Wonder Women—Larger than Life and Life Affirming
"Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines" premieres on Independent Lens this evening on most PBS member stations.
Growing up, Kristy Guevara-Flanagan loved watching the TV show, “Wonder Woman,” starring Lynda Carter, who would spin around to transform into the superhero with her indestructible bracelets, Lasso of Truth, and superior combat skills. The show was like nothing else on TV, Guevara Flanagan says.
“This was the first time there was this larger than life female fantasy character who was running around saving people and stopping crime. I think it was the first time there was a woman on TV who had that kind of physicality and was the star,” Guevara-Flanagan said. “It was something you could play, and there weren’t characters before that that you could play. I mean how do you play a princess? You just kind of sit there, waiting for stuff to happen.”
Carter, along with TV's Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner, comic book artists, real life superheroines such as feminist icon Gloria Steinem (who put Wonder Woman on the first cover of Ms. magazine in 1972- she is also featured on the Fall 2012 40th anniversary edition of Ms.), punk rock star Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and founder of Riot Grrrl, and other Wonder Woman fans appear in Guevara-Flanagan’s movie, "Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines." The movie has been at film festivals in places including Belfast, Perth and New York City and last December screened in San Francisco as a benefit for the Women’s Building as part of the Celebration of Craftswomen. On April 15, it premieres on Independent Lens on most PBS stations.
Guevara-Flanagan started researching Wonder Woman when she read an article about Gail Simone, Wonder Woman’s first female writer. She started looking into the character’s origins, and learned about her creator, Harvard-trained psychologist and inventor of the lie detector, William Moulton Marston.
“He wanted to create a hero in opposition to all those male superheroes who were out there,” Guevara-Flanagan said. “He recognized the educational value of comics, and he really felt women should be able to do anything a man could, but with more grace and diplomacy.”
He created something unique, Guevara-Flanagan says.
“She’s a female superhero who is at the center of her own story, and not a sidekick or a daughter or a lover,” she said. “It was really progressive.”
Growing up, Jennifer Stuller, the author of Ink Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors, who appears in "Wonder Women!" says she liked strong female characters like Pippi Longstocking and those in "The Wizard of Oz." Having characters like them – and like Wonder Woman – out there is important, says Stuller.
“It’s hard to be what you can’t see,” Stuller says. “Looking at stories or politics when if all we see are people who don’t reflect who we are, it’s hard to imagine being that.”
Stuller says she is encouraged by events like GeekGirlCon, which celebrates the contributions of women in comics, video games, science, technology, and pop culture.
“You hear people saying things like, ‘I didn’t know women were writing and drawing comics,’” Stuller said. “That’s why creating visibility is so important, so women know those options are available to them.”
To find characters for her documentary, Guevara-Flanagan went to conferences and conventions like these, where she interviewed people dressed as Wonder Woman. That’s how she found Katie Pineda, a fourth-grader who in the film talks about how superheroes inspire her.
“They don’t give up,” she says, “Sometimes I get picked on at school, but I just tell myself, ‘Keep going, keep going – you can be more.’”
Meeting people like Pineda and others for her film was a pleasure, the director says.
“There were moments where I was very humbled, like interviewing Gloria Steinem, who’s been a hero of mine,” she said. “And Kathleen Hanna who’s saying we may think we live in a more equitable society than we do, but there’s still a lot to be fighting for. I was happy to document that and also to think about how there’s room for a new generation of young women to have their own movement.”
Making the documentary was a way to explore our cultural obsessions about women, Guevara-Flanagan said. In the movie, sociology professor Katy Gilpatric talks about her study of females in action films, and how she found that about 30 percent of the characters die, either killing themselves or being killed by others. This was particularly surprising and disturbing to Guevara-Flanagan.
“It was like a powerful woman really can’t exist,” she said. “They can exist for a few moments, but our society can’t retain them. It was pretty shocking.”
"Wonder Women!" ends at a summer video camp in Seattle, Reel Girls, where teenagers learn to tell their stories through video. When the girls are asked if they want to continue this as a career, seemingly all of them raise their hands.
Guevara-Flanagan would like to see that – more women working in production so more stories about powerful, interesting, adventurous women could be made.
“I hope that the film engages young people to be more critical of the media,” she said. “But I also hope it empowers them to make their own media.”
The title of this feature has been corrected: the film is "Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines," not "Woman."
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