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First Posted: 4/16/2013 8:39:00 AM

The dual nature of superheroines – it tears my love of the genre apart.

As a young kid, I always got along better with women, mainly because all the boys I knew at the time were competitive jocks, and to this day, most of my best friends are female. I grew up on the animated “X-Men” series in the ’90s, which introduced me to the comic books, and I always found it fascinating that the X-Women were stronger and had better powers than the X-Men. I wanted to believe that this was some sort of feminist statement, and maybe, in a way, it was. But this was the ’90s, and if there was anything bigger than their superpowers, it was…well…you know…

All the women were drawn with tiny wastes and disproportionate chests – it was the artistic style at the time. (To be fair, the men were also drawn with muscles upon muscles that no geek like me could possibly live up to.) “X-Men” had plenty of great, shining moments for its women, but at the end of the day, the guys didn’t have to suffer from so much oversexualization – it was a battle the ladies would have to fight alone.

This was one of many topics covered in “Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines,” the latest episode of PBS’ “Independent Lens” that served as a mini-documentary about popular representations of women in media and how they mirror society’s issues with gender. It wasn’t as term paper-ish as it sounds, cleverly using the history of the most popular and recognizable superheroine of all time to structure the film.

Introduced in “All Star Comics” No. 8 in 1941, Wonder Woman, like the X-Women, has embodied both sides of women’s representation in entertainment and media, which may be due, in part, to creator William Moulton Marston, a psychologist and inventor of the blood pressure component of the modern polygraph. On one hand, he was a staunch feminist who fought for women’s rights, though on the other, he was a bit of a fetishist who often used bondage throughout his Wonder Woman stories. This is not to say that she couldn’t still be a feminist, but while she was strong and brave, she was also a sexualized princess who wore a skirt from her very first appearance. She broke some of the rules, but not all of them.

As World War II ended and other writers took over, Wonder Women became less about women’s lib and more about romance, fashion, and other stereotypical themes that watered her down. It took feminists like Gloria Steinem, who recognized Diana as an icon worth saving, to force DC Comics to rethink these changes, though it was the ’70s live-action TV series starring Lynda Carter that truly rescued this character and solidified her place in American culture. She hasn’t had a starring role in any mainstream media since, yet many non-comic collectors still know who she is and what she means to women.

“Wonder Women!” weaves the tale of this fictional character in with the stories of real-life women (and one openly gay man) who were touched or inspired by her adventures, and that is where the central theme of the documentary comes in. Whether it’s a fourth grader standing up to bullies or a Brazilian immigrant searching for better opportunities in another country, women can look past the minor faults in Wonder Woman’s inconsistent writing and see the greater good beneath – a tough, independent woman who stands up for what she believes in and doesn’t need a man to make positive changes in the world around her.

Seeing these women accept and embrace that made me realize that I should do the very same thing – I love the X-Women because of those characters’ shining moments, so why be embarrassed by those revealing costumes or sometimes silly subplots? No one, fictional or otherwise, is going to be a perfect role model, so as long as I’m finding something constructive amongst those pages, it’s still a worthwhile read.

What the episode didn’t cover was that Wonder Woman most recently made headlines for making out with Superman in the comics and starring in a 2011 TV pilot that was so awful that NBC wouldn’t even air it – neither inspire all that aforementioned bravery and hope stuff. While blockbusters starring male superheroes continue to rake in billions, a big budget Wonder Woman film continues to stall as her comic counterpart sends mixed messages. Maybe a few DC executives need to sit down and watch some PBS – women (and men) want more from our superheroines than a pretty face and a fit body.

We want a woman who makes us wonder just how far we can go if we believe in ourselves. That’s the genre I’ve come to appreciate.

-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at