Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines: Some Impressions

A choice of footwear. Artwork by Anne Moya.
A choice of footwear. Artwork by Anne Moya.

I had a very strange experience recently, I went to a movie about comic books and superheroes and I, a mid-thirties white male, was in the definite minority. The movie was Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines and I estimate the testosterone/estrogen ratio was 1 to 10 against. My first thought was, “Weird, very weird. Where are all the guys?” This was rapidly followed by “Whoa.. Is this what it’s like to be a girl at every geek-centered event? This is strange.”

The movie raises serious and interesting questions regarding the lack of strong female role models in comics and media in general. (I currently find it funny that spellcheck in Microsoft Word proclaims “superheroes” to be fine but “superheroines” is definitely misspelled.) Renowned feminist Gloria Steinem remarked that when she was a girl Wonder Woman was the only game in town.

I was also struck that during interviews during the movie, both Lynda Carter (TV’s Wonder Woman) and Lindsey Wagner (TV’s The Bionic Woman) insisted that they wanted their characters to be strong female characters, not masculine characters in drag. That was fascinating.

Watch Wonder Woman as Everyone’s Superhero on PBS. See more from Pioneers of Television.

Later in the movie, millennial characters from shows such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were held up as modern examples of strong female role models. While I have watched and enjoyed both of those enjoyable yet disposable series, I couldn’t help thinking: This is the best we can bring to the table? This is now our A-game model on the whole “empowered, self-sufficient female characters” front?

The emergence of the Grrl Power movement offered an interesting side branch briefly explored in the movie. Watching the cooptation of the movement by the commercial media was very disturbing. What had started as a legitimate, widespread female rebellion against the status quo was, in a very short while, changed into a marketing strategy utilized by the damned Spice Girls–among other luminaries. As the film drew to a close, though, there were more hopeful examples given of various projects led by female artists looking to incubate the next generation of female artists and filmmakers.

After the movie, my wife reminded me about an incident that I had blotted from my memory. At last year’s Emerald City Comic-Con, we witnessed on our way out a very attractive girl dressed as Wonder Woman: The Stripper. She was wearing bra top, thong bottom, and high heel stripper boots–the kind of outfit that usually makes me wonder what form of sexual abuse the girl has been subjected to. Again, I thought: Is this the best we can do? Is this all there is?

In preparation for this article my wife exposed me to the Wonder Woman comic series by George Perez, and also The Sensational She-Hulk, which I had never read. These were her examples of female heroes as the active protagonists. While other characters were interwoven in those books, the female characters were the prime movers in their own adventures. Out of the rest of my wife’s collection, two full boxes strong, not more than 5% feature a female as a strong leading character rather than a victim waiting to be saved by Superman, Spiderman, or Batman.

So, where does this leave us? I wish I knew, but in short I learned that female geeks have a lot harder road to tread along the path to nerdiness. The strongest impression I took away from the film was surprise: a surprise that, given the overpowering masculine focus and domination of the industry, there are any female comic book fans at all.

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