Heroic myths abound from the distant past to the more recent graphic novels, but while there are a slew of super heroes that have become a part of American pop culture, there are few women and most of them were with pale sidekicks and little more sexual scenery for a teenage boy’s fantasy. The documentary “Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines” gives a closer look at Wonder Woman and how she opened the doors for more superheroines and still was able to excite imagination of both feminist  and sexually frustrated fanboys.The documentary aired on PBS, Monday, 15 April 2013  as part of the Independent Lens series but is currently available on Amazon.com ($9.99).

Superman, had Superwoman. Batman had Batgirl or Batwoman. In the late 1930s, coming out of the Great Depression, a lot of super heroes were born such as Superman and  Wonder Woman. She was born and raised on a island of Amazons and there was no Wonder Man. She wasn’t part of a team and no male counterpart was rescuing her. She had a romantic interest, but she was usually seen saving him.

Without Wonder Woman, could there have been a Bionic Woman? At Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Xena? Or the determined Ripley who led kicked butt against the toothy, salivating aliens.

Snippets of old archival clips, snaps of old comic book pages and interviews with pop culture specialists, actors and Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem are combined to give us an idea of just how Wonder Woman was created and transformed through the decades and why the feminist movement both embraced her and resurrected her image.

Yet why did the DC Comics superheroine Wonder Woman, a character that was created  by American psychologist William Moulton Marston, survive when others like Sheena and Miss Fury, faded into geekdom trivia?

A couple of things helped: Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine found her irresistible (cover of July 1972 issue, the first monthly issue) and salvaged her from post-World War II bondage with male ideas of femininity and TV embraces a series with Lynda Carter as eponymous character (1975-1979).  Wonder Woman wasn’t someone a hero could rescue, she rescued herself.

The studio executives were worried that a woman, even one as fetching as Carter, could carry a TV series by herself.

Carter says, “It was my job to show women…this guy’s knocking your around…knock him back…They did not think that a woman could carry a show.” You think that bustier that featured missile like breasts and high go-go boots helped attract boys as well as girls?

When she did, then the documentary, states that opened the way for other series with attractive white female leads such as “The Bionic Woman” with Lindsay Wagner as Jaimie Sommers (1976-1978). “The Bionic Woman” was a spin off of the series “The Six Million Dollar Man” (1974-1978). In both series, the lead character had been secretly saved through biomechanics implanted into them, replacing some of their original body parts and giving them superhuman powers which they used to help the government.

Women working undercover was the same theme as the TV series “Charlie’s Angels” which aired from 1976-1981. The series featured not one woman leading the cast, but three former fashion models portraying former police women who had been frustrated by sexism that relegated them to mundane police work. Instead, as private investigators, they get to wear glamorous clothes and have exciting adventures with no male backup, just the disembodied voice of Charlie giving them assignments and their minder and Charlie liaison, Bosley.

“Charlie’s Angels” hasn’t exactly been embraced by feminists, being criticized as too much giggle and jiggle. “Bay Watch” had yet to become the number TV program in the world and enlarge the role of slow-mo and hard bodies over actual dialogue. There’s no mention of that beach based series, but this documentary does consider how women were hypersexualized in comic books. It suggests that the hyper-masculinity of the 1980s was a reaction against women’s gains. Who would have put our former governator as the Terminator, Rambo and Reagan together as a defense against Wonder Woman?

Still from there TV and the movies went on and gave us Sarah Connors, Buffy, Captain Janeway and Xena. There’s some trepidation that the slogan “Girl Power” has become no more than pink wallpaper. On the other side, the anti-Wonder Woman forces, there were worries that Wonder Woman’s pro-female message promoted lesbianism (and how did they explain Steve Trevor–threesome?).

When we see the real faces of girls, grrrls or women who are inspired to be daring and brave because of Wonder Woman, we don’t have to wonder if a sexy package for feminism is a bad thing. There are limits though as seen at Wonder-Con last month. Liberated or chained by her need to appeal and cause salivating and hard-ons in complete strangers? Fame-whore or fantastically free spirited and self-assured? Perhaps not even Wonder Woman’s golden lariat reveal the reality without in depth psychoanalysis and a review of her public indecency arrest record.

Would Wonder Woman and her sisters attend such an event to barely clothed.  Doubtful. There are limits. Wonder Woman may have been created by men, but she was rescued by Ms. Magazine and she points to a fine line where a woman can be sexy, but powerful and self-assured. Her costume is modest compared to what you’d see on the beach.

The documentary “Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines”  aired on PBS, 15 April 2013 at 10 p.m. as part of the Independent Lens series and is currently available to stream on Amazon.com for $9.99.

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