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Published on March 28th, 2013 | by Julie Davis


How Wonder Woman is Still an Inspiring Role Model for Women

Despite the title, Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines is not actually a story about comics. It’s also not about comic creators, although along the way you do get some interesting background Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, that sheds light on the character’s particulars, such as the golden lasso that forces you to tell the truth. (Marston was the inventor of the systolic blood pressure test, an immediate predecessor to the polygraph “lie detector” equipment.)

Instead, Wonder Women is more of an explanation of the icon that the character has become, and the ongoing need for inspiring role models for women and girls.

“I had friends who were Wonder Woman for Halloween year after year because there were so few options for girls as fantasy heroes,” said director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, reminiscing about her childhood in the 1970s.

The opening moments of the documentary promptly justify that this issue is still relevant in a series of on-the-street interviews where, after briefly enthusing about how much they love superheroes, interviewees struggle to come up with the names of any female ones…other than Wonder Woman.

The film is equal parts social document and thought piece, with the evolution of superheroines both placed into historical context and mused over by a variety of interviews, ranging from celebrities to fans. The product of four years of research by producer Kelcey Edwards and director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, Wonder Women‘s mission and method is virtually the same as the character’s—to educate and inspire.

We’re presented with the origin of Wonder Woman, one of the earliest comic book heroines, who appeared during the same month as the Japanese bombing raid on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

“At last, in a world torn by the hatreds and wars of men,” as the caption accompanying her appearance describes, “appears a women to whom the problems and feats of men are mere child’s play.”

Visualized by her creator Marston as a balancing force of compassion and (relative) non-violence in the overly macho world of comic books, Wonder Woman brought Amazonian strength and wisdom from a better culture, the aptly named Paradise Island. She didn’t need a male hero to save her; she saved herself. For girls disappointed by passive princesses and fainting damsels, this was a revelation.

From there, the story moves on to how second-wave feminism embraced the character—in a wonderful interview segment, feminist leader and Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem explains the reasoning behind Wonder Woman’s appearance on the cover of the first issue of Ms.—even as the comic books themselves redefined the character’s image in a variety of less empowered forms.

Speaking as someone who grew up during television’s attempts to process feminism’s second wave in the 1970s, Wonder Women‘s interview segments with Lynda Carter, star of the 1975-1979 Wonder Woman TV show; Lindsay Wagner, aka The Bionic Woman; and fans of these and other female-fronted ’70s shows such as Charlie’s Angels were a highlight of the film. It was a true delight to watch grown women describe how they’d eagerly copied the spinning motion that the TV series used to signal the transformation of Wonder Woman from her civilian identity of Diana Prince (an invention of series star Lynda Carter, by the way) in hopes that they, too, would transform…not that I, uh, did anything like that myself. (I did.)

Of course, all of this makes the subsequent decline of the superheroine in later decades that much more distressing. After the gun-toting warrior heroines of the testosterone-fueled ’80s—the Ellen Ripley of Aliens and the whipcord-muscled Sarah Connor of Terminator 2—and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena, Warrior Princess of the ’90s, the film notes how the new norm in fiction has become women who sacrifice themselves for a male hero rather than take the center stage. This leaves the second half of the movie with an undeniable feeling of loss mixed in among the inspiring vignettes—a young immigrant woman who wears Wonder Woman tattoos to remind herself how strong she can be; a Portland, Oregon comic book shop hosts an annual “Wonder Woman” day to benefit anti-domestic violence programs; a program to encourage more young women to become filmmakers. Together, it amounts to a call for women to create and be their own heroes.

The film is not an answer to every woman’s questions: at Wonder Women‘s San Francisco debut on March 19, 2013 at the Main Library’s Koret theater, director Guevara-Flanagan (with baby daughter Zora on her knee) was asked to explain why the movie didn’t feature more women of color, such as Pam Grier or Halle Berry. The director admitted that this was an issue she’d wrestled with, and lamented being unable to arrange an inteview with Nichelle Nicols, the original Uhura on Star Trek. I agree that this is a shame, given how telling it might have been to measure the Star Trek of the ’60s, imagined by Gene Rodenberry as a showcase of racial and gender equality, to its 21st century incarnation, a virtual fairy tale of an untrained white male’s rise to leadership over a far more qualified woman of color. The world that William Moulton Marston proposed, where women could and should hold power over men, has apparently become difficult for modern-day Hollywood to even imagine. (Additional footage covering ’70s exploitation films, as well female villains and heroines in slasher films and martial arts movies, are included as extras on the DVD.)

But not all is dark. We are living in a cultural moment that is struggling to redefine feminism, where a father modifies a video game for his daughter to play a female character to win rather than waiting to be rescued, and where the filmmakers’ followup to Wonder Women is to develop a game called Wonder City, with essentially the same idea—to give young girls inspiring images to play, to want to be. In that sense, it’s young Wonder Woman fan Katie Pineda who speaks most clearly to the point Guevara-Flanagan wants to make in the film, in her homemade costume and piles of comic books.

“If she can do it, I can do it,” Trina Robbins remembered thinking, when she read Wonder Woman as a girl. And so can we.

Wonder Women will be airing on Monday, April 15 as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series. Check your local listings for specific times and visit for more information or to order a DVD.

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About the Author

Writer, editor, photographer and sometime cartoonist Julie Davis became addicted to comics and Japanese animation at a young age and hasn't yet grown out of them (and probably never will). Former editor in chief of Animerica, Anime & Manga Monthly, an English-language magazine about Japanese animation, she co-authored the book Anime Classics Zettai! 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces and contributed to The Complete Anime Guide and Manga: The Complete Guide. A native of Michigan, she now lives in San Francisco and teaches classes on comics writing and history at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University and creates graphic designs for the Cartoon Art Museum.

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