I am one of those girls who grew up watching Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman. I loved those shows. The feminist in me was alive way back then when Lynda Carter and Lindsey Wagner were kicking butt on TV in the 70s. Of course I never realized how revolutionary those shows were at the time.
As a woman interested in why we have so few strong female leads in films today, the doc Women Woman – The Untold Story of American Superheroines which premiered this past weekend at SXSW was a great way for me to see really how far we haven’t come. The film is exciting because for the first time we look at the issues over several decades but also frustrating because it seems we peaked in the 70s and have made limited progress since then.
But I try to live (sometimes) in a glass half full world and so I am still going to be hopefuly that maybe the character Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games will propel this issue forward in a whole new way.
Here’s my recent chat with director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and producer Kelcey Edwards about the film.
Women and Hollywood: Where did this idea come from?
Kristy Guevara-Flanagan: I think it really was a cumulative idea that began to grow with me reading the NY Times article about Gail Simone writing Wonder Woman and the fact that she had been a hairdresser and gone into comics. It got me thinking about women in comics and why they aren’t more women. But alsofound it surprising that she was the first woman to write the Wonder Woman series. We think of Wonder Woman as this great icon of female power and throughout her career she has been written and produced by men.
I started to look back at her origins and found that she is this interesting character who had been around for as long as Superman was really born in the golden age of comic and was created deliberately as this female role model. Whether she lived up to those expectations or not is sort of another question, but I found that she became an interesting way to talk about women in terms of their representation in popular media and how those roles and how those have changed over time.
WaH: why do you think Wonder Woman has endured so long?
KGF: She’s not a sidekick she is really at the center of her story so she is hard to get rid of. She is not a daughter or a romantic partner or somebody you kill off. She’s been around for a long time and for most of that time she was one of the few strong images of women out there. There hasn’t been others to compete with her so she stayed because of her singularity. I think the story is a compelling story and her whole mythology is strong and compelling as Superman’s or Batman’s. There is enough there that we can sink our teeth into instantly with her props like her lasso and her invisible jet and we can understand the story quite easily.
WaH: Kelcey, when she you join the project?
Kelcey Edwards: We started working together pretty early on. A professor of mine in grad school is a friend of Kristy’s and she was looking for a producer right as I was finishing up my graduate degree. We met in a coffee shop in Oakland and she told me about the article and together we started researching
I would also like to add is that one of the things I learned while making this film is that Wonder Woman was close to not enduring despite everything and we have Gloria Steinem and the feminist movement to thank. They were looking for a figure for the first Ms. Magazine and rallied around her and a similar phenomenon occurred whe the TV show came around. Lynda Carter brought so much she just really made her iconic and stamped her on the minds of men and women and she’s been unforgettable ever since. But she’s been near extinct a cuple of times in her 70 odd years of life.
WaH: I liked that the film told a bigger story about strong women on screen and one line that stuck with me from one of your experts who talked about Thelma and Louise said when those women went off the cliff a line was being crossed. I wanted you to talk a bit more about what line was crossed.
KGF: You do get this interesting pattern of 2 steps forward and 1 step back with these characters and their determination and their progression in terms of feeling truly empowered figures next to the male heroic counterpoints. This happened in the 1940s when we started to see a few characters like Wonder Woman who were strong and at the center of their own story. And then in the 50s they were pulled back because society said we need women in the home. And then in the 70s with the women’s movement you have these characters kind of trickle out into popular culture like Wonder Woman, the Bionic Woman and Charlies Angels — well charlie’s angels is up for grabs — but at least women starring in and figuring out their own missions. And then you get to the 80s and then there was regression and backlash and I think we continue to experience that with these strong characters who are not seen as marketable or viable.
In the later 80s and early 90s we did have some strong female characters that were physically capable Sigourney Weaver in Aliens and Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 and Thelma and Louise who were taking things into their own hands, and then in terms of the big screen you see an absence of that immediately afterwards. It’s almost as if they went too far. And in fact it is sad that Thelma and Louise did not even get to live. They were so empowered that they couldn’t exist in this universe. I think speaks volumes and after that we start to see a real hypersexualization of these characters and more ensemble pieces where women are not allowed to be the central characters of the narrative.
WaH: The subtitle is the untold story of American Superheroine. Can you elaborate on that?
KGV: – The title is kind of funny. We had a different title for quite a long time. It said the same thing – this is a story we are not used to hearing and you have to look under the rug to trace the story. Part of what we are doing is putting together some interesting research that more academic people have done in terms of gender and film theory and really looking at these films critically and analytically while serving it up to a mainstream audience. But I think we still need to be critical of what is out there and young women in particular need to learn how to read these images and make decisions and push back and ask for better stories and support the box office when the stories are out there.
KE- Wonder Woman is the longest running female superheroine and really one of the longest running superhero alongside Batman and Superman and older than Spiderman. But most people are surprising uninformed about her story. They may know a thing or 2 about her but they don’t really know her story and that’s what happens when you never get a blockbuster film. It really is her untold story but using her as a case study we are educating audiences about her own mythology.
WaH: how do you think it will play to different ages? If this a movie for adults or for teens?
KGF: I hope it will play on different levels. I teach college and I think young adults are consuming pop culture on one level and haven’t dug into it enough on another. I hope it will resonate with other audiences who will remember these key moments in time like when the Wonder Woman show was on TV or the first time they saw Thelma and Louise.
WaH: Why do you think we have still not seen a feature with wonder woman while we see reboots of male superheros?
KE: I think that Jehmu Green (former head of the Women’s Media Center) really hints at it when she says it is a cop out. She suggests that it is cop out for executives to claim that they can’t sell a female driven action movie. I think that false idea is still out there and I think that is part of the equation. Also when there is only one character like Wonder Woman those are impossible shoes to fill. How would they cast it in a way that pleased everybody? So for fear of alienating any potential audience they just don’t do it.
KGF: I’ve heard a lot of excuses and they point to the few that have been made- Electra and Supergirl and how they bombed miserably. But clearly stories with women and girls at the center like Twilight sell amazingly well when they find a way to engage their audience. It seems like such an excuse and now studios have to sell blockbusters internationally so then you really need to appeal to the lower common denominator and I guess the idea is that a woman at the center is to subtle, too nuanced and not possible.
WaH: What was the hardest part of making the movie?
KGF: Making a doc is really hard. It’s hard to raise money. It’s hard to sell. People don’t see this as a social justice issue which many docs are and so you miss out on a lot of the funding when you are relegated to just arts and humans funding. And a very small amount of funding is dedicated to films by and about women. We’re like the documentary of documentaries.
It is a hard story to tell in the amount of time because it spans many decades and has many characters. Trying to contain the story in the edit room was hard to do and why it took a year to piece it together.
WaH: Talk about your use of Kickstarter.
KGF: We did 2 kickstarter campaigns and I’ve been talking with people and it is an amazing newish phenomenon where you can reach out and find your audience. Those are the people who are going to be the most excited about your film and they are in your corner cheering you and they are happy to do so and eagerly happy to jump on board and join the team. Not only has it been rewarding financially, it has been rewarding emotionally it feels like there are so many people waiting for the film to come out and are super excited. It’s just a confirmation that there is an audinece out there that is hungry for this kind of material.
WaH: Can you share some advice for other female filmmakers.
KE: Like anything in life if you want to tell a really well informed story surround your self with experts and do the work to find the right characters to help you tell that story. These new fields of scholarships like media studies and gender studies have experts who have been reflecting on these newer forms in a very serious and scholarly ways for the last couple of decades. They are doing wonderful research and writing books. It took us a long time to figure out who were the best people to articulate what seemed most true in our own research.
KGF: I would add whether you are doing documentary or narrative love your topic because you are going to be with it for a while and you are kind of married to it and you need to find it imminently interesting to talk about because you spend years of your life on it. You want to find people a group of people to collaborate with because you do not make films alone. You have to build your team to help you with your project
KE: One more thing. One of my favorite things about this film is that it looks to the future and Kristy sought out this program of future media makers. A lot of docs get hysterical about the problems and don’t offer much hope and people who are on the right track are worth acknowledging because there are very few people paying attention to the media making of women.