The documentary Wonder Women does yeoman’s work covering an absolutely huge body of subject matter: Not simply the (depressingly anemic) history of superheroines in American comic books and popular culture, but how that history has intertwined with first and second wave feminism, as well as the cycle of advancement and set-back American women have seen over he course of the 20th Century. Casting this wide a net forces it to go extremely broad without going especially deep on any one aspect. But as a nuts-and-bolts primer on the topic, I recommend it to everyone.
One of the things that really stands out in the film is the utter male domination of the comic book world. Wonder Woman herself was created by a man — albeit one with very pro-women intentions — back in 1941. In both DC and Marvel Comics, credits to women didn’t crack 7 percent in any of the major creative positions in 2011. The documentary also expands its gaze to pop culture at large, and there the situation is similarly daunting: Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, the big two heroines the film touches on, both sprang from the mind of James Cameron (to whom we are all duly grateful.) In recent years, women were only 16 percent of the major creative positions on the top 250 grossing films — I’ll bet the stats get significantly worse for action/adventure/comic book movies specifically — and the situation in television is not a whole lot better. The comic book industry is pretty cagey about statistics on the consumption end, but it sounds like younger men do approximately 90 percent of the purchasing.
Wonder Women also charts a strange, cyclical, synthesis-antithesis dynamic to the advancement of women in pop culture. Wonder Woman hit around the same time World War 2 took men out of the workforce and shipped them off to combat, replacing them with women. When men returned from the war, Wonder Woman shifted from pro-actively feminist to accommodating and domesticized, while pop culture at large tumbled down the Father Knows Best rabbit hole. The 70s brought second-wave feminism, the Wonder Woman television series, Charlie’s Angels, and The Bionic Woman. Then came another counter-wave with the Reagan years and the arrival 1980s hyper-masculine action-hero machismo. In the 90s we saw feminist zines, third-wave feminism, Riot Grrrl culture, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That was followed by pornography aesthetics in the pop culture of the 2000s, most recently embodied by the controversy over the “New 52” relaunch by DC.
Wonder Women sees this as a tale of advancement and backlash, which I think is true to a degree. But the “backlashes” have become worse as time goes on. The 80s and especially the 2000s saw much more overt objectification, juvenile sexualization, and outright hostility to women than previous push-backs. My off-the-cuff theory for what is going on here is that 1950s-style patriarchy also placed upon men a certain noblesse oblige towards women. Men largely took in for granted that they were in charge and the superior sex. Precisely because that cultural agreement was so ubiquitous, it could be counter balanced with rules of decorum and gentlemanliness towards the opposite sex. And that had an effect on pop culture at large. So as the privilege patriarchy has eroded, the restraint on pop culture behavior that privilege bought has collapsed along with it. The result has been the progressive unbinding of an ever-more threatened and virulent male id.
Now, I don’t think more honest pop culture expressions of the male id’s darker aspects, including attitudes towards women, are bad in principle. Unpleasant or no, this stuff is honest about some of what goes through mens’ heads, and I think that makes it valid. Art must be cathartic as well as aspirational or morally instructive. The problem is that this dynamic isn’t simply one part amongst many of comic books and pop culture — it’s the proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the room. Much of the material consumed by young men has become a feedback loop: naval-gazing, self-reinforcing, self-poisoning, and increasingly panicked/hostile as women’s power, freedom, and actualization advances in segments of society outside its closed system. It’s the water in which any woman who participates in these subcultures must swim. I imagine it’s rather like being stuck in a perpetual therapy session in which everyone is encouraged to share they deep dark psychological shit, but it just happens that everyone else’s shit revoles around you.
This gets us back to those stats I quoted at the top, and the problem of what Wonder Women rightly identifies as the means of production. Flatly put, women need to occupy much more of the creative positions that determine the content of comic books and pop culture.
We need the bandwidth claimed by the honest expression of women’s best and worst selves to equal that which men now enjoy. We need to consume their hopes, fears, aspirations, rages, resentments, confusions, and their take on the weird love/hate relationship sexual desire always inspires towards its object. I don’t think anyone other than female creators themselves can pull this off. We’re flawed and limited creatures, men and women alike, and at the end of the day we all fall back to writing what we know.