WONDER WOMAN: LESBIAN OR DYKE?
Paradise Island as a Woman's Community
Originally presented at WisCon, May 2006
Originally presented at WisCon, May 2006
In his now-infamous 1954 indictment of comic books, Seduction of the Innocents, Dr. Frederic Wertham called the Wonder Woman comic book of the 1940s and 50s1 "The Lesbian counterpart of Batman," whom, along with his young sidekick, Robin, he had already accused of membership in NAMBLA. Using acrobatic leaps of logic, Wertham went on to make the following connection, about Wonder Woman's sidekicks, students at the all-woman Holliday College: Her followers are the 'Holliday girls,' i.e. the holiday girls, the gay party girls, the gay girls."2
Later critics would echo Wertham's theory. In the 1970 classic, All in Color For a Dime, Jim Harmon describes how Wonder Woman would "exchange hugs and kisses of delight with the readily available Holliday Girls." He adds, "It was a very sick scene."3
In a 1996 private phone interview, Robert Kanigher, who took over writing the comic in 1948, after the death of creator William Moulton Marston, who wrote the comics under the pseudonym "Charles Moulton", let me in on what he called the truth about Wonder Woman: the amazons from her home, Paradise Island, where no men are permitted, were all lesbians.
Not everyone agrees. Jules Feiffer, clearly wishing for something closer to Hothead Paisan, draws a different conclusion in his 1965 memoir, The Great Comic Book Heroes. "Wonder Woman," he writes, "wasn't dykey enough. Her violence was too immaculate, never once boiling over into a little fantasmal sadism."4 In her introduction to the Bonanza Books 1972 collection, Wonder Woman, and again in her introduction to Abbeville Press' 1995 collection of Wonder Woman covers, also titled Wonder Woman, Gloria Steinem avoids the issue entirely, preferring to write about "sisterhood." And in the 2000 Chronicle Books production, also titled Wonder Woman, writer Les Daniels, hired by D.C. comics, writes off the accusation in one short sidebar of the 206 page book: "(Wertham) saw innuendo everywhere, and...managed to work himself into a lather because he thought Wonder Woman contained 'Lesbian overtones.'...as Robert Kanigher later pointed out, surely some inhabitants of Paradise Island must have had Sapphic tendencies. Not in the comics, however!" 5
So, are the amazon princess Diana, her home-town amazons, and her Holliday girl sidekicks lesbians? And is this a bad thing? William Moulton Marston was a successful pop-psychologist, and also happened to be the inventor of the lie detector. The man knew what he was doing, and if there is lesbianism in the Golden Age Wonder Woman6, he put it there. What hints does he give the reader?
Well, there's the hugging, but, as previously mentioned, women do hug.7 What about lovers? Marston occasionally hints that Wonder Woman might be in a Xena and Gabrielle relationship with another woman. In Sensation comics #19, 1942, Wonder Woman's amazon best friend, Paula, is called in to help when the princess runs amok because her bracelets have been removed.8 Stopping Wonder Woman in the act of strangling a suspected fifth columnist, Paula says, "Easy, darling -- it's your Paula!"
Another story9 deals with Marya, a beautiful eight foot tall "Mexican mountain girl," who definitely has a crush on Wonder Woman. She calls Wonder Woman "brave princess" and "beautiful princess." When the two women are captured in nets, Wonder Woman, ungraciously considering only her dumb blond "boyfriend," Steve Trevor, tells her, "I'm sorry for you, Marya, but at least we've saved Steve..." Marya, with the selflessness of true love, replies, "I care not what happen to me if I help save your friend, Preencess!" Finally, Marya is encased in cement up to her chest. But when the amazon princess is about to be killed, "Driven desperate by her great love for Wonder Woman, Marya wrenches savagely at the solid cement which encases her legs." Leaping from the cement she shouts, "My preencess -- I come!" Finally, Wonder Woman freed and the villains vanquished, Wonder Woman declares, "The credit goes to the biggest girl and the bravest -- my little friend Marya!" Marya kneels at the amazon's feet, clutching her hand rapturously, saying, "Oh Preencess!"
Getting in the way of Wonder Woman's relationships with other women is always Steve Trevor, the Token Boyfriend.10 The Lois Lane to Wonder Woman's Superman, he seems to exist only to be rescued. She always puts him off, when he asks her when they will marry, with statements such as, "When justice has finally triumphed over wrong!" or "When evil and injustice vanish from the earth!" In other words, it'll be a cold day in hell, buster. Her reluctance to marry Steve may have had nothing to do with her interest in other woman, but rather, her reluctance to spend the rest of her life with someone so stupid that he constantly fails to make the connection between the Amazon princess Diana and her alter ego, army nurse Diana Prince.
It is generally accepted that Marston created Wonder Woman for girls, as an alternative to the male-oriented superhero comics of the time; however, I could find no actual statement on his part saying that. In her introduction to the collection of Wonder Woman covers, Gloria Steinem writes, "...(Marston) had invented Wonder Woman as a heroine for little girls, and also as a conscious alternative to the violence of comic books for boys."11 Of course, Steinem was not there, nor did she ever interview the good doctor. The statement I have found by Marston that comes closest to reflecting Steinem's conclusion is from an article written by Marston in The American Scholar12:
It seemed to me, from a psychological angle, that the comics worst offense was their blood-curdling masculinity...it's smart to be strong. It's big to be generous, but it's sissified, according to exclusively male rules to be tender, loving, affectionate...'Ah that's girls stuff!' snorts our comic reader, 'Who wants to be a girl?" And that's the point; not even girls want to be girls as long as their feminine stereotype lacks force...strength.I have also found no statistics that show just how many girls did read Wonder Woman13, so my only evidence is anecdotal. Obviously, as she tells us in her writings, Gloria Steinem read, and was strongly influenced by, the amazing amazon. In her introduction to the collection of Wonder Woman covers, she describes the origin of Ms magazine: " Since Joanne Edgar and others of its founding editors had also been rescued by Wonder Woman in their childhoods, we decided to rescue Wonder Woman in return. (by putting her on their first cover)" On the back cover of my book, The Great Women Superheroes, author Jane Yolen writes, "I was one of the legion of young girls who adored Wonder Woman back in the 1940s..." In her article, "Looking For Wonder Woman,"14 Lillian Robinson writes of "devouring monthly installments of Wonder Woman." She continues, "I didn't know she was an icon, of course. But she was certainly the apotheosis of the female hero I ...sought..."
And of course there's my own memory. When I was a young girl, my girlfriends and I all read and loved Wonder Woman.
Much information can be gleaned from the letters pages of a comic. The original Golden Age Wonder Woman comics had no letters pages, but as late as the early 1960s, when Robert Kanigher was writing and editing the book, the letters page reveals the demographics of his readers. The April, 1962 issue contained letters from two girls and one boy, the May, 1963 issue had letters from five girls, and the October, 1964 letters page was another all-girl affair, with letters from five girls. Judging from their letters, the writers were all young, and they wrote to Wonder Woman herself, rather than to the writer or editor (in this case, the same person), as later, older male fans would do. In her letter from the 1963 issue, Linda Parson, from White Castle, La., wishes to actually visit Paradise Island:
When another reader begged you to take her to Paradise Island with you, you answered that Paradise Island is imaginary. Well, how about taking me on an imaginary trip there?In asking to go to Paradise Island, Linda Parson is expressing a desire to go to a woman-only world, the world of Golden Age Wonder Woman comics. Steve Trevor is not only the Token Boyfriend in these comics, but often the Token Male in stories that otherwise feature only women. Any other males in these stories are usually villains, like Mars, god of war and sworn enemy of the amazons.
Many Golden Age Wonder Woman stories, especially the ones that take place on the all-woman Paradise Island, do not include even Steve, because men are not allowed on Paradise Island. Some of the women in these stories are butch to an extreme. In Wonder Woman and the Coming of the Kangas15, male cat-headed alien invaders turn out to be women in disguise. "We're amazons like you," says the beautiful redhaired leader, after she has been defeated, "We have no home. Won't you let us join your nation?" In Villainy, Incorporated!16, the evil "Hypnota, magician of the Blue Flame," is a mustached and bearded woman with breasts. Another of the villains in this story is the cross-dressing "Byrna Brilyant, the Blue Snow Man."
Even off Paradise Island, in what Marston referred to as "Man's World," the amazon princess mostly interacted with women. In A Human Bomb17, Suzan Patience, "the famous woman penologist," wants Wonder Woman to help her convince the governor to make her warden of the new woman's prison. Steve Trevor, whose imagination is on par with his I.Q., says, "Impossible! Whoever heard of a female prison warden?" Of course Wonder Woman agrees to help, and she starts by giving the prisoners new outfits. As they toss off their gray uniforms and try on the colorful dresses, the prisoners exclaim, "These clothes aren't like prison uniforms at all!" "Cute!" and "We don't look like convicts anymore--all the uniforms are different!"
For at least a few years after Marston's death, Wonder Woman continued, in the spirit of her deceased creator, to interact with women. In the 1950 story, Hollywood Goes to Paradise Island, the amazon puts together the "first all-girl crew in cinema capital history," including a "directress," "The only woman director in Hollywood!"18
Even Wonder Woman's birth, as related in the very first issue of Wonder Woman, is an all-woman affair, without even the aid of a turkey baster. In a feminist reversal of mythic hero birth stories, in which a virgin mother is magically impregnated by a male deity19, the virginal amazon Queen Hippolyta, desiring a baby, is instructed by the goddess Athena to mold one from clay. Then Aphrodite bestows the gift of life upon the statue, who becomes the baby princess Diana. Thus, like Heather, Diana has two mommies.20
The world of boys and men can be threatening to girls.21 In The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History, Marie Wilson has this to say about adolescent girls:
Sexual comments, jokes, and threats become more intimidating as girls develop an understanding of sexuality and as boys, on average, become physically bigger and stronger than girls....they begin to realize that good looks are necessary for certain kinds of success, and that good looks lead to being looked at, which for young adolescent girls can seem threatening.22In the 1940s, sexual harassment in the workplace and in schools, although never approved of, was accepted as an unavoidable evil, as was domestic violence, which was not then illegal. At home, young girls saw their mothers being hit by their fathers, and accepting it.23 In school, it has only recently been understood by educators that traditional teaching has focused on boys' interests and behaviors. Teachers have traditionally called on boys more often than girls. They have accepted that boys tend to act out and disrupt the classroom in various of ways, meanwhile encouraging girls to be passive and quiet.24
Girls have needed, at least in their fantasy lives, a safe place to be with other girls, where they could express themselves without being threatened by boys. British girls' magazines seem to have recognized this need. In my study of four British girls' magazine annuals, from 1956, 1958, and 196325, I found comics in which the protagonists, usually students from all-girl schools, interacted with other girls, and any male in the stories is usually a villain. In a typical story from 1958, three school girls dress up as "The Silent Three," in hooded robes and masks26, to help a younger girl whose dog has been stolen by a wicked man, who hopes to use the dog to retrieve a hidden paper that will lead to treasure.
In "Staunch Allies of the Swiss Skater," from 1956, two British schoolgirls, vacationing in Switzerland, befriend a young Swiss ice skater, buying her a dress to wear for a skating contest. When the girl's cruel uncle locks her up, forbidding her to enter the contest, they free the girl and find a paper proving he is an impostor, masquerading as her dead uncle "to steal the legacy her mother left her!" One of the contest judges knew the real uncle and would have recognized him. In the end, a British girl hugs the skater and says, "Your troubles are over, Odette dear. You're free - free to skate!"
American girls' comics from that period are very different. Instead of the sisterhood themes of the British comics, the American comic stories usually revolve around the theme of the eternal triangle -- two girls, one of which is the protagonist, fighting over the Token Boyfriend. Patsy Walker and Hedy Wolfe fight over Buzz Baxter, Betty and Veronica fight over Archie Andrews, and so on. In the women's community of Paradise Island, girls did not have to have boyfriends; they could be "free - free to skate!", or free to be themselves and to interact with other girls.
Whether Wonder Woman's creator really intended any hidden lesbian agenda in his comics, or whether suspicions of Sapphism were simply products of Wertham's McCarthyist mentality, William Moulton Marston provided a safe place for girls in the pages of his comics, away from Man's World.
1. Comics from these years are referred to by collectors as "Golden Age."
2. Using this same kind of logic, one might question the gender preferences of actor/comedienne Judy or singer Billie, not to mention the subversive hidden agenda that must be concealed in the classic film, "Holiday Inn."
3. Page 186. Actually, although Wonder Woman is indeed seen hugging her friends and her mother in the pages of these comics (women do hug!), she doesn't kiss them. She's never even depicted kissing her "boyfriend," Steve Trevor!
4. Page 45. Feiffer also refutes Wertham's argument that Batman comics were producing gay youth. He writes, "If homosexual fads were certain proof of that which will turn our young queer, then we should long ago have burned not just Batman books, but all Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Judy Garland movies."
5. Page 103. Daniels also writes, of Wonder Woman, "No overt eroticism of any type was present in these comics..." Yet he devotes 8 pages in the first chapter to bondage and domination scenes in Wonder Woman. D.C. comics, for whom Daniels wrote this book, has courted a male audience to the exclusion of females since at least the late 1960s. Possibly the D.C. theory is that descriptions of kinky sex will interest the boys in reading Wonder Woman, but that God forbid they should mention lesbianism!
6. For purposes of this paper, I have defined Golden Age as the 1940s and early 1950s. Even though Marston died in 1948, he left some scripts behind, and as late as the early 1950s, certain Wonder Woman stories seem to bear the Mark of Marston.
7. With the exception of the French, Russians, and Italians, white heterosexual men, fearful of being considered gay, do not hug.
8. Removal of Wonder Woman's bracelets cause her to become "Too Strong. The bracelets bound my strength for good purposes -- now I'm completely uncontrolled! I'm free to destroy like a man!"
9. This comic book is coverless and bears no dates, but is probably postwar, because a character says to the villains, "You-you are Nazis! But Germany...is licked --"
10. Possibly so that readers will not suspect them of lesbianism, fictional American heroines for young girls always seem to be given Token Boyfriends. Nancy Drew had Ned Nickerson, and Barbie, of course, has Ken. In the early 1990s when I was one of the writers on Marvel's Barbie Comics, I did some research with two young girls who were playing with their Barbies at my local photocopy center. They told me that they each had five Barbies and one Ken, but that they did not play with their Ken doll much. I asked them what they used their Ken doll for, and the answer was that when they dressed Barbie up and played bride with her, they needed Ken so that she would have someone to marry.
11. Page 11
12. "Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics," The American Scholar, Winter 1943-44.
13. Obviously, neither does D.C. comics, or Les Daniels would have quoted them in the 2000 Wonder Woman book when he makes the dubious statement, "It's an open secret, however frequently acknowledged, that Wonder Woman's readers have always been predominantly male." (page 33) Gloria Steinem refutes this in her introduction to the collection of Wonder Woman covers: "Wonder Woman did attract some boys as readers, but the integrated world of comic book trading revealed her true status: at least three Wonder Woman comic books were necessary to trade for one of Superman." On the other hand, in recent times, as Wonder Woman's bust size has grown and her pants have shrunk, and girls no longer read comics because there are no comics for them to read, her readership has become predominantly male. In the mid-nineties, when Brazilian artist Mike Deodato took over drawing Wonder Woman in what Daniels describes as "the most overly eroticized version of Wonder Woman to see print," sales hit the ceiling.
14. Unfortunately, I do not know the source of this article, which was mailed to me in photocopy form some years back.
15. Wonder Woman #23, 1947
16. Wonder Woman #28, 1948
17. Wonder Woman #30, 1948
18. The writer of this story, probably Robert Kanigher, was wrong. In 1949, screen star Ida Lupino made her uncredited directorial debut with the film Not Wanted, co-written and co-produced by her along with Anson Bond and Collier Young. Director Elmer Clifton fell ill shortly after shooting began, and Lupino took over but insisted that he retain screen credit. She went on to direct five more features, the first two (Never Fear and Outrage) of which were made in 1950. But Kanigher was unlikely to know this when in his script, Wonder Woman pep-talks her all-girl film crew: "We are the first all-girl company to produce a movie in Hollywood history! Many men think we'll be unsuccessful! But I have faith and confidence in you! I know that all you need is a chance and you will show that you can at least equal anything men have ever done!"
19. Some of these more familiar myths are Leda, impregnated by Zeus as a swan; Danae, also impregnated by Zeus (he got around) as a shower of gold; and of course the Christian Virgin Mary.
20. It is also significant that, in the Golden Age Wonder Woman stories, the amazons only relate to two deities: Athena and Aphrodite. The only male deity in the stories, Ares, who is called by his Roman name, Mars, is the amazons' enemy. Later, more contemporary Wonder Woman comics (from the 1980s on) changed this, so that Mercury figures strongly in in more recent comics, and Diana and her sisters acknowledge the supremacy of Zeus -- an unlikely act for a matriarchal culture.
21. And the world of girls can scare the pants off boys. In The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer writes: "...I can't comment on the image girls had of Wonder Woman. I never knew they read her - or any comic book. That girls had a preference for my brand of literature would have been more of a frightening image to me than any number of men being beaten up by Wonder Woman."
22. Page 244
23. More recent statistics are not encouraging. An article by Kate Raphael from the San Francisco Sentinel, October 11, 1990, reports that almost half of married women are beaten at least once by their husbands.
24. This information comes from the Women's College Coalition website, www.academic.org/surprise.html.
25. Girls' Crystal Annual from 1956, 1958, and 1963; School Friend Annual from 1958.
26. Coincidentally, the first superheroine in American Comics, The Woman in Red (1940), costumed herself in a hooded robe and mask.
Copyright Trina Robbins 2006
Girl-Wonder.org thanks Trina for graciously allowing us to reproduce her paper.