Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard University and chair of Harvard's History and Literature Program. She is a staff writer at The New Yorker, and her essays and reviews have also appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The American Scholar, and in scholarly journals including the Journal of American History, The American Historical Review, and American Quarterly. Lepore's book New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History. Lepore's recent biography of Jane Franklin Mecom, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
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Hi Reddit, I'm Jill Lepore. I’m a professor of history at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker.
I've written a bunch of books and articles (http://scholar.harvard.edu/jlepore/home).
My most recent book, "The Secret History of Wonder Woman," was published by Alfred A. Knopf just last month.
Ask me anything!
Update: Thanks for all your questions, this has been fun. See you next time!
Thank you for joining us today.
As a historian who often writes about things where very little information exists (e.g. New York Burning) what was your thinking behind not talking to Clayton Christensen before writing your piece about Disruptive Innovation. The piece has received praise for attacking the metastasis of disruption, but been criticized for not fully understanding Christensen’s theory and data. As you two are both Harvard professors who work across a small river from each other, why did you choose not to contact him for your piece?
Thanks for your question, which is about an article I wrote called The Disruption Machine.
The essay is a piece of criticism, an assessment of an influential idea or body of work. When a writer is asked to review someone else's work--say, for the New York Times--you're always asked if you know the person and if you do, you're not supposed to take the assignment. The last thing you'd do would be to accept the assignment and then go interview the person. A work of criticism isn't a profile, is the thing. It has completely different rules and conventions. So, for example, also this year, I wrote a piece about the work of Elizabeth Warren (whom I do not know, even though we overlapped at Harvard for many years—it’s a big place),
and another piece about the work of several scholars who have written about political corruption. The very last thing I’d have done, for that kind of piece, would have been to seek out Warren, or any of the scholars whose work about political corruption I was writing about. It's just not that kind of piece.
Professor Lepore, I started reading your book last night and it's absolutely wonderful. I haven't gotten very far into it, so I'm not sure whether this is addressed or not, so here goes.
In the New 52 iteration of Wonder Woman, her backstory has been changed in a lot of ways, the most important way being the removal of her being made from clay and a gift of the Gods. Instead, she is the daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta. In doing this, a lot of things about the Amazons themselves have strayed from the original portrayals, to the point where their sons are working for Hephestus. Do you believe that this change in backstory has at all neutered Wonder Woman's feminist message?
It's fascinating that the backstory has been changed, huh? I argue in the book that Wonder Woman's original origin story--the one written by Marston in 1941--borrows, very heavily, actually, from the conventions of Progressive Era feminist utopian fiction. I had never noticed that, as a kid, but when I went back and read the comics, a few years ago, it leaps right out at you, if you've read stuff like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's HERLAND (1915). I'm not a comics purist, that's for sure, but I do think changing the origin story is pretty odd. It's her whole thing, that origin story. The daughter of Zeus? Um, no.
Good morning, Professor!
Thanks for coming onto Reddit today!
I'd like to pick your brain a bit about the role of female superheroes today. I'm not sure if you cover this in your new book (which I plan to pick up as soon as possible), but I think a lot of people, myself included, see a strange dual representation of women in comics today. On one side, they're often hyper-sexualized ("interesting" poses, revealing costumes, etc.) or reduced to a show-pony status. On the other, there are a number of female superheroes that have been well-received for how they've been portrayed - Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, and Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, off the top of my head. What effect does this dual representation have on feminism today, and what will this mean for the future of the comic book industry?
Additionally, if you were to write a female superhero, how would you choose to depict her?
I apologize if any of my questions are unclear or poorly worded.
Please give my best to Prof. Kamensky the next time you see her!
Gosh, that's an interesting question. One thing I find troubling, both about the comics and the culture, is the fixation on female sexual power. Hey, what about political power? The history of Wonder Woman is a good illustration of this problem. She's launched as an explicitly feminist project--to show the world, and especially girls who read comics--that women can do anything. But then she's a pin-up girl. A cultural icon, or at least a rich cultural icon, has a lot of different meanings, of course. So, Lady Gaga: feminist icon or soft porn? That's been a question for a very long time. You can see it on every page of the correspondence that survives between M.C. Gaines, who published Wonder Woman from 1941 to 1947, and the members of his editorial advisory board. Those letters are unbelievably interesting. But they don't feel especially out of date ...
What lead to you writing about Wonder Woman?
It wasn't on purpose; I stumbled onto it. I've been working for a while now on a bunch of different projects related to the histories and technologies of evidence and of privacy. For those projects, I nded up reading a lot about William Moulton Marston, because he was involved in a very important case in the law of evidence (Frye v. U.S., 1923), and because he is also credited with inventing the lie detector (which is an important moment in the history of privacy). Then I got an assignment to write a piece for The New Yorker about Planned Parenthood, and while reading the papers of Planned Parenthood, and of its founder, Margaret Sanger, I kept coming across stuff from women in Marston's family. That really knocked me out--the tie between Sanger and Wonder Woman. And it seemed like too important a missing piece of American political history to NOT write about it.
What do you think Marston's choices about the physical depiction of Diana say about his ideal of the female body type? The original comics seem to depict an female athlete, whose body type seems very realistic and proportional, as opposed to some more modern depictions. Or were the depiction at the time as sexually provocative as most of her current depictions are now?
Harry G. Peter, the artist who drew Wonder Woman beginning in 1941, had a number of influences. And sure Marston contributed his ideas, too. But, really, Peter was the artist. Peter had been a staff artist at Judge magazine in the 1910s, where he worked with a suffrage cartoonist named Annie Lucasta Rogers. I think Peter's depiction of Wonder Woman is lots influenced by Rogers. And I think it's also very much influenced by the pinups in the center of Esquire magazine in the 1940s--Marston actually wrote for Esquire--which were Playboy centerfolds before there was playboy: the Varga Girls drawn by Alberto Vargas.
What is it like working at Harvard University?
It's fantastic. Thanks for all the questions. I've got to head off to meet with students!
Do you think Gal Gadot was a good casting choice for the first big screen Wonder Woman?
There's a lot of armchair casting for these things, right? Everyone has an opinion. Should Ben Affleck be Batman? I don't know. Does anyone know? I don't think so. I wrote a piece in The New Yorker, called The Last Amazon, in which I talked a little bit about that. My thinking is, when what people are chiefly complaining about is the size of an actresses's breasts, you have to set those complaints aside. My guess is that it's an unusually difficult role to write, and to cast, and to direct.
First, I'd love to thank you for your work, as I've been following it since I was a GTA for an American History I class using your New York Burning.
I was thoroughly pleased to see you take on the history of such a pop culture icon, and I wondered--have you ever considered dealing with the subaltern history in X-Men comics of the 60s, 70s, and 80s? Or perhaps a study of Comix, Seduction of the Innocent, and the comic book code?
I'm sure you don't want to paint yourself into a corner of a "pop historian" or whatever other label, but I really feel like you found a balance in writing a scholarly examination of a somewhat popular cultural subject.
Hey, thanks for the question. I do write a lot in the book about Seduction of the Innocent, Fredric Wertham's 1954 attack on comics. Wertham's papers are at the Library of Congress and they were only just unsealed in 2012. It's a terrific collection and I hope someone will do more work with them! The X-Men story is fascinating, too, of course. But, right, I'm not a comics historian. Someone could write a really great book about Iron Man.
was there any discussion doing the book as a comic book, such as the comic book on margaret sanger?
Nope. That would be cool. But I'm not a comic-book writer. There was lots of discussion about the importance of including lots of panels from the comics in the book. A lot of what I argue is that Marston revealed a lot about his life in the comics themselves, so I work with them very closely in the text.
I've read quite a few of your New Yorker articles. Typically how long does it take you to write one feature length article?
Hmm, it depends. If it's newsy, the turnaround time can be pretty short. Six weeks or something. If not, it's a bit longer. If there's travel, it can take longer, since that can be hard to schedule. I wrote a piece last year about the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, and went to Cardiff to watch a day of shooting. That took a little longer.
You're a man's daughter, that doesn't diminish any of the work you do. She's still Hippolyta's daughter too. She's still an Amazon Warrior, still Wonder Woman, still everything. She just has a father that ties her into Greek Lore so that she finally has a cast of characters established enough for her to have more interesting characters than just herself. To look at the epic that those guys created and focus on her Father is ridiculous. Wonder Woman's actions make her a hero, not the lack of a male adult in her childhood.
Just to clarify what I meant: Sure, fine to have whatever characters have different backstories and sure, fine, to have a woman be a man's daughter. But making Wonder Woman the son of Zeus is like making Superman come from Kansas, not Krypton.