Saturday 10 August 2013

Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines (2012)

Director: Kristy Guevara-Flanagan

It would be the easiest thing in the world to throw out a sexist joke to introduce a review of this short 62 minute documentary (IMDb also lists a 79 minute version). In a sense, filmmaker Kristy Guevara-Flanagan does that to her own film, by kicking it off with a cross section of the public trying to answer questions in the street. Name a superhero? Easy, here's a couple of dozen. Name a female superhero? That's a tougher proposition. 'Catwoman?' one replies, hesitantly. 'Is she a superhero?' In the end, of course, everyone conjures up Wonder Woman, because she was it for decades. The untold story of American superheroines turns out to be that there aren't many of them and that, after a few golden early years, Wonder Woman slowly deteriorated over decades into a waste of space of a superheroine and her stories faded into deserved obscurity. What survived was an image, a symbol, an idea that woman could compete, in every way, with man, any man, and win. She's hope in a sexy outfit.

The title of the film suggests that this is a documentary about Wonder Woman and those rare female superheroes of American comic books, but while there is some history here, it really isn't. I'm no die hard comic book geek, but I'd have liked to have heard more about the origin of Wonder Woman, because what we hear from Jennifer K Stuller on the subject is fascinating. I need to follow up with her book, Ink Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors, a title that could easily have been applied to this film. Put simply, she was created by a psychologist who believed in the superiority of women and who expected them to take over the world and rule it as a matriarchy. He also created the systolic blood pressure test, which became a key component in the lie detector, reflected in the golden lasso. His wife Elizabeth inspired the test and was one of the two key inspirations for Wonder Woman, the other being Olive Byrne, with whom they lived in a polyamorous relationship. Surely there are stories here!

Rather than delve into comic book archaeology, this film mostly looks at Wonder Woman as a symbol. Most obviously, she's important because such powerful female symbols have sadly been few and far between forever, so it's worth holding onto those which have always been there, repurposing them to meet contemporary needs. The choice of people interviewed for the film highlights how the story of Wonder Woman is such a archetypal female one, not only because most of them are women but also because many of them have a particular focus of interest on women in culture, whether it be through contribution or depiction. Some are outright feminist activists and it's not difficult to see why Wonder Woman is so appealing to them. Sure, she had a revealing costume and spent many early episodes being tied up by villains, but she always broke free and she solved the same problems that her male counterparts did but in very different ways, adding traditionally female approaches to brute force.
The way the film is phrased leads irrevocably into feminism. Wonder Woman may be a linking theme here but she's only one of two superheroines we're introduced to. The other initially shows up as just another interview subject, providing insightful commentary, but she reappears just as consistently, if not as often, as Wonder Woman throughout. She's Gloria Steinem, a feminist, activist and journalist, among other job descriptions. She explains early on that Wonder Woman was irresistible to her, just for being the only female superhero in sight while she was growing up, but those words could easily have been spoken by some of the younger women interviewed in the film with reference to her. She's there in historical footage as the film covers the women's lib movement, protesting in the sixties. She pops back up in the second wave of feminism, protesting in the eighties. In between, she co-founded Ms magazine, which survived far past a snidely suggested half a dozen issues. She's a constant.

She also guides the tone of the film, towards both feminism and academia. Most of those interviewed have strong academic backgrounds, including Steinem. Many have written about culture, gender and history, most of those about all three at once. Some also teach; there's a classics scholar here and an English professor, all the way to an professor who specialises in female masculinity. However if this suggests a dry and boring thesis of a picture, I should highlight Kathleen Hanna, whose feminism was sparked when she was taken to a rally in Washington, DC and heard Steinem speak. She was only nine, but it put her on the path to becoming a feminist, activist and journalist too, but far from a dry one. She sang for Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, kickstarted the riot grrrl movement by co-creating the zine of the same name. She even worked as a stripper, married a Beastie Boy and was punched in the face by Courtney Love. Suddenly women's studies doesn't sound quite so lifeless, right?

The film works best as a wake up call, while suggesting that Wonder Woman and Gloria Steinem do likewise. The title suckers us into expecting that there are a whole bunch of female superheroes stuck just outside the mainstream but deserving of attention in a documentary, only to point out that there aren't any and that's a real problem, so the women of the world should create their own. There are hints at why this is, beginning with the genie that came out of the bottle when men were shipped overseas to fight in World War II and women realised that manning the factories was no harder a job than being housewives. Wonder Woman first appeared at precisely this point, in 1941, but was mostly alone for decades. When we start wondering when the film will talk about how that's all changed and that there are strong modern women everywhere in popular culture nowadays, it starts to explain how that's only half true. They may be everywhere but they're not doing the same job.
I surprised myself by getting most interested when a sociologist started deconstructing modern films. Katy Gilpatric, another academic, watches modern action movies and pulls the stats on them. Just as I was happily arguing with the commentators because the world has so clearly changed from the '40s, she challenged my preconceptions. She found that half of the violent female characters she looked at were evil villains and thirty per cent died, often after begging the strong male leads to kill them off as they couldn't cope with the powers with which they'd been endowed. I'm still not entirely sold but I'm really interested in reading her research. When I watch a documentary and immediately want to follow up with the key source material, the film is doing something very right. What I was disappointed with was how quickly some of this was skipped over. I wanted more about how Thelma and Louise led to a resurgence of strong female leads in the nineties, but how they all died off with the century.

While I found a lot of substance here, it wasn't enough. Every exploration of real research backed up with numbers made me want more of the same, but it kept skipping on past and taking a succession of detours into how Wonder Woman influenced everyday people. It apparently attempted to catch up every possible minority subset in its net: immigrant mothers, children with speech impediments, gay men raising money for battered women. These scenes did have their moments, but precious few of them, leaving them feeling for the most part like filler material, which is a dangerous thing when the documentary they're in runs a mere 62 minutes. Cut those scenes out and this would fit well as an hour long TV show with fifteen minutes for commercials rather than a movie. Presumably it's there to highlight to any women watching how awareness can lead to activism, given that the film's website has a whole Engage section of guides, resources and ideas of how to take action.

This approach, which is thinly veiled indeed, gives this documentary an agenda. However valid that agenda might be, it detracts from the impact of the academic side of the film, making us wonder how much of the footage was edited and spun. Interviews with cultural icons like Lynda Carter and Lindsay Wagner are less affected, leaving them open and honest about what they felt they achieved back in the seventies. The historical material is hardly affected, at least as far as I could tell from background knowledge of people like Frederick Wertham and his Seduction of the Innocent crusade. The impact is mostly to those who are drawing conclusions from their research and writing books about concepts like superheroines, people like Stuller, Gilpatric or Trina Robbins, a comic book writer, historian and pioneer who provides a memorable ending to the film. Ninety minutes of their contributions would be an amazing documentary. This isn't that; it's more of a strong teaser of what it could be.

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