Classic Beach Reads to Revisit

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“Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay.” 
― Grace Metalious, Peyton Place

In 1956 the book that would spawn nine sequels, two movies, two television series and two made for television features came out and immediately shot to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List where it stayed for fifty-nine weeks.  The heady mix of lust, adultery, murder, incest and abortion set in the strait-laced New England town was an instant success, selling sixty thousand copies in the first ten days of its release.

Being regularly banned only helped secure its place as a guilty pleasure.  It has inspired everyone from Jacqueline Susann to John Waters.  Read it for the ‘good bits’ left out by the cleaned up film version, and because as Vanity Fair writer Michael Callahan puts it it’s “a cultural bitch slap at the duplicitous notions of proper conduct in the age of Eisenhower“.

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“I bet the pill is harder to get than drugs–which shows how screwed up this world really is!” 
― Beatrice Sparks, Go Ask Alice

Before your insta-chats and snap-webs, when phones were attached to walls and therefore couldn’t come to school with you, books like this were what got passed around at lunch time.  Published anonymously as the real diary of a TROUBLED fifteen-year old who falls in with a BAD CROWD and succumbs to DRUGS, Go Ask Alice was in fact penned by Mormon counsellor Beatrice Sparks.  Sparks published a whole slew of teenage diary books around issues like teen pregnancy, homelessness and eating disorders.  Read it for the nostalgia hit or if you’re parents just won’t stop yacking and listen to the kids for once, man.

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“Elaine Conti awoke in her luxurious bed in her luxurious Beverly Hills mansion, pressed a button to open the electrically controlled drapes, and was confronted by the sight of a young man clad in a white T-shirt and dirty jeans pissing a perfect arc into her mosaic-tiled swimming pool.”  ― Jackie Collins, Hollywood Wives

Jackie Collins, sister of Joan and queen of the trash (novel) got her big break with her ninth book Hollywood Wives in 1983.  The book, which looks at the lives of Hollywood hostesses, stars and starlets has sold over fifteen million copies and was turned into the most successful mini series of the 80s by super producer Aaron Spelling.

Read it for the glitz, the sex and to try to figure out who the who the real life inspiration for the characters are!

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“Nothing is whole, not for too damned long. The world is half night.” 
― Peter Straub, Mystery
Mystery is the middle volume in Peter Straub’s weird Blue Rose trilogy, a thriller series that hovers somewhere between detective fiction and horror and is like nothing else you’ll read.  Despite being published as a trilogy the books are all stand alone works that cross paths only tangentially.  It came out in 1990, won the Bram Stoker Award in 1993, and continues be one of his most popular books.
Set on the Caribbean  island of Mill Pond, teenage sleuth Tom Pasmore investigates a historic murder case with the help of elderly neighbour and ex-celebrated detective Lamont von Heilitz.  At over five hundred pages Mystery is the perfect book to fill empty days at a bach with– just add a hammock and you’ve got the perfect holiday read.

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“There were shadows in the corners and whispers on the stairs and time was as irrelevant as honesty.” 
― V.C. Andrews, My Sweet Audrina

The only stand alone novel in V.C. Andrew’s oeuvre, My Sweet Audrina is an insane (even by her standards) mix of rape, hauntings, multiple falling-downstairs-accidents (in fact the same stairs), diabetes and brittle bone disease.  No, seriously.

Although many V.C. Andrews’ books were ghostwritten, this 1982 masterpiece of trashtastic madness is definitely from her own hand.  Her hugely popular books make the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ kind of redundant– just embrace the magic and go with it.

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“Helen Lawson: They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way, I’ve got a man waiting for me.” 
― Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls

It’s no secret that we at Eclectic Ladyland love Valley of the Dolls.  And we are far from alone– the novel was the best-selling book of 1966 and has since sold over thirty-one million copies.  Jacqueline Susann wrote what she knew– a stage and television actress she filled her books with show bizz types so familiar many assumed the book to be a Roman à clef .

Valley of the Dolls follows three friends through the trials and tribulations of Broadway and Hollywood and their increasing dependence on speed and tranquillisers– the eponymous dolls.  The book was adapted for the big screen in 1967 and the resulting film starring Patty Duke, Susan Hayward and Sharon Tate helped seal its place as a cultural artefact of high camp.

Fun fact— Jacqueline Susann had met Grace Metalious, author of previous trash hit Peyton Place when the latter was interviewed for television by Mike Wallace.  Minutes before the interview Metalious’s girdle broke and Susann who was working in the studio apparently helped her out– although exactly we may never know!

 

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“Which one of you bitches is my mother?” 
― Shirley Conran, Lace

 

That is the line that confronts the three central characters of Lace— Shirley Conran’s 1982 scandalous classic.  Filled to the brim with sex, bitchiness, and female desire the book has remained extremely popular.  It was adapted into a fabulous mini-series (with Phoebe Cates) in 1984 and was re-issued on its thirtieth anniversary, at which time The Guardian described it as a “feminist bonkfest”.

Read it for the high-class bitchery and remember how much it actually celebrates female friendship and sexual agency.

As always– one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and what may be denounced as low-brow entertainment in one era, can be another era’s celebrated classic.  Don’t feel guilty in your pleasures– literary or otherwise– whether you’re lazing on a beach or wishing you were.  As Shirley Conran once said– “Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom” .

Pulp Pictures: the erotic art of Margaret Brundage

Laura Macfehin takes a look at the startling art of Pulp illustrator Margaret Brundage.

Margaret Brundage’s art caused shock and consternation in her lifetime, as well as selling countless magazines of fantasy literature and inspiring artists like Frank Frazetti.  She also campaigned for free love, free speech and civil rights in a lifetime that encompassed an ongoing art practise and a commitment to a bohemian lifestyle.

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Sweet Home Chicago

She was born Margaret Hedda Johnson on December 9th 1900.  She was raised mainly by her mother and grandmother, both devout Christian Scientists, after her father died.  She attended McKinley High School in Chicago alongside Walt Disney (she graduated; he didn’t).

Upon graduating High School she immediately got work providing fashion illustrations for Chicago newspapers, and she continued her education at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where Walt Disney was again a fellow student (Disney later said that he had approached Brundage with a view for her providing design work for the animated feature Snow White, but that the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles precluded her involvement).  She did not graduate and later said it was due to her poor lettering skills, but she soon found a publisher for her work in the form of Weird Tales magazine.40136495_2073509642902297_5293789948673248270_n

Weird Tales

Weird Tales was established in the early twenties as a pulp magazine that focussed on pulp stories in the fantasy and horror genre.  They were early publishers of writers who would later become cult favourites like H.P Lovecraft and Seabury Quinn.  In the Cthulu mythos was first presented to readers in its pages with The Call of Cthulu being published in 1928.  Other genre classics such as Conan the Barbarian and the occult detective Jules de Grandin were also introduced to the public through Weird Tales.

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Brundage had already illustrated covers for pulp publications like Oriental Stories when she had her work accepted by Weird Tales.  Her vivid style, featuring highly eroticised female characters were an immediate hit with the consumers of pulp fiction.  Not all the authors concurred, some complaining that her covers had nothing do with the stories featured inside, but others, like Seabury Quinn were enthusiastic about her art and even began including scenes in their stories that they thought could play into her style of illustration.

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Bohemian Life

During the prohibition years, and at the same time as undertaking illustration work Brundage had also found employment at the infamous bohemian speakeasy The Dill Pickle Club, and it was there she met her husband Myron ‘Slim’ Brundage; a hobo/house painter who was heavily involved in radical politics.

Together they would have one child, Kerlynn.  Their politics and attraction to each other were strong but their marriage had a lot of stressors– largely his drinking and womanising; and they divorced in 1939.  Kerlynn was raised as Margaret had been, largely by his mother and grandmother.

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Deviant Art

In the late 1930s Weird Tales and other pulp publications came under a lot of scrutiny for their cover art.  Bylaws were passed in some cities limiting what could be displayed on newsstands.  Brundage had always published as ‘M. Brundage’ leaving her gender undisclosed, but in attempt to assuage critics Weird Tales now revealed that their cover artist was a woman.

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The affect of this disclosure was quite the opposite.  That these pictures had been produced by a woman was largely received as proving more deviance rather than less for under the perceived notions of femininity it was an outrageous that such images could be conceived of by a female.

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Rumours that lasted for years arose around Brundage– including that she used her own daughter as a model.  This being fuelled perhaps by the double fantasy that there existed in life a woman such as those featured in the pictures and that her deviancy included some sort of incestuous bent.

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At this time Weird Tales underwent a change of ownership, moving its publishing to New York.  The controversy surrounding Brundage’s sex had thrown a bit of a pall over her work for Weird Tales, but this move was largely its death knell.  Brundage worked almost exclusively in pastels on illustration board, a medium that did not travel well, and the New York publishers therefore looked for other illustrators to provide their cover art.

Brundage continued to produce fantasy art in pastels, as well as oils and pen over the rest of her lifetime, although she never found a regular publisher again.  Today her work is highly collectible and has been published in several coffee table books celebrating her unique and uncanny style.  She also continued to raise her son and be heavily involved in radical politics until her death in 1976.

10 top podcasts to put in your ears!

Laura Macfehin listens in and reports back from the land of podcasting.

If you’re not already familiar with podcasts you might ask “What the heck are they and why is that annoying guy at work always talking about them?”

Put simply, podcasts are free audio programmes that you can download and listen to whenever you want.  It’s like the radio, but you are your own station manager. 

Podcasting has taken off in a huge way over the last few years and it is possible to find a podcast on any subject you might be interested in (if there really isn’t one out there catering to your tastes you should be making a podcast). 

Podcasts can be found on platforms like iTunes or Spotify, or directly from the website of individual podcasts.  There are some production houses that specifically make podcasts  (like Panoply, Radiotopia, Parcast, Gimlet Media) and these have a baseline standard of production values that is quite high, and often podcasts of a similar vein so if you like one from a certain production house you might like their other ones too. 

There are also thousands of independent podcasters whose skills and resources vary considerably but amongst whom are some real gems!  I like podcasts because there are times when I can’t be reading or watching documentaries (like when I am cooking or sewing) but I don’t want to stop cramming information into my head.  I find it relaxing and allaying of loneliness to hear people talk about stuff, or to be told stories– especially when I don’t have to have clothes on or respond politely to have that company.

So what I have I been listening to?

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The first podcast I ever followed was rather unsurprisingly Real Ghost Stories Online—and I found it on YouTube. Ex-radio DJ Tony Brueski had put together calls from the Halloween specials he had done on the radio. He asked people to call in with new stories and eventually he was putting out a show a day (with an extra one on the weekends for subscribers). Sort of like paranormal talkback radio the show is addictive if you enjoy human nature as much as ghost stories—which I do—I find hearing what scares people and how they turn that into a story as fascinating as the stories themselves! (Plus there are literally hundreds of episodes available now so it is definitely bingeable). It’s a little bit cheesy but Tony and his wife Jenny take all stories at face value and are very respectful in their treatment of callers and their stories.

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Knock Once for Yes is a much newer paranormal podcast—again hosted by a couple—this time English pair Lil and Fitz. They also read listener’s real ghost stories, and relate their own but they also provide what they describe as ‘paranormal postcards’ which are very charming segments featuring haunted sites in Britain that they have visited. They give a run down of the place’s haunted history and describe their visit. Very pleasant listening if you enjoy ghosts plus stately homes!

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The drama!

Audio drama is one of the ways in which podcasts are stretching the boundaries and at the same time harking back to early days of radio. There are two main forms of audio drama in podcasting at the moment—there is straight fiction where the drama is presented much in the way a serial radio play would have been in the past, and there is the faux documentary style where the podcaster presents fictional content as if it were factual. My tastes, as you may have noticed, run to the creepy so most of my fave dramas are in this direction also—see Tanis, The Black Tapes, Limetown, et al. My two favourites of the last year have been Ghosts in the Burbs and The Magnus Archives.

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Liz Sower‘s Ghosts in the Burbs presents a series of stories highlighting the darker side of preppy Massachusetts town Wellesley. Stories that are told to her by yoga going moms on their way to pick up their children from desirable schools and real estate guys and ladies who sit on charitable boards. Sower’s lighthearted but deft skewering of this social strata only makes the chills when they arrive that much chillier—and boy do they arrive! This is a podcast that I listen to immediately when a new episode drops and selfishly offer regular prayers for Sower’s continued health and productivity.

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The Magnus Archives presents a chilling story weekly, in the form of testimonial being archived on tape detailing a strange or paranormal occurrence. Jonathan Simms writes and presents each story as the head archivist of the titular institute, helped by a cast of supporting players.  Singularly they are some of the best spooky stories I have heard in recent years– taken together they provide even greater thrills as an overarching mystery is revealed…

Historically Speaking

Nerds like me love information—especially that information that has only a tangential relevance to our current lives. That is one of the reasons history podcasts are so important to me—the other being that without them I could not treat my friends and family to tidbits of this semi-relevant knowledge on a regular basis. They love it when I say “I heard a podcast that was sort of about that the other day…”

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Illustration for the episode on the Historical Roots for Holiday Treats on Stuffed You Missed in History Class

My favourite history podcast is Stuff You Missed in History Class. The charming hosts Tracey V. Wilson and Holly Frey provide concise episodes on things and people who are often overlooked in ‘mainstream’ history—including the stories of marginalised and yet significant folks and true accounts of episodes you might have thought you knew about already. Their delight in history and the research that uncovers these stories is infectious and their writing and presentation is respectful to both subject and listener. Highly recommended.

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Artwork by Julienne Alexander for the episode on Carry A. Nation

My other favourite history podcast is Criminal. What’s that you say? That sounds more like a true crime podcast than a history podcast? That is because Criminal really defies categorisation, but it feels to me more like a history podcast with other elements involved. The mellifluously voiced Phoebe Judge (fun fact- Judge has my cat Watson’s favourite podcast voice) presents stories which hover around the central concept of criminality—sometimes this means old, cold or sensational crimes and sometimes it means stories focussing more on the concept of legality or stories that touch on social or personal issues created by criminal justice systems.  It is always fascinating, well researched and presented and the one that I listen to immediately when a new episode comes out.

Hollywoodland!

The history of Tinsel Town and its inhabitants is a pretty common fascination and I am certainly not immune.  For my money the two best podcasters on the subject are Karina Longworth and Adam Roche.

You Must Remember This is Longworth’s contribution and I truly believe everybody with any kind of interest in film should listen in.  Each season has a different theme– she covers the lives of actors, writers and studios with an unsurpassed depth of research and a feel for the subject matter that borders on the uncanny.  Her take on history eschews regular tropes and eviscerates the uncritically accepted version of events, so even if you think you know the subject matter well Longworth is sure to bring something fresh to your ears.

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Karina Longworth of You Must Remember This

The Secret History of Hollywood is film buff Roche’s generous gift to a most undeserving world.  Essentially some of the best texts put together about subjects like Alfred Hitchcock, Val Lewton, The Warner Brothers, James Cagney and more; Roche brings these stories to life with his beautiful storytelling and sound design.  This is the podcast if you want to be swept away to another time and place, with outrageous characters, their very human foibles and the contribution they made to film history.  If you don’t tear up listening to these you are a concrete shell of a humanoid.  You don’t have to take my word for it though– Mark Gatiss is such a fan he even lent his voice to the most recent season on famed auteur producer Val Lewton!

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Chit Chat

This is the genre perhaps best exemplified by pioneer This American Life– true life stories revealed in a self-reflexive manner by the podcaster.  Or as a university professor in one episode of Heavyweight dismissively describes them– ‘chit-chat’ podcasts.  My two recent favourites in this genre are both relatively new– two seasons a piece and have a similar premise– people exploring something from their pasts that has always bugged them.  In Heavyweight Canadian New Yorker Jonathan Goldstein examines everything from his own lapsed Judaism to his friend Gregor’s beef with musician Moby (yes they do travel to L.A. but you’ll have to listen to see whether they actually meet up with Moby or not).  Goldstein is very funny, the episodes are a little bit poignant but mainly very funny and seem to fit in perfectly with the length of time it takes me to make dinner.

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Family Ghosts despite its name is not a paranormal show– in a similar vein to Heavyweight it investigates questions that have niggled away at people, but in this case focussing on a family figure who has always been something of a mystery.  Sam Dingman and his subjects examine jewellery smuggling grandmothers, missing siblings, and uncles with double lives in this very compelling podcast.  If you are at all worried that your family might be a little unusual in its weirdness this is the podcast that will put those fears to rest!

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These 10 are just the tippy top of the podcast iceberg– I am always excited to hear about podcasts I might not have discovered so if you are a podcast fan please let me know what you listen to!

 

 

The Astounding History of the world’s most famous Super-Heroine!

Laura Macfehin brings you up to speed on the polyamorous, feminist and BDSM heavy back story of the most successful female comic book character of all time.

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“In your satin tights! Fighting for our rights! And the old Red, White and Blue!”

So proclaimed the impossibly funky intro to the 1970s New Adventures of Wonder Woman starring ex-beauty-queen Lynda Carter. This was the incarnation that I was first exposed to and I loved for all the usual reasons kids love superheroes; she was strong, beautiful and she had adventures.  At the time I was not cognizant of the fact that the programme was meant to be set in the 1940s – I didn’t know where or when she came from– just that she could do really big jumps and deflect bullets with her jewellery.  And also that she was somehow outside of time and space – she was super and therefore eternal.

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Introducing… Wonder Woman!

On paper Wonder Woman had sped into popular consciousness in the early 1940s, flying her invisible plane to a top spot in popularity just behind Superman and Batman. Since then the public has seen her not just battle super villains, but also be banned, tamed, divested and reinvested with her superpowers, reclaimed as a feminist icon and dismissed as a pawn of the CIA. And all the while the secrets of her origins her possibly the wildest story of all. Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s latest work The Secret History of Wonder Woman explores the sometimes seamy, always fascinating secret history of America’s favourite super-heroine.

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William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator was literally a master of deception. He invented the first lie detector, a machine he continued to peddle to everyone from the War department to Hollywood studios for the rest of his working life. This interest in obfuscation had a palpable parallel in his personal life, in which he maintained a polyamorous relationship with two women, with whom he had four children. All seven lived together in a family set up which would be considered somewhat unconventional today and in the first half of the 20th century required some out-and-out lying to protect.  As a backdrop for creating a comic book character with the dual identities of Wonder Woman and Diana Prince it would turn out to be perfect.

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You and me and Olive makes three

Marston was already married to Elizabeth Holloway Marston when he met Olive Byrne, a student at Yale where he was teaching psychology.  Byrne was a radical young woman with an Eton crop and large heavy bangles on both wrists; Marston gave her the best marks she received at college and the two became inseparable. The Marston’s had previously lived with another woman, so the scenario William proposed was not completely out of the blue. Elizabeth agreed with the proviso that Olive be the one to stay home and keep house while she continued to work in the city. It was a set up that continued through the rest of their lives, with Elizabeth being the most consistent breadwinner, Olive raising the children and William being free to pursue he various academic pursuits. The two women continued to live together until their deaths, outlasting their husband by several decades.

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Family portrait with Marston surrounded by his children.  Elizabeth stands behind him and Olive is seated on the right.

The two women formed the basis not only for their rather bohemian home life but also for one of the most lasting cultural icons of the 20th century. Marston had been interested in the potential of comics after seeing the rapid rise of their popularity in the 1930’s. An ardent feminist from the 19th century suffragette mould, he believed a superhero could promote the values he felt were lacking in the world — equality between the sexes being the chief of these. Elizabeth, looking at the profusion of superheroes in newsprint insisted the new superhero be a heroine. Olive Byrne provided the physical blueprint for the comic book heroine, right down to the large silver bracelets which are able to deflect bullets, but the philosophy for Amazonian princess also fell right out of her family tree. You see, Olive had rather a famous aunt. In fact she owed her life to that aunt who not only delivered her into the world but rescued her from the snow drift her drunk father threw her into only a few hours later.

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Olive Byrne’s aunt, Margaret Sanger

The most dangerous woman in America

Margaret Sanger was indeed on of the most famous women in the world (some would have said infamous) in her heyday. In the early years of the 20th century she was prosecuted for indecency after the publication of her book ‘Family Limitation’ which detailed how to obtain and use contraception, and jailed along with her sister Ethel after they opened a free clinic in New York distributing contraception and birth control advice. Her sister Ethel went on hunger strike and was the first woman to be force-fed in the United States. Sanger was a socialist and a feminist whose books underpinned what would become Wonder Woman’s ideology to such a degree that when a new writer was hired to write the strip Olive handed her a copy of Sanger’s ‘Woman and the New Race’ telling her it contained everything she needed to know about the super-heroine.

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Tie me up, tie me down

As well as the strong feminist and socialist leanings of early Wonder Woman (“Suffering Sappho!” was one of her favourite catchphrases as she encouraged young shop girls to strike) there was another marked characteristic to the comic strips that was hard to ignore. With her spike heel red boots and tendency to be chained up in just about every adventure it would hard not to think that her creator had more than a passing interest in BDSM, and in fact he certainly did. He, Elizabeth and Olive had all belonged to radical groups interested in different sexualities and he continued to be a keen advocate for what he described as ‘love subjugation’. Thus Wonder Woman spends half her time breaking the shackles imposed on herself and other women and the other half tying people up (the lasso of truth must surely be the most succinct expression of Marston’s two hobbies).

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After Marston relinquished control of Wonder Woman she went through the cycle of breaking down and reinvention common to many superheroes during the twentieth century.  The 1950s saw her tamed by Steve Trevor and the 1960s saw her briefly stripped of her powers all together.  She was held up as an icon during second wave feminism, only to be shot down as perpetuating sexist ideas of femininity.

Kristy Guevarra-Flanagan’s documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines shows how central to cultural iconography Wonder Woman remains, whether she is being re-contextualised in Riot Grrrl zines or cosplayed at ComicCon she remains immediately identifiable and ready to defend and empower. The new blockbuster coming out next week will see her finally get the same cinematic treatment as her DC pals Superman and Batman, although what Marston, Elizabeth and Olive with their anti-war beliefs would have thought about a literal poster-girl for the Israeli Defence Forces playing the super-heroine I am not sure. It is fitting that as with much of women’s history Wonder Woman’s story was all but lost due to close links to an unorthodoxy within the home; to the static between family and national politics. One thing is for sure, in the current climate we have never been in more need of either Wonder Woman herself or of the research that has unearthed her true identity.

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