Wonder Women!: The Untold Story of American Superheroines is a serviceable if somewhat superficial summary of the American feminist movement as reflected through the representation of female heroes in comic books, television, and film.
That any one of those four topics–American feminism, women in comic books, women in television, women in film–could be (and probably has been) the subject of a book length dissertation probably shouldn’t disqualify the film from being an introductory primer on the power that media representation has on identity formation, but it may be inevitable that those most interested in the subject (and hence most willing to watch) will have seen seen more penetrating or comprehensive treatments of the same subject.
That one of those, Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation, is both more comprehensive and more specific does make Wonder Women! suffer a bit by comparison. To cite just one comparison, Miss Representation is chock full of specific facts with sources for them. For example, when I doubted a statistic cited in that film about the amount of money spent in the United States on advertising, I was able to verify it within five minutes. By contrast, when Gloria Stienem states in Wonder Women! that girls need superheroes more than boys because “90%” of all violence is directed towards women–I couldn’t find any sort of verification of that claim. The United States Depart of Justice statistics certainly didn’t appear to coincide with that finding:
Victimization rates per 1,000 persons age 12 or older
Female / Male
All crimes of violence 43 / 60
Rape/sexual assault 4 / .2
Robbery 4 / 8
Assault 35 / 51
Aggravated 8 / 15
Simple 27 / 36
Homicide .04 / .18
Source: BJS, Criminal Victimization 1994,
April 1996, NCJ-158022. Homicide rates were calculated from FBI, Crime in the United States 1994: Uniform Crime Reports
The blurring of the line between facts and opinion is not particularly unique to arguments about feminism (or from feminists) but it is particularly irksome in a film that laments the power of media to shape our consciousness of issues and present a distorted view of reality.
While the film may lack substance as a persuasive argument, its strength lies in a role as a narrative history. It is the regular people, mostly women, sharing what it meant to them to see a hero that looked like them, that enabled them to have higher aspirations that make the film inspiring, however anecdotally. Lynda Carter–surprisingly–shares that she was cautioned against taking the television role as Wonder Woman, because (no source is attributed) ” a lot of women will end up hating you.” That women were (and perhaps still are) less envious of than hungry for heroines is confirmed by Lindsay Wagner who reports getting numerous testimonials from viewers about how the Bionic Woman inspired them to think beyond more traditional female jobs or roles. Buffy Summers is credited with the same effect on those who labored through difficult high school years at the same time as Josh Whedon’s eponymous hero.
Wonder Women! is never far from an interesting insight or idea, but it doesn’t exactly break new ground. Objections or complications to the rather broad thesis that having female heroines to inspire is good are alluded to but never fully explored. For example, early on it is posited that since only three percent of creative executive positions in media are held by women that men make ninety-seven percent of the decisions regarding how women are portrayed. Yet little consideration is given to the fact that so many of the iconic figures that inspire–Wonder Woman, Buffy Summers, Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Thelma and Louise–were created by men. There are ways of considering that fact that don’t undercut the film’s thesis, but the documentary never quite gets a foothold into a deeper, more substantive conversation.