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THE EXAMINED LIFE

Wonder-working power

DURING WORLD WAR II, the first feminist superhero sprung from the brow of William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-educated psychologist who wanted a female warrior who could fight fascism while challenging the masculinist world of superhero adventures. But for most of her nearly 65 years, Wonder Woman has been thought of as merely a sexy bombshell in a star-spangled hotpants. In her new book, "Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes" (Routledge), feminist critic Lillian S. Robinson examines what female superheroes mean for everyday life in our three-dimensional world. Robinson spoke with Ideas via telephone from her office at Concordia University in Montreal, where she is director of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute.

IDEAS: You were born in 1941, the very year that Wonder Woman, the original female superhero, first appeared in DC's "All Star Comics."

ROBINSON: Wonder Woman and I have been around for 63 years -- though she's in better shape than me! I started reading her adventures in 1947, and I suspect it was her influence that eventually led me to write my doctoral dissertation on the topic of female knights in the 16th-century epic. So the book is almost a memoir.

IDEAS: You claim that Wonder Woman, at least in her early, wartime incarnation, back when Marston was still penning the comic, remains the only mainstream feminist superhero to this date.

ROBINSON: "Wonder Woman" comics pioneered a kind of feminist questioning, however commercially packaged, sugar-coated, and eccentric. Influenced by his accomplished wife Elizabeth, and also by his lover Olive Byrne, who lived with them in a mage a trois, Marston dreamed up a heroine who would fight oppression of all kinds in the name of love. 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.

IDEAS: But in the 1950s Wonder Woman was depicted less as an athlete than as a va-va-voomy pinup -- and her secret passion for Army intelligence officer Steve Trevor became central to her story.

ROBINSON: 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.

IDEAS: Later comic-book characters like Supergirl, Invisible Woman, and She-Hulk were career women who kicked male butt daily -- yet you say they're no feminists.

ROBINSON: Female superheroes through the 1970s, though tough, lacked both Wonder Woman's heroic feminism -- her antagonistic relation to patriarchy -- and her civic feminism, based on the notion of equal participation in society. And since then, comics have become postfeminist. Suddenly women in comics don't face any discrimination. Today Invisible Woman -- formerly Invisible Girl -- is called the strongest member of the Fantastic Four, as though she had never been depicted as almost pathologically shy and retiring. Somehow mainstream comic books went from prefeminist to postfeminist without ever going through feminism.

IDEAS: Why can't we have it all -- feminists with super-powers?

ROBINSON: Even in the 21st century, the one thing mainstream comics can't acknowledge is that there are social problems that might be open to solution by a movement. Apparently that's scarier than any supervillain or bug-eyed monster.

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