WONDER WOMEN! The Untold Story of American Superheroines

by Mariah Castillo

Wonder Woman to the rescue!

As someone who had recently gotten interested by comic books, I was very excited to see a documentary featuring women in comics, and I’m happy to say that I was not disappointed at all. WONDER WOMEN! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, featured at the Athena Film Festival, was a funny and thought-provoking film chronicling the evolution of Wonder Woman and how the Amazon princess helped pave the way for women and the feminist movement.

One of the most insightful parts of the film showed how Wonder Woman changed with American women over time. The character of Wonder Woman was developed by psychologist William Mourton Marston (also the creator of the precursor to the lie detector test) and was first seen in the December 1941 issue of All Star Comics. Her signature is the golden lasso, which makes men tell the truth and she hails from the island of Themyscira, an undetected land of female warriors protected by the Greek gods. An American pilot, Steve Trevor, crash lands onto the hidden island, seeking help in World War II. Princess Diana of Themyscira becomes the first Amazon to go to Man’s World to solve all the problems men have created, specifically war and inequality. The underlying parallel: in the early 1940s, women were encouraged to leave the house to take the jobs left vacant by men who were fighting in World War II, giving them a taste of life outside the house.

“In a study of 157 female characters in various action movies, half of them were evil, and 30% of them, both good and bad, were killed off typically as self-sacrifice so the male protagonist can save the day.”

Marston died before the end of the war, and the return of the women to the home ushered a change in Wonder Woman; instead of a spunky, independent woman who saves the day, Diana Prince (her new alias) became a love struck, less adventurous young woman who cried often. In the fifties and sixties, other comic book women were getting a similar treatment. One character, Batwoman, was continuously berated by Batman and yet eventually marries him (fun fact: even though Batwoman was created after rumors of Batman and Robin being homosexual, the modern Batwoman in DC comics is one of the most prominent lesbian superheroes). Another character, Lois Lane, changed from the sassy journalist risking everything to get the inside scoop to a young woman solely focused on being “Mrs. Superman.” It wasn’t until the feminist movement did Wonder Woman become more like the superhero we know today. Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. Magazine, talked about how the feminist movement took back the character, placing her on the cover of the first issue of the magazine. On the 40th anniversary issue of the magazine that came out last fall, Wonder Woman graced the cover again, showing how she still is a symbol for the feminist movement, even though the movement itself has evolved.

The documentary itself also focused on the evolution of females portrayed in media. The 70’s and the 90’s especially spawned several strong female characters in shows such as Wonder Woman, Charlie’s Angels, Bionic Woman, Xena: Warrior Princess, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Despite the presence of some strong female characters, some disturbing tropes exist concerning female characters in general. In a study of 157 female characters in various action movies, half of them were evil, and 30% of them, both good and bad, were killed off typically as self-sacrifice so the male protagonist can save the day.

Battling the War on Women

Another disturbing concept is the hyper sexualizing of women, especially in comics (look up The Hawkeye Initiative to see how “strong women” portrayals in comics are typically ridiculous and anatomically impossible). One interviewee mentioned that rebukes often point out that men in comics are also hyper sexualized, however, that the hyper sexualizing of male characters are typically meant to demonstrate masculinity and strength, while female hyper-sexualizing, with the anatomical incorrectness and skimpy, gravity-defying outfits, are really for the (typically male) readers’ pleasure. It doesn’t help that there are few women in the big writing and editing roles in the Big Two comic book companies (DC and Marvel). Gail Simone, a writer currently working on the latest run of Batgirl, became the first female writer of Wonder Woman in 2007; that’s right, for over sixty years, the best known female superhero has been written by men!

Aside from emphasizing the obstacles that women, as writers, fans, and characters have to face in the comic book industry, Wonder Woman has also become a symbol for humanitarian issue awareness and philanthropy. In Oregon, an event called Wonder Woman Day takes place to raise awareness on domestic violence and raise money to domestic violence shelters. Artists donate their work to be sold or displayed in this comic book store, and the event, which still happens today, has raised tens of thousands of dollars for a cause Wonder Woman would have surely stood behind.

The Hawkeye Iniative” — replacing hyper-sexualized
female characters in comics with Hawkeye

WONDER WOMEN! was also filled with interviews from Wonder Woman fans; two of them, Katie Pineda and Carmela Lane, joined producer Kelcey Edwards for a half-hour Q&A session. Edwards talked about the five-year-long process of making this film (Katie, who was a 4th grader in her filmed interview, is now thirteen years old) and the careful footing she had to do concerning the fair use of the content shown. Edwards also talked about the power of consumers, who can voice their opinions by choosing to watch movies and shows that support strong women.

Overall, the WONDER WOMEN! experience was wonderful, for lack of a better term. It showed how this superhero, one of the longest running characters in comics of all time, has evolved and affected society, as well as the feminist movement. If you are even vaguely interested in comics, and if you get a little (or really) angry about being called a “Fake Nerd Girl,” this is one film you have to see. Not only does it chronicle the most well-known female superhero of all time, it also shows that there is a superhero in all of us.

WONDER WOMEN! The Untold Story of American Superheroines will be broadcasted on PBS on April 15!

Images from NY Sun and E!Online.

Mariah Castillo is a first-year at Barnard and a staff writer for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

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