Any comics fan of any seriousness can rattle off female superheroes who have either had their own books or appeared in other or ensemble books.
But what about ordinary absorbers of culture?
The same people who don't actually read comics but can tell you that Superman is the idealized, square-jawed fighter for good, while Batman is the darker, more conflicted survivor of tragedy and Spider-Man is the scrapper barely concealing an ordinary kid — how many women can they name who have worn capes, particularly ones that aren't superhero derivatives like Supergirl or Batgirl?
In many cases, the answer will be one, and in many cases they might need a refresher to come up with it: Wonder Woman.
The documentary Wonder Women: The Untold Story Of American Superheroines airs beginning Monday night on PBS's Independent Lens (check local listings), where it tries to connect the dots not just between different iterations of Wonder Woman, but between Wonder Woman and Xena, Buffy Summers, Ellen Ripley, Thelma and Louise, and the riot grrrl movement of the '90s. At only an hour, it's impressively efficient at not just taking a tour of warrior women, but explaining how they've fit themselves to the times over and over again.
Wonder Woman was a wartime invention, after all: she debuted in December 1941, the same month as Pearl Harbor. As one of the film's featured scholars explains, she began back on Paradise Island as a combination of three critical elements — Amazon, princess, and goddess — that tied her to a community of women from the very start. (She was, in fact, the other Princess Diana.)
But after the war, she became more fixated on mooning over Steve Trevor, at the same time the women who had been working in factories were asked to return home. And later, when comics fell under suspicion of being dangerous to children, the voluntarily adopted Comics Code did even more to minimize the roles of women. Fortunately, action heroines have been evolving ever since.
Director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan resists the urge to simply catalog the central figures of films like Aliens and Terminator 2; she wants to prod audiences to think about why heroism in women in popular culture seems to ebb and flow so much. She explores the super-macho action aesthetic of the '80s (with heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead) as a reaction to the women's movement of the '70s, and the resurgence in action heroines beginning with Ellen Ripley in Aliens in 1986 as a response in turn to that change.
But over and over, she returns to Wonder Woman herself. It's nice to see the film pay tribute to, rather than condescend to, the Lynda Carter version of Wonder Woman, which everyone seems to acknowledge is probably the single most familiar and famous face the character ever had. While the writing was silly ("It was the '70s!" says one commentator sheepishly), women who grew up to be feminist scholars and activists share memories of spinning around like Carter did. And then came Charlie's Angels and The Bionic Woman, and as silly as the 1970s perhaps were, there were women in fight scenes and shootouts more than there had been before.
Making Wonder Woman into a feminist icon is not revisionist and not new; she was on the cover of the first-ever regular issue of Ms., under the headline "WONDER WOMAN FOR PRESIDENT." She appeared again on their 35th anniversary issue, and yet again on their 40th. Feminists have always claimed Wonder Woman as their own; they have always felt indebted to her and protective of her — in fact, in one great anecdote, Gloria Steinem reminisces about harassing DC Comics so relentlessly about giving Wonder Woman her magical powers back after she at one point lost them that she finally heard something in response: yes, fine, Wonder Woman had her powers back and she had a black sister named Nubia, so was Steinem happy now?
One of the most effective things about the film is its ability to shift focus between big picture and small, to look at the overall trajectory and impact of superheroines, but also to look at details like the bondage imagery that's so common in Wonder Woman comics, for instance, or the rather fascinating fact that William Moulton Marston, the man who created her and her truth-extracting golden lasso, also played a role in inventing the actual lie detector. There's enough larger sociological analysis to get into pre-war versus post-war female characters, but enough focus to specifically criticize the tendency to not simply to kill action heroines, but have them sacrifice themselves nobly as a solution to their own weakness.
The film also raises the question of why there's no Wonder Woman movie. A planned TV series a couple of seasons back never made it to air, and an effort by Joss Whedon to make a Wonder Woman movie fizzled not long before Whedon demonstrated with The Avengers that maybe booting him off your superhero movie isn't the foolproof plan it might appear. Given the success of The Hunger Games, among other stories, what exactly is stopping somebody from making a great Wonder Woman movie?
Ultimately, superheroines always come back to kids, and this film features a couple of great ones, including the one who stands in her Wonder Woman gear, saying simply, "She shows that girls can be daring and brave."