Has there been a female hero as iconic as Wonder Woman? She’s been around nearly as long as Superman, she’s got incredible powers and, courtesy of the hit 70s series that bears her name, she easily has the best theme song (suck it, Spider-Man).
Yet if you ask someone on the street to name their favourite superhero, Wonder Woman is not likely to come up, as director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan discovered during the making of the documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines.
“It was only male superheroes,” says Guevara-Flanagan. “People would start scratching their heads when we started asking about women. Oftentimes these characters are unmemorable. Their stories don’t stick out.”
Wonder Women! looks at the presentation of heroines in comic books, TV and film, with Wonder Woman as its primary focus.
Wonder Woman was devised as a feminist hero by William Moulton Marston in 1941. Marston, a psychologist who developed the prototype for the modern polygraph, believed that a strong female character was needed in comics. With her lasso of truth and enchanted bracelets, Wonder Woman left the matriarchy of Paradise Island to fight Nazis and other assorted evildoers.
“When I read the old Wonder Woman comics of the 40s, I still find them refreshing,” says Guevara-Flanagan. “It’s still refreshing to see a female character who has her own story. She’s not just a daughter or a sister or a mother.”
After Marston’s passing, Wonder Woman gradually became devalued as a character. She transformed from an intelligent warrior who could always break the shackles of any villain to a de-powered human who needed rescuing and guidance. With such shabby treatment, it’s no wonder the character faded from memory.
In researching Wonder Women!, Guevara-Flanagan found Gail Simone, a comic book writer who cut her teeth writing for The Simpsons and Deadpool. Simone attracted a lot of attention with her website, Women in Refrigerators, which maintained a list of female comic book characters who were “either de-powered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator.”
“[Simone] was the genesis of the film, so I was really interested in her perspective on Wonder Woman,” says Guevara-Flanagan. “She’d become known for calling out the industry for their treatment of women. So often they were just being used as bodies; their bodies were being used in horrific ways. But doing that website raised awareness and got people to notice. It stands as proof of all of that.”
Simone went on to write Wonder Woman from 2008-2010, earning acclaim for restoring the character’s strength and compassion. This renaissance brought many new eyes to the comic, reminding many why Wonder Woman is a character of such importance.
“She can be a dynamic character to tell the story of women in popular culture because she’s changed so much throughout the decades,” says Guevara-Flanagan. “Without her, we wouldn’t have characters like Buffy or Katniss Evergreen.”
Despite Wonder Woman’s return to form in the comics, Guevara-Flanagan sees need for improvement in Hollywood. “We haven’t had a Wonder Woman film, but we’ve already gotten movies about less important heroes like Thor,” she said with disbelief. “As women get into the industry, those thing will change. Women are an audience, but if you don’t write well enough, you’re going to lose them. Women interested in comics need to demand better characters and they have. Women, speak up. When you speak up, the industry has to listen.”
She says the key to a greater number of superheroines is in moving away from traditionally masculine traits.
“You can’t just make a male character female,” she says, adding they need to “expand the notion of heroism.”
“I think characters need to develop a sense of a team and using diplomacy, which is something Wonder Woman does. Mentoring others. Standing up for what you believe in. Not always resorting to violence. Those are traits from heroes audiences and readers should be rewarding.”
Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines is playing as part of the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival on Saturday, October 20th at 12-noon at the LSPU Hall. Tickets can be bought at the LSPU Hall Box Office.