The difference between sexy and sexism is Wonder Woman’s Achilles’ heel to this day. Jill Lepore’s non-fiction book The Secret Story of Wonder Woman shows just how much of this was built into the character’s creation. (from the English by Werner Roller, CH Beck, 552 p., €29.95) which is finally available in German after a delay of almost a decade.
Lepore is a historian, her non-fiction book “These Truths”, which examines the history of the USA from the perspective of the promises in the American Constitution, is one of the most exciting historical books of the past decade.
So if you expect Lepore’s Wonder Woman book to only tell the publishing and character history of the superheroine, you will be at least partially disappointed. The actual creation of the character does not begin until the middle of the book. Lepore integrates this creation into the historical context. In other words, into the history of twentieth-century feminism.
Hence the long run-up that she takes, from US women’s suffrage in 1920 and Margaret Sanger’s founding of the first counseling centers for contraception shortly before. Lepore places the character Wonder Woman, developed by the psychologist William Marston in 1941, not least in this context because Marston himself referred to it. This is where a second story arc dedicated to Marston unwinds.
He was an ambivalent character. On the one hand a women’s rights activist, on the other hand he exploited women throughout his life. Specifically, his two partners in an open threesome who made the money and kept the business going so Marston could make up stories about Wonder Woman fighting patriarchy and female exploitation.
Pin-up girl and suffragette
Lepore is a representative of that empathetic way of presentation that English-speaking non-fiction authors are so much better at than German-speaking ones. Accordingly, her portrait of Marston is not devastating. “To be honest, it was hard to know what to make of him,” she admits in the afterword.
Rather, the complexity of Marston, who as a patriarch created a consciously feminist icon, is the origin of the dichotomy of the character, which was written and drawn exclusively by men between 1946 and 1985 and whose characterization was often limited to a kind of Superman with breasts be: sexist instead of sexy.
Lepore, on the other hand, goes to the heart of the character created by Marston and his two wives: pin-up girl and suffragette. By tying it into the bigger picture, she also makes it clear that Wonder Woman is not a footnote in the history of the women’s movement, wedged between turn-of-the-century suffragettes and contemporary feminists. But that she is the link between the two, with a lasting influence on contemporary feminists.
One of the rare cases in which the usually rather small historiography of the comics is linked to the large one of an entire country, and, as expected, brilliantly written.