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By Jessica Baxter | March 31, 2012

I’m willing to bet that “Comic Book Heroines” has never been a category on Family Feud because Wonder Woman is not only the obvious answer, it’s practically the only answer. Meanwhile, mainstream films have spent so much time and money on male superheroes that they have to mine the dregs for new franchises. It boggles the mind that we have a Green Lantern movie and yet, we have never managed to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen. (And no, “Catwoman” and “Electra” do not count.) As least now we have “Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines.” This thought-provoking and inspirational documentary about what a superheroine could and should be is a good start.

Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s film covers the history of the best-known comic book heroine and how the image of strong women has morphed in the media since William Moulton Marston created her in 1941. There are so few female comic book protagonists (super or otherwise), that Guevara-Flanagan has to include basically all media to have enough to talk about. We have had some proud moments (“The Bionic Woman,” Ripley, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and some embarrassing moments (The Spice Girls). Regardless, when you stack it all up against the sheer volume of male-oriented stories, it pales in comparison.

“Wonder Women” asks a lot of seemingly obvious questions that have somehow eluded us. One such question is, “What are the consequences when women become strong.” For women, there are always consequences. The film gives us a staggering statistic: Of the 157 female characters in action films, half are evil. The ones who are good end up dying in self-sacrificing ways, giving their lives for the dominant male heroes of the story. When Jean Gray becomes Dark Phoenix in “X Men: The Last Stand,” she is the most powerful mutant of all. But, because of her womanly ways, she is too weak, both mentally and physically, to control that power. And so she must die. The body count that Thelma and Louise leave behind is a drop in the bucket compared to what the Punisher gets done before breakfast. And yet, they have to die because there is no room in the world for a couple of lady vigilantes. After fighting tooth and nail for 3 films, Ripley ends up killing herself to save a f*****g men’s prison colony.

In case you couldn’t tell, “Wonder Women” got me really riled up. The fact that women are mis/underrepresented in media is not news, but when you see it all laid out in chronological order like that, it’s pretty infuriating. Interviews with Lynda Carter (the “Wonder Woman” TV show) and Riot Grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna explore how the culture changed over time. “Ms. Magazine” founder and famed feminist, Gloria Steinem, beautifully orates how important it is for young girls to have super role models. Indeed, the film is filled with interviews with a multitude of smart, eloquent women explaining what should be evident but is so not: Girls need super heroes because they need to know that their gender is not an obstacle.

To drive the point home, the film also spends time with a couple of whip-smart young fan girls as well as a woman who wants to share Wonder Woman’s message of “Justice, compassion and friendship among women” with her daughter. She has a tattoo of the Amazon goddess to remind her every day of her own strength.

It’s not just the message of Guevara-Flanagan’s film that stirs. This is a well-paced and beautifully edited documentary, which deftly utilizes clips and photo animations. With a paltry 65-minute run time, it’s the first time in recent memory that I have wished a film were longer. This just drives home how parched we are for quality female-helmed and oriented films.

The good news is that there are some promising up-and-comers. They spend some time with students in a Seattle film program for girls. The students make their own film from start to finish. There are some very talented young ladies nipping at the heels of that big boy’s club known as the Film Industry. Here’s hoping they are able to break down the penis-enforced wall. Better yet, I hope that by the time they graduate from film school, their gender isn’t an issue at all.

It’s the personal stories that really got to me. I’m a tough nut to crack in terms of crying at a movie, but when the little girls started talking about what Wonder Woman means to them and how their moms are the real heroes, it was Niagara-f*****g-Falls. If you have a daughter, it is a moral imperative that you show her this film as soon as possible. One little girl says that her mom “basically saves people every night” as a paramedic and that she would like to someday do the same. A fourth grade girl with a slight speech impediment talks about how Wonder Woman helps her through the pains of adolescence. “Sometimes I get picked on at school,” she says. “But I just tell myself, ‘Keep going, keep going, you’re going to be more.’ Because some day they’re going to be wishing that they treated me better.” You’re goddamned right they will, kid.

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  1. Doug Brunell says:

    I am going to check this one out. I may not agree with all your views on it, but I do want to see where it goes. I’m still not convinced that all female heroes are subservient to male heroes, but that is a discussion for another place. I am, however, curious about what you think about Tarantino and his portrayal of women. You have me intrigued.

  2. Jessica Baxter says:

    They do cover the bondage aspect of early Wonder Woman as well as how Marsden envisioned (and hoped for) a matriarchal society in the future. They do mention many other female superheroes but point out how they are all subservient/inferior to the male superheroes in some way. I didn’t want to summarize the entire movie, just touch on some of the major points. And don’t even get me started on how Quentin Tarentino portrays women.

    I suspect there will be many men who make the same argument as you that not as many women read comic books (there was one such guy at the screening I attended, who clearly didn’t pay attention to the movie AT ALL). But that is NOT because girls don’t like to read about a*s kicking. This fallacy is what this movie is about. It interviews a handful of girls who are into a*s-kicking ladies, but also shows many more at cons and at Wonder Woman day in Portland. Nonetheless, this movie isn’t trying to convince men that women read comics. Clearly, no matter how many girls and women attend cons, there will always be men who swear that comic books are just for boys. This movie is for the girls who are already into them and need to know that they’re not alone. As a secondary purpose, it’s for girls who would be into them, but don’t know it yet.

  3. Doug Brunell says:

    Wonder Woman is far from being practically the only female super hero (Elektra, for the record, was an assassin before she got all good on us. Likewise for Catwoman.) Batgirl, Storm, Supergirl, Ghost, Sue Richards, Raven, Ms. Marvel, The Cat, Phantom Lady, Black Cat, Spider-Woman, Rogue, Marrow, She-Hulk, Spider-Girl, Scarlet Witch, Electrogirl, Wasp, Black Widow, Valkyrie, White Tiger, Moondragon, Mirage, Magma, Starfire, Black Canary, Tigra, Jubilee, Zantana, Marrina, Emma Frost, Kitty Pryde. That’s the list I came up with without even thinking. Granted, there are far more male super heroes, but part of that is marketing. More males read comics than do females. Is that due to the fact that there are fewer female heroes or do to the fact that women aren’t interested in stories where people beat the crap out of each other? Tough call, but there are plenty of kick-butt females out there (The Bride from “Kill Bill” comes to mind), and they are better written then the men. Now I think there is a lot of room to grow in this area, and while this film is something I am going to seek out, it sounds like the filmmakers didn’t really dig deep enough. Of all the men in action films, how many of them are evil? Why didn’t the filmmakers go more in-depth with the female heroes? I don’t know how in-depth they go into the creator of Wonder Woman, but his story along has all kinds of feminist ramifications, as do the overwhelming amount of bondage covers/storylines Wonder Woman was part of in that beginning era.

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