There are few topics hotter than the role of women in media. From the high arts to the low and from the mass to the niche, women - either as fictional characters, the consumers of media or as the creators themselves - have met their own unique set of challenges in getting their messages out, across and interpreted successfully.Documentary Director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan (Going On 13) took on the challenge of exploring those concepts in her new film Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, that premiers nationwide on the PBS series Independent Lens on April 15, 2013.
Newsarama contacted Guevara-Flanagan to ask her about the challenges of making her film, the worlds she explored, the people she met and what she’d ask of a dead man.
Newsarama: What was the event for you that connected female superhero characters with real-world events or movements, Kristy? Is that what inspired this film, and if not, what did?
Kristy Guevara-Flanagan: When I look at the original Wonder Woman comics of the 40's, I can easily see the link to real world scenarios. During that Rosie-the-Riveter era of World War II women were being called to join in the war efforts. I loved that you could see this call to action at the end of those early Wonder Woman comics and that there were entire issues devoted to the idea of women contributing to the war effort, including a villain who didn't want women to contribute because then they would become too powerful and dominate men.
In contrast, there was an interesting and somewhat notorious response to the feminist movement of the 70s in one Wonder Woman issue. In this 1972 issue entitled "Women's Lib," Wonder Woman decides that she is against women's liberation and isn't sure if she even likes women. At the same time there is mention of what women are fighting for, Wonder Woman doesn't seem to get the struggle. I think that is a clear moment of the men who wrote the character not understanding what all this women's lib stuff was about and feeling threatened by it. I mean, it doesn't make too much sense that Wonder Woman would be threatened by the fight for women's equality.
In part, I was inspired by moments like these. How do comic books reflect our societal concerns and values of the moment for better or for worse?
Nrama: If there weren't a Wonder Woman, how to you think the role of women in heroic fiction today would be different?Guevara-Flanagan: That's an interesting question. I remember talking to Gail Simone and her mentioning Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz as being one of her personal inspirations, and personally, I loved Alice in Wonderland when I was growing up. These were the adventure stories that were out there for girls, but they weren't quite heroes in the empowered and physical sense of the word. I think we would have smart and capable female heroes, but what Wonder Woman brought to the table was great strength and a physicality that wasn't primarily sexual.
Nrama: Your documentary’s title notwithstanding, could you have made this film without her?
Guevara-Flanagan: Hah! No! She provides the structure and guiding arc to the film. It's her fascinating history that glues the entire conversation about female heroism together.
Nrama: If you had to point out a female character on TV or in any media now as a epitomizing today's society who would it be?
Guevara-Flanagan: I'd have to go with someone a little obvious here, but I could say Katniss Everdeen. I think the Hunger Games has this great subtext of how much our culture is influenced by reality TV. We live in a world that is obsessed with this genre and its extreme competitions and behaviors and the story obviously takes this to the grimmest end. But the story is also about our culture's complacency. Things like reality TV distract us from the more relevant issues that have bigger effects on us communally (like politics, legislation, and economic recessions). I think her character is a great commentary on this and a kind of a wake-up call. Plus, she is an example of a truly empowered female hero!
Nrama: What is your opinion of the role of women in the more recently culturally emergent world of video games?
Guevara-Flanagan: Sigh. I think we still don't see a lot of games where you can play as a female protagonist, and when you do, well, she's always super sexy. To add to that, the big cliché is to have a female character who needs to be saved NOT in the role of actually saving. I mean, all of my female students play video games. It's really shutting out a large part of the market when those are the only options. What's more disturbing is the harassment that goes on online and often anonymously. Players can say whatever they want out there, and gang up on the people, often the people who are critical of the genre in the first place.Nrama: If it was made, or even announced, what would it mean for there to be a big budget Wonder Woman movie? Would it have to have a female director/writer?
Guevara-Flanagan: I think it'd be great. And important. I think it'd be an acknowledgement to all the female comic book fans out there and the men who support female superheroes not just for their sexiness. I also think it could really lead to many more interesting female supers getting their due.
I don't think it'd have to be a female director (we'd all LOVE to see Joss Whedon's Wonder Woman), but a female writer would be good to have on board.
Nrama: In the film you visit several comic book/pop culture conventions, what impressions did you get of the attendees? Did you have any memorable encounters, for good or ill, when discussing your project with them?
Guevara-Flanagan: We went to A LOT of cons. And talked with a lot of cosplayers. None of the more serious cosplayers made it into the final film, but I am really interested in that subculture. It is also a way that a lot of female fans would participate. We followed a few in greater detail and there was this great kinship and excitement in the days leading up to the cons where they would all get together and help each other make their costumes, be really innovative and original in material and fabrication. And just totally dedicated. Then, they would receive a ton of attention at the cons as they walked across the floor. It was exhausting just to keep up with them! Clearly, they had great passion for the characters they were embodying and I would love to see them transform mentally as they put on the costume.
Nrama: If Wonder Woman's creator William M. Marston was alive today, what would you ask him?
Guevara-Flanagan: What's up with Etta Candy? She was an odd character! But in seriousness, I'd like to know more about how he and HG Peter, the artist, came up with Wonder Woman's look. I love that they actually drew muscles on her.
Nrama: If a person who is ambivalent or even dismissive of the issues you raise in the film were to watch it, what would you most hope they'd take away from it?
Guevara-Flanagan: Hmmm. Girls need role models who kick ass just like boys do. It's pretty simple. It's all of our jobs to make sure these role models, these female heroes, aren't just merely decorative.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!