Why Superheroines Matter
Remember how when you were a kid, you were utterly, thoroughly convinced that your mom was the best mom in the world, despite the fact that you had zero basis for comparison? Actually, the fact that there was no basis for comparison was precisely what catapulted her to an automatic number one spot.
That’s how it was with Wonder Woman: she was the best because there essentially were no other female comic book superheroes.Ba tgirl? She was just an appendage of Batman. Ditto Supergirl. Those were offshoots, afterthoughts, derivatives. But Wonder Woman came not from Superman’s rib or Spider-Man’s extra legs but was cut from whole cloth, forged on Paradise Island, the place where men weren’t even necessary to make babies. Wonder Woman wasn’t some male superhero’s tagalong kid sister — she was her own thing, with her own backstory, and most importantly, with her very own powers — not powers borrowed from an older brother.
In her documentary Wonder Women: The Untold Story Of American Superheroines, Kristy Guevara-Flanagan lets us know why that’s important. Airing on PBS in April (check local listings here) Wonder Women tells the story of the original and best, as well as her heirs: The Bionic Woman, Charlie’s Angels, Sarah Connor, Ripley, Xena, Buffy.
The doc’s most compelling sequence illustrates how even in the wholly fictitious world of comic books, women still can’t be equal, because we bind even our fantasy lives to our factual circumstances. Tracing Wonder Woman’s own halting path, we learn that there were times when the character lost her powers or became more fixated on finding romance than saving the world.
Wonder Woman was always malleable, frequently altered to fit the culture’s moment-to-moment needs. In the ’40s, when women were called upon to support the war effort, Wonder Woman was strong in her patriotic uniform; in the ‘50s, she went looking for a husband; in the ’60s, she surrendered her super-ness entirely; and then in the ‘70s, along with second wave feminism, Wonder Woman exploded again, even getting her own TV show, alongside Charlie’s Angels and the Bionic Woman. Heroes must always conform to the values of their times.
Although Wonder Woman’s road was fraught, it was still important for girls to be able to visualize a Paradise Island, a parallel world in which women ran the show. Numerous psychologists have examined the near ubiquity of superhero play and see its importance for children as a reprieve from their frequent feelings of powerlessness. That same reprieve was, before Wonder Woman, difficult for girls to access, unless they were gender-unfettered enough that they could comfortably slip into a hero role with the suffix “–Man.” That would be a distinct minority of little girls.
The practice of slapping limits on female heroines isn’t a thing of the past — pulling together a number of striking film clips as evidence, Wonder Women shows that even as the culture has become more comfortable with the mythos of the ass-kicking chick, most Hollywood heroines are still a pulled punch, still lassoed by the notion that ideal heroines, like ideal women, must be self-sacrificing. Typically in films, when superwomen gain power, they can’t handle it, so they do things like drive their convertible off a cliff.
This sort of cop-out ending wouldn’t do for Wonder Woman, which may be one of the many reasons, despite a mammoth, unending trend of superhero reboots, Hollywood still hasn’t found the cojones to green light a film about the Amazon princess. This documentary is the closest we may get.
As well as interviews with a number of fans who explain their love of the character, Wonder Women also features appearances from real-life heroines Gloria Steinem and Kathleen Hannah, and it’s Hannah who gets in one of the films most pointed jabs. Taking apart the 90’s phenoms the Spice Girls and all their talk of “girl power,” she deflates this meaningless sloganeering with a blunt reality check: “Girls Rule? No, they don’t.”