Defending Your Ignorance of Wonder Woman

People writing nonsense about my subject is an occupational hazard of studying pop culture

May 16, 2016


"Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth was inspired by her creator William Marston’s invention of the lie detector."

If I had a dime for every time I’d read that statement or the equivalent, I would have … a handful of dimes.

The late Marston was both an inventor and a comic-book writer who created the character of Wonder Woman. Bloggers, pop-culture writers, and occasionally even scholars regularly make the link between Marston’s work on a real (but completely nonfunctional) lie detector and Wonder Woman’s fictional golden lasso. Lie-detector guy invented lie-detecting lasso — it makes sense, right?

Wrong. Marston didn’t give Wonder Woman a lasso of truth. In his original creation, the magic lasso was a (much, much more useful) lasso of control. The first thing Wonder Woman does when she receives it is to make another Amazon stand on her head — which is what I’d like to do to all those folks who insist in print that the lie detector is linked to the lasso of truth. "Now, stand on your head, think-piece writers! And never misrepresent the magic lasso again."

I spent several years of my life researching and writing a book about the original Wonder Woman comics, so it is irritating to see people who have not spent years of their life on this subject getting gigs and a public platform to say flat-out nonsense about the character. Nor is my irritation unique.

A recent high-profile piece on television history prompted howls of digital rage, and much rending of digital garments on Twitter among bitter and anguished television scholars. Here they were, slaving away among dank and dusty tomes to get their facts right, scrabbling toward some dreary ill-paid adjunctship, while simultaneously some ignoramus who doesn’t even know how Wonder Woman’s lasso works is being showered with fame and fortune in the mainstream press.

What is the point of putting the work in when, in strict dollar terms, knowledge is worthless? The dilettantes get all the clicks.

Part of the frustration here is with the double standard. Most serious news sites don’t let unqualified folks stride onto their platforms and spout nonsense about, say, molecular chemistry. Even political punditry has started to validate expertise, as journalism becomes more and more aware of, and open to, contributions from political scientists.

But with art in general — and pop culture in particular — expertise is accorded little value. In fact, when a commenter says, "You wrote a Wonder Woman book?," they not infrequently mean it as a dis. If you wasted your time on such frivolous nonsense, you’re clearly unqualified to speak — at which point, it makes sense to hire someone who didn’t write the book, right?

If too much interest in pop culture is invalidating, then it makes sense that those who know less deserve the most respect. Everyone has a TV; everyone goes to the movies; why shouldn’t everyone talk? If you want to insist that Man of Steel is a bad movie because Superman shouldn’t kill, no one will stop you just because some sallow pedant who actually researches these things can find innumerable instances in the comics in which Superman kills people. If you want to declare the Golden Age of Television awesome because serial narratives are new and innovative, you’re good to go, despite all the poor television scholars out there in the outer darkness screaming "soap operas!" into the indifferent abyss.

So, yes, as a comics scholar, I’m bitter. But as a freelance writer, I think it’s also important to acknowledge that part of the reason everyone feels qualified to write about pop culture, or art, is because pop culture and art really are for everyone.

A math monograph, or even a history one, is sent out into the world with a specialized audience in mind. Expertise, in reception and interpretation, is assumed and built in. But art, and especially mass art, is different. The viewer of Batman v Superman is, potentially, anybody — from a comics scholars to a newbie who doesn’t even know who Superman is. The audience for Beyoncé’s Lemonade is absolutely, and intentionally, black women, but it’s also clueless trolls like Piers Morgan. You can say Lemonade wasn’t meant for Morgan, but surely Beyoncé knew people like him were out there, and would react with race-baiting hand-wringing. Artists perhaps create for an ideal viewer or listener, but they also know that art, by its nature, finds different contexts and different audiences, and will be taken up by the knowledgeable and the ignorant alike.

The television scholar Jason Mittell gets at this in his book Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture, when he points out that television genres — how they’re defined, how they’re thought about, which shows are included and which aren’t — are shaped not just by experts, and not just by viewers, but, importantly, by people who never watch the genre in question. He talks in particular about the talk show, which is often culturally delimited by critics, pundits, scholars, and passers-by who don’t even watch the programming they discuss and despise.

There are problems with that: The dismissal of talk shows (often without watching them) is certainly built on unspoken class and gender biases. But at the same time, for a pop-culture scholar, part of the scholarship is about those biases, in all of their confusion and ignorance.

In his semi-infamous How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard argues that in reading, ignorance of context is not just acceptable but can be an actual advantage. In one section, for example, Bayard discusses a famous instance in which the late anthropologist Laura Bohannan attempted to introduce a number of the Tiv people of West Africa to Shakespeare. She assumed that Hamlet would have universal appeal, but she discovered that the Tiv’s ignorance of context was in fact a serious barrier.

Among other problems, the Tiv (according to Bayard and Bohannon) didn’t have a concept of ghosts returning from the dead. That is in addition to the fact that the Tiv weren’t reading the play, but were having it described to them secondhand. Nonetheless, as Bayard writes, "like my students who haven’t read the text I’m lecturing on, they [found] themselves perfectly capable of discussing it and offering their opinions." In fact, as Bayard points out, the Tiv interpretation — that Hamlet’s father is a deceit or a hallucination — is a minor but accepted strand in Shakespeare criticism. "Not knowing the text — in two different ways," Bayard concludes, "paradoxically gives [the Tiv] more direct access, not, to be sure, to its supposed universal truth, but to one of its many potential riches."

And what of those benighted souls who believe, contrary to fact, that Wonder Woman’s lasso is based on Marston’s lie detector?

Well, Marston was consciously, and for that matter joyfully, obsessed with mind control and kinky dominance, in both his scientific work and his comic books. The lie detector was supposed to force confessions — of who knows what salacious details. The lasso for its part made words into truth: When Wonder Woman says, "Stand on your head!" that becomes the real image you see. Both the lie detector and Wonder Woman’s lasso allow a benevolent dominator to force truth from a reluctant subject. Perhaps one was inspired by the other, or both by similar interests, after all.

No one likes to have their hard-won expertise discounted. But at the same time, the enshrinement of hard-won expertise — the insistence that value consists in being able to tell right from wrong — is exactly the mind-set that makes work in the humanities so easy to denigrate. Art is not math, and is never going to be math. A system of values that enshrines expertise as the power to know the facts isn’t going to care much about fictional characters like Wonder Woman (or Hamlet, for that matter), let alone about the origin of her golden lasso.

If art matters, it has to be because its interpretation is multiple, confused, and, not infrequently, broken. Art’s value isn’t in objective expertise, but in its ability to confound subjectivity and objectivity, to scramble the barriers between how one person thinks, how that other person thinks, and how everybody thinks. In art, a misinterpretation may be wrong, but it is always an opportunity.

So yes, the Internet is filled with people spouting ignorant fictions. But surely the purpose of scholars of art is to take fictions of every sort and find the meaning at the heart of them. Who knows what truths you might speak, or hear, when you look at Wonder Woman the wrong way up?

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer and independent scholar who edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian. He is the author of the book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-48.