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Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Heroines (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Why does feminism bore me so?

The documentary “Wonder Women!” is subtitled “The Untold Story of American Superheroines,” but I would’ve settled for a better-told story. Example: Wonder Woman’s creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston, is generally treated positively here. We get passing mention of the bondage fetishism inherent in 1940s “Wonder Woman” comic books without mention of the bondage fetish of Marston, or the fact that he lived with his wife, Elizabeth, and his mistress, Olive, a former student. He had two children by each. One of Elizabeth’s children was named Olive. Empowering? Feminist? Creepy?

The drift of post-World War II “Wonder Woman” comics into romance is dealt with in isolation rather than as part of an industry-wide phenomenon that swept up Batman, Superman and Captain America. Frederic Wertham’s anti-comics diatribe, “The Seduction of the Innocent,” is portrayed pejoratively even as we’re shown the misogyny inherent in many 1950s horror comics. Can Wertham get no love? Can no one say, “He was an idiot, but...”?

Worse: We’re about an hour into this 72-minute doc before the narrator tsk-tsks over the hypersexualized versions of super heroines ... and Wonder Woman gets a pass. To me, this is the point when you go back to talking-head Gloria Steinem, for whom Wonder Woman was a role model, and who put the Amazonian on the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine, to talk about this hypersexuality. You get the women who grew up on Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, and maybe even Carter herself, to talk about her hypersexuality. What are the negatives of this? Are there any? Do girls, when they hit puberty, feel they don’t measure up? Did I? I read comic books, with all of its various strong-jawed, superstrong, male role models, yet, at 15, when I looked in the mirror, I saw a skinny, sunken-chested, weak-jawed kid. What effect did this have on me? Have I recovered?

Hey: What are the long-term consequences of a society awash in wish fulfillment fantasies? “Wonder Women!” wrings its hands over the dearth of female superheroes but might this not be a positive? The Republican party, for example, tends to play on wish-fulfillment fantasies more than the Democratic party, offering up wannabe cowboys as candidates, and mouthing catchphrases such as “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” and “Make my day” and “Read my lips,” and offering up fantasy economic policies (tax cuts + greater spending = balanced budget), and men more than women buy into it. They vote Republican. Women are more clear-eyed. They vote Democrat. Because they never saw themselves in Superman and Batman and can sense the bullshit in Reagan and Bush? The point beyond immediate politics: Aren’t the very role models the filmmakers would wish upon young girls in many ways deleterious?

Instead “Wonder Women!” gives us a fairly typical storyline. Strong female role models lead to strong girls and women. There is a dearth of these role models and anyway 97% of creators are men. So Reel Grrls, a Seattle filmmaking organization, among others, is empowering young women in cinematography, script-writing, blah blah blah.

I’m sorry but all of this bores me.

Is the doc about female superheroes or general female empowerment? The filmmakers make it about both. It starts with Women Woman, expands, in the ‘70s, to include Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, Lindsay Wagner’s Bionic Woman, and Charlie’s Angels (but no Mighty Isis), then gives us reductive visions of every subsequent decade. The ‘80s were testosterone-y and Reaganish. The ‘90s gave us riot grrls, co-opted into Spice Girls, but ... we’re talking rockers now? Should we double back and catch up with Aretha and Janis? And if the doc wants to cover all media images of women, why start with Wonder Woman? Why ignore the strong women of 1930s cinema? Why ignore Pam Grier then complain about the lack of strong black women in the media?

Here’s my favorite reductive moment: Apparently two of TV’s 1990s superheroines, Xena and Buffy, both died in 2001. I forget which talking head brings it up—Trina Robbins?—but she lays the blame squarely on ... wait for it ... George W. Bush. He’d just been elected president (kinda), that was the zeitgeist, and so strong women had to die. No one refutes this. The documentarians, director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and producer Kelcey Edwards, give her this forum. They have 72 minutes to make their case and they spend time on this.

One of the talking heads is Andy Mangels, a comic-book writer who has created the annual “Wonder Woman Day” in Portland, Oregon, to raise money for domestic violence programs. He’s also gay. So bring him into the hypersexualized conversation. Superman and Spiderman weren’t hypersexualized to me growing up. Were they to him? Then broaden the discussion. Women in our society are more often judged by their appearance than their actions; so can you ever have a female superhero who isn’t sexualized? Who’s ugly the way Hulk is ugly? Would an ugly Wonder Woman have influenced Gloria Steinem? What do you say, Gloria?

Perhaps the great irony of “Wonder Women!” is that it’s making its appeal for more super-heroines at a time when such an appeal has never been less necessary. Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdeen are both hugely popular heroines, brave and tough, who rescue good men and beat bad guys in completely convincing ways. To me, they’re game-changers. They’re super without being super. Compared to them, Wonder Woman and her magic lasso feel like relics out of a silly, fetishistic past.

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—May 28, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard