Skip to content

Wonder Women! Review

2013 September 17

A few weekends ago, I was immersed in geekdom. Yes, it was the first Nine Worlds Geekfest , and my main problem was that I couldn’t clone myself to go to all the panels I was interested in (read more about Team BadRep’s Nine Worlds experience here

One of the most amazing things I saw was, without question, the screening of the Wonder Women! : the Untold Story of American Heroines documentary.

I’d never heard of it before to be honest, which is hardly surprising as it’s an independent release (no screening near you? Organise one – there’s a link at the bottom of this post!). It’s basically a visual look at the intersections of Women Woman iconography and certain aspects of Second Wave American feminism.

Did you know that Wonder Woman was regarded by quite a few feminists as the ‘face’of Second Wave American feminism? Neither did I. Quite frankly, being a Marvel girl rather than DC, I’d always thought of Wonder Woman as one of the more tame, conservative superheroes. Didn’t she spend most of her time being tied up?

Wonder Woman comic panel, diagonal from bottom left to top right, smiling.

Image from user bbaltimore, used under Creative Commons.

I’m now going to recount my new and shiny understanding of Wonder Woman, as gleaned from the documentary through a vague haze of alcohol. Bear with me.

The iconography of Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman, it turns out, is fairly awesome. She was developed during World War II, and was therefore off fighting the Nazis (alongside Captain America? That bit wasn’t very clear) after realising that she had to go off and save America. Because that’s what awesome heroes did. She even had to win some sort of Olympiad before she was able to do it! And then she fought some Nazis, and some criminals, and in the 50s this was deemed to be DREADFUL. So she was rewritten as having given up her powers. During this period she found she wanted to make cakes, and opened a beauty parlour. OF COURSE. Because nothing says ‘superhero’ like CUPCAKES!

Anyway, along came Second Wave feminism, looking for a face for the recently-launched Ms magazine. And there was poor Wonder Woman, an icon in need of reclaiming. Off came the apron and on went on the magic bracelets!


I won’t recount the entire documentary. Suffice to say that when the 1970s and 1980s kicked off, along with them came a whole slew of female heroines, from Cagney and Lacey, Charlie’s Angels and Bionic Woman, straight through to the live-action Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter.

Here, have a photo of her being awesome:

Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman standing with her hands on her hips, looking challengingly into the camera.

Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. Photo from Flicker user shaunwong.

Here are some other 1970s (& 1980s) heroines.

Two women (Cagney and Lacey) in 80s clothes (blazers, blouses and scarves) staring challengingly into the camera.

Cagney & Lacey. Image from

Three women dressed in 70s clothes, staring challengingly into the camera (& smiling).

Charlie’s Angels, 1977. Image from Wikimedia Commons .

Notice anything?

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, staring challengingly into the camera.

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley. Image from

Ripley vs Van Damme

The 1980s also gave us hyper-masculinity along the lines of Van Damme, Schwarzenegger and Stallone. It also gave us Ellen Ripley and (in 1991 admittedly, therefore just in the 1990s) Sarah Connor. There are a bunch of others. The 1980s were pretty awesome for strong female heroines, which is a sentence I never thought I’d be writing. When I first saw Terminator 2 as a little girl, I didn’t even know that women could do chin-ups!

Grrrl Power dominoes

As well as the iconography of Wonder Woman herself, the documentary looked at the development of Grrrl Power. We are taken through the original use of the term through interviews with Kathleen Hanna, starting back with Riot Grrrl, and its appropriation by the Spice Girls into something commercial.

I’m not going to depress you by taking you through the deaths of all the ‘strong female characters’ on television in 2001. I think those of us in the UK were somewhat sheltered through the impact of that, having our reception of those shows delayed by several weeks or even months. We therefore did not experience their deaths as the American viewers would have: one after the other, falling down like dominoes in 2001.

Back to Wonder Woman…

Toy plane suspended on a strong, going around and around.

Like this, only AWESOME.

… and to her fans, ages 2–99. In the documentary, there are interviews with small children and the role Wonder Woman has played in their lives. There are interviews with activists – up to and including Gloria Steinem – and their perspectives on how Wonder Woman influenced Second Wave (and in some case Third Wave) feminism – and vice versa. There are perspectives on women-saving-women and the creation of Wonder Woman Day. There’s even a Wonder-Woman-on-a-string-with-motor, making her fly around and around on a child’s ceiling. How awesome is that? I want one!

Not your grandmother’s feminism

Now let’s talk about what wasn’t there. The film isn’t marketed as a history of Second Wave Feminism, nor even the (entire) history of Wonder Woman. That’s important, because the intersections the film is talking about are intersections with white, heterosexual, cis feminism. It therefore falls down significantly on the feminism movement outside of that pretty narrowly defined range.

It was also a bit dispiriting to not have at least a mention that the original name for Ms. magazine was Sojourner. There is also little mention of the subversion of the Wonder Woman image and iconography outside of radfem activism.

That said, the film doesn’t pretend that it is in any way comprehensive, or representative of all feminism movements. And, as a look at the history of Wonder Woman and how she was reclaimed in the radfem part of Second (and Third) Wave American feminism… well, it’s pretty awesome.

Frankly, it’s worth watching for the interviews with her tiny modern-day fans alone. There is something deeply heartening about hearing a child draw strength from a feminist icon, however corrupted and reinterpreted that image has been over the years.

Not convinced? Have a look at the trailer:

See? Awesome.

  • In the highly likely event that there are no screenings near you, you can contact the Outreach Coordinator at Wonder Women to arrange one.
No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS