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Wonder Woman Shows Girls That Men Aren't The Only Superheros Who Rescue People


Let's head to Hollywood now, where the film of the moment also stars a woman. It is - you guessed it - "Wonder Woman." It opened last night to strong reviews. But what you might not know is that the princess of the Amazons has faced quite a battle for decades for respect. Let's start with the fact that although Wonder Woman is one of the most enduring comic book superheroes of all time, she still had to wait for nine Superman films and 12 Batman movies - not to mention Ant-Man, Meteor Man, Swamp Thing and Dr. Strange - before getting the big screen treatment herself. That's not all.

Jill Lepore has much more to say about this. She's a staff writer at The New Yorker, a professor at Harvard and the author of "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman." We spoke with her from member station WGBH in Boston. And she started by telling us why Wonder Woman was created in the first place.

JILL LEPORE: Wonder Woman started in 1941. And she was really kind of a publicity stunt. Superhero comics had just - were flying off the shelves. They cost a dime. Kids were reading them. But parents have gotten really concerned. And comic books were being banned. They were being burned in town commons. And so the publisher of the Justice League stories hired the world's most famous consulting psychologist, this guy who was something of a rascal named William Moulton Marston. Bring him to give advice. What should we do about this controversy? And Marston came up with this idea. He said, what you need is a female superhero.

MARTIN: Well, why were they so controversial? What is it that people were so upset about? And what was Wonder Woman supposed to be the antidote to?

LEPORE: The blood-curdling masculinity is how Marston described it of the comics. It was mostly their violence, but there were also specific complaints. Superman looked to a lot of grownups like a Nietzschean Ubermensch. He was a man from a master race. People thought that he was kind of a secret propagandist for fascism. And people forget this, but when Batman started out, Batman had a gun. And the United States had a very strong aversion to the glorification of gun violence. And Batman had to lose his gun.

That's where he got his origin story. He ended up having to - he had this whole origin story about how he's traumatized by seeing his parents shot. That's one solution to the problem. But Marston said what you really need is a female superhero who's opposed to violence, whose strengths are love and truth and beauty.

MARTIN: One of the things that's been striking now is that - I just have to ask you about all the hubbub around this film. I mean, obviously there are a lot of things just from a commercial standpoint that people are interested in and want to talk about - the fact that, you know, the star is an Israeli actress and she's a former member of the IDF and a former Miss Israel, the fact that it's directed by Patty Jenkins, who's, you know, a woman directing a big-budget, you know, action film is exciting to some people.

But there's been all this stuff about, you know, is this a feminist film or not? The fact that, say, a couple of movie theaters decided to have all-female screenings. Why do you think it is that it's evoking such strong feelings and it's just coming out?

LEPORE: So I think there are two sides of those feelings. Well, there are probably many sides. But one side is that that malice, right? There's a lot of kind of pent-up hostility. But the other side of it is that emotionalism and attachment to this character, which I have to just confess, like, as a girl I did not read "Wonder Woman." I didn't even watch the "Wonder Woman" TV show. I'm not like a comic books person. I'm a political historian. So I always kind of have an intellectual distance from that. I don't quite have that. But I've seen it close up, and I find it really moving. And how I've come to understand it is it's a consequence of the singularity of this character.

And I'll tell you a little story. When I was working on this book, I was one day taking care of a little girl, an 8-year-old girl who was in foster care. And I have a box of DC Comics, postcards from the Golden Age of DC Comics that are just covers of the magazines. She loved looking at them. And she quietly sorted them out into two piles. In one pile were all the covers with all the male superheroes, and the other pile were all "Wonder Woman" covers. And she said, who is this? And I said, that's Wonder Woman. And she said, what does she do? And I said, well, she's a superhero. And she was looking at them and asking me to tell her a story about each cover.

And I said, why are you so interested in Wonder Woman to this little girl who had been taken away from her mother and her father and her siblings. And she looked at me like I was - how could I even ask this question? She looked at me and she said, because she rescues people. And I just thought, that's it. You know, that is it, to be a little girl and see a woman who can rescue people who are in trouble. I nearly fell off my chair. Like, I got it in that moment.

MARTIN: That's Jill Lepore. She's the author of "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman." She was kind enough to speak to us from member station WGBH. I do want to mention that she's written a piece for The New Yorker about Wonder Woman. It's called "Wonder Woman's Unwinnable War." It posted on June 2. Jill Lepore, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LEPORE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.