For a character with no real footprint in the pop culture landscape (no feature film in development, no TV series in the works, and only one comic at publisher DC), Wonder Woman nevertheless occupies a huge space in the public consciousness. At least, that's the argument of filmmaker Kristy Guevava-Flanagan, whose hour-long look at the history of Wonder Woman "Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines" draws a line between William Moulton Marston's Amazonian princess and the birth and progress of the feminist movement.
"Wonder Women" positions the character as kind of the patron saint of feminism: strong, confident, bold, and at the same time marginalized, minimized, and sometimes only grudgingly part of the conversation. As disappointing as it is to see the character pushed to the margins of pop culture over the years, it's heartening to see so many creatives and thoughtful women still inspired by the legacy of the character.
Guevana-Flanagan says that it all started with Gail Simone: back in 2007, she came across a New York Times piece about Simone getting the gig to write Wonder Woman--the first female ongoing writer for the character Wonder Woman's 70-year history. "When I read that, I was pretty shocked that here was this icon of female empowerment, and in reality she had been created and always controlled by men," Guevana-Flanagan says. This sent the filmmaker on a quest to find out more about Wonder Woman, the character's real-life origins and her curious pop cultural history.
Starting all the way with Marston's original comics, she was surprised what she found.
"I was just really impressed, they felt really radical even by today’s standards. Here was this hero at the center of the story and she wasn’t a spin off, sidekick, or love interest, initially--she was the star. Even that alone was really really unique by today’s standards," Guevava-Flanagan offers. "I fell in love her at that point, her missions, that’s where the story [of "Wonder Women!"] came from." She says that looking back over the decades of Wonder Woman's publication history, she's been everything from empowering to embarrassing, a headstrong princess of peace during WWII to a de-powered spy in the 60's as DC Comics chased the James Bond craze. But it was upon discovering that Wonder Woman made the 1978 inaugural cover of "Ms. Magazine," Guevava-Flanagan saw an opportunity to talk about the representation of women in the media through one woman who'd become not only a corporate icon but a feminist one.
"She hasn’t had her story told to this latest generation of young people," Guevava-Flanagan says. She thinks it's a shame that there's an entire generation of young women and girls out there who aren't familiar with Wonder Woman because DC parent company Warner Brothers is so gun-shy about producing a feature film with a female lead. "I think that is just outrageous when you look at it like that. And so it just kind of enraged me and put me on my mission. Part of my mission is to bring back her story."
For Guevava-Flanagan, who has a young daughter herself, Wonder Woman is part of the current trend toward under-representing strong women on the screen. If we do see the character in a movie, it'll likely be a "Justice League" film and not a solo feature and Guevava-Flanagan argues that's pretty much par for the course: unless you're Angelina Jolie, it's unlikely any studio executive is going to want to base a big budget action film around you (contrast that with Warner Brothers willing to break the bank for relative unknown Henry Cavill for "Man of Steel"). Guevava-Flanagan's position is that because socially, we're uncomfortable with strong representations of women or women in power, it's harder for some of the people who control the money for these sorts of things to imagine plunking down $100 million or more for a character who only supports one comic book and whose last major cultural moment was a campy television show 30 years ago.
"I think these blockbusters have to do really well internationally and that can be complicated," she says, "because if you look at how women are doing in other parts of the world, their positions of power are less advanced than in our own country." She laments this even as the comic industry has found itself gaining a larger and larger female readership, more open and interested in the the tights and capes set as well as non-superhero comics. This documentary is for them: "One of the messages of my film is that as audience members, we need to support images of women in leading roles, or when they are powerful and prove the fact that they can do well at the box office and support smaller forms of media."
Katie Pineda, a young Wonder Woman fan featured in the documentary [Source: PBS]
As a mother herself of a very young girl, this filmmaker is very cognizant of how these kinds of representations might affect her child one day. Although her daughter is only eight months old, she's prepared to take a "teach them young" approach, exposing her child to literature with strong female leads. In our her own childhood, Nancy Drew played a large part in Guevava-Flanagan's life, along with "Harriet the Spy" and the creations of Beverly Cleary. She wants the same for her little girl: "I was in love with reading and read lots of books but those stood out to me because they were characters I could relate to. When I read 'Nancy Drew' or 'Harriet the Spy,' it changed the way I interacted with my environment. I wanted to be the super sleuth solving crimes and having an impact on my community and my neighborhood. I really believed that because I read books about people that could do that."
"Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines" premieres Monday, April 15 at 10 PM on PBS' "Independent Lens."