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TV Review: Independent Lens: Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines

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Independent Lens is a PBS series which brings provocative and innovative independent films to your living room. This month, the series presents Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines, which looks at issues of feminism and empowerment by following the history of Wonder Woman and other American superheroines.

In comic books, where the American superhero first flourished, the heroes were almost all male before Wonder Woman came along in the 1940s. Aside from Wonder Woman, in the 40’s, 50’s and ’60s, women superheroines such as Supergirl or Batgirl were definitely weaker than and subordinate to the male superhero, and it was the males who stirred the popular imagination.

Wonder Woman was different. When she burst into popular consciousness in the 1940s, she was beautiful, powerful, and not subordinate to anyone. She was a heroine who could rescue herself! Because of this, she reinforced the changes in the way women saw themselves that began with their forced entry into the workplace during World War II.

The film parallels later attempts to weaken the character and her later spectacular return to strength in the TV series and comic books with the changes in women’s roles. It also examines Wonder Woman’s influence through interviews with real women heroines like Gloria Steinem, experts on women’s history and ordinary women and girls who feel empowered by the icon.

In addition to Wonder Woman, the film discusses superheroines like The Bionic Woman, Xena and Sarah Connor in The Terminator.

As an example of the fascinating issues raised in this film, one expert points out that in most cases in comics, movies, and TV, when someone needs to be sacrificed for the common good, a woman, even a strong one, will volunteer!

Another issue specifically in Wonder Woman that is discussed is the role of “sisterhood” and the open expression of affection among women, as well as the obvious bondage imagery.

This film successfully combines a fun excursion into pop culture with a serious discussion about women’s role in society and the importance of choosing the right role models. Certainly it is a must-see for women and important viewing for men as well.

Check your local PBS listings for showtimes in the coming weeks and don’t miss this entertaining and eye-opening documentary.

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About Rhetta Akamatsu

I am an author of non-fiction books and an online journalist. My books include Haunted Marietta, The Irish Slaves, T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do: Blues Women Past and Present, and Sex Sells: Women in Photography and Film.