Wonder Woman: the first psychological superhero

In an exclusive extract from his new edited book Wonder Woman Psychology, Travis Langley introduces a superhero with particularly psychological origins.

Princess Diana of the Amazons is a strong, healthy character. As Wonder Woman, she is one of the world’s most famous superheroes, and she is the most famous female among them – some argue the most famous heroine of any kind.1 Superheroes tend to embody the hope that individuals who step up to do the right thing can make the world better. Wonder Woman goes further by demonstrating hope that every individual can improve. She wants to help people discover the best in their own true natures. Diana’s magic lasso, known for compelling people to speak honestly, represents her dedication to truth itself.

Why put together a book on the psychology of a superhero who’s mentally healthy and whose enemies are not widely known? When I wrote Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight, people understood why: The Dark Knight has serious issues, his enemies fill an asylum, and no superhero has foes more famous than his. Using psychology to look at those characters and stories seemed the obvious thing to do, and mining that fiction for examples to explain psychology made sense. Personal trauma does not drive Diana to become a hero. Real-life heroes’ backgrounds tend not to include a single driving tragedy.2 As comic book writer Len Wein observed, “Some of them become heroes because it’s simply the right thing to do.”3 There are many kinds of heroes, though, and many areas of psychology. Not all of them are dark.

Truth is incomplete when we seek it only in the darkness. Hunting for secrets in the dark of night, no matter how many great discoveries that might reveal, falls short and even misleads us if we overlook other truths that shine in the light of day. A look at mental illness makes little sense unless we contrast it with mental health. How can we evaluate a person’s “impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning”4 without considering what counts as unimpaired functioning in the first place? How can we discuss “abnormal” without defining “normal”? Questions like these nagged at Wonder Woman’s creator.

A psychologist created Diana the Amazon princess at the suggestion of his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, who was also a psychologist by the standards of the time.5 Dr William Moulton Marston – therapist, professor, and entrepreneur – became an educational consultant for the companies that would eventually merge to become DC Comics.6 When editor Sheldon Mayer gave him the opportunity to create a new superhero, Bill Marston went home full of excitement about the prospect. According to their son Pete, Elizabeth made the crucial recommendation: “Let’s have a super woman! There’s too many men out there.”7 Under the pen name Charles Moulton, until his death of cancer at age fifty-three, Bill dedicated the last six years of his life to writing stories about this character who combined his views about women’s superiority to men,8 his DISC theory about how people influence each other,9 and his science of truth.10

Not just any psychologist, William Moulton Marston occupies an important place in the history of both forensic psychology and personnel psychology, in the history of seeking truth in courtrooms and careers. He is often called – incorrectly and yet with good reason – the “inventor of the lie detector”11 for using systolic blood pressure to identify signs of deception. Even though he did not invent the polygraph (poly- for “multiple” and -graph for “measurement”),12 Marston popularized the use of measuring a physiological reaction when attempting to evaluate honesty in criminal proceedings.13 He appeared as the lie detection expert in a landmark court case14 – admittedly, the case that led an appellate court to rule and set the enduring legal standard15 that his lie detection method should not be admissible in court.16

In Marston’s Wonder Woman comics of the 1940s, the characters Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor each use systolic blood pressure measurements at times to identify liars and spies.17 No matter which physiological sign an expert records to assess veracity, each test for an abnormal deviation that supposedly indicates a lie requires a baseline measurement for comparison, an assessment of what the person looks like in that individual’s normal state – in this case, what the person looks like when telling the truth.18 Wonder Woman would become well known for wielding a magical Lasso of Truth19 – which is itself a widely shared mistruth, a misnomer because the lasso compels obedience, not simply confessions.20 Marston considered obedience and loving submission to others to be good, healthy, and important for personal growth,21 and this would become a recurring theme throughout his stories. The lasso could even compel a person to lie,22 but Wonder Woman’s dedication to seeking truth as an integral part of her personality makes that aspect the lasso’s most identifiable attribute, to the point that even comic book writers forgot for many years that it does more than elicit honest answers. “We looked at the golden Lasso of Truth,” writer Greg Rucka said about revisiting the heroine’s origin for the DC Rebirth event, “but it’s not the lasso that does it; it’s Diana who brings the truth.”23

Together with Superman and Batman,24 Wonder Woman is one of only three superheroes to stay in steady publication from their Golden Age debuts through the present day.25 The respective children of science fiction, street crime, and myth, these three persist for diverse reasons. At one point in the 1950s, theirs were the only superhero titles left in publication.26 Superman was our first comic book superhero – bright and impossible. Batman “expanded that meme by adding the coin’s other side, the dark and improbably possible.”27 What, then, was Wonder Woman? She was neither the first superheroine28 nor the first mythological superhero,29 but maybe she was the first psychological superhero.30

“Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” said the character’s creator in a letter to comics historian Coulton Waugh. “There isn’t love enough in the male organism to run this planet peacefully.” 31 During World War II, a time when the wars men waged threatened lives across the globe, he believed that female leaders who would emerge in the aftermath would take the future in a more enlightened direction. “There’s great hope for this world. Women will win! When women rule, there won’t be any more [war] because the girls won’t want to waste time killing men – I regard that as the greatest – no, even more – as the only hope for permanent peace.”32 In the best-known versions of her origin, Diana leaves her island home and becomes Wonder Woman to fight against war itself, as is sometimes embodied in the form of war god Ares or Mars. “The first casualty of war,” as Diana puts it, “is truth.”33

When you need to stop an asteroid, you get Superman. When you need to solve a mystery, you call Batman. But when you need to end a war, you get Wonder Woman.”  – comic book writer Gail Simone34

Why has she endured? Is it the strength of the name itself, Wonder Woman? Marston originally wanted to call her Suprema the Wonder Woman in the vein of Robin the Boy Wonder and many other characters of the time, but editor Sheldon Mayer disliked that and said to cut it down to Wonder Woman.35 She was not a direct spin-off of a male superhero (no more so than any other superhero ultimately derives from Superman, that is), not in the way that Hawkgirl, Supergirl, and Batgirl followed Hawkman, Superman, and Batman. Nor was she created to be a male superhero’s love interest (Hawkgirl, Bulletgirl), relative (Mary Marvel, Supergirl, She-Hulk), inspired fan (Batwoman, Batgirl), team token (Invisible Girl, Marvel Girl), or femme fatale (Catwoman – sometimes a hero, sometimes not). Among superheroes, she was the independent woman – woman, not girl. She may have joined the Justice Society initially to help out as their secretary, but in her own stories she was the hero.

Depictions of her have varied, notably with regard to how violent she might be and how much fun she’s having. In her early adventures, she refuses to kill, she sports a good sense of humor, and she has fun throughout her adventures. Over the decades, she would undergo a number of revisions, partly because her roots in World War II no longer held up as the decades progressed but also because women’s roles and rights changed over time.

We look at the strong, healthy character for some of the same reasons recent psychologists now charge psychology with a criticism her creator made long ago: Too much of psychology has focused on that which is abnormal without exploring that which is normal – hence Marston’s classic book, Emotions of Normal People. Whereas other psychologists and other fictional characters might view humankind pessimistically, William Moulton Marston and Wonder Woman look for the best in us all and hope for our world. In the twenty-first century, a psychologist best known for studying the causes and consequences of learned helplessness36 promotes positive psychology on the belief that psychology has overemphasized the worst parts of human nature to the neglect of trying to understand the best.37 Perhaps more than any other superhero, Princess Diana of Themyscira embodies the virtues that positive psychologists look for in us all (wisdom, courage, justice, temperance, transcendence, and humanity38), which the Virtue Files at the end of each section in this book will explore.

She is a wonder. Behold. 

- Reprinted with permission from Wonder Woman Psychology © 2017 edited by Travis Langley, Sterling Publishing, RRP £9.99, Available online and at all good bookshops.

See also an extract from one of the other books in the series, Doctor Who Psychology.

Notes

1. DC Comics (n.d.); Hanley (2014); Morrison (2011).

2. Allison & Goethals (2011).

3. Letamendi et al. (2011).

4. American Psychiatric Association (2013), p. 21.

5. McMillan (1973).

6. Daniels (1995).

7. New York Times (1993); Marston, P. (personal communication, 2016).

8. Marston (1929, 1944).

9. Marston (1928).

10. Marston (1917, 1947).

11. e.g., Bio Staff (2014).

12. Marston (1917) followed Benussi (1914). Larson in 1921 (described in 1932) and Keeler (1933) expanded the polygraph to multiple physiological channels.

13. Bunn (2012); Committee to Review the Scientific Evidence on the Polygraph (2003).

14. Frye v. United States (1923), cited in Fisher (2008).

15. Bunn (2012); Fisher (2008); Committee to Review the Scientific Evidence on the Polygraph (2003).

16. Meyer & Weaver (2006).

17. e.g., Sensation Comics #3 (1942); Wonder Woman #4 (1942).

18. Littlefield (2011).

19. DC Database (n.d.).

20. Sensation Comics #6 (1942).

21. Marston (1928).

22. e.g., Sensation Comics #6 (1942).

23. Johnston (2016).

24. Diaz (2016); Reynolds (1994).

25. Superman since Action Comics #1 (1938), Batman since Detective Comics #27 (1939), and Wonder Woman since 1941 except for a two-month hiatus between Wonder Woman #329 (1986) and The Legend of Wonder Woman #1 (1986), then five months between The Legend of Wonder Woman #4 (1986) and Wonder Woman #1 (1987).

26. Duncan & Smith (2009).

27. Langley (2012), p. 6.

28. Fantomah debuted in Jungle Comics #2 (1940), the Woman in Red debuted in Thrilling Comics #2, and others followed. See Fernandez (n.d.). and Madrid (2013) for more of Wonder Woman’s predecessors.

29. e.g., the original Captain Marvel, whose comics would outsell Superman’s: debuted in Whiz Comics #2 (1940).

30. Joyce (2008); Karlin (2016).

31. Quoted in Daniels (2004), pp. 22–23.

32. Richard (1940), p. 19.

33. Wonder Woman Rebirth #1 (2016).

34. Wonder Woman: The Circle (2008).

35. Mayer, C. (personal communication, 2016).

36. Seligman & Maier (1967); Seligman (1972).

37. Seligman (1998); Seligman et al. (2005).

38. Peterson & Seligman (2004). 

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