AMAZONS ATTACK – ATHENA, APHRODITE, AND THE EVOLUTION OF OBEDIENCE
Let’s talk about bondage, shall we?
It’s pretty well known (and very well joked about and parodied) that, back in the Golden Age when she was first introduced to the world, Wonder Woman was pretty big on the bondage thing. Tying people up, getting tied up, the consequences of tying people up or getting tied up, it was a major theme. It wasn’t just that Wonder Woman was constantly finding new ways to get restrained by her enemies – surviving a colorful variety of deathtraps was pretty common to many superheroes back in the day – it was how positively gleeful she was about it when it happened. It was the way she and the Amazons constantly tied each other up for fun. It was the fact that her entire powerset was based around being bound: take off the manacles around her wrists and she goes nuts, chain her wrists together and she becomes powerless. There was definitely a message there. Marston admitted it himself, in discussing his creation of the character. He was trying to shape young minds, teach people something he considered an important lesson.
Unfortunately for both Marston and Wonder Woman herself, his point has been completely, utterly, epically missed. Because, being the juvenile, warped culture we are, we all look back on that era, on Marston’s concept of “loving submission” and the importance of obedience to appropriate authority, and our only response is “LOL, pervy sex!”
Not the actual message, if you were wondering.
Oh, sure, there’s definitely a strong sexual undertone there (and frankly, why shouldn’t there be? Wonder Woman was a fun, happy, loving role model – flirting and playing and enjoying human interaction seems a lot more reasonable an example for her to set than the casual violence and brutality of her contemporaries). But ultimately, it was still peripheral to the actual point. Marston wasn’t writing a guide for your love life, he was writing a guide for your entire life. He wanted you to submit yourself to a loving authority not in the bedroom, but on the bus, and in the office, and standing in line for the theatre, and picking up groceries on the way home. We’re not talking about BDSM, here, we’re talking about “love, honor, and obey,” or the submission of a devout monotheist to the will of a loving god. Marston believed that obedience is a virtue, and that people are at their best, their most comfortable, their strongest and most productive, when they bow to the authority of a wiser, stronger person who cares for them.
And the loving bit was every bit as important as the submission bit – there was a huge emphasis on choosing the right master, and the terrible danger of submitting to someone who was incapable or cruel. Wonder Woman’s bondage-based powers were basically a big extended metaphor. Taking away her bracelets made her a monster, because anyone without control and obedience in his life becomes a monster. Letting the wrong person chain her bracelets removed her powers, because submitting to the wrong person robs a woman of her full potential. She met queens and princesses and was entrusted with the lasso of command so that the story could emphasize the strength required of a just master, and the responsibility and obligation involved in having people submit to you.
You can kind of see where this message gets lost, though, because it’s a pretty hard sell. “Submit yourself to authority” tends to go over like a lead balloon in our culture. Westerners, especially Americans, don’t like authority. We don’t trust it. We build our governments with as many checks and balances as we can fit, and glorify watchdogs and whistleblowers. Our cultural heroes are Robin Hood and Zorro, Batman and Luke Skywalker, an endless parade of vigilantes and rebels fighting outside or against a corrupt system. Even when our heroes are actively part of the system, in war movies and cop shows, our focus and favorite is always the independent maverick who gets yelled at by his superiors for following his heart instead of the rules. A hero who bends to the will of another is not a hero to us.
And then, of course, there’s that niggling question about Wonder Woman’s feminist status – if she’s not her own master, what message is that sending? (That men were considered inherently bad masters tends to get forgotten or glossed over by this argument, though, admittedly, Marston’s belief in female superiority wasn’t particularly evolved feminism either.)
Marston dealt with this by giving Wonder Woman and her sister Amazons a master that even his fiercely individualistic audience might accept: Aphrodite, the Greek god of love. Obedience to gods is an exception to the “question authority” rule for many people, since a god can actually be infallible, after all. And who could be more unquestionably pure and righteous than the god of love? Love is Good. It’s the opposite of hatred and war, which are Evil. If Wonder Woman wants to obey the orders of and live by the rules of the god of love, surely no one can fault her for that. (This take is totally incompatible with classical mythology, of course, but Marston was making no effort to be faithful to centuries-old myth; he was writing for modern Americans, with a modern American understanding of gods and love.)
And so, Aphrodite became a fixture of the pre-Crisis mythos. It was she who created the Amazons, for the purpose of spreading love and defeating her evil rival Mars, the god of war (who is Roman, not Greek, but hey, I told you Marston was making no effort to be faithful). It was she who freed the Amazons from captivity and ordained they wear the Bracelets of Submission – their obedience to her and her teachings was what made them safer, stronger, and more sane than the outside world. It was she who gave the lasso its power of command – love made authority possible and love made Wonder Woman worthy of that power. Aphrodite also occasionally provided divine assistance to Wonder Woman or gave her tasks to fulfill, and Wondy regularly fought servants of Mars in her capacity as a servant of Aphrodite. Perhaps their relationship wasn’t as close as it could have been, as Aphrodite was something of a benevolent boss figure, for the most part, and the emphasis was more on following her path than Wondy or the Amazons having much of a personal relationship with her. But her presence and authority over the Amazons was still a defining theme of the mythology, literally as immutable as the bracelets on Wonder Woman’s wrists.
You’ll note, though, that I said “pre-Crisis” there. Of the many changes that came with the ’87 reboot, one of the most subtle – but to my mind, perhaps the most interesting – was the trading of Aphrodite’s patronage for Athena’s. Both were still patrons, as they both had been pre-Crisis, but they basically switched in prominence. It became Athena who first conceived of the Amazons and spearheaded their creation, Athena who freed them from captivity and gave them the rules by which they live their lives, Athena who grew into Diana’s chief patron and primary authority.
This was a really appropriate step for a lot of reasons. For one thing, the reboot made a huge overhaul toward greater mythological fidelity – classical myth stopped being a toy box to pick fun ideas from willy-nilly, and became coherent source canon to tweak only as much as you’d tweak an in-continuity comic – and in that context, the political, authoritative, hero-sponsoring Athena makes much more sense as chief patron of the Amazons than the flighty, spiteful, disinterested Aphrodite. And while the Amazons were always far more martial and warlike than their rhetoric would suggest, by the Bronze Age their warrior aspect had come so strongly to the fore (and enough traditional mythological perspectives had snuck in) that god-of-sex Aphrodite as their guiding deity seemed sometimes almost absurd, particularly compared to god-of-military-tactics-and-righteous-war Athena. Which brings us to a third effect of the switch – you can’t get further from that oh-so-embarrassing sex-filled subtext of the Golden Age than switching fealty from Aphrodite to Athena Parthenos (“Parthenos” meaning “virgin,” as her coolly rational indifference to affection was one of her most iconic traits).
And then there’s the question of Ares (the mythologically-faithful reboot of that old foe Mars). It tends to get overlooked, probably because it was reversed almost the moment Perez left the title, but Diana actually redeemed Ares in her very first confrontation with him, and turned him into something of an ally. If this had stuck it would’ve basically nuked the thematic contrast of Love vs War, and the balance point of Athena might have made things seem less lopsided than sticking with Aphrodite.
Even more interesting, however, than the switch itself, is how that switch developed. From the very beginning, Athena seemed more personally involved in Diana than Aphrodite before her; she was the primary hand in Diana’s birth, she manifested personally to Diana to encourage her to enter the Contest, she had faith in Diana when the other gods despaired and believed her helpless against Ares. When Diana was transfigured into a god, the one who showed her around, answered her questions, put her in the next room over and pretty much made herself entirely at Diana’s disposal while she tried to acclimate was Athena. By Greg Rucka’s run, Diana was demonstrating so much trust in Athena’s judgment that she accepted the necessity of an innocent boy’s apparent death, and Athena showed so much care for Diana that she actually hugged her in comfort. And if that doesn’t sound very meaningful, remember that Rucka was writing the gods very close to in-character with their real-world mythological selves, which means seeing Athena cuddle somebody is approximately equivalent to seeing Gandhi drop-kick a puppy. Hugs and similar maternal behavior are not exactly her thing. For Athena to willingly and instinctively offer physical comfort to Diana bespeaks a love and devotion for her that even the most obsessive of we Wondy fans would be hard-pressed to match.
And this is fascinating, because it’s only here, with the bondage theme as ignored and obliterated and as far buried in the past as DC could possibly make it, that we actually first see a Diana who’s close to being in the kind of relationship Marston was prescribing. Athena is the absolute definition of a worthy master – smarter than Diana, totally devoted to Diana, with Diana’s best interests at heart. Diana is a model servant – obedient, autonomous, and loving Athena in turn. Their interactions are in balance – Diana is perfectly willing to challenge Athena’s plans and commands, Athena is perfectly willing to justify herself or back off as appropriate. Athena never asks anything of Diana that’s against her nature or beyond her capabilities, and always sets things up in Diana’s favor. There’s nothing codependent or controlling happening, and both are comforted and made better and more effective by the connection. It’s a complex relationship, not quite parent-child (despite Athena’s use of “Daughter” and the emotional dynamic), not quite spouse-spouse (despite the exclusivity, wordless conversations and intimate understanding of each other’s personalities and quirks), not quite officer-soldier (despite Athena’s clear authority), but something inbetween, layered and unique. Loving submission, even, or something like it. No sex required.
Of course, god or not, perfect master or not, fascinating relationship or not, there are still always those who will hate it, because a hero who bows to the will of another is not a hero. And so the mythos has vacillated back and forth over the years, constantly struggling between the historical importance of Diana’s gods to her and the common conviction that any degree of devotion and obedience is the equivalent of mindless servitude, unworthy of a true superhero. (Well, that and a lot of people simply don’t like when the story goes Greek myth, but that’s a whole other issue.) All the same, though, it persists, Diana as the loyal champion and servant, the idea of faith in and reliance on another as a source of strength rather than a sign of weakness, the basic core of Marston’s philosophy on submission surviving and thriving in the character to this day.
When she’s not busy overanalyzing and overinvesting in fictional characters, Mars Getsoian moonlights as a freelance writer and works on a novel she will never actually finish.