'Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines'

William Marston's Princess Diana, aka Wonder Woman, was the opening salvo of an imagined matriarchal revolution.

Independent Lens: Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines

Airtime: Mondays, 10 P.M. ET
Length: 56 min
Network: PBS
Air date: 2013-04-15

Early on in the new documentary Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines, a few random interviewees are quizzed on which female super crime-fighters they can name. All seem befuddled; Wonder Woman is pretty much the only character that comes to mind, although one boy mistakenly blurts out “Catwoman”, perhaps forgetting that Selina Kyle is a villain. My first thought was, wait a minute... what about Ms. Marvel, DC's ill-tempered Power Girl – is it Power Woman now? -- or the now-iconic Storm?

We do see these ladies later on, but none of them have achieved the socio-cultural ubiquity of William Moulton Marston's Princess Diana, Paradise Island's most renowned emigre. The unwashed masses know her by her nom du guerre Wonder Woman.

There's no question that superheroines existed in the pages of pop lit before Wonder Woman, but William Marston's character somehow stuck. Marston was a psychologist who worried about the lack of vigorous, can-do role models for his daughters, and American girls in general. He apparently also believed that humankind would, in the not-too-distant future, adopt a matriarchal structure, and perhaps saw Wonder Woman as an opening salvo in that revolution when he introduced her in December of 1941, a propitious time for an American to introduce a superhuman being.

Wonder Woman (Diana) hailed from the fictional Paradise Island, which has been compared by some to the storied Greek isle of Lesbos, and was the sole offspring of Queen Hippolyta, leader of the tribe of Amazons which inhabited this gynocentric idyll, free of male aggression because it was free of males! It's mentioned in the film that the character struck a triple chord central to the fantasy life of many girls: Amazon-princess-goddess. Personally, my memory of Wonder Woman, which entails the '70s CBS prime-time series, Saturday morning's campy Superfriends, and Justice League of America comic books, doesn't cast the lithe Amazons of P.I. as goddesses, but I'll have to read up on that. Still, Wonder Woman was a distinctly original figure amongst female heroes.

The Amazons of Greek mythology were a notoriously violent, warlike sect, but this was greatly muted in Marston's tales, in which they became near-pacifists who sought to avoid the hostile affairs of the male-dominated world. Ironically, through a set of circumstances, Diana comes to America and is embroiled in World War II. In that sense, she both exemplifies the pluck of 'Rosie the Riveter', the generic American icon who represented the housewives filling industrial jobs while husbands were away, and simultaneously shatters that cocoon.

Wonder Woman, with superhuman abilities, was an active participant in combat, of course fighting for the Allies, and unironically draped in the Stars-and-Stripes, fighting for a nation where women were only two decades into voting and emphatically denied the same social perquisites as their male counterparts. Were the Axis powers a threat to Diana's homeland? It's not made clear, but Wonder Woman stories of the time – and much later – suggested that Diana's only moral choice was to stand and fight alongside the men of her adopted country.

Director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan's comprehensive film also visits a comic book shop in Portland, Oregon, run by Andy Mangels, a gay man who views Wonder Woman as a role model for all, not just young girls. He's thus created Wonder Woman Day, an unofficial October holiday, and it's clearly a hit with patrons. I wonder if he agrees with Gloria Steinem, interviewed here, when she states that “Girls actually need superheroes much more than boys”, due to the startling worldwide statistics of violence against women.

I would add that perhaps a gay man like Mangels embraces a personality like Wonder Woman as a psychological bulwark against homophobic taunts and bullying. Some have argued that this is the reason the X-Men have been coveted by LGBT audiences; coincidentally, the first openly gay superhero appeared in the pages of Uncanny X-Men. His enthusiasm is echoed by fourth-grader Katie Pineda, seen here in full Wonder Woman regalia, and one gets the impression that it's not just for October 31st. Later, Katie stresses the attachment girls feel to the character, and how she's derived self-confidence and a greater awareness of her future options.

William Marston died suddenly in 1947, and, as if on cue, depictions of his now-famous Amazon changed markedly during the conformist '50s, in which home and hearth became unassailable prerogatives, especially for the female species. Distaff superheroes were effectively neutered as the Cold War heated up, male veterans reclaimed their careers, and a complicated psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham denounced comic book heroes and declared Wonder Woman a “lesbian”. Against this chilly backdrop, Diana Prince(her assumed surname) was quickly domesticated, her previously non-existent yearnings for male companionship suddenly brought to the fore.

Things would change as the Me Decade arrived. Wonder Woman exploded onto prime-time TV in the form of buxom Lynda Carter, a raven-haired model miraculously endowed with Princess Diana's Barbie-esque physique. Curiously, no one thinks to mention that Carter's stag party figure may have inadvertently helped to forge unrealistic dreams among girls about having the perfectly sculpted bod. No, the Mattel doll would take the heat for future eating disorders and dieting mania.

At any rate, CBS scored a hit, and soon crime-clobbering females were busting out all over the tube, with Lindsay Wagner delivering bionic beatdowns to assorted ne'er-do-wells, while Aaron Spelling's trio of lovely “Angels” wielded pistols and judo to mete out justice. It's mentioned in the doc that the success of Wonder Woman convinced network skeptics that an actress could “carry” an evening program, but that hardly rings true when we recall that Police Woman and The Mary Tyler Moore Show predate the 'superwoman' shows by several years.

Of course, all of these shows were cash cows in their time, and have become syndication perennials, but two facts have been obscured. First, these female empowerment programs served as ironic counterpoints to a theatrical landscape increasingly devoid of significant female roles. Also, Bryan Forbes' sinister suburban thriller The Stepford Wives hinted at a potential male backlash to this burgeoning equality of the genders.

Guevara-Flanagan's film touts the emergence of the hypermasculine male action stars of the '80s as proof of this backlash, but wisely concedes that Sigourney Weaver's “Ellen Ripley” from Ridley Scott's landmark Alien was a watershed event in filmic depictions of women. Ripley is arguably a through-line to Linda Hamilton's feral Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, or the tragic-romantic defiance of Thelma and Louise, and the director also ties these roles to the punk-influenced Riot Grrrls movement of the 90s, itself a curious paradox to the male-dominated grunge scene, with its introspective, touchy-feely gloominess, a sharp turn from the flashy sex-god posturing of the hair-metal acts they replaced.

Some would argue that female mimicry of in-your-face machismo is a dubious progression at best, but the rise of the Spice Girls suggests they shouldn't have worried. A jokey all-female vocal group from the UK, they championed a brand of “Girl Power” that wallowed in stereotypes of dizzy femininity and a materialism familiar to any viewer of the tart-tongued Sex and The City. Film theorist Laura Mulvey has spoken of the “male cinematic gaze”, by which viewers are encouraged to identify with male audiences, and perceive women through a sexualized, voyeuristic lens. The Spice Girls, with their cutesy Seven Dwarves-ish names, seemed eager to kowtow to this confining gaze, as they unapologetically channeled both Kazan's Baby Doll and the aforementioned HBO sitcom.

Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines concludes on a hopeful, somewhat rah-rah note, but we also learn that DC's Wonder Woman comic has only recently included a full-time female scribe (Gail Simone) on its staff, and there's the sobering fact that American TV passed on the pilot of a Wonder Woman redux, which admittedly may say more about the character's relevance than a general social attitude towards women.

Personally, I would direct fans to Lauren Montgomery's 2009 Wonder Woman, an animated straight-to-video release that skillfully balances pathos with grand adventure. I'm less sanguine about the choices for actresses in today's Hollywood cinema, which seems to have banished serious character development to television or indie projects. Some would claim that's a positive development, as much of today's best electronic storytelling doesn't appear in movie theaters. It's been said that when women had no power in Hollywood, great roles were plentiful. In this new century, with top female executives a common sight in Burbank office towers, the stellar parts have vanished. The silver screen remains, as James Brown once sang, “a man's world”.

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