It isn’t hyperbole to say that every comic book fan should see “Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines,” the excellent documentary that premeired last month at the South by Southwest Film Festival. But you needn’t own a single comic book to fully enjoy this film. Thought-provoking and frequently moving, “Wonder Women!” examines the history of fictional heroines in popular culture, and how their highs and lows have reflected the lives of real American women since the 1940s.
It’s full of insightful commentary from activists, artists and scholars like Gloria Steinem, Trina Robbins, Lynda Carter and Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna, as well as the stories of everyday men, women and children who are inspired by the most iconic heroine of all — Wonder Woman. Director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan graciously provided Girls Gone Geek with a copy of “Wonder Women!,” which is not yet in wide release. It’s so good that V. and I are on a mission to spread awareness in the hopes that it eventually becomes available for all to see. In the meantime, you can view a clip on the movie’s website.
“Wonder Women!” delves into Wonder Woman’s backstory as well as that of her eccentric creator, William Moulton Marston. Imagine being a kid, especially a girl in 1941 and seeing this powerful superheroine flying an invisible jet and knocking bad guys around like bowling pins. “She was the only hero who made you feel good about yourself,” Steinem said, reflecting on her own girlhood discovery of the character.
On the homefront, American women discover their own power by making and even flying planes while the men fight World War II overseas. But after the war, as women are expected to put down their rivet drills and go back to the kitchen, Wonder Woman’s commanding image suffers.
It’s not just her. Lois Lane dreams of becoming Mrs. Superman. Batwoman, who fights crime with a special makeup compact, is portrayed as incompetent and is frequently lectured by Batman. Even Catwoman is tamed, temporarily renouncing her career as a jewel thief.
Steinem shares a great anecdote about Ms. magazine’s campaign to restore Wonder Woman to glory after the character was de-powered and turned into a clothing boutique owner/martial artist in the late 1960s. (Wonder Woman famously appeared on the first issue of Ms. magazine in 1970, striding across the landscape in her original costume.)
“I remember the person in charge of Wonder Woman calling me up from DC Comics, and he was so annoyed,” Steinem recalled. “He said, ‘OK, she has her magical powers back, her lasso and bracelets; she has her invisible plane back and she has a black, African sister named Nubia. Now will you leave me alone?’ ”
It’s fascinating to see the progression of the heroine in comics, television and film over time — characters like Buffy, Xena, Ellen Ripley and the Bionic Woman, all represented here. Lynda Carter, who is Wonder Woman for a generation of fans, tells some interesting stories about her time that role. She was stunned by one person’s opinion that female viewers would end up hating her, a prediction that obviously turned out to be dead wrong.
“Wonder Women!” has a strong point of view, and it isn’t afraid to embrace feminism or to ask hard questions about the treatment of women in the fictional realm and the real world. Modern-day sexism in comics doesn’t get a pass, and I want to high-five author Jennifer K. Stuller for putting to rest, once and for all, the old chestnut that male and female characters are similarly portrayed.
“People who say that men are just as hypersexualized or hyperidealized in comic books, in movies and/or television – that’s just bullshit,” Stuller said. “I would say that men may be drawn as muscular and handsome, but they’re also shown being active. They’re shown saving the day. Women are shown in very little clothing and being tortured, raped and murdered, so (men) are not subjected to that same sort of treatment of their bodies.”
But what gives “Wonder Women!” emotional depth is the commentary of fans like Katie Pineda, a fourth-grader whose confidence shines above her speech impediment; Andy Mangels, founder of the annual Wonder Woman Day project, which has raised more than $89,000 for battered womens’ shelters; and Carmela Lane, an immigrant from Brazil who is trying to making a better life for her daughter in the U.S. — and possesses some epic Wonder Woman tattoos. When you look at the footage of women and girls of all races and body types in Wonder Woman cosplay, it’s clear that they feel empowered just by wearing the costume. The Amazon Princess is more than a character in book; she’s a real source of inspiration for people of all genders and ages.
The question remains: Where did Wonder Woman go? She still has an ongoing comic book, but she hasn’t occupied the general public consciousness in a major way since the 1970s. We’re inundated with stories about male superheroes. Wonder Woman remains a unique and important symbol of female strength, one that — to echo Steinem — can make girls feel good about themselves.
“It’s time for DC to come forward. We’d love to have a full feature, live-action Wonder Woman movie,” said one fan, proudly dressed in full Wonder Woman regalia at a convention. “It’s time.”