A Psychologist and A Superhero
Psychology has spilled over into pop culture in many ways throughout the years.
For instance, in 1911, one psychologist saved Coca-Cola by conducting rigorous studies into caffeine’s effects on cognition and sensory and motor abilities.
In 1929, another inspired his nephew’s successful public relations campaigns, which linked smoking cigarettes with female empowerment, if you can believe it.
Since 1895, other psychologists were directly involved in advertising, using surveys and other new ploys to get us to buy their products. (You didn’t need toothpaste to clean your teeth; you needed it to make you sexier.)
One psychologist even changed the comic book world and influenced an entire movement (that would be the feminist movement).
In the early 1940s, Harvard psychologist William Moulton Marston (May 9, 1893 – May 2, 1947) created Wonder Woman.
According to an article in Monitor on Psychology, “Not only did Wonder Woman become the third-longest running comic book in history — behind the goliaths of Superman and Batman — Marston’s character directly influenced the feminist movement… In 1972, Gloria Steinem launched Ms. magazine with a larger than life version of Wonder Woman gracing the cover.”
If you’re not that familiar with Wonder Woman, the article provides some background. (Of particular interest — Wonder Woman’s lasso comes from Marston’s dissertation on lie detection.)
“Wonder Woman worked undercover for the chief of U.S. military intelligence fighting the Axis powers and other enemies, such as the Duke of Deception. In fact, deception and truth were prominent themes in Marston’s psychological research and found an outlet through Wonder Woman’s powers. One of her most enduring symbols—her golden lasso of truth—had deep psychological origins: Marston focused his 1921 dissertation research on the physiological symptoms of deception, which later led to his work on the polygraph. The lie-detector concept eventually evolved into Wonder Woman’s lasso.”
Marston wanted to create a positive role model for girls, because at that time, powerful female costumed crusaders just didn’t exist. According to one article, not surprisingly, gender stereotypes were rampant:
“When superheroes first began to appear in comic books of the late 1930s, the genre was ostensibly an ‘all-boys club.’ In fact, prior to Wonder Woman, there were very few costumed heroines of any kind. Among the hundreds of comic books published during the 1930s, only a scant few featured stories about costumed women heroes such as Black Widow, Invisible Scarlet O’Neil, The Woman in Red, and Miss Fury. More common was the depiction of women as evil seductresses, as the hero’s girlfriend (Lois Lane), or as his ‘help mate’ (Bulletgirl and Hawkgirl). In general, superhero comics of this era reflected and reinforced cultural norms about gender. Images of male superheroes celebrated brute strength, physical perfection, male bonding, and phallic imagery, while women were typically portrayed as helpless and in need of rescuing, or as sexy, buxom pin-ups models, often in provocative bondage poses. Moreover, most superhero comics were also violent and the hero resolved any and all conflict with physical force. For example, in the earliest Batman stories, the caped crusader was a ruthless vigilante who carried a gun and even murdered a couple of his adversaries.”
According to feminist critic Lillian S. Robinson in this interview, Marston believed that strong women were essential to society. She said:
“Unlike Freud, Marston believed women were morally superior to men — and furthermore, that society was doomed unless strong women were to band together to overcome the masculinist social forces that restrict female life and possibility.”
In the 1943 issue of The American Scholar, Marston said:
“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”
So where did the inspiration for Wonder Woman come from?
Interestingly, she was inspired by two of Marston’s loves: his accomplished wife, Elizabeth; and a former student of his, Olive Byrne, who lived with the couple. He even had children with both women, and according to several sources, they led a pretty harmonious life.
Unfortunately, after Marston’s passing, the image of Wonder Woman had changed. As the Monitor article concludes:
“Marston died prematurely in 1947 from skin cancer after only six years of Wonder Woman. Other writers have since taken the character in different directions, rendering her a more stereotypical female heroine. Nonetheless, Wonder Woman remains a touchstone of popular culture, a symbol of feminism and an enduring piece of psychology history.”
Robinson also believed that after Marston’s death, Wonder Woman’s image had changed for the worst. In the same interview, she said:
“After Marston’s death in 1948 — and particularly after psychologist Frederic Wertham’s 1953 treatise ‘Seduction of the Innocent,’ which called Wonder Woman and her sidekicks lesbians, and therefore a ‘morbid ideal’ for girls, and a threat to masculinity — the comic’s feminist politics were subverted. Although Wonder Woman was later appropriated as a feminist icon, when Gloria Steinem put her on the cover of the first issue of Ms. in 1972, she has failed to keep pace with the women’s movement. Even today, Wonder Woman is no sister.”
What are your thoughts of Wonder Woman as a feminist symbol? Do you think she’s changed for better or worse?
Tartakovsky, M. (2011). A Psychologist and A Superhero. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 26, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/05/17/a-psychologist-and-a-superhero/