Yesterday, my local library had a showing of Wonder Women!: The Untold Story of American Superheroines, a documentary covering the origin of the first female superhero, her legacy as an inspiration, and the necessity of powerful fantasy figures for women and girls.
There was a lot more about the comics than I expected, although it was well mixed with information on feminism and portrayals of women in media. In addition to the expected comic-related commentators — Trina Robbins, of course, Danny Fingeroth, and Gail Simone (the first ongoing woman writer of the comic in over 60 years) — participants also include Lynda Carter, Lindsay Wagner, Gloria Steinem, Andy Mangels (talking about Wonder Woman Day in Portland, Oregon, which benefits domestic violence shelters), and a fourth-grader and a single mother both inspired by Wonder Woman.
Trina points out both that the concept of the hero was perfect to appeal to girls, since she’s an “Amazon princess goddess”, but also that she doesn’t mind all the fetish and bondage imagery, claiming that they show Wonder Woman in chains so that she can break them. The movie mentions creator William Moulton Marston’s oddities as well as covering Fredric Wertham’s accusations of lesbianism and the rise of the Comic Code Authority, which requested that portrayals of women be “downplayed or eliminated”.
Steinem discusses the choice to put Wonder Woman on the first widespread cover of Ms. magazine and their drive to repower the character (complete with a funny story about a phone call from an unnamed DC editor, probably Robert Kanigher). There’s information on how feminism was presented “in a sexy package” during 70s TV and how riot grrrls, Sarah Conner, and Ellen Ripley arose during the 80s era of hypermasculinity. Finally, Xena and Buffy are discussed (reminding me how much I miss watching Buffy).
The movie was a terrific reminder of how few examples of heroic women we have and how hungry girls are for strong women, often settling for any crumb they can find. Wonder Woman these days is known more as an icon, a symbol, or a brand than as someone we still tell stories about (and the current comic is definitely not appropriate for kids or people who aren’t already used to modern superhero comic depravity). I loved Steinem’s summary of Wonder Woman as someone who stood for “justice, compassion, and friendship among women”. This is a movie well worth seeing.
Wonder Women! will be airing on PBS as part of the Independent Lens series starting April 15, 2013. Here’s the trailer:
For more information on women’s roles in media, visit the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and the Women’s Media Center.
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