and the Power of Love
Do superheroes experience the same emotions as normal people? That depends on what you consider normal. Feminist superhero Wonder Woman, for example, was meant to embody the best female personality traits. But the clutch of people who created her—a psychologist who was also an inventor, a lawyer, a writer and a huckster, and the polyamorous circle of warm, intellectual, unconventional women he loved and respected—was hardly a group most people would find ordinary.
Polygraph tests may now be commonplace, but the desire to see through lies is nothing less than the eternal wish for omniscience. Lie detection is thus the province of gods, superheroes, Law & Order and William Moulton Marston, who, during World War I, advanced the research on a suspected link between increased systolic blood pressure and the act of lying. To be entirely truthful, Marston’s wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, first encouraged him to explore the connection between excited emotions and blood pressure. Before that, others had been working on similar projects, including Darwinian criminologist and phrenologist Cesare Lombroso, who in 1895 experimented with charting suspects’ blood pressure readings and pulse rates during police interrogations. Even though Marston’s claim to be the “father of the polygraph” may not stand up in court, he did treat his first invention like a favorite child. He promoted the lie detector in print and campaigned to have it adopted as a forensic tool for years after a judge ruled, in 1923, that results from the potentially unreliable device were inadmissible as evidence under U.S. law.
Wonder Woman first appeared in December 1941, when she made her print debut in All-Star Comics No. 8. But Jill Lepore argues in her astonishing 2014 book The Secret History of Wonder Woman that the character was really born in February 1904, when the infant Olive Byrne was thrown into a snowbank by her drunk father and rescued by her aunt, Margaret Sanger. It’s fair to assume that this dramatic episode shed some important light on Sanger’s evolving thinking about reproductive rights. She went on to become a pioneering birth control advocate and an influential first-wave feminist.
Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, was already sympathetic to women’s rights before he met Sanger and her niece, who became his second wife in a secret plural marriage. Sanger’s feminist philosophy—both directly through his reading and indirectly through Byrne’s devotion to her aunt’s beliefs—influenced Marston as he shaped his superhero’s character. “The most far-reaching social development of modern times is the revolt of woman against sex servitude,” Sanger writes in her manifesto Woman and the New Race. Byrne gave the book to anyone who asked about Wonder Woman, claiming it contained everything you needed to know about her.
Everyone wants a ride in Wonder Woman’s invisible plane, but her other special accoutrements are also lustworthy: bulletproof bracelets, a tiara that doubles as a boomerang, and a golden lasso. Properly known as the Lariat of Hestia, the indestructible Lasso of Truth was forged by the ancient Greek fire god Hephaestus, who gave it to an Amazon warrior princess—the future Wonder Woman. The lasso would aid in her duties as ambassador to (and de facto women’s rights advocate in) the world of men, i.e., the USA. Wonder Woman uses it to restore crime victims’ lost memories, hypnotize evildoers and, most important, compel those caught in its noose to be truthful.
Lie-detecting skills ensure Wonder Woman’s success in fighting crime and exposing spies for her partner and sometime love interest, U.S. Army intelligence officer Steve Trevor. This ability is just as valuable as Superman’s X-ray vision or Batman’s tricked-out car, and the Lasso of Truth is more than a tool; it’s the embodiment of Wonder Woman’s earnestness and her intertwined powers of compassion and domination. The lasso reinforces the authority of these awe-inspiring feminine attributes, which fell right in line with the sadomasochistic proclivities of her creator, William Moulton Marston.
William Moulton Marston’s first contribution to society, the polygraph machine, was hardly an unmitigated success. Its 1923 courtroom debut, in Frye v. United States, was a fiasco. Concerned that its “evidence” could wrongfully convict innocent people, the judge dismissed the lie detector’s findings because he felt the science behind the device was insufficiently established. This case set the bar, known as the Frye Standard, for the admissibility of scientific evidence; it’s still in effect in some states today, and the use of polygraph results in court testimony remains controversial.
Marston maintained his unabashed, unrelenting enthusiasm throughout the trial, but then Marston’s persona always bore a tinge of hucksterism. In 1938, when working on a print ad campaign for razors, Marston “proved” by polygraph that 90 percent of consumers preferred Gillette over the competition. Sadly, he had falsified the results—not the first time he’d been suspected of doing so. Marston weathered such public embarrassments, however, and clung to his belief in the polygraph, which he morphed into his next invention’s greatest weapon. Three years after the Gillette debacle, Marston created Wonder Woman, the first great feminist superhero, and outfitted her with a glamorous, lightweight lie detector, the Lasso of Truth.
A lot of psychology focuses on the abnormal. We’re obsessed with sociopaths, schizophrenics and those with multiple-personality disorders. William Moulton Marston was one of the few psychologists to concentrate on the average Joe, publishing the results of his research in the 1928 book Emotions of Normal People. The study classifies personalities according to how dominant or submissive they are, and it became a building block for Marston’s “love allure” concept, which posits that men will become willing slaves to a powerful but loving female authority figure.
The love allure theory was partially rooted in Marston’s unconventional personal life. He lived as part of a thruple with his wife and another woman, his former student Olive Byrne (the women continued to live together after Marston’s death). This plural marriage was heavy on sexual bondage and discipline and may have also included a third woman, Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, who occasionally lived in the Marston household. The family was influenced by the beliefs of Marston’s nonconformist aunt, who hosted gatherings to celebrate the dawning of a new era: one of dominant-submissive sexual freedom (but not always orgasm) involving “Love Leaders,” “Mistresses” and “Love Girls,” who together comprise the perfect “Love Unit.”
William Moulton Marston’s “love allure” concept, a theory of feminine might and authority, rests on his belief that women are the stronger sex, thanks to their overwhelming capacity for love, the most powerful emotion. Consequently, Marston held, men should be compliant in their relationships with women. He went so far as to predict women would rule the world within a thousand years, and he envisioned a new race of Amazon warriors. A true believer in the power of submission, he also promoted sexual bondage as a way to world peace.
Although love allure never amounted to more than a fringe psychological theory, it stealthily went mainstream when DC Comics introduced Marston’s Wonder Woman, the first female superhero to capture the hearts of the American public. She personifies love allure, the source of her power being her earnest nature, compassionate heart and infinite capacity for love, even when confronted with the worst society has to offer. In her presence, men ultimately become submissive to her will, and even the most hardened criminals are rendered helpless by love allure’s mysterious glamour. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Wonder Woman is also supergorgeous.