P / P Book Review: Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941 – 1948

Written by: Emily Ballaine

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But is it art? This is the question that seems to come up most often when one talks of comics, and really by asking “Is it art?” what one is really asking is “Is it important?” There is the belief that comics are the sort of thing one should “grow out of,” the type of adolescent amusement we abandon upon entering adulthood. The inherent fallacy, however, in that sort of belief is the assumption that comics are an unworthy art form devoid of substance and lacking in that magical ability art has to move us, to make us feel, to connect one lonely soul to another.

Berlatsky’s goal in Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941 – 1948 is one then that is as subversive as the Wonder Woman comics themselves, a desire to change the way we view comics and a belief that comics, as a medium and art form, have the ability to do so, like any great art, to change one’s perception of the world. But here in is also the great struggle of art: many people are unable to change their perceptions, unable to see things from outside themselves. And here I will admit my initial perception of a book about bondage, feminism and Wonder Woman was an assumption that it would be the sort of male-gaze dominated text that leaves one feeling angry and hollowed out and resigned to the fact that there will always be men explaining things. Let me say now, this is not that sort of book.

Berlatsky writes with self-awareness and an eye for the larger picture; he does not base his argument for the feminist subversiveness of Wonder Woman solely on the text itself, but rather through a wider lens of pop culture and academia.

He argues that the facts behind Wonder Woman creator William Marston’s life—he was academic, a polyamorist, a feminist, a psychologist, a queer theorist, and a utopian—are what really sets Wonder Woman apart from other comics, and transforms what could have been a shallow and pulpy comic into a subversive platform for feminist and queer theory.

One of the central questions Berlatsky attempts to answer through the Wonder Woman comics is whether bondage can be viewed as a feminist act or whether it only exists for male pleasure. Gloria Steinem’s comments celebrating Wonder Woman as a feminist icon are applauded and yet also criticized for her selective viewing of the comic, i.e. feminism without bondage. It is obvious why someone like Steinem would skip over the bondage elements of the story, namely the assumption that if one accepts the images of bondage in Wonder Woman one must automatically assume the comic is “anti-feminist.” Berlatsky makes and interesting and effective argument that Wonder Woman’s status as a feminist icon is one that is inexorably linked to the images of bondage and submission that frequent the comics:

Before you are free, you are not free. Or, to put it another way, there is no way to imagine liberating yourself from bondage without imagining bondage, with all its connotations… Perhaps Wonder Woman mattered to the girls who read it (and to the boys) not just because it showed liberation but because it showed disempowerment—a state of being that girls (and boys) often understand all too well.

The idea that these images of women being bound and subjected to male dominance stems from a place of female empowerment is one that I would not have necessarily fully agreed with before reading this book, and yet Berlatsky makes an effective argument that the purpose behind such images is not one of male excitement, but rather as a way of understanding a common experience—what woman (or man) has not at some point in her life felt out of control, afraid, weak? I can agree with this argument to a certain degree—there is an immense power in taking claim of the images and ideas that frighten or aim to subject us—but it does not change the fact that there will still be those who view such images of bondage and subservience in a sexual and predatory way. The question then is do such images feed into a dangerous and very anti-female mentality? Or perhaps the better question would be what is the price of empowerment? There are no easy answers to such question, nor should there be, but what I ultimately found so compelling about Berlatsky’s arguments was his thoughtful and balanced responses to such emotionally charged topics, and the belief in the potential of comics to answer the hard questions.

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