Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines
Review By Seth Robison
Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Spot-the-Metaphor is a common game in the field of superhero comic book analysis. Whether it’s X-Men and racism, Watchmen and Cold War era western politics or anything on the four-color page that can be interpreted as blatantly/subtly/invisibly ‘really meaning’ anything, like all art it is open to free interpretation. Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, a new documentary currently screening in select theaters around the country and premiering nationwide on the PBS series Independent Lens on April 15th, “looks at how popular representations of powerful women often reflect society’s anxieties about women’s liberation.”
Director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan (Going On 13) charts the history of fictional heroic women in all modern media starting with the creation of Wonder Woman during World War II, the character’s development over the past seventy years, how other fictional female heroes were influenced by Wonder Woman and how society’s view of women in that kind of role played a part in the creation of characters from The Bionic Woman to Xena to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.<p style="font-size:11px; font-family:Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; color: #808080; margin-top: 5px; background: transparent; text-align: center; width: 512px;">Watch <a style="text-decoration:none !important; font-weight:normal !important; height: 13px; color:#4eb2fe !important;" href="http://video.pbs.org/video/2329893377" target="_blank">Coming Soon to Independent Lens: Wonder Women!</a> on PBS. See more from <a style="text-decoration:none !important; font-weight:normal !important; height: 13px; color:#4eb2fe !important;" href="http://www.pbs.org/independentlens" target="_blank">Independent Lens.</a> To deliver her message Guevara-Flanagan analyses and animates portions of vintage Wonder Woman comics, asks women of all ages attending comic book conventions wearing Wonder Woman costumes what she means to them, connects moments in the history of the women’s liberation/feminist movement to changes in the Wonder Woman character and interviews historians, feminist figures like Gloria Steinem and prominent women in the comic book industry including Trina Robbins (Vampirella) and Gail Simone (Batgirl).
The most interesting part of Wonder Women! is the parallels it implies between the role that Wonder Woman plays in her own comic with the popular perception of how a woman “should behave” in American society during any particular era for good or ill. The film supposes that Wonder Woman’s changes from WWII front-line fighter to a nearly forgotten role in romance comics and even to and from her I-Ching/Emma Peel phase were due to both the active and passive actions of women in those times.
Complementing this is a discussion of female leads in film and television over the past 40 years, drawing a line between the ‘asexual’ role of Ripley in the original Alien, to the buff Sara Connor in Terminator 2 to the self-empowered actions of Thelma and Louise. The film also features input from TV’s Wonder Woman and Bionic Woman, Linda Carter and Lindsay Wagner, about how they saw their roles as female heroes. There is a digression here by the filmmaker and her interview subjects into a theory that the “buffed-up” hyper masculinity of the Schwarzenegger/Stallone-type movie heroes of the 80s was a reaction to female empowerment movement. Also, an out-of-place feel-good story about a Brazilian immigrant feels like a distraction.
Guevara-Flanagan makes her final argument that the role of women in heroic fiction can never be understood or expressed fully if the near total control of the mass media remains the almost exclusive province of people of the opposite gender, driving home the point with a surprising fact about who’s been putting words in Wonder Woman’s mouth for almost all of her history and getting her interview subjects to make a case for a big budget Wonder Woman movie, a la Nolan’s recent Batman films to propel the character, and her intrinsic role as an icon for women, to a cultural position that other heroes of her era hold.
For comic book/pop culture history buffs, Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines does not explore any deep wells of ‘new’ history. The film hits all the beats they would expect to hear about a character that stretches back to World War II, naming again all the boogeymen in the comic book industry’s social history as well as Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston’s politics and proclivities. In the end, all viewers, familiar or not, would likely benefit from hearing about Wonder Woman (and all female heroes) from the perspective of people who share that character’s gender even if they disagree with their conclusions.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!