Exactly 40 years ago, Ms. debuted on national newsstands, and the first issue left little doubt the magazine had a feminist perspective. The cover had Gloria Steinem’s name on prominent display (“Gloria Steinem on How Women Vote”); a tease to an article explaining why unshaved legs were a political statement (“Body Hair: The Last Frontier”); and an image of the comic-book hero Wonder Woman, who was shown combating war and injustice below the headline, “Wonder Woman for President.”
It was a heady time for feminism. And it was a heady time for Wonder Woman, who was seen by many feminists (Steinem included) as the embodiment of strength, fearlessness, and determination. The new documentary, Wonder Women! The Untold Story Of Superheroines, deconstructs pop culture’s greatest female characters — the ones with extra-special powers who made it to the realm of comic books, TV, or Hollywood — and explains why they’ve had mixed success: On the one hand, Wonder Woman and her cohorts became an inspiration for generations of girls and women; on the other hand, popular female super figures are few in number compared to male figures, and they’ve been subjected to plot twists that seem completely misogynistic. In the late ’60s, DC Comics had Wonder Woman lose her original super powers, and in previous years, the publisher had Wonder Woman more focused on falling in love than saving humanity.
Sussing out these contradictions is one of the strengths of Wonder Women!, which screens Saturday in San Francisco at the Celebration of Craftswomen at Fort Mason and next Wednesday at 235 Montgomery Street in an event hosted by the International Museum of Women. PBS’ Independent Lens is scheduled to broadcast the documentary in April.
“For female characters, it’s mostly through the sexualization of them that they become more compromised,” says Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, the director of Wonder Women!, who grew up in the mid-to-late ’70s watching the Wonder Woman TV series. “There are moments when you have to cringe. You parse out the different parts of their stories and representations, and there’s almost this unconscious way that women read mass media because our characters often die quickly or their strength is mitigated or they’re just not essential heroes.”
Wonder Woman, who first appeared as a comic-book character in 1941 and is the oldest continuously drawn female superhero in history, is the documentary’s main focus. Guevara-Flanagan interviews a host of women — including Steinem; actress Lynda Carter, who played Wonder Woman in the 1970s TV show; and Gail Simone, who in 2007 became the first full-time female writer for DC Comics’ Wonder Woman series — and they offer indelible insight into Wonder Woman’s character and the media industry and culture that spawned and supported her. “She was irresistible,” Steinem tells Guevara-Flannagan about her youthful idealization of Wonder Woman. “She was the only game in town, the only hero that made you feel good about yourself.”
It was a man, William Moulton Marston, who created Wonder Woman, saying he wanted “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” From the beginning, though, Wonder Woman wore a form-fitting outfit that resembled patriotic lingerie. So, her magical bracelets repelled bullets, and her magical lasso forced people to tell the truth and she rescued people with ease, but she was also a sexpot in sexy boots. “Are they objects or inspiration?” asks Jennifer Kate Stuller, author of Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, who tells Guevara-Flanagan that Wonder Woman represents many ideals that seem contradictory.
Guevara-Flanagan, an assistant professor at Diablo Valley College who has an MFA in Film Production from San Francisco State, took four years to research her film, do the interviews, make the edits, and bring it to fruition. During that time, she says, Wonder Woman’s backstory became a revelation. In Marston’s original version, Wonder Woman lived on an island with other female warriors. No men were there. No men were needed.
“Growing up, I had girlfriends who were Wonder Woman for Halloween years and years in a row, but beyond that I really didn’t know too much about the character,” says Guevara-Flannagan, 42. “What was neat about the process of the film is that it really was a process of discovery. The first thing I did was go back to the original comics, which I wasn’t familiar with, and I saw that she was radical and unique at that time. She was a female role model. And I went from there.”
Wonder Women! The Untold Story Of Superheroines screens Saturday, Dec. 1, 7pm, at the Celebration of Craftswomen at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater; and Wednesday, Dec. 5, 6pm, at the International Museum of Women, Russ Building in San Francisco. For tickets and more information, visit wonderwomendoc.com.