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Friday, November 30, 2012

Q&A: Wonder Woman Filmmaker on Feminism and Why Most Female Superheroes Die

Posted By on Fri, Nov 30, 2012 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge wonder_women_logo.jpg

She has indestructible bracelets, an invisible plane, and a Lasso of Truth. She appeared on the first Ms. Magazine cover, and on the recent 40th anniversary edition. The man who created her was a psychologist who invented the lie detector and thought there should be a woman superhero out there. We're talking, of course, about Nancy Pelosi. Wait, no, Wonder Woman.

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In making her documentary, Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, Oakland filmmaker Kristy Guevara-Flanagan talked to feminist Gloria Steinem, Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna, and other Wonder Woman fans to explore how representations of powerful women have changed ... or not. She found a man in Oregon who holds a Wonder Woman Day every year as a fundraiser for battered women's shelters, a fourth grader who says Wonder Woman helps her stay strong in the face of bullies, and she talked to Lynda Carter, the actress who played Wonder Woman on the popular '70s TV show, about how she invented the spin that transformed her character into a superhero.

Guevara-Flanagan talked with SF Weekly about how refreshing it was to see a woman at the center of her own story and how lots of female action heroes still end up dead.

click to enlarge Lynda Carter in Wonder Women!
  • Lynda Carter in Wonder Women!

You say when growing up you were fascinated by Wonder Women. Why and how were you introduced to her?

It was the TV show, definitely. I grew up in the '70s, and I must have watched it in syndication. I just remember how different it felt to me even to my little 7 and 8-year-old mind. This was the first time there was this larger than life character fantasy character who was running around saving people and stopping crime. There was a real physicality to it that spoke to me, and I think it was the first time I saw a girl on TV who had that kind of physicality and was the star. And there was something in the fantasy aspect to it, the idea that you could just turn around and become a superhero. It was something you could play, and there weren't female characters before that that you could play. I mean how do you play a princess? You just kind of sit there, waiting for stuff to happen. But Wonder Woman felt very different to me.

Talk about the guy who created Wonder Women.

William Moulton Marston -- he's amazing, and what he created rang as unique for the kind of characters and options that are out there for women today. It's really pretty radical to have this female superhero who is at the center of her own story and not a sidekick or a daughter or a lover. The way she approached crime and the global issues of her era -- it was really progressive.

This was in the golden age of comics and the art form itself was developing. He was a top psychologist and the inventor of the lie detector. He approached the comic book companies saying he wanted to write a female character because he wanted to create something that hadn't been done before, and that is sort of in opposition to all those male superheroes who were out there. He recognized the educational value of comics. He really felt strongly that women should be able to do anything a man could, with more grace and diplomacy.

How did you find the sources in your movie?

One thing led to another both in terms of the academic and the everyday heroes. One book would lead to another, and I'd talk to one person and they'd say, "Oh, you have to go and interview so-and-so and listen to their approach." I read a lot of books and did a lot of research. Another thing we were doing was going to a lot of the comic conventions and talking to women dressed as Wonder Woman. There were people clearly really into the character and saw themselves as getting some kind of strength or inspiration from her. That's where we found the little girl dressed as Wonder Woman, Katie Pineda. She was a pretty amazing character to stumble across, really articulate, and spoke to some essential aspect of why this superhero was important to her.

Who were some of the people in the movie you really enjoyed talking with?

I liked all of them for different reasons. There were moments where I was very humbled, like interviewing Gloria Steinem; she's been a hero of mine. One person I interviewed later in the making of the film was Kathleen Hanna, talking about the development of the Riot grrrl movement. She was such a strong interview and really brought home this idea of we may think we live in a more equitable society than we do, but there's still a lot to be fighting for. To me she's kind of mirroring Gloria Steinem in the '70s, so I'm happy I was able to document that and include that.

You say you wanted to use a comic book figure to explore our cultural obsessions and how women's roles have changed. What did you find out that you didn't know before?

Some things I hadn't really thought about too much. I had thought there were maybe more female heroes out there than there seemed to be. Katy Gilpatric did this study where she had these specific numbers about how few action-oriented female heroes there are compared to male action heroes. It was really striking. And the way the narrative ended -- a lot of them ended up killing themselves or getting killed. It was really eye-opening. It was like a powerful woman really can't exist. They can exist for a few moments, but our society can't retain her in this subconscious level. It was pretty shocking.

Did you feel hopeful about how things are changing?

I felt like I wanted to be hopeful. I didn't want to end it on a note that was so dark that we had no place to go after that. Pretty late in the process someone suggested I go and shoot this video camp for teen girls [Reel Girls] and thank God I did because that's the note I wanted to end on. I hope that the film for young people engages them to be more critical of the media, but also to empower them to make their own media.

Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines will screen at 7 p.m. Dec. 1 at Cowell Theater in Fort Mason Center, as part of the 34th Annual Celebration of Craftswomen. Q&A with the filmmaker follows. Admission is $25 and benefit the Women's Building.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.
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