Oct 072015

Berlatsky, Noah. 2015. Wonder Woman: bondage and feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948. New Brunswick, New Jersey : Rutgers University Press

Wonder Woman spanking a man in Roman soldier uniform

Wonder Woman spanking a man in Roman soldier uniform

Growing up, I had the notion that Wonder Woman had been created in the past as a perfect feminist icon, and only later was the character sexualized by other creators. In fact, Wonder Woman was “always, already” as much a figure of fetishistic fantasy as she was a feminist role model, patriotic symbol, or heroine for children. The original seven-year run of comics, written or co-written by William Moulton Marston and illustrated by William Peter displayed the kind of deep psychosexual weirdness usually only found in 19th century children’s books. (I say that as a fan of deep psychosexual weirdness.) Noah Berlatsky’s book explores just how queer and feminist those stories were; as the author puts it, “a flamboyantly gendered mess.”[Pg.169]


Berlatsky’s book almost exclusively focuses on the original run, written or co-written by Marston and illustrated by Harry G Peter, who had worked on “Gibson Girls”, early 20th century pinup art girls who were usually portrayed as strong, educated and independent. [Pg.9]

So, Berlatsky asks, how can the early Marston/Peter be both feminist and chock full of bondage and other fetishes? [Pg.13] The answer is that the stories drew upon specifically female experiences of disempowerment, depicted them in a highly fantastic way (i.e. the Gothic), and showed women escaping from these predicaments. He discusses Wonder Woman 16 in great detail, which is a fantastic retelling of the myth of the abduction (and implied rape) of Persephone by Hades. In this case, Pluto is represented as a trident-wielding patriarch who carries of women from Earth to the literal planet, where each is separated into a multi-colored light body and a dark hooded slave.

Berlatsky discusses this apparent paradox in great detail, going over the criticisms of feminist writers like John Stoltenberg and Susan Brownmiller. Brownmiller in particular sees the “master-slave relationship” as the foundation of male-controlled sexuality. Berlatsky quotes from her Against Our Will:

From the slave harems of the Oriental potentate, celebrated in poetry and dance, to the breathless description of light-skinned fancy women, de rigeur in a particular genre of pulp historical fiction, the glorification of forced sex under slavery, institutional rape, has been a part of our cultural heritage, feeding the egos of men while subverting the egos of women — and doing irreparable damage to healthy sexuality in the process. [Quoted from Pg.169-170 of Against Our Will]

Berlatsky points out that in condemning eroticized bondage, Brownmiller participates in it. “… there is no way to imagine liberating yourself from bondage without imagining bondage, with all its connotations.” [Pg. 21] The popularity of narratives of victimized women, like Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games, indicate that they have strongly connected with the lives of girls and women. [Pg.23] They are ways of talking about female experiences. (I question grouping The Hunger Games with the other two works.)

Gothic romances show women in sexual peril not to enjoy the sight of women in sexualized peril but rather because women often are in sexualized peril and want to read books that address their experiences. Similarly, Marston, [co-writer Joy] Murchison, and Peter do not show the rape of Persephone because the rape of Persephone is a stimulating thing to see. They show it because girls (and boys too) face incest and rape, and stories addressed to them must therefore face those things as well.

Or so I’ve been arguing. The truth though is perhaps a little less clear-cut. Marston, Murchison, and Peter in Wonder Woman #16 are writing about incest and rape, and they are doing so from a consciously feminist perspective. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t get off on fetishized bondage too. [Pg. 56]

Marston, Murchison, and Peter present incest as trauma and as tragedy. But they also present, and utilize, it as fetish. [Pg.57]

This is the familiar problem of authorial intent vs. audience reception.

Marston came to writing comic books with his own developed ideas on gender, sexuality and politics. His book Emotions of Normal People describe dominance and submission as fundamental human emotions, based on his studies of sorority initiation parties, in which the freshmen girls would dress up like babies, confess their misdemeanors and be mock-punished. [Pg.64-65] Marston described this as “captivation emotion”, which could exist in both between genders and within the same gender. Any gender could occupy any position in the dominant/submissive pairing.

That is to say, for Marston, Murchison, and Peter, there is no necessary contradiction between confronting the reality of rape and abuse (for women and also men) and indulging in a sexually charged BDSM romp (for everyone). For Freud, childhood rape and children’s fantasies of rape could not both be real. He could not imagine both at once. But Marston, Murchison, and Peter could. [Pg.67]

In Berlatsky’s view, people can both have dominant/submissive sexuality and be worthy of protection. [Pg.69]

Trauma recurs, and violence repeats, but that doesn’t mean the traumatized should only be allowed to be submissive victims — or that they should only be allowed to be empowered angels of vengeance. Rather, Marston seems to believe, once the power of rape is broken, the world will be safe for rape fantasies and for dominance and submission — the normal emotions. [Pg.72]

Marston’s philosophy is that women should lead because they do not have the same kind of ego as men, that they are capable of love and submission to a greater degree than men. Female masochism is the core of everything, the foundation of a new matriarchal social order.

We finally have a definitive answer, therefore, to the question first raised in chapter 1. The many, many, many, many images of Wonder Woman in bondage […] are not there (or are not there solely) so Marston’s audience– whether men or women– can get off on women disempowered. Rather, they’re there to teach men (and women too) the joys of restraint. [Pg. 117]

This is most directly displayed in Marston’s utopian vision of Paradise Island, which is pretty much kinky bondage games all day long. In Wonder Woman #3, Wonder Woman and her sidekick Etta travel to the princess’ homeland for Diana’s Day, in which women happily volunteer to to be dressed in deer costumes, captured, “skinned”, and trussed up for roasting, or tied and mock-baked into a giant pie. It’s all in good fun. [Pg. 142-144]

Lesbian D/s is the underlying dynamic of everything in Marston’s world. Even in his 1932 pseudohistorical pulp novel Venus with Us:A Tale of the Caesar, there are positive depictions of f/f relationships.[Pg.148-149] Remember, Marston lived a semi-closeted life as married to Elizabeth Holloway and living with a graduate student, Olive Byrne. This is fairly common knowledge among scholars and fans of American superhero comics, but it is frequently assumed, even by feminist and queer writers, that Marston was the alpha male of this menage. Berlatsky points out that not only did Holloway and Byrne name their children after each other, they continued to live together for forty years after Marston’s death. [Pg.149] It’s possible, indeed probable, that the affective and sexual bonds between the two women were as strong or stronger than the relationships between them and Marston. Thus, Marston was the “odd man out”, sort of an accessory to their lesbian relationship, welcome but not essential.

The polyamorous Marston, however, does not see female-female relationships as exclusionary at all. Rather, for Marston, lesbianism and female communities can take men in without violation or contradiction, because when it comes to sexuality, it is women who are determinative, not men. In this sense, Amazon society in Wonder Woman #23 was not kept pure [of men] and did not need to be kept pure. The Amazons simply took men in and by so doing made them women. […] But for Marston, a woman’s space that holds a man conquers him and turns him female. [Pg. 172]

Berlatsky only lightly touches on the rest of Wonder Woman’s history in comics and other media. It’s not just that no other writer and artist could quite achieve this level of mad genius. He says that other creators either aggressively refute Marston’s philosophy (e.g. a recent retcon which says that Diana was actually the illegitimate daughter of Zeus instead of being crafted out of clay by her mother and granted life by the intervention of a goddess) or merely pay lip service to Marston’s ideals (e.g. an ideologically incoherent story about the conflict of militarism and pacifism). Marston’s ideas were weird, but had their own internal consistency. Unfettered by considerations of realism or adult logic, he could create stories that broke out of the binary oppositions of gender. His most famous creation was a bundle of paradoxes that should not exist, but did.

Jun 242015

My apologies for addressing the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey so late. I obtained one copy of the film through admittedly dubious means (let’s just say the text messages are in Spanish), and another in which the subtitles were in originally in, I think, Thai, then covered up by another layer of subtitles in Spanish, and all the explicit sex was cut.

Beyond all that, I could only watch about five minutes at a time. Somebody asked me how I got through the film and I joked, “I kept a fifth of Scotch handy.”

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Feb 122015

As of this writing, Fifty Shades of Grey holds a 32% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a 47 on MetaCritic, and a 3.1 on IMDB. Suffice to say, it won’t sweep the Oscars next year. I do predict it will do well at the Golden Raspberries. Its loyal fanbase will probably guarantee a commercially successful opening weekend and a lot of DVD sales, but I suspect it will do poorly in the long run.

I am a little disappointed we won’t see little CGI chibi versions of Dakota Johnson’s subconscious and inner goddess hopping around.

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Mar 162014

Mileaf, Janine. Please Touch: Dada & Surrealist Objects After The Readymade. Dartmouth College Press, 2010

As I’ve observed before, there’s a relative lacuna in BDSM history, between the Victorians and the post-WWII era. The first half of the 20th century is relatively undocumented, though I have found a few exceptions.

Man Ray, Woman in Bondage, c1930

Man Ray, Woman in Bondage, c1930

Artist and photographer Man Ray made several sadomasochistic photos in his career in the 1920s and 1930s. He was also a devotee of the works of the Marquis de Sade, and made portraits of the Marquis. Man Ray was one of many artists of the time interested in “the primitive”, taking inspiration from aboriginal people around the world, and seeking truth through extreme mental and physical states.

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Feb 142014

Brown, Carolyn E. “Erotic Religious Flagellation and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure”, English Literary Renaissance, Vol.16, Iss. 1, Dec 1986

Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure (first performed in 1604) links religious asceticism and flagellation with deviant sexuality and political tyranny. The Duke of Vienna, the judge Angelo and the novice nun Isabella claim to be pious and chaste, while their sexuality is repressed in such a way that it emerges as indifferent voyeurism, aggressive sadism or masochism, respectively. “…by drawing parallels to historical or topical events, Shakespeare suggests that the protagonists’ very asceticism, ironically, causes this deviant desire and that they associate their austere religious practices with pleasurable feelings.”

Woman in nun's habit kneels facing away from man in suit, sitting on couh

Isabella and Angelo

The plot revolves around a couple, Claudio and Juliet, who have not properly observed all the rules of engagement and marriage. While the Duke travels through Vienna in disguise as a friar, he hands power over to the judge Angelo, who decides to make an example of Claudio and condemn him to death for fornication. Claudio’s friend Lucia asks Isabella, the novice nun and Claudio’s sister, for help. Angelo offers to free Claudio in exchange for sex with Isabella.
The trio of the Duke, Angelo and Isabella are all ascetics (though none are actually clergy), and are hostile to sexual desires, believing that “pain kills the libido and thus subjecting themselves and others to physical abuse.”

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Dec 102013

Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (1975) dir. Don Edmonds IMDB Amazon

Arguably the best known Nazisploitation film (though Love Camp 7 (1969) is usually cited as the first), Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS was a US-Canadian production (and shot on the exterior old sets for Hogan’s Heroes, according to one source). It starred Dyanne Thorne as the titular concentration camp commandant, impeccably crisp in a black, white and red SS uniform.

The women sent to Ils’a  camp are divided into two groups. One gets sent to “work details” of serving the men in the guard house. The other gets beaten, electrocuted, boiled, suffocated and more in “experiments” overseen by Ilsa and her female assistants. Ilsa’s ostensible reason for all of this is to demonstrate that women can withstand as much pain as men, and therefore prove that women can serve the Reich by fighting on the front line.

The male prisoners each get one night with Ilsa, after which they’re castrated.

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May 132013

I’m surprised at how much material from AMC’s Mad Men I find for this blog. First there was protagonist Don Draper’s masochistic sessions with a prostitute who slaps his face. Then there was the episode “Mystery Date”, which showed that Don was trying to be faithful to his wife, while a toxic cocktail of lust, fear and rage boiled inside him. Meanwhile, other characters had their own reactions to sexual violence.

And now, in “Man With A Plan”, Don goes full on dominant. Since the season began, he’s been having an affair with his downstairs neighbour Sylvia, the wife of a heart surgeon. While Don’s been lacking in sales meetings, he makes up for it by expertly playing on Sylvia’s Catholic guilt, setting her up for their trysts in the maid’s room.

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Apr 252013


The following is a copy of an email I sent to Pinterest after they removed one of the images (replicated above) from my BDSM History board.

To whom it may concern:

On April 25, 2013, I received an email informing me that one of the images in my Pinterest account had been removed. The explanation was, “The reason is, it looks like the pin may have had nudity on it.”

The image in question was created and distributed by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and features actor Jensen Ackles nude and kneeling in such a way that his arms and hands obscure his genitals, wearing chains and with a whip on the floor. The copy reads,  “Whips and chains belong in the bedroom, not in the circus.”

PETA has a long history of using sexually suggestive or explicit imagery in ads and publicity stunts to advance its animal rights cause, though many have questioned the efficacy of this tactic. I chose this image to illustrate PETA’s use of sadomasochistic imagery, part of a recurring trend of sadomasochistic imagery being used in persuasive media such as advertising and propaganda. This is part of my historical research.

A cursory search of “peta” on Pinterest will display numerous other examples of PETA’s advertising, featuring nude or nearly nude men and women (mostly the latter) in sexually suggestive images. This is in addition to countless other pins featuring nude or nearly nude adults in sexually suggestive or explicit settings.

I am at a loss as to why this particular image in question was removed. The only way it differs in degree or kind from many other images on Pinterest is that it features a nude male in a vulnerable position. Am I to understand that an unclothed man is somehow more nude, or the wrong kind of nude, compared to an unclothed woman? Even if the people are posed in such a way that their genitals are not visible?

I understand the necessity of enforcing rules regarding sexually explicit imagery on a service such as Pinterest. However, I do not understand the logic of this particular instance of enforcement, and I do not consider this removal to be just or fair or consistent with the content of Pinterest.

Please explain to me why this particular image is not permitted. I have attached a copy.

Examples of other PETA ads found on Pinterest.

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