Ask 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.