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How 'Wonder Woman' Saved Feminism — Or Is It the Other Way Around?

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Apr 15, 2013 | 4:06pm EDT

Credit: PBS

The biggest problem with the way women are depicted in comic books isn't that the girls are often shown as damsels in distress or the waifish counterparts to muscular super heroes, but that there aren't many female superheroes on their own. As far as the iconic ladies go, there's just one: Wonder Woman. And while she's not nearly enough, she's been an inspiration for generations of feminists. 

Tonight's episode of PBS' Independent Lens features director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan's documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines. There aren't many movie, TV, or comic book heroes mentioned other than dark-haired Diana of Themyscira, but we do learn a lot about the powerful women who fought for gender equality. Guevara-Flanangan doesn't just chart the Amazonian powerhouse's creation (by a man, surprisingly) in the the '40s, the Golden Age of the comic book, but shows her evolution. 

When William Moulton Marston dreamt up Wonder Woman in 1941, she was meant to be an example of a powerful female and a role model that would eventually lead to society recreating itself into a matriarchy. His plan didn't necessarily come to pass. Instead, after WWII, Wonder Woman was stripped of her power in the comic books and turned into a woman more concerned with fashion and romance than she was with saving the day. Feminists such as Gloria Steinham and riot grrrrl Kathleen Hannah talk about how women need positive role models like Wonder Woman so that they can imagine themselves in power, which then leads to even greater power. 

It's this human element that makes the documentary exciting, as Guevara-Flanagan shows how this fictional creation has influenced not just the course of history and pop culture, but individuals. They find strenth in her search for justice, her ability to deflect danger, and her ability to get to the truth — the ultimate weapon. Hard core comic fans might be a bit disappointed that the hour doesn't delve more into why there hasn't been a Wonder Woman movie yet and the difficulties that producers have had trying to bring her to the screen, but otherwise this is great for everything from the enthusiast to the Wonder Woman novice. 

All in all, this is a unique way to look at the evolution of the character and of feminism as a movement as tied to a single icon. If anything tune in to see Lynda Carter explain the origin of the famous Wonder Woman spin, but what you'll really remember is an 8-year-old fan talking about how this lady, who isn't even real, changed her life for the better. 

Wonder Women! airs Monday, April 15, on PBS. Check local listings or visit here

Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan

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