Lies, Damn Lies and Wonder Woman

Christian Sager

Photo courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

It's been widely acknowledged that William Moulton Marston invented the systolic blood pressure test (eventually developed into the lie detector) in addition to creating superhero character Wonder Woman. Most of the time, articles about Marston are either about the lie detector or Wonder Woman, but not both. Lie detector essays usually offer a little nod to Wonder Woman's lasso as a metaphor, because it forces people to tell the truth. Alternatively, pieces about Wonder Woman briefly acknowledge Marston as an inventor, but often reflect more on his background as a psychologist and his theories on submission and domination. A lot of Marston's research and writings seek answers to one familiar question: what are people really thinking?

It seems likely that Marston still had this question on the brain when he started working in comics. Wonder Woman was created after Marston's time as both a lawyer and a psychologist, during a period when he was shilling for razor blade and marriage counseling advertisements. Her golden lasso of truth wasn't simply a metaphor for the lie detector he'd already designed, it was Marston imagining a device he couldn't build, one that used love to reveal the truth rather than the physiological response of the body.

Marston's "lie detector" wasn't much more than a stethoscope and a blood pressure cuff, fairly basic compared to the digital polygraphs run by forensic psychophysiologists today. They operate on the same principle however: that human deception causes anxiety, which subsequently leads to physical changes in our blood pressure, heart rate, respiration and conductivity. But while Marston believed that the "body does not lie," polygraphs don't actually "detect lies." They simply measure physiological changes.

Marston's romantic relationships obviously influenced both of his creations. Reportedly, he got the idea for the lie detector after his wife noticed how her blood pressure changed when she was angry. Both his wife, and his live in mistress Olive Richard were inspirations for Wonder Woman. One can see why a polyamorous man living under one roof with two families would be interested in relationship dynamics and honesty. In fact, in one of his promotions for the lie detector, Marston tried to determine a wife's "trustworthiness" by comparing her physical response to a kiss from her husband to one from an attractive stranger. What Marston wanted to know was, does a woman really love her husband is she gets excited kissing another man?

The lie detector couldn't answer something that complex for him, so Marston imagined something that could... Wonder Woman's golden lasso. Made from the girdle of Aphrodite, goddess of love, the lasso compels its victims to tell the truth and is also supposedly unbreakable, like the vow of marriage. Marston was obsessed with differences between genders and concluded that women were both more trustworthy and less aggressive than men, and would eventually use these traits to control politics and economics through sexual manipulation. This matriarchal society would suppress the chaos and violence of men with its loving authority. Through his research on sororities, Marston thought dominance and submission could influence our emotions. While the lie detector measures quantitative physical changes, the magic lasso used love to dominate its victims into telling qualitative truths.

Marston saw comics as great educational opportunities to teach children about his relationship beliefs, while preparing them for the eventual political matriarchy. But since his death in 1947 both Wonder Woman and the lie detector have significantly changed. Polygraphs are far more advanced and include a human factor for administering and evaluating the test. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman's been written for 67 years by people who don't necessarily share Marston's ideology. As the publisher that owns the rights to the character became an international entertainment corporation, Wonder Woman is more of an intellectual property now than a cipher for a female revolution. While the age of matriarchy hasn't yet arrived, Marston's questions about guilt, innocence, anger and desire are still relevant to today's human relationships.

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