THE THING WE DID FOR SXSW: A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT WOMEN AND COMICS.
If you haven’t heard of the documentary Wonder Women!, I suggest you watch this trailer right now.
Ok. Let’s begin.
Kristy Guevara-Flanagan directed and Kelcey Edwards produced the documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, which premiered at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. For those of you who don’t have time to watch the trailer, Wonder Women! explores Wonder Woman and other female heroines as significant cultural icons. It’s got a definite feminist edge (yes, this is a good thing), and features insights from luminaries like legendary feminist Gloria Steinem, Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna, acclaimed comics writer Gail Simone and Lynda Carter, the original TV Wonder Woman. The cinematography and audio editing reminds me of the short-lived This American Life TV show — crisp, poignant, and enticing. In other words, this is a well-made doc with a lot of great content.
Let’s start with my biggest qualm.
It was only a few short months ago when a bunch of feminist critics started a resurgent wave against the way mainstream comics treats women. Big companies like DC drew the ire of feminist bloggers for their presentation of female characters, their lack of female creators, and their outright disdain for getting called out. In other words, comics fans interested in the intersection of women and comics know a lot about it now. I went into Wonder Women! thinking this would be the icing on the cake, the end-all-be-all of these endless discussions.
Guevara-Flanagan herself said that this documentary took a good 4 years to make. So let’s be reasonable. Talking about gender and comics became a very big deal in 2011 for the first time in a long time, so we’re late to the subject matter Guevara-Flanagan began pursuing back in 2008.
Wonder Women! looks at these superheroines not as comics icons but as cultural icons. The discussion begins with Wonder Woman, our Amazon Goddess Princess, through her origins and her creator, William Marston. Then the doc quickly jumps from Wonder Woman’s beginnings to a grander landscape and, namely, how these superheroines affect real girls and real women.
That’s the best part of this documentary. My favorite person in this doc is a pre-teenaged girl named Katie Pineda. We see her reading comics in her bedroom, posing as Wonder Woman at NYCC, and shooting an arrow in archery class. Katie explains how she is really inspired by superheroes in general and Wonder Woman specifically. She tells herself to keep going, keep going through school, even if she’s made fun of, because she’s gonna be something more. Maybe I just get passionate when I see young girls talk about resisting peer pressure, or being tough, or talking about comics. Maybe I see something of myself in a girl who reads comics and sees herself becoming a multi-millionaire. Katie shows a tenacity I imagine exists within most pre-teen girls who read comics. Her part in the documentary is almost too brief, but her reflections on Wonder Woman are perhaps the most valuable of them all.
Gloria Steinem, the doc’s resident feminist expert, explains that girls like Katie need superheroines more than boys need superheroes. In order to even imagine themselves as powerful, they must first have a powerful model to draw inspiration from. This is a pretty simplistic but important notion. I’m all for the proliferation of female heroes, so I won’t pick too many bones with this. On the other hand, as a girl, I projected myself onto plenty of male heroes. If the notion of heroism is that entrenched in a kid, they’ll find a way across multiple identity lines. On the other hand, I can guarantee you that I felt more comfortable on those Halloween nights dressed as Magus from Chrono Trigger than I did as Sailor Mars — in other words, sometimes girls want to be heroes, but they don’t want to be dressed in heels and bathing suits. Sometimes, those identity lines are too thick to cross. And it only gets worse as you get older.
We are grossly lacking in female superhero role models. I can’t think of more than 10 female superheroes that most people know about, much less female superheroes of color or queer sexuality. By “most people,” I mean any female you’d talk to in class or at work. Wonder Woman’s influence extends outside of comics because she’s really just that rare of an icon, and we’ve seen her in comics and television alike. Kathleen Hanna neatly explains that, as women, we’ll take any crumb off the table and interpret it as powerful. Charlie’s Angels, Catwoman, the Spice Girls, Disney Princesses, Xena, Buffy, Sailor Moon…we have to relate to these icons and these icons alone because there’s just not that much to choose from.
So while I have my one qualm — that this documentary focuses broadly on culture rather than specifically on comics — this qualm actually works to the doc’s advantage. We follow Wonder Woman’s journey in history alongside the Riveters of WWII, the Women’s Libbers of the 70s, the Riot Grrrls of the 90s, and finally, the girls and women seen in the film itself. From Katie Pineda to Kathleen Hanna to Gail Simone, Wonder Woman unites all of these women somehow. And that’s pretty impressive.
The best thing about Wonder Women! is that it’s such a positive piece of work. You really get the sense of community and enthusiasm that the different women of the documentary bring to the table. They’re critical, but they’re not dour. Though you get the sense that things are probably worse in the industry for superheroines than ever before, you also get the sense that hope for the future is on the way.
So long live Wonder Woman, long live superheroines, and long live kickass girls like Katie Pineda. May comics keep infiltrating culture.
wonder women! documentary
Images courtesy of Vaquera Films.
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