You know, there’s a lot of good writing out there. So much, in fact, that often as a reader I feel inundated. Long ago I’ve given up catching up in the writing world (okay, I have a twinge of jealousy every now and again, but then my body craps out on me and I sleep for three days). But reading, hey–I can do that with hardly any effort, right?
Hah! says the Internet. Hahahahahahaha–I think I just peed my Virtual Pants a little bit. And we’re not even talking about the laff riot that printed books, ebooks, and Amazon are having, individually and as a loosely affiliated media conglomerate.
Okay, so reading all the good stuff out there is Nigh Unto Impossible, probably even more Nigh than keeping up with the accomplishments of writers that clamber like ants all over the face of the world. Every once in a while, though, you do get to read a piece that is mind-blowing (in a humbling sense, not in the typical Internet content-mill sense of “40 Ways Toasting Bread Will Blow Your Mind). These are works that not only open eyes but crack open the universe. And, I’m pleased to report, that today’s stunning piece of writing takes as its subject that most dreadfully neglected of superheroes, Wonder Woman.
Now, I gotta admit, I myself have been a tad irked by Wonder Woman in the past. I grew up in the 1970s watching Lynda Carter play Wonder Woman on TV, and I loved her, loved Diana, loved dressing up in my Wonder Woman Underoos with a piece of sparkly rope and a Burger King cardstock crown that my mom cut up to resemble Wonder Woman’s tiara. (Yes, I have pictures of me in my Wonder Woman “costume.” No, you can’t see them.) I loved Wonder Woman with the innocent narcissism of a little middle-class white girl who looked at Carter and thought, “Yes! The only girl superhero on TV isn’t a blonde! Brown hair rules!!!” And yet later, when I started understanding a little more about the way women are portrayed in the media, and I took a closer look at Wonder Woman’s magic jewelry, skimpy outfit, truth lasso (the hell??), and crummy villains made for a “girl” to fight (yeah, that Egg Fu, what man apart from all of them could crack him open), I became, shall we say, disenchanted with the crime fighter from Paradise Island. She became an embarrassment, yet another vision of the perfect woman created by men, a cause of that queasy feeling you only get in the presence of something once adored by a younger, half-rejected version of yourself.
I will also admit that recently I’ve been coming to terms with my feelings for Wonder Woman. A terrific geek-girl band (yes, world, geek girls DO exist!!!) called the Doubleclicks came out with a tribute song called “Wonder” that always brings a tear to my eye, so perfectly does the song capture the superhero sentimentality that Five for Fighting and Crash Test Dummies, among others, gave to Superman.
And now, we have Jill Lepore’s article “The Last Amazon”.
Man, does this piece of reporting deliver.
Not only does Lepore examine Wonder Woman’s unusual beginnings in the mind of a polyamorous, women’s-rights-espousing male psychologist in the 1940s, not only does Lepore follow the line of inspiration back to famous first-wave feminists like Margaret Sanger, Lepore manages to work in little nuggets of pure-gold irony like this:
Last December, Warner Bros. announced that Wonder Woman would have a role in an upcoming Superman-and-Batman film, and that, in a three-movie deal, Gal Gadot, a lithe Israeli model, had signed on to play the part. There followed a flurry of comments about her anatomical insufficiency for the role.
“It’s been said that you’re too skinny,” an interviewer told Gadot on Israeli television. “Wonder Woman is large-breasted.”
“Wonder Woman is Amazonian,” Gadot said, smiling coyly. “And historically accurate Amazonian women actually had only one breast.” (They cut off the other one, the better to wield a bow.)
The modern woman, Crystal Eastman explained in The Nation, “wants some means of self-expression, perhaps, some way of satisfying her personal ambitions. But she wants a husband, home and children, too. How to reconcile these two desires in real life, that is the question.” You can find more or less the very same article in almost any magazine today—think of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”—which is a measure of just how poorly this question has been addressed. A century ago, though, it was new. Between 1910 and 1920, Virginia MacMakin Collier reported in 1926, in “Marriage and Careers,” the percentage of married women working had nearly doubled, and the number of married women in the professions had risen by forty per cent. “The question, therefore, is no longer, should women combine marriage with careers, but how?”
Here’s how. Marston [Wonder Woman’s creator] would have two wives. Holloway could have her career. Byrne would raise the children. No one else need ever know.
In the spring of 1942, Gaines [publisher of Wonder Woman] included a one-page questionnaire in All-Star Comics. “Should WONDER WOMAN be allowed, even though a woman, to become a member of the Justice Society?” Of the first eighteen hundred and one questionnaires returned, twelve hundred and sixty-five boys and three hundred and thirty-three girls said yes; a hundred and ninety-seven boys, and just six girls, said no. Wonder Woman joined the Justice Society. She was the only woman. Gardner Fox, who wrote the Justice Society stories, made her the society’s secretary. In the summer of 1942, when all the male superheroes head off to war, Wonder Woman stays behind to answer the mail. “Good luck boys,” she calls out to them. “I wish I could be going with you!” Marston was furious.
And, oh, yeah, this:
Marston died in 1947. “Hire me,” Holloway [Marston’s official wife] wrote to DC Comics. Instead, DC hired Robert Kanigher, and Wonder Woman followed the hundreds of thousands of American women workers who, when peace came, were told that their labor threatened the stability of the nation. Kanigher made Wonder Woman a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She gave advice to the lovelorn, as the author of a lonely-hearts newspaper advice column. Her new writer also abandoned a regular feature, “The Wonder Women of History”—a four-page centerfold in every issue, containing a biography of a woman of achievement. He replaced it with a series about weddings, called “Marriage à la Mode.”
“The Last Amazon” is a long article, but an important one. Read it before the Subscription techies at the New Yorker stuff it behind a firewall. Afterward, feel free to get all nostalgic for the gains in women’s lives that were dreamed of but never happened, or that happened but didn’t stick. Then listen to the Doubleclicks and remember to hang on to a little of that queasy, kid-like hope, that awe for the marvelous being who, every once in a while, resembles you.