When she began work on her documentary, Wonder Women!, which describes the evolution of popular culture heroines from Wonder Woman through to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and beyond, Guevara-Flanagan was unaware of the comic book history of Wonder Woman. In the ‘40s, graphic artist, author and psychologist William Moulton Marston created a female role model to convey the author’s sincere belief that patriarchy was destined to break down. The early Wonder Woman comics reflect Marston’s philosophical and political perspective, with the character fighting against male domination and global injustice; as Wonder Women! shows, over subsequent decades, the comic book was a litmus test of social attitudes towards women, and feminism. The ‘50s Wonder Woman retreated to a more domestic, and subservient role, before gradually emerging in the ‘60s and ‘70s to illustrate women’s opposition to patriarchal institutions.
Wonder Women! examines the evolution of Wonder Woman’s character in the context of female popular culture role models generally. The documentary features interviews with Linda Carter, Lindsay Wagner (star of the Bionic Woman, another ‘70s series featuring a strong female lead), noted feminist and activist Gloria Steinem, Bikini Kill and Le Tigre member and feminist activist Kathleen Hanna and graphic novel and comic book writer Trina Robbins.
Guevara-Flanagan says that researching the history of Wonder Woman opened her eyes to a political context that many comic book readers, and popular culture audiences generally, were largely unaware of.
“Part of my research process made me was to look back at the history of the comics, because the original comics were so interesting and radical in so many ways in how a female hero was depicted, especially for the ‘40s,” Guevara-Flanagan says.
While to an adult reader, Wonder Woman’s themes of female empowerment – not to mention broader issues of sexuality – are transparent, such themes may not be visible to the average comic book reader. “It’s definitely there if you read it, but there’s other things that can grab your attention – the whole Axis of Evil plotline that she was fighting against, and there was the way she was dressed, the bondage stuff – there was a lot going on. You have to get some of those messages of pro-feminism, because they’re definitely there,” Guevara-Flanagan says.
In relation to broader issues of female sexuality, Guevara-Flanagan says it was “between the panels of the original comic books”, consistent with the social mores of the day. “There was sexuality in there, but it wasn’t an overt sexuality,” Guevara-Flanagan says. “When she was tied up, it wasn’t ostensibly about any type of sexuality, it was more about the plotlines, trying to keep her from doing good. It was a bit more hidden and repressed.”
Guevara-Flanagan says it was Wonder Woman’s relationships with other women that struck her as one of the most significant aspects of the comic book character. “There’s a test that’s used to grade how well a film deals with women: does it have more than one woman in it? Do the women ever talk to each other, and do they ever talk to each other about anything other than a man?” Guevara-Flanagan says. “And a large percentage of all our films fail that test.”
Various feminists and sociologists have noted the tendency of strong female characters to be constructed as female versions of male ideal types – Linda Hamilton’s character in Terminator, for example, is celebrated on screen for her iron-pumping and gun-wielding antics, almost a mirror image of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s style. “Their power is usually and often mitigated by the way they dress, the way they pose, in sexy poses, and the way they’re vilified,” Guevara-Flanagan says. “We saw a lot of that in early films – the female characters had to be bad girls, and they had to be punished. So there’s a variety of different ways powerful female characters, by the end of the story, are written out of the timeline completely – they’re often made the object of desire, usually by someone within the film.”
Guevara-Flanagan agrees that the brawny ‘80s film characters typified by Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone, can be seen as a reaction to the powerful female characters of the ‘70s, including Linda Carter’s Wonder Woman and Lindsay Wagner’s Bionic Woman. “I kind of agree with the argument that a lot of the more testosterone-filled characters were a reaction to the female characters of the ‘70s,” she says. “Women’s roles were changing, and our country had to re-write itself in terms of what it meant to be a man, because women were re-writing what it was to be a woman. And popular culture seemed to re-write itself as well,” Guevara-Flanagan says.
With popular culture still beset by the complex political and sociological forces of the surrounding world, Guevara-Flanagan says there’s still more room for strong female characters. “I think we’re at a time when we can do with a few more,” she says. “We haven’t had a lot of compelling and powerful women on screen, or on TV. There’s definitely room for improvement,” she says.
BY PATRICK EMERY