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Credit: DC / Wonder Woman #3, cover art by H.G. Peters

Wonder Woman and Seduction of the Innocent

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Jul 8, 2020, 10:36 AM EDT (Updated)

LGBTQIA history is closely intertwined with the history of censorship in the U.S. When you research our last century of queer literature and art, it is difficult not to end up reading detailed accounts of infamous trials that took place in this country. Likewise, when reading of the Golden Age of comics, you will encounter how their publication inspired a lot of suppression laws. For example, in the mid-'50s, an anti-comic book hysteria gripped the nation and led to actual book burnings in many cities, right around the same time the McCarthy hearings were happening in Washington.

History fans know nothing happens in a bubble. Events are intertwined, and by focusing on big, explosive moments, we lose the slow shifting of tides that gain weight and momentum and cause those moments to happen. Our girl Wonder Woman began as mostly surprisingly progressive in concern to gender politics before rapidly descending into stifling gender conformity within a few years of her debut after her architect passed away. Compounding the issue was the conservative swing in U.S. media overall. Banned books, excessive editing of films, and a literal blacklist for subversive creators led to a less satisfying, much less feminist take on Wonder Woman that is unfortunately still seen from time to time today.

Credit: DC / Wonder Woman, written by William Moulton Marston, art by H.G. Peters

Psychologist Fredrich Wertham's 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, made many, many claims about comic books as a harbinger of the decline of human civilization. Famously, he accused Batman and Robin of homosexuality but also stated the belief that Wonder Woman encouraged BDSM and lesbianism. After reading early Wonder Woman, you would be hard-pressed to say that assertion is untrue, but there is a big difference between William Moulton Marston's Wonder Woman and the Wonder Woman that would follow. In the time, people were still being thrown into psychiatric wards and psychologically tortured for being gay, and public outing could result in job loss and homophobic attacks, and though there were queer activists, the queer community as we know it had not yet been fully formed. In this climate, it shouldn't be surprising that Diana's queer beginnings were shied away from. While it is different now, Wonder Woman's inherent queerness continues to be brushed under the rug. While an overriding climate of homophobia spurred by government propaganda might seem dystopian by today's standards, even now many writers struggle to reconcile the feminism and the queerness intrinsic to the concept with its larger corporate appeal.

Wonder Woman is well known for early stories in which light bondage kink factored heavily. Issues in which Diana tied up other characters in order to compel them to admit their secrets were already fairly subversive — and basing the story on an island of fully autonomous women with subtext to spare was certainly ahead of its time in any reading. It's not that surprising that the book took a quick turn for the conservative immediately thereafter, but it's important to note that even in the early days it struggled to toe the line of its own feminist message. Before she ever had her own book, she joined the JSA as a secretary rather than a member of the team, and that was Marston's choice.

With Batman, there had been a concentrated effort to steer his stories into more wholesome and heteronormative territory. But after the death of Wonder Woman's creator, no one involved in editorial had felt particularly compelled to protect Marsten's (flawed, but still advanced for its time) vision of a feminist utopia. Wonder Woman had already become essentially society's fantasy of a powerful, infinitely patient, but wholly domesticated woman. When the accusation finally hit that Wonder Woman was encouraging lesbianism, she had already been assimilated into a heteronormative story arc for years. For instance, Wonder Woman's home, Paradise Island, was written almost entirely out of the book for decades. Disconnected from her heritage and submissive to the dashing Steve Trevor, she worked as a secretary among her fellow superheroes and as a "lady columnist" while his story took the central focus. This would be the case for years, and it didn't take a national public outcry spurred by Seduction of the Innocent to make it so.

Credit: DC / Wonder Woman #102, cover art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito

Yet there were still some changes in mood made after Seduction of the Innocent. Diana's stories had been backsliding into purely incidental for some time, but after the book's release, there is essentially no reference made to anything even remotely feminist in the books for several years. Issue after issue, Wonder Woman is nearly beaten by boring villains who generally use her "feminine vanity" to get the better of her. Steve Trevor is the hero of almost every tale, rescuing her from supervillains so unthreatening that they would never be seen in the pages of a comic today. Wonder Woman's mission was no longer to bring peace to man's world so much as it was to attempt to deflect attacks until Steve could swoop in and save her.

Robert Kanigher took over the line, and while it would be difficult to make claims on what his personal ideology was, it's safe to say that feminism and sisterhood weren't important subjects for him. He essentially dropped the supporting cast for the book, regulating once-iconic characters like Etta Candy to guest stars at best. Stories about a young "Wonder Girl" became prominent in the pages of the series. There was a cover for Issue #156 in which Wonder Woman was placed on a large target with unseen hands tossing darts at her and her begging them to stop. Kanigher was writing Wonder Woman before Seduction of the Innocent, which is part of why the book didn't have to change too drastically to accommodate the staunch rule system of the Comics Code. He was on the book no less than 22 years.

It wouldn't be totally accurate to say that Steve Trevor was Wonder Woman's beard, but it is true that his presence switched from being a romantic interest for Diana to be much of the focus of the series. The creators often used him to be the patriarchal figure that distanced Diana from her queer and feminist roots. While Batman had Kathy Kane, Wonder Woman was the star of her own book and yet often was its secondary focus, which makes Wonder Woman's feminist and queer erasure sting even worse.

This brings us to the modern era, in which Wonder Woman has a greater presence in the world and is no longer relegated to a background character. Indeed, she often takes the role of leader of various teams and has shown herself equal to Batman and Superman time and time again. Yet there is still a bizarre pull in opposite directions for the character. Writers like Greg Rucka and Gail Simone have said that they write the character to be read as bisexual, but after 80 or so years of subtext, it seems unlikely that we'll ever see Diana in a relationship with a woman outside of alternate tellings and insinuations.

Wonder Woman Vol. 5 #2, written by Greg Rucka, art by Nicola Scott and Romulo Fajardo JR, lettering by Jodi Wynne

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