On Monday, April 15, at 10pm ET, PBS’ Independent Lens will be airing Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines. The hour-long film uses Wonder Woman as a starting point for a conversation about popular representations of powerful women, from comics to TV shows to the real world. The show includes interviews with Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman) and Lindsay Wagner (The Bionic Woman), Gloria Steinem, comic book artists and writers, and more.
I got a sneak preview of the film and watched it with my wife. I found it fascinating—first, I learned some things about Wonder Woman’s origins that I hadn’t known before, including some of the changes in her character over the decades. But equally interesting were the stories that various people throughout the film talked about Wonder Woman and other heroines and the way that their story is interwoven with the role that real women play in society.
I got a chance to interview Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, the director.
GeekDad: Hi, Kristy! I really enjoyed watching Wonder Women, so thanks for taking a little time to answer a few questions! What made you decide to use Wonder Woman as the focal point of this documentary?
Guevara-Flanagan: I actually hadn’t known much about Wonder Woman beyond the Lynda Carter incarnation on TV in the ’70s. One of the first things I did when I became interested in Wonder Woman was to read her original comics. I was so fascinated by William Moulton Marston’s ideas and when I read those early comics, I really did find a very radical female hero… even by today’s standards. She comes from the land of Amazons! A matriarchy! And she is not threatened nor inherently paranoid of other women, which is still common of female characters in pop culture today. She is interested in justice, reformation, empathy, compassion. What a compelling character I found! Then, when I discovered the women of Ms. Magazine picked her up to be their icon for the empowered woman by placing her on the first issue of their feminist magazine, that pretty much sealed the deal. I thought she would be an interesting character through which I could explore the themes I was already interested in: female heroism, pop culture, and gender disparities.
GeekDad: Do you have any personal attachment to or experiences with Wonder Woman?
Guevara-Flanagan: I did love the Wonder Woman TV show growing up, but I have come to discover that there are many for whom Wonder Woman was a much more central figure in their lives both as children and adults. I think my experience with her pales by comparison! I was Princess Leia for Halloween.
GeekDad: A lot of the strong female characters you mention are in the sci-fi/fantasy realm, genres which have traditionally been outside the mainstream. Do you feel that it’s easier to find these role models in geeky culture, or are they becoming more prevalent in mainstream culture as well?
Guevara-Flanagan: YES! I think its because these science fiction and fantasy realms don’t exist! So we are much more free to imagine a world without sexism and racism, that is to say a more egalitarian society, along the lines of Battlestar Galactica and even Star Trek (especially for its time). At the same time, there has also been the history of some really over the top hyper-sexualized female characters in these genres as well. I think you can find the extremes.
GeekDad: How important is the physical appearance of strong female characters—should they be physically attractive? For instance, do you think it’s fine to have Wonder Woman baring lots of skin because that will attract readers to her more egalitarian character and stories, or does her costume detract from her ability to be a role model?
Guevara-Flanagan: I think attractive is fine, but a woman’s strength and hence her ability to be a fully empowered role model is mitigated by her sexuality. The more overt that sexuality is and the more she is seen as a sex object and love interest, the more compromised is her power. That being said, women are used to “taking what they can get” when it comes to women in leading roles. I don’t think that is the best case scenario, though, and I am happy to see new female heroes like Katniss Everdeen, whose strength revolves around a terrific plot and a great story about a hero who happens to be a young woman.
GeekDad: In the film, it’s noted that women make up only 4% of the top decision-making positions for TV and movies: do you see that changing in the future? If so, how soon?
Guevara-Flanagan: It seems truly shocking how far we haven’t come over the decades in terms of this. Progress is slow. I think with the advent of social media, there is a growing awareness of this and a mounting pressure on executives to make more changes. But the financial stakes for blockbusters are so high, anything but business as usual is seen as risky. It has taken Pixar literally decades to come up with ONE starring heroine in their animated cartoons. And Disney still has the corner on princesses, not always the most empowering characters for girls to look up to.
GeekDad: What’s next for you?
Guevara-Flanagan: We are working on a soon-to-be-launched video game, called Wonder City. Wonder City is a companion game to the film that provides an interactive component for young audiences to identify their own heroic qualities, while reinforcing ideas explored in the film. By empowering tweens to adopt a superhero identity, players are encouraged to take on those same failures of imagination and opportunity that the film documents, and to become agents of their own values. As the film encourages young audiences to explore pop cultural history as a means of thinking critically about how we visualize power and gender, the game provides an interactive component for the same audience to identify their own heroic qualities and make empowered choices while building self-esteem.
GeekDad: That sounds great. Good luck with work on that, and thanks so much for your time!
I’ve included the trailer for Wonder Women below. Tune in on Monday night! For more about the show, visit the PBS website.
All photos provided by PBS.