Wonder Women! Pop Culture and Feminist Role Models

24 Apr

Lynda-Carter-WWAsk someone to name a superhero, and the first answers you’ll get are almost always men. As with much of popular culture, the roles available for women in comics are often sadly subordinate. A wonderful new documentary explores this issue and the relationship between feminism and popular culture.

Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines was directed by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and produced by Kelcey Edwards and is featured on the PBS series Independent Lens. The hour-long documentary poses an important central question

What are the consequences for women when they are strong and when they are the central actors of their own lives?

The film is centered on one of the oldest and most well-known comic heroines, Wonder Woman. Created by psychologist William Moulton Marston as an antidote to what he saw as the overly violent and masculine world of 1930s comics, the Amazon princess has been a figure of admiration and scorn alike since her introduction in 1941.

Princess Diana has been rebooted and rewritten dozens of times (unlike her male colleagues) but still maintains a loyal following. Her treatment over 70 years has clearly reflected the ups and downs of feminism in this country. As women were driven from the workplace after WWII, so was Wonder Woman reduced to guest star in her own books. The notorious Fredric Wertham, whose book Seduction of the Innocent shut down huge sections of the comic industry, made it clear that a strong woman must be a lesbian and was therefore not a fit model for children. As Second Wave Feminism got rolling, Wonder Woman lost her powers — it’s hard not to see a backlash correlation there. Despite everything the character has been through, however, she remains a strong symbol for millions of people, serving as a nice symbol of the undying spirit of feminism in the face of obstacles.

The documentary features insights from a wide variety of people. Gloria Steinem discusses the importance of strong women role models in all media, and other icons from the Bionic Woman to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Xena are given their due. Riot Grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna takes a keen look at the backlash against feminism and the trivialization of strong women as merely sex symbols as the 20th Century came to a close. Comic historians and media analysts look at the roles of women over the decades, providing some sad and disturbing insights. With 97% of all decision-making positions in media held by men, it’s no surprise that women’s roles are narrow and hard to come by.

The film also remembers the groundbreaking 70s Wonder Woman series, featuring conversations with star Lynda Carter. She is outspoken about the power of the series for girls and women, however light the plots and dialogue may have been. We hear from Portlander Andy Mangels, the writer who created Wonder Woman Day, an annual comic store fundraiser for domestic violence shelters and programs. Given Diana’s mission to spread a message of peace and love in a violent world, that’s a perfect tribute.

Wonder Women! is a significant and fun look at 70 years of popular culture and how it succeeds — and fails — both to reflect our world and to inspire us. It serves as an excellent introduction to some important themes and provides a good jumping-off point for anyone interested in further study. The film is being rebroadcast on Independent Lens based on local PBS affiliate schedules; it can also be watched online at the series website.

21 Responses to “Wonder Women! Pop Culture and Feminist Role Models”

  1. prideinmadness April 24, 2013 at 6:30 am #

    I’m the director of a comic book camp this summer and I have no clue what to do but last year when I was a counsellor for the same camp we talked about gender in comics. Now, I’m just thinking we should have a whole day or at least one whole activity that just focuses on women in comics. I asked them to draw a gender neutral character last year and they drew women in overalls or with beards (ha ha ha) so maybe I’ll just focus on the women.

    Thanks for this post!

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt April 24, 2013 at 6:32 am #

      How cool that you are doing this for the summer. Yes, you could easily spend a full day just on women in comics and the backlash against women when we see strong women characters. PLEASE, let me know how it goes. Your experience would make a great interview!

      • prideinmadness April 24, 2013 at 6:42 am #

        Oh I will!!! It would be great to share the experience!

  2. Christine Noble April 24, 2013 at 7:01 am #

    Contemporary comic books (ie superhero comics) have slowly moved toward recognizing the problems of hetero, white, cis-male privilege in their narrative. We now have a gay X-Man (Northstar), a lesbian Batgirl with a trans* woman roommate, and after years of being snubbed for the title by hastily put together “heirs” Carol Danvers, formerly Ms. Marvel, is now Captain Marvel. It is an uphill battle, but we are winning it, with some amazing allies inside the industry (like the various artists who refuse to work with hyper-homophobe Orson Scott Card on Superman.)

    • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt April 24, 2013 at 7:14 am #

      I agree, Christine, things are incrementally better, and a fuller spectrum of people can find themselves in four color pages. Sadly, there’s still a long way to go, especially for female characters.
      By the way, have you seen the “New 52” Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello? It’s a wonderful take on the hero with a big helping of mythology and solid art — one of the best things to come out of the reboot, IMHO.

      • Christine Noble April 24, 2013 at 7:19 am #

        No I have not. I should check it out. I haven’t had the funds to collect in a while, and was disappointed with the one comic I bought in the last year (really X-Men? We’ve made Colossus into just another meat head?) I will have to look Wonder Woman over again, if for no other reason I loooooved Azzarello’s run on Hellblazer.

      • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt April 24, 2013 at 8:16 am #

        I know what you mean about the cost; $3 or $4 per issue gets pretty daunting…
        The first 12 issues of Azzarello’s Wonder Woman are available in compiled graphic novel form, too. Many public libraries carry them, so try these links.
        Vol. 1, Blood (issues 1 – 6)
        Vol. 2, Guts (issues 7 – 12)
        (Failing that, Amazon sells them for less than the per issue cost.)

  3. Christine Noble April 24, 2013 at 7:02 am #

    Also, loving the new title for the blog!

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt April 24, 2013 at 8:11 am #

      Christine, I’m so glad you love the new name. It is always nice to be in a community of folks such as yourself that are dedicating so much energy and time to social justice. I need to catch up on your wonderful blog. I fear we have had an enormous amount of loss in the past month and I have not been able to ready many of your great articles.

      • Christine Noble April 24, 2013 at 8:22 am #

        I am so sorry. I wish I could be more comfort in all the challenges you have faced.

      • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt April 24, 2013 at 8:32 am #

        Reading your blog provides great comfort, just knowing all of the good work you are doing!

  4. dykewriter April 24, 2013 at 8:23 am #

    Reblogged this on dyke writer and commented:
    Magic Bikini Armour -1 to hit

    mostly because of the distraction factor

    Wonder Woman and her lasso of truth

    ultimate SMBD….

  5. dykewriter April 24, 2013 at 8:24 am #

    I got that tv series, it’s fun to watch

    the jump from the 40s to the 70s was really funny

    • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt April 24, 2013 at 8:37 am #

      Yes, it really is a delightful show and it holds up better than many 70s action shows.
      Thanks for reblogging the post!

      • dykewriter April 24, 2013 at 8:52 am #

        I only remember the 70’s part from the original airdates

        I was shocked to see the WW2 parts

        and seriously

        the plots of nazis in america doing stuff

        it’s no wonder people have a distorted view of history

  6. Sarah Kiprotich April 25, 2013 at 9:03 pm #

    Comicons these days are very fun. There are entire aisles dedicated to GLBT books and loads of artists and writers redefining characters and plots to not just be more feminist, but to go beyond and explore all kinds of identities. It’s a very exciting age to live in for a comic book fan. Leave behind your Marvel and DC (as much as we love them), and seek out small, independent presses and you will be very much rewarded.

    • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt April 25, 2013 at 9:14 pm #

      I haven’t been to a Con in a very long time. Sounds like the energy has really changed for the better.
      I agree that the smaller publishers have a lot more variety– and some great stuff. Growing up as a DC kid, though, it makes me happy when I see the Big Two making some incremental change.

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    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt September 8, 2014 at 7:46 am #

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  8. Robert Hulshof-Schmidt April 26, 2013 at 7:53 am #

    Thanks for reblogging this, Nancy!


  1. Wonder Women! Pop Culture and Feminist Role Models | Social Justice For All | Central Oregon Coast NOW - April 26, 2013

    […] Wonder Women! Pop Culture and Feminist Role Models | Social Justice For All. […]

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