An Outsider Review of “Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines”

It’s not news that women tend to be mis- and under- represented in comics. They’re too naked, they’re drawn according to the impossible proportions of adolescent male fantasy, they’re rarely lead characters…  The list goes on.

(WONDER WOMEN! The Untold Story of American Superheroines from Vaquera Films on Vimeo.)

The ways that women are portrayed in comics has been historically problematic and the documentary  Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines addresses these issues through the story of comics’ most iconic female superhero — Wonder Woman. But more than a slap on the wrist of the comics industry, the film looks at Wonder Woman’s impact on generations of women and comics fans, making the case for why we need more female superheroes… empowered ones… in lead roles.

Moving stories from fans about how this flag-sporting superheroine inspired them are paired with intriguing commentary on how Wonder Woman has evolved alongside the changing roles of women in the U.S., from the 50’s housewives, to the working women during World War II’s, to the women’s liberation movement of the 70’s, to the near-oblivion the character today.

Wonder Woman beasting without her powers

In just an hour, the film covers a good deal of Wonder Woman’s history, from her revolutionary debut on the comics scene to the post-WWII years when she lost her powers and began working at a boutique shop. In addition to everyday fans and scholars, an impressive cast of famous Wonder Woman admirers spoke about their experiences with the character, including Lynda Carter, the actress who played Wonder Woman in the original television series in the 70’s (fun fact: she’s also voiced several female characters in The Elder Scrolls games…), and famous feminist Gloria Steinem, who recounts how the decision to use Wonder Woman as a icon for the then new feminist magazine Ms. became a campaign to restore Wonder Woman’s powers and return her to her former superhero glory.

Steinem’s campaign was successful. DC Comics scrapped the remaining scripts in the powerless Wonder Woman story arc, restored her powers and costume, and, Steinem adds, they even gave her a Black sister.

The re-empowerment of Wonder Woman came at the same time that women, Black and white, around the U.S. were fighting for their own empowerment. And through the story of one young woman Katie Pineda, the film indicates that Wonder Woman is still a relevant and important role model for the empowerment of young women today. This is the core of the film’s message — Wonder Woman isn’t just a comic book character, she’s an icon for women’s empowerment.

Steinem’s campaign and the re-powering of Wonder Woman is one of the most fascinating stories in the film. In fact, the film doesn’t get into the whole story, which is even more interesting….

Samuel R. Delany reading at The Kitchen for an event for Volume 2 of the Encyclopedia Project (photo byAlex Lozupone)
Samuel R. Delany reading at The Kitchen for an event for Volume 2 of the Encyclopedia Project (photo byAlex Lozupone)

At the time of Steinem’s campaign science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, known for his work’s commentary on race, sexuality and social issues, had been slated to write a new Wonder Woman arc. He had plans to write a story about Wonder Woman, who even in her de-powered state was still fighting crime, where she would be defending an abortion clinic against a group of radical pro-lifers. Delany had plans for several other stories addressing feminist issues.  However, these stories were never published, as the publisher pulled Delany from comic in order to pursue the re-powered story line that Steinem and company were demanding.  So, ironically, Steinem’s campaign was used to cancel a radical feminist story arc by one of the best geeky writers. Womp.

And the interview with Steinem is still more interesting, as she made a brief mention of Wonder Woman’s Black sister…Nubia (later Nu’Bia), who is quickly glossed over in the documentary. And rightly so since Nubia is more of a quirky fact in Wonder Woman history than an actual substantial character, not to mention her plot-lines were often stereotyped, ridiculous, or absurdly limited.

Nubia, Wonder Woman’s Black sister

Though her inclusion in the film is brief, it is evident that the character of Nubia was created to reflect not only the racial equality changes of that decade, but also the women’s liberation movement’s efforts to be racially inclusive. The attempt with Nubia was pretty flawed.  Nubia may not have made for the best material for this documentary, but the brief mention certainly sparks an interest and draws attention to the question of women of color  in comics.

Storm and Uhura are noted in the film, but for the most part superheroines of color are somewhat underrepresented here. For one example, in the film’s discussion of strong female heroes in movies, the  notable number of ass-kicking Black women characters in 70’s Blaxploitation films, like Coffy and Foxey Brown would have been an interesting inclusion.

In the end the film calls for a resurgence of the Wonder Woman character, and indeed it would be long-overdue  great news to see a Wonder Woman movie or a new TV series. In fact, over the years fans have been teased with rumors of some writer or other supposedly working on a movie or TV show (there was even a pilot filmed at one point), but those hopes have been repeatedly disappointed.

Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel (2011)
Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel (2011)

It’s a shame that the most iconic female superhero does not enjoy the franchise that other classic superheroes like Iron Man or Thor do. However, there are many more leading and empowered superheroines in comics today than ever before (many of them even wear pants!), and many of them are busting up old problematic models of women in comics. In such a scene, one can’t help but wonder if Wonder Woman’s lower profile is because her lasso of truth and bullet proof cuffs are a bit dated and have a hard time competing with flying, energy blasters like Captain Marvel or tech titans like Batwoman.

The film discusses at least two of the other superheroines on the scene, Ms. Marvel and Bionic Woman, but primarily in their historical roles.  These two characters are still around and thriving.  Recently Ms. Marvel dropped her “Ms.” and her skimpy outfit and is now a pants-sporting lead of her own title as Captain Marvel. Bionic Woman has a smaller audience, but is currently leading two title comics Bionic Woman and Bionic Man vs. Bionic Woman. Even Wonder Woman herself got a stellar reboot by Brian Azzarellowhich is still ongoing and has been both praised and criticized for it’s notable changes to Wonder Woman’s story and persona.

Fearless Defenders #2 by Cullen Bunn and Will Sliney
Fearless Defenders #2 by Cullen Bunn and Will Sliney

 Other awesome superheroines, like Batwoman, Supergirl, Batgirl, Katana, Glory, She Hulk, Ghost and others are clothed and kicking butt in their own title comics today. Other superheroines are even fighting in all-female teams, like Fearless Defenders’ Dani Moonstar, Valkyrie, and Misty Knight,  and Brian Wood’s forthcoming X-menan all-female team including Storm, Rogue, Kitty Pride, Pyslocke, and Jubilee (all wearing pants!).

Wonder Women is at its most interesting when it points to how the development of Wonder Woman’s story over the decades reflects and comments on the evolution of women’s rights and roles throughout American history.  The stories of those whose lives have been touched by this dynamic icon are truly moving.  However, the film is short and jam-packed, such that there is little treatment of other leading women in comics (specifically comics, since there was a chunk of time given to strong women characters in film), which was a small disappointment as the title seemed to promise a larger, more diverse cast of comics’ wonder women, plural. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly interesting addition to the dialogue about women in comics, full of real-world wonder women and wonder geeks!

And the film’s crew isn’t done talking about it either.  In addition to an active Twitter account, boasting all sorts of lady geekery, on May 1st they’ll be debuting a companion game called Wonder City to draw attention to mis- and under- representation of girls in games and the lack of games for girls that don’t center around stereotypically “girly” things like dating and cooking… Check it out: http://wonderwomendoc.com/game/

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