Have you ever wondered where Wonder Woman came from? I don't mean within her universe (she is an Amazon woman from Paradise Island), I mean where the character originated. Well, I just found out by watching the new PBS documentary; Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines. The show chronicles the saga of the character including her creation (the intention was for her to support feminist values), through the dark ages of the 50's (Wonder Woman as a house wife? do they make an apron of truth?), her cultural fame in the 70's (Lynda Carter tells all), and where she is today. While much of the focus of the show was about Wonder Woman, it raised the question of why there are so few superheroines in American culture and discussed other iconic figures (from Xena to Buffy to Sarah Connor). Throughout, experts in the film commented on how girls and young women have been impacted by Wonder Woman over time, and discussed the importance of having superheroines to look up to.
On any given day, this show likely would have appealed to me, but it hit home especially this week. I have spent the last four months working with three students on a paper on just this topic; how representations of girls and women in the media affect the way girls think about what it means to be powerful. We submitted the article yesterday for consideration in a journal. Poor Sam had to hear me say numerous times during the show, "hey, hey, we talked about that in our paper" and "we referenced that sociologist’s work in our paper." Needless to say, I was breaking our unspoken house rule about not speaking during shows or movies; but I was too excited to stop.
The whole premise of the topic is so interesting and so important. Superheroes feed our imagination. They allow us to expand our thinking to consider all the possibilities of what we can become. The superhero reminds us how to be strong in the face of adversity, that being different can be a good thing, and that people care about others (and usually that "good" prevails over "evil" although I won't get started on a rant about the limitations of black and white morality in media). Girls and women have so few superheroes to look up to, even during this time of revitalization of comic books, graphic novels, and blockbusters featuring famous comic characters. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Avengers (more about the awesomeness that is Joss Whedon to follow) but there was only one female superhero whose powers were--what exactly? Catwoman is always a disaster of a character. I have nothing against cats, (one of mine is lying on my lap as I compose this), but come on.
Even when strong women are showcased in film, on TV or in comic book form, their representation is not exactly ideal. Strong female characters are often hypersexualized, needing to balance their strength with stereotypical femininity or just plain "hotness". I have watched many an episode of Buffy or Alias (both shows that I love) thinking, "There is zero chance she could actually kick someone in those shoes. How is she even walking in those shoes?" Not to mention that things don't usually end well for these strong women, who often sacrifice their lives for the "greater good." So while these characters provide much appreciated inspiration, they still remind us that women can get away with kicking ass if they are also pretty and that there may not be a place for strong women in the real world.
We need more superheroines in our comics, our television and our movies so that girls (and women) can dream about what we can become. But we also need representations of girls and women that are realistic and meaningful. But how can this change happen? Some people say, “the media is driven by the consumer, it will provide people what they want.” But the reality is that a very small group of people make the decisions about what makes it on the air. As one of the experts from "Wonder Women" noted, 97% of executives making the decisions about what gets on tv or in the movie theaters are men. This is not to say that men can’t create fantastic superheroines. Joss Whedon is one of very few show creators who is willing to (and I think wants to) create female characters with strength. Despite some limitations to the show, the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was this feminist’s dream ending. *spoiler alert* Buffy decides to share her slayer powers with all potential slayers; empowering girls and young women to work together to rise up against evil. I still jump up and cheer (with tears in my eyes) when I see this episode. But moments like this are so rare. We need more women making media and we need more men in media who are willing to challenge the status quo.
So, I am going to dig out my Wonder Woman t-shirt to wear in the Superhero race next weekend and practice my spinning. And I am going to keep writing about and working for change, so just maybe the next generation of girls can grow up knowing that they can be heroes. That they can be anything.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.