnessed his wife Elizabeth's inability to attend Harvard, not because she lacked the drive or intellect, but because of discrimination against her sex. Her frustration with being held back by a situation needlessly out of her control was not lost upon Marston, and he resolved to embody a new kind of woman in his creative work.
There are several moments in the film that seem to be driven by Marston's work. Before her encounter with the war, for example, we see a young Diana living on an island presided by warrior women, the Amazons. As the movie progresses, we see one of the first restrictions that Diana has to overcome; her mother's fear of man, and ultimately the major villain, clouding her judgement.
This led to her refusing to let Diana train as other Amazons, to hold her back. It's not directly a lack of equality that leads to this, but it is still an example of a young girl being told what she can, and cannot do irrespective of her actual abilities. This particular child, too, had grown up in a culture that constantly pushed itself to be better, among women that constantly trained to hone their fighting prowess.
She had role model after role model showing her that determination and focus could make her one of the warriors she was so fond of watching, yet her mother's fear alone stood between her and the legacy she would one day possess. Obviously, this is something Diana rectifies.
Steve Trevor is another important figure in Diana's story. Besides being her love interest in the comics and their adaptations, he is often portrayed as the one being saved by Diana, a reversal of the stereotypical roles. Here, however, Steve is an inherently capable character in his own right. He is quite vulnerable as a human among the machines of war but still carries himself with purpose and competence. His failing, the movie seems to say, is not that he's a man, it's that he is human.
His actions and beliefs drive the plot and even Diana's own growth. It would have been easy to relegate him to the position of damsel but that isn't the case. He plays an important role challenging Diana's naivety concerning human nature. Both of them contrast and balance the beliefs of the other.
This leads into another prominent section of the film, possibly the most memorable and well-loved among audiences: No Man's Land. The term describes an area of shell-shocked earth between the opposing armies that was almost impossible to cross.
Victories here were counted in inches and single-digit metres but were always paid in blood.
As seen in the trailer, Diana does take to this arena, standing against an onslaught of firepower. The scene immediately preceding this, however, is an excellent example of how the movie embraces feminism without bashing its audience over the head with.
As the group moves through the trenches, Diana is compelled to cross the warzone directly and end the fighting instead of simply skirting it for her larger goal. As the men accompanying her see this, they attempt to hold her back. Here, Steve sets the foundation for the next several minutes of a brilliant set-piece.
He says this while arguing: "This is No Man's Land, Diana. It means no man can cross it."
Were the film less clever with its writing and directing, this would have been a moment to go straight for the cliché, have Diana look balefully into the distance and exclaim, "I am no man," before dramatically rushing into a blaze of glory. Indeed, a moment like this occurs in another famous movie. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King's Princess Eowyn utters that exact line when the wrath she overcomes claims that no man can kill him.
Wonder Woman, however, is set closer in parallel with our reality, and seeks to offer commentary without becoming overbearing. Diana does not make any allusion to her sex in response to Steve's words. She simply states that her motivation is to do the right thing. No more.
Wonder Woman – it's about a heroine
The film's director, Patricia Jenkins, confirmed this message while being interviewed at the movie's premiere. "A woman doesn't have to direct a woman's film, and a man doesn't have to direct a man's film. Otherwise, where would we be?" she said, continuing that it was still, "wonderful to direct [Wonder Woman] as a woman because to me it's not about her being a woman, it's about a heroine."
In other words, she sought to empower the character as a person rather than an attribute of her sex. In doing so, she made Diana's actions and words as a woman that much more powerful.
There are more pointed references in the film, including scenes where Diana faces London's Government and military and is shooed out for the unfortunate circumstance of being a woman. This segment of the film is relatively short, but is all the more poignant as she was perhaps the best hope they had to conclude the war.
There is also a scene in which Diana tries on dresses meant for women, without much success or affinity for them as she considers them garments ill-suited for fighting. While light-hearted in tone, this does juxtapose modern-day expectations of what constitutes proper feminine wear. In the end, Diana does what she has to; she picks something she is comfortable with. Exactly what anyone should be able to do.
In the decades since her creator's premature death, Wonder Woman has been through the hands of several writers and artists at DC Comics, to say nothing of her fans. However, it's possible that this portrayal of Wonder Woman is exactly what Marston envisioned; relying more on subtlety to advance feminism than on overt and brash actions that are more likely to be met with resistance.
In his words, "Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world."
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