Proper Pronouns:

How Wonder Woman Slipped Sexual Slavery, Sadism, and Homosexuality Past the Comics Code Authority

The last few years have taught us the importance the LGBTQ+ community places upon personal pronouns. In 1969, Wonder Woman writer / penciller / editor Mike Sekowsky understood the value of pronouns when it came to presenting homosexual characters within the pages of a comic book. One pronoun in particular helped him slip three lesbians past the Comics Code Authority. Sekowsky titled Wonder Woman #185 “THEM!” Science fiction fans remember THEM! as a 1954 film about gigantic, man-eating ants, billed on movie posters as “a nameless horror!” The nameless horror in Wonder Woman #185 turns out to be a trio of sadistic lesbians who have been holding a teen-aged runaway captive.

“THEM!” was published one year after Wonder Woman had “relinquish[ed] all [of her] mystic skills.” (O’Neil, page 9) A now-mortal Diana has moved into Manhattan’s Lower East Side, opened a boutique, and learned martial arts. Diana Prince as The New Wonder Woman – as the comic book now billed itself – featured mainly spy capers with an occasional foray into fantasy. “THEM!” marked the title’s first issue where Diana Prince squared off against street criminals.

Issue #185 opens with Diana discovering a runaway teen in her boutique. Cathy Perkins tells Diana that she is hiding from “THEM!”, prompting Diana to ask, “Who or what is them?” (page 2) The who part of Diana’s question is answered immediately by the arrival of a three-member gang, first seen as shadows. (This is also how they are portrayed on the cover.) Diana and the readers are clued into what they are when one of THEM! tosses a dog collar onto the floor of the boutique with the orders: “Put it on!” (page 2)

The full-page panel that follows brings readers face to face with this trio: Top Hat, Moose Mama, and Pinto. Mike Sekowsky, who wrote and penciled the issue, gave all three characters an androgynous look. Top Hat, the leader, wears a pink top hat and matching cape along with a green, double-breasted suit. Pinto is duded up like a cowboy. Moose Mama bears a passing resemblance to the Batman villain Blockbuster because of their shaggy brown hair and beefy builds. With regards to Batman villains, Top Hat wields her razor-tipped umbrella with a level of swordplay more reminiscent of the Penguin than Mary Poppins.

When Top Hat reissues her order for Cathy to put the dog collar on, she emphasizes her point with the command, “Put it on, Slave!” (page 4) The term “slave” strikes a nerve in Diana, whose fellow Amazons had been enslaved for centuries. She is horrified to see Cathy acquiesce to Top Hat’s demand. Diana pulls the leash out of the young woman’s hands with an order of her own, “Don’t you dare put that on!” (page 4)

Diana’s interference shifts the trio’s attention away from Cathy. The three leer at Diana while Top Hat says, “My, my, listen girls—What spirit! Moose Mama, do you have another dog collar with you? I think we may have us a new slave!” (page 4) The fact that this trio is walking around with an extra dog collar indicates that they are not merely planning to reclaim Cathy, they are hoping to enslave another young woman as well. Lewd smiles suggest their attraction to Diana, an attraction Diana does not reciprocate or appreciate.

Instead of putting on the collar as ordered, Diana literally throws all three women out of her boutique. The trio responds with an escalation of harassment that culminates with THEM! burning Diana’s boutique to the ground.

While Cathy is staying with Diana, Diana and the readers learn some – but not all – of the details from the young woman’s time in captivity. Her back is covered in cuts and scars, all left by the tip of Top Hat’s umbrella. Cathy tells Diana, “Top Hat … put the dog collar on me and she beat me—she said that a dog that’s been beaten regularly knows its place and is a good dog.” (page 9) Adding not just insult but public humiliation to injury, when Cathy ultimately returns to THEM!, Top Hat parades her through the streets wearing her dog collar.

The sexual abuse Cathy suffered is never overtly stated. It is, however, strongly suggested by the combination of the forced captivity, the dog collar, the word “slave,” the public humiliation, and the physical abuse. It is also suggested by what Cathy leaves unsaid. When talking about her time with THEM!, Cathy tells Diana, “They had me do everything—cook—clean—take care of their clothes—” Ending Cathy’s comment with a dash versus a period or exclamation point implies that more was demanded of her than what she has listed. Readers are left to wonder what “everything” included.

Cathy is horrified that her parents will discover all the details surrounding what she experienced, so horrified that she begs Diana not to involve the police. Cathy is wise to avoid the police for another reason. During the 1960s, the gay community in New York viewed the police as the enemy – and not without reason. Men could be arrested for holding hands in public as well as for what they did in the privacy of their own homes. Women like Top Hat and her crew could be fined for not wearing at least three articles of “gender-appropriate” clothing. Bars were not supposed to serve alcohol to known or even suspected homosexuals, which led to frequent raids upon gay bars and nightclubs.

Wonder Woman #185 came out just a few months after the famous Stonewall Riots. During the summer of the 1969, patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village, fought back during one of these police raids. Given the scheduling deadlines for comic books, the timing feels more like coincidence rather than an intentional response to the news story. Even so, the timing reinforced the perception that the comic book industry was waging its own battle against unfair and restrictive rules.

Homosexuality, it should be noted, was not just illegal in the 1960s, it was considered a mental illness. In 1952, The American Psychiatric Association published the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which classified homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance”. In DSM-II, published in 1968, homosexuality was reclassified as a “sexual deviation.” (Drescher) That classification would not be removed until 1973. Because of these classifications, Wonder Woman #185 identifying Top Hat, Moose Mama, and Pinto as lesbians would violate the Authority’s ban on “sexual abnormalities” and “sex perversion.”

Instead of referring to Top Hat, Moose Mama, and Pinto as lesbians, Mike Sekowsky simply called them THEM! As a pronoun, “them” is gender ambiguous; it can refer to a group of men, a group of women, a group of men and women mixed together, even a group of inanimate objects. According to the rules of proper grammar – which the Code strongly promoted – pronouns require antecedents. Wonder Woman #185 didn’t offer any. When Diana first discovers Cathy, Cathy begs her, “Don’t let THEM find me.” (page 2) Readers are never given a definitive answer as to what THEM refers.

The issue repeats the word “THEM” 15 times within 23 pages. With two exceptions, the word “THEM” is written in red block letters whether it be in the narrative boxes or the word balloons. More often than not, the word “THEM” is punctuated with an exclamation point. Near the end of the story, Cathy leaves Diana a note: “I’m going back to THEM before anything else happens to you.” (page 18) While Cathy was penning this note, readers are expected to believe that she went to the trouble of finding a second pen to write THEM in bright red ink. The repetition of the word THEM in red block letters reminds readers over and over that the comic book cannot call these characters what they really are.

The Comics Code Authority was created in response to a 1954 Congressional hearing regarding the dangerous influence of comic books on America’s youth. This hearing was fueled in part by Seduction of the Innocent, a book written by Dr. Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist who blamed comic books for the rise in juvenile delinquency after World War II. Seduction of the Innocent with its hypersexualized title claimed that comic books promoted not only criminal behavior but also homosexuality. Among the heroes singled out in Wertham’s book were Batman and Robin because of their extravagant lifestyle at Wayne Manor, “sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases” (190). In that same chapter, Wertham writes, “The Lesbian counterpart of Batman may be found in the stories of Wonder Woman … ” (192)

While Mike Sekowsky relied upon inference and omission to cloak the sexual nature of Top Hat’s relation to Cathy Perkins, he presented a rather intimate connection between Diana Prince and the young woman. After Diana tosses Top Hat and her crew out of the boutique, she not only demands that Cathy take a bath, she does so with some questionable terminology. “Get those clothes off!” she orders the young woman. (page 7) She then informs Cathy that she will be participating in that bath: “While we’re scrubbing you clean, you can tell me your story.” (page 7) And she means it. In a subsequent panel, Diana is shampooing the young woman’s hair.

Eventually Cathy heads back to THEM! to protect Diana. Diana wakes up one morning to discover a good-bye note on Cathy’s side of a bed the two of them had been sharing. The comic book never shows Diana and Cathy in bed together, but the sleeping arrangements and Cathy’s willingness to sacrifice her own freedom to protect Diana raise questions about the depth of their relationship.

“THEM!” did not slip past the Comics Code Authority solely because of pronouns and cloaked language. The comic book evaded detection in part because of a level of cultural naiveté. When Diana first comes face to face with Top Hat and her crew, she tells them, “I don’t know who or what you are.” (page 4) Here, Diana Prince was speaking for America itself. Decades of Law & Order: SVU have opened America’s eyes to all sorts of sexual lifestyles, fetishes, and subcultures (none of which are anyone’s business as long as they are consensual—which is obviously not the case in this issue). Someone picking up Wonder Woman #185 today would immediately associate a human being wearing a dog collar with some sort of sexual behavior. In 1969, however, people would more readily accept the parameters of Cathy’s slavery exactly the way she described them, basically forced housework.

Beyond the cultural naivetè, Wonder Woman #185 benefitted from a double standard. Mike Sekowsky drew Top Hat, Moose Mama, and Pinto as unattractive. Top Hat’s face featured a pointed and exaggeratedly large nose. In comic books, women who were not seen as sexy were not seen as sexual. The same rule did not hold true for men. “THEM!” might not have slipped past the CCA had the title referred to three androgynously garbed men trying to re-enslave a male runaway.

While the CCA can be forgiven for missing the sexual overtones in Wonder Woman #185, the comic book blatantly violated numerous other rules. Cathy’s enslavement, around which the whole issue revolved, was kidnapping. Yes, Cathy eventually went back to THEM! but only under duress after nearly being burned to death in a fire. Article 10 in Section A of the Code’s General Standards states: “The crime of kidnapping shall never be portrayed in any detail … ” The dog collar Cathy is forced to wear as well as the marks on her back qualify as details of her kidnapping. Those marks can also be seen as evidence of torture, which was also prohibited by the Code.

During the final fight with Diana, Top Hat pulls out a knife hidden in the handle of her umbrella. Article 8 in Section A reads: “No unique or unusual methods of concealing weapons shall be shown.” The CCA ignoring such an obvious violation of rules like this raises a number of questions: Did the censor(s) assigned to review this issue actually read it? How familiar were they with the Code? Did they no longer care? Did CCA approval ultimately come down to nothing more than luck, namely which censor(s) happened to be assigned to a given comic book?

In the end, Top Hat and her crew are arrested for being jewel thieves. During the fight with Diana, Top Hat’s eponymous headwear pops open, revealing a stash of jewelry a nearby police officer recognizes as stolen. This satisfies the readers’ need to seem THEM! punished—but only to a point. Top Hat, Moose Mama, and Pinto are getting away with everything they did to Cathy. It’s not perfect justice, but it is a perfect parallel to everything Mike Sekowsky got away with in this issue.

Works Cited

The Comics Code of 1954. Published online. The Comics Code of 1954 – Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (cbldf.org)

Drescher, Jack. “Out of DSM: Depathologizing Homosexuality.” Published online December 4, 2015. Behavioral Sciences | Free Full-Text | Out of DSM: Depathologizing Homosexuality (mdpi.com)

O’Neil, Dennis. “Wonder Woman’s Last Battle.” (Wonder Woman 179). December 1968. New York: DC Comics

Sewkowsky, Mike. “THEM!” (Wonder Woman 185) December 1969. New York: DC Comics.

Wertham, Frederic. Seduction of the Innocent. 1972 (reissue). Port Washington: Kennicat Press.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gerard J Waggett has taught classes on comic books, graphic novels, horror fiction, and vampires at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. After freelancing at varied soap opera magazines in the early 90s, he then published 11 books of soap opera trivia. More recently, he has begun focusing on his fiction with three stories published in Mystery Magazine during the past two years. He is also a two-time Jeopardy! champion.

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