April 27, 2013

Independent Lens: "Wonder Women!" Review

The truth is, I love PBS. When I was a kid, I was a PBS kid. And now that I'm grown, I suppose I'm a PBS grown up. Don't be deceived, your local public television station is not only the home of Antiques Roadshow, Lawrence Welk, and Sesame Street, it's also where you'll find fascinating documentary filmmaking on series like Independent Lens. That program's most recent episode was titled "Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines". Broadly, the documentary looked at strong female characters in popular culture, using the timeline and character of Wonder Woman as a guide. I say broadly because, while I found this program fascinating, it only scratched the surface of some of the issues it discussed; It asked far more questions than it answered.

Source: pbs.org 
The film's subject worked well because the history of the character of Wonder Woman mirrors the history of women in America over the past 60+ years. She emerged during WWII, when women were entering the workforce, but her magic powers (and defined muscles) disappeared when the men came home. With the death of her creator, William Moulton Marston in 1947, and the anti-comic crusade of Fredric Wertham, Wonder Woman was buried beneath the comic heroes. That is, until the women's lib movement of the 60's and Lynda Carter's television heroine. At this point in the timeline, Wonder Woman's story morphs into the story of many pop culture heroines. In the documentary, that's when the heroine study gets a little loose.

For example: The film discusses both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Terminator 2: Judgment Day's Sarah Connor. Yes, both are strong female symbols in American pop culture, but they approach that strength in completely different ways. I would have liked to see a more thoughtful comparison of those two approaches. (At this point, I'll try not to get up on my soapbox.) Maybe it's the age difference, or the difference in genre, but Buffy and Sarah are practically polar opposites. Buffy is a strong girl, but in her miniskirts, her strength is designed to be sexy. Sarah Connor's strength is designed to be powerful. She's a strong person. And equality won't come until we stop telling girls that they can be strong, too. As if strength is something men are born with but women have to find. But maybe that's a topic for another documentary. (I said I'd try; I didn't say I'd succeed.) However, I do think it's phenomenal that Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy, writes strong female characters, and ones who are respected by the men around them. You should watch his Equality Now speech. I think he's awesome. It's just that Sarah Connor's chin-ups in her jail cell made more of an impression on me when I was young.

Interspersed with the comic book history lesson were some fandom tidbits. Wonder Woman Day, a benefit  for victims of domestic violence sounds like a worthwhile event for a worthy cause, but violence against women is (and has been) a topic for another documentary. And because this one couldn't address the issue deeply, it left the viewer with significantly more questions than answers. The fact that women are more often the ones who need the hero(ine)s, on and off the comic book page, is a much bigger, more problematic issue and one that pop culture alone cannot solve.

All that said, this feature was engaging, important, and thought-provoking. And maybe it was supposed to make the viewer ask questions like the ones I have. You can (and should) watch "Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines" at PBS.org or through the PBS app through June 14.

1 comment:

  1. And for anyone now doubting my mom and dad's parenting skills for letting me see Terminator 2 at a young age, never fear: it was the TV version "modified for content and to fit your screen." :)