This is our second report from this year’s Athena Film Festival, a banquet of feature films, documentaries, and shorts celebrating women’s creativity and accomplishments. At this year’s festival, held every February in New York City, our veteran contributor Diane Vacca was particularly engaged by three films—Hannah Arendt and Wonder Women! and Brave, the films she reviews below.
Boys look to Superman, Batman, Spider Man . . . but in the mid–twentieth century, daring, resourceful, powerful fantasy females were few and far between. With one exception: Wonder Woman.
She sprang into action in 1941, around the time the Pearl Harbor attack was precipitating the U.S. into World War II. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, a psychologist, with promptings from his wife, imagined “a character who would be ‘psychological propaganda’ for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” She was to be an Amazon princess, leader of the fierce female warriors of antiquity.
Marston proposed to DC Comics that “America’s woman of tomorrow should be made the hero of a new type of comic strip. By this I mean a character with all the allure of an attractive woman but with the strength also of a powerful man.”
Wonder Woman would become the oldest, continually drawn female superheroine of all time. She led the way for all the conspicuously brave and incomparably competent heroines of cartoon, movie, and television to come, from Supergirl, 1959; Barbarella, 1960s; Charlie’s Angels, 1976-81; Princess Leia (Star Wars), 1977; She-Ra: Princess of Power, 1985-86; Xena: Warrior Princess, 1995-2001; Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997–2003; Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, 2001; to the Pixar princess, Merida, in Disney’s 2012 Oscar-winning animated film Brave.
Now we can trace the evolution and impact of the first superwoman. Director Kirsty Guevara-Flanagan’s one-hour documentary, Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, will be broadcast by PBS at 10 p.m. EDT on Monday, April 15, as part of its “Independent Lens” series.
Guevara-Flanagan spent four years researching, interviewing for, and editing Wonder Women! “I loved the idea of looking at something as populist as comics to reveal our cultural obsessions, and in particular, how women’s roles have changed over time,” she notes. “The narratives of our most iconic superheroes, told and re-told over decades, boldly outline our shifting values. . . . We all need those iconic heroes that tell us we have the power to slay our dragons and don’t have to wait around to be rescued.”
At first, Wonder Woman was a radically new vision of feminine power, one capable of standing up to and battling male villains. Guevara-Flanagan compares her to Rosie the Riveter, a symbol for the newly empowered women who took their absent husbands’ places in the factories during World War II. Like them, Wonder Woman did a “man’s job.”
Eventually, of course, the war ended and the men came home. They took back their jobs, replacing their wives and returning them to their lives of unremarkable domesticity. By the 1960s, Wonder Woman too had been enervated and diminished. Her superpowers and provocative costume were stripped away, and she was given a fashion boutique to run. No more daring exploits.
But in the 1970s, as the women’s movement fired up, Gloria Steinem brought Wonder Woman back with a bang. Steinem put her on the cover of the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine, dressed in her original red bustier and star-spangled briefs. Under a red banner trumpeting “Wonder Woman for President,” the heroine towers over the city, snagging bombers from the sky.
Wonder Women! is an entertaining and enlightening tour through women’s history of the last 70 years. The clips and stills of the female champion in her various guises convey changing attitudes toward women and the female body. Wonder Woman’s form-hugging outfit is undeniably sexy—“patriotic lingerie,” in the words of culture critic Jonathan Curiel—but her actions are inspiring. So—is she a role model or an object? Depending on the reader, she is either or both. (Wonder Woman was ostensibly a comic book for girls, yet editor Sheldon Mayer has commented that Marston “was writing a feminist book, but not for women. He was dealing with a male audience.”) Little known is the fact that the bodacious and busty, provocatively clad heroine has always had a readership that is about 90 percent male. No wonder!
I enjoyed seeing participants in the struggle for women’s rights reminiscing about and engaging with the battles waged. Television stars Lynda Carter (she played Wonder Woman in the 1970s) and Lindsay Wagner (the Bionic Woman), writer Gail Simone (the first woman to write full-time for the Wonder Woman comic books, in 2007-10), the comic Wanda Sykes, other artists, and Second Wave feminists are polemic and thoughtful as they speak with Guevara-Flanagan. They unravel the skein of images and actions that send contradictory messages in a culture that is still ambivalent about powerful women. Sociologist Kathryn Gilpatric, for example, reports that in her study of 157 female action characters in 2010 she found that half of them were evil, and 30 percent of the rest were killed off, mostly in acts of self-sacrifice.
Later incarnations of superwomen, like Sarah Connor in the Terminator series, are fiercely determined and courageous. They may have superpowers as well, but many are not protagonists in their own stories; they are ancillary characters in the stories of men.
The second half of Wonder Women! is devoted to today’s fans. Wonder Woman’s influence on young readers is embodied by Katie Pineda, a fourth-grader who has been an avid fan for years. She tells Guevara-Flanagan why she reveres the superheroine: “Not all superheroes have powers, like, most of them are just regular people, but they became something more, and that’s how they inspire me . . . . Sometimes I get picked on at school, but I just tell myself, ‘Keep going, keep going, you’re going to be more.’ Because some day they’re going to be wishing that they treated me better.”
Second-Wave feminists are contemporaries of Wonder Woman. Gloria Steinem grew up with her. “She was irresistible,” she tells Guevara-Flanagan. “She was the only game in town, the only hero that made you feel good about yourself.”
A much younger heroine is Merida, the princess protagonist of the Pixar film Brave, which won the Oscar for best animated film of 2012. She is, in fact, the first female lead in a Pixar film. Her free-spirited and rebellious nature manifests itself in her emblematic exuberant red curls. When she gallops away on horseback, she feels the freedom and independence that so many women and girls have longed for. She’s not a superhero, but she’s the kingdom’s best archer, and she defeats the forces that pressure her to conform to the docile and ladylike model of a queen-in-waiting.
The Disney tale ends before reality can set in: we don’t know whether Merida marries (we assume that as a sovereign she must), or whom, or how effective a monarch she will be. It is a fairytale, after all. It wouldn’t do to show the princess established within the very tradition she rebelled against. That would hardly constitute the requisite happy ending.
But reality isn’t a problem for Wonder Woman—by definition, she is a superwoman who cannot be defeated. Her strength, her power, her rejection of gratuitous violence, and her quest for peace will continue to make her a model for young girls.