Reviews — From the November 2014 issue

Paradise Lost

Did Wonder Woman fail feminism?

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Discussed in this essay:

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore. Knopf. 448 pages. $29.95

Holy Hera! What have women been doing the past century? Sleeping? How else could we have allowed chains to be soldered to our silver bracelets and maintained despite the effort of so many activists over such a long time? Feminism: one wave, a second wave, I’m not sure anymore how many waves (are we presently up to the fourth?). Even in the seeming feminist doldrums of the 1940s, there was a contained but noisy demand for birth control from the working women who kept the industries going while the men were at war. Surely that shift could only have ended in liberation and financial, social, and sexual equality for women — but it didn’t. What we did get from the 1940s was the advent of Wonder Woman, one man’s vision of, and later several men’s caricature of, female liberation.

Wonder Woman, by Anthony Lister

Wonder Woman, by Anthony Lister

Yet, Suffering Sappho! Here we still are, marching right into yet another century with our glass ceilings, unequal pay, unresolved work and child-care balance, and still marrying, forever marrying, men. For more than a hundred years, we’ve been more like Sleeping Beauties than Amazons. Perhaps we mistook those chains dangling from our bracelets — chains the cartoonists were always wrapping around us — for love’s binding. In the case of Wonder Woman and her creators, it’s quite hard to tell the difference. However or whatever, we Amazons seem willingly to have submitted to the pleasures of being held and controlled by handsome hunks like Captain Steve Trevor, who arrive among us and tame us because they know that is what we want and how we function best. And who can say otherwise when the finest of us, Princess Diana, a.k.a. Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, saved Steve from certain death and then left Paradise Island, where women ruled and lived in peace, with nothing but her lasso of truth and the magic girdle of power, in order to help Trevor and the United States fight, as we told ourselves, “the battle for freedom, democracy, and womankind”? We followed Steve into his world, where men wrote the story and drew the pictures and made us all too vincible.

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’s most recent book is What I Don’t Know About Animals (Yale). Her last review for Harper’s Magazine, “Bewitched,” appeared in the December 2013 issue.

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