Trish Heinrich

Mother, Author, Hero

Tag: Jennifer K. Stuller

The Good, The Bad and The Beautiful: Wonder Woman (Part Three)

And now for the Good in Wonder Woman.  We’re talking tears down my face, pumping my fist into the air and feeling like an Amazon GOOD!

The power of a movie like this.

 

When I came home from seeing this movie, I could barely speak. I could only cry. I felt so stupid at first. Who cries throughout an action film. Then afterward in their car. Then all the way home.  And then when she gets home too?

The Answer: Women who’ve waited for decades for a female superhero film like this, that’s who. And it’s not just that simple, actually. There have been female superhero films before. Supergirl, Catwoman, Electra, Barb Wire. But these films suffered from a lack of understanding of their source material and a lack of respect for the hero herself. With the exception of Supergirl, these films were created from and for the male gaze.

Wonder Woman was not.

For the first time, we have a superhero film that not only wasn’t created from or for the male gaze, but the people working on it knew and respected their source material. They appreciated the differences a female hero is supposed to bring to the story, and they made those differences heroic.

Wonder Woman is arguably, the best female superhero film yet .   And please, notice I specifically said SUPERHERO. I know that we’ve had female heroes for decades, Ripley, The Bride, Sarah Connor, Red Sonja, Thelma and Louise, just to name a few. I’m not denigrating their legacy. I’m drilling down into genre specifics here.

Wonder Woman benefits from the female heroes in films that have come before her.  All of them made me feel powerful and strong as a woman. But there’s something different when it comes to Superheroes.

The Power of Superheroes

Superheroes have lasted as long as they have because there’s something about that genre that speaks to  us like no other story does. As Jennifer K. Stuller says in her book Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors  “…superhero stories are American culture’s modern expression of myth. Modern myth serves a function similar to that of ancient myth, namely, telling stories helps us make sense of our lives.”

Mythology in ancient cultures were primarily religious stories about Gods and Goddesses and their interactions with us.  Perhaps, then, superhero stories are actually a kind of spiritual experience, touching a part of us that is rarely stirred by other kinds of stories.

If this is true, then taking a genre that has that kind of power and making it about one narrow group of people, makes everyone else feel cut off from the power of these stories.  “In.. Spider-Man 2, Aunt May tells…Peter Parker that she believes ‘there’s a hero in all of us.’ If this is true, what happens to our social consciousness if the presence of our mythic heroes is-and has always been-overwhelmingly male?…I often wonder where our Wonder Women are.” (Jennifer K. Stuller Ink Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors.)

I do feel something when I see Peter Parker become Spider-Man or Steve Rogers become Captain America.  But it’s nothing to what I felt when I saw Wonder Woman charge into No Man’s Land and take all that gunfire, then lead a group of soldiers.

Women felt uplifted in a way we never had before because we watched this modern myth with a female hero at the helm. In that moment, we were no longer just women. We were Women. Powerful. Warriors. Princesses. Heroes.

The fact that so many people were touched by this film should serve to highlight how much we need representation in this genre. Not just for women, but for people of color, the disabled, and the LGBTQ community. It’s well past time for the superhero film industry to stop catering to the few and start making quality films that represent our vast, beautiful world.

The age old argument that such representation won’t make any money, has been blown out of the water by Wonder Woman. And if enthusiasm for Black Panther is any indication, that film will also destroy the lame argument studios have been using.  Not only is there an audience for more diverse superhero films, but there is a societal necessity for it. The more we see diversity in the foreground of these films, the more we normalize it until it no longer is shocking or surprising or anything except, well, normal.

And that would be a truly, wonderful, powerful, awesome thing.

The Power of the Female Hero

 Growing up, I had been exposed to a wide range of male heroes, but very few female heroes. Now, don’t get me wrong, these male heroes were awesome. Han Solo, Superman, Spock, Optimus Prime, these were the staple hero influences of my childhood and they are still awesome. But the female hero was in short supply. I had Princess Leia, Wonder Woman, and Lois Lane but that was about it. And so, even though I wanted to own heroism,  the unspoken message was clear:  Heroism is really a boy thing.

I clearly remember asking, sometimes begging my parents for Star Wars action figures and that gorgeous She-Ra action figure (seriously, I still want that doll).  But, for Christmas and birthdays, I watched my brothers get all those toys while I received more female “appropriate” things.  I will admit that I did love those toys.  But somehow my Barbie’s always managed to find themselves in harrowing adventures where they were rescued by Ken.  And when I played with my brothers Leia action figures, she would start out doing something heroic, but usually, end up being saved by Han.

Do you see what could be wrong with this?

I wanted the female hero in my play as a kid, but my default was passive because that’s what I saw in the media I consumed. There was a severe lack of representation in my upbringing where the female hero was concerned.

Waking up

Fast forward to me in my mid-thirties. I’d been married for several years to a staunch feminist and was a mother to a precocious 18-month-old. On a whim, I decide to attend the first year of Geek Girl Con in Seattle. One of the first panels I went to was called “The History of the World According to Wonder Woman.”  There I am, sitting in a large screening room at the EMP in Seattle.  All around me are men and women; but primarily women, of all different ages, ethnic backgrounds, fandoms and walks of life. And I have no idea that my soul is about to be opened up.

The panel description talked about the guests and a rough cut of a documentary we’d be seeing called “Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines”. I’ll admit, one of the main reasons I was there was to hear Jane Espenson talk; by this time I had become a HUGE Buffy fan.

The documentary was the first thing, and so I settled back to watch not really knowing what to expect.

Within minutes, I was crying.

I couldn’t tell you why then, but now I think I know. All my life I’d craved the female hero, but was either denied her power or didn’t know where to find her. When I was able to find her, I was doled out bits and pieces of the female hero and told that I should be happy that I at least have that much. What I saw that day was a wide world full of female heroes, both imaginary and real. And perhaps that’s what was so amazing about the documentary. It didn’t just distill the fictional female hero, there were real life female heroes in there too. Suddenly, being a hero was no longer relegated to the pages of a book or a movie screen, I could be one in real life!

I never realized, until that moment, that I’d been starving for the empowerment that the female hero could give me.

This matters, and here’s why

What does this empowerment look like?Well, I think it’s different for each woman, depending on her experiences. If she’s trans, lesbian, a woman of color, disabled, etc. it may look different than what a white, cis, straight woman like me experienced. For me, it validated my worth and my voice as a woman. It helped me grab a hold of the truth that as a woman I can be just as heroic and strong and amazing as any of my male counterparts.

As I watched other women in the documentary and on the panel afterward, talk about female heroes, and their own heroes journey, it filled me with an indescribable pride and power. I was touched on a soul level, deep and profound.

Because of this experience, I know deep in my bones that representation matters in a huge way.  This isn’t just a cute catch phrase. It really does.

Even in the desert of female heroes that I grew up with, I still saw more women that I could relate to than a girl who grew up as trans, or lesbian, or disabled, or of a different skin color than me. The empowerment that I experienced that afternoon isn’t just for white, cis, straight women. It shouldn’t be hoarded or guarded. It should be given to anyone who wants it. We look to stories to inspire us.  Stories help us believe the impossible. They enable us to dream and feel stronger than the limitations of our circumstances.  To not see yourself in the female hero narrative sends a message that the heroic is not for you. Whether spoken outright or in the subtext that comes with lack of representation, it’s there and it’s insidious.

Share the power

As an artist, I believe that it is within my power to help change this. I want to share what I was given that day because I know what it has meant to me. There’s a great example of sharing power that I always come back to.  It’s, unsurprisingly, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In the last episode of the show, Buffy is in a room full of potential Slayers.  She looks at each of them and says “I say my power, should be our power.”  I tear up every time I watch this scene, because this sharing is what those ladies at Geek Girl Con did for me six years ago. It’s what each of us must do for those around us. This empowerment isn’t just mine, it’s ours. I hope to share it in my writing. I will not always get it right, but that’s ok because I’m learning. And no matter how challenging it may be, I will never stop striving to give to someone else what was given to me that day:

The Empowerment of the Female Hero.

Who are some of your female heroes? Are they fictional or nonfiction? Or maybe both?  I’d love to hear about the role the female hero has played in your life. Feel free to leave comment below, join the conversation on Facebook, or sign up for my once a month email newsletter. I look forward to chatting with you!

And, if you’d like a deeper dive into the female hero, check out the documentary I saw that day, “Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines”  directed by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan. You could also read “Ink Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors” by Jennifer K. Stuller, one of the founders of Geek Girl Con.

 

 

 

 

 

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