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Wonder Women! The Untold Story Of American Superheroines

wonderwomenkatiepinedaKristy Guevara-Flanagan Director
Kelcey Edwards Producer
Erin PratherStafford Executive Producer
Carla Gutierrez Editor
Melanie Levy Editor
Gabriel Miller Director of Photography
Jimmy LaValle Composer
Sylvia Roberts Animator
Independent Lens

Mention Wonder Woman to people and there will be a variety of responses. To some gay comics fans she is a diva regardless if the name conjures charming images of teenaged romances with rivals Mer-boy and Bird-boy, Kung Fu Diana, or the versions by George Perez and Phil Jimenez. And there will always images of Lynda Carter and her transformative twirl. To creator William Moulton Marston she was the archetype of the woman he believed would be the precursor for a matriarchal society 100 years in the future. For Gloria Steinem Wonder Woman was a feminist icon in need of rescuing from the hard times she’d fallen in. For Katie Pineda she is an inspiration because “She showed that girls can be daring and brave.” For Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, director of Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, Wonder Woman is a starting point to ask the questions “What are the consequences for women when they are strong and when they are the central actors of their own lives?” Throughout the hour long documentary Guevara-Flanagan enlists a number of women and a small handful of men including Trina Robbins, Andy Mangels, and Lynda Carter to answer these questions from different perspectives.

Quite a lot of time is devoted to comics. Trina Robbins, Mike Madrid, and Jennifer K. Stuller elaborate on Wonder Woman’s origin and her mission to Man’s world as an example of The Hero’s Journey. Danny Fingeroth, Gloria Steinem, and Stuller provide additional insight into the character’s appeal by placing Wonder Woman’s adventures into the real world context of events like the Great Depression and World War II and its social upheavals. Marston’s bondage themes are touched on in the documentary. The tendency to bind Wonder Woman in these early stories has alays bothered me until listening to Trina Robbins explain that the important difference in these cases is that Wonder Woman breaks the popular trope that women must be rescued by men because they are helpless creatures. Still, this doesn’t explain other instances of, say, Diana tying up another Amazon. If only the theme of loving submission had been addressed in a similar contextual way I might have a better understanding. Consideration is given to discussing outside factors such as seduction of the Innocent and the creation of the Comics Code which contributed to the change in tone from a pro female stance to a romance comic in superhero trappings to the radically de-powered jumpsuit sporting Diana who’s literally cut off from her Amazonian heritage. Steinem talks about the decision to use Wonder Woman on the cover of the first issue of MS and the shock of learning the drastic changes the character had gone through. The author relates a phone call from the unnamed and frustrated Wonder Woman editor (Robert Khanigar at the time) after the groups’ efforts to have Diana’s powers restored.

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Much of the second half of the documentary focuses on the influence of the Wonder Woman television series with Lynda Carter and Lindsay Wagner’s Bionic Woman as well as drawing correlations about hyper masculine action movie heroes of the 1980s being a response to feminism. Time is devoted to strong female movie characters like Ellen Riply, Sarah Connor, and Thelma and Louise before branching over to the Riot Grrrl movement and then coming back to television with characters like Xena and Buffy. How the majority of women and female characters in media have been packaged and presented comes under scrutiny with commentary by Katy Gilpatric, Kathleen Hanna, and Jehmu Green and how projects like Reel Grrrls Summer Video Camp aims to change this. Of special note for gay comic book fans are the interviews with Gail Simone and Andy Mangels during a Wonder Woman Day event which is a fundraiser for domestic abuse organizations. Mangels looks very satisfied and simultaneously happy and humbled and deservedly so for his efforts.

Interspersed with the interviews of recognizable personalities are accounts from everyday fans like Katie Pineda and Carmela Lane talking about the significance of Wonder Woman in their lives. The appeal and approachability of the character for these women reminded me of the friendship between Wonder Woman and Etta Candy in the Marston era.

You’d hope in 2013 that Americans would have made and sustained great progress when it comes to women and their representation. You don’t have to watch Rachel Maddow to know this isn’t the case. Earlier this week I encountered numerous anti-feminist comments from both men and women posting comments to an article about how beautiful and intelligent female Fox news anchors are in comparison to female anchors on other outlets like CNN and MSNBC that are “lesbians, bull dykes, bipedal bovines, masculine, and simply ugly”. No one even raised a figurative eye brow at the several men who remarked about sexual fantasies involving the Fox women. So it goes.

Wonder Women! is fun, informative, fast paced, and feminist without being didactic. Did I mention fun because I hate for people to fixate on the word feminist and pass up this documentary! Wonder Women! will have its television broadcast premiere in the United States on PBS’s Independent Lens series on Monday, April 15, 2013, at 10 PM ET. Check your local provider for listings in your area. Please visit the Wonder Women! site for further information, resources, and guides.

March 7, 2015
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