“AT LAST, in a world torn apart by the hatreds and wars of men, appears a woman to whom the problems and fears of men are mere child’s play….As wise as Athena–with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules–she is known only as WONDER WOMAN….” A recent documentary traces the history, influences and inspirations of the popular super heroine.
The words above appeared in a 1941 comic, the brainchild of William Moulton Marston, a lawyer, psychologist and inventor of the blood-pressure test that formed the basis for the lie detector (magic lasso anyone?). In Moulton’s tale, there existed a secret island ruled by Amazonian women, fierce warriors pledged (ironically) to Aphrodite–the Greek goddess of love. When one of those young women, the princess Diana, rescues a downed American WWII pilot, she learns of the “hatreds and wars of men” in the wider world. Donning boots, a blue skirt with white stars, a red bustier with a gold eagle symbol, Diana becomes Wonder Woman–an anti-fascist freedom fighter, and one of the first great super heroines of the comic book world.
Since her inception, Wonder Woman has existed somewhere at the intersections of entertainment and politics. She has been both feminist icon and role model, a breaker of gendered barriers through inked pages and television. Yet her history has been fraught with attempts of constraint, to have her conform to status quo notions of gender, or become a purely sexualized object for masculine consumption. Through the decades Wonder Woman has had a complicated life, ranging from fighting Nazis, to losing her powers and opening up a clothing boutique, to becoming a martial arts fighter and even at one point gaining a black sister named Nubia. Wince. wince now.
Directed by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and produced by Kelcey Edwards, the documentary Wonder Women! traces the famous super heroine from her radical WWII presence, the back lash and diminishing of her role through the later 1950s, her dramatic resurrection by feminist Gloria Steinem and the women of Ms. Magazine during Second Wave feminism, her groundbreaking television personification through actress Lynda Carter to her modern-day incarnation through writers like Gail Simone. The documentary slides between the real world and the fantastic–weaving together everything from the battle for reproductive rights and Anita Hill, to the Bionic Woman and the anti-feminist backlash of the 1980s, to new age heroines like Xena and Buffy, and continued issues of gendered representation and violence in comics (women in refrigerators) in one powerful narrative. It is both praiseworthy and critical, giving us a history of heroines in popular media–the good and the bad, the empowering and the demeaning, the very ugly, the utterly ridiculous and the truly inspiring.
There are some drawbacks to the documentary. Though focused on Wonder Woman, it sprawls into varied other women characters in speculative fiction. Yet it never manages to get around to the depiction of women of color in comics–from the more famous figures like Storm, or the lesser known Misty Knight, to numerous indie productions, especially many modern-day women of color creating their own representations. It’s realized of course one documentary can’t possibly discuss everything; and there is at least one lengthy interview of a fan woman of color. But given the impressive wider net the creators cast, it would have been a worthy addition, if only to make certain to avoid criticisms of subsuming such issues under a white woman’s narrative.
Still, all in all an enjoyable and informative documentary. You can find it on the PBS series Independent Lens. Check local listings for viewings.