SXSW Review: Wonder Women – The Untold Story of American Superheroines

2012 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
65 minutes

*****

I’m willing to bet that “Comic Book Heroines” has never been a category on Family Feud because Wonder Woman is not only the obvious answer, it’s practically the only answer. Meanwhile, mainstream films have spent so much time and money on male superheroes that they have to mine the dregs for new franchises. It boggles the mind that we have a Green Lantern movie and yet, we have never managed to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen. (And no, “Catwoman” and “Electra” do not count.) As least now we have “Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines.” This thought-provoking and inspirational documentary about what a superheroine could and should be is a good start.

Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s film covers the history of the best-known comic book heroine and how the image of strong women has morphed in the media since William Moulton Marston created her in 1941. There are so few female comic book protagonists (super or otherwise), that Guevara-Flanagan has to include basically all media to have enough to talk about. We have had some proud moments (“The Bionic Woman,” Ripley, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and some embarrassing moments (The Spice Girls). Regardless, when you stack it all up against the sheer volume of male-oriented stories, it pales in comparison.

“Wonder Women” asks a lot of seemingly obvious questions that have somehow eluded us. One such question is, “What are the consequences when women become strong.” For women, there are always consequences. The film gives us a staggering statistic: Of the 157 female characters in action films, half are evil. The ones who are good end up dying in self-sacrificing ways, giving their lives for the dominant male heroes of the story. When Jean Gray becomes Dark Phoenix in “X Men: The Last Stand,” she is the most powerful mutant of all. But, because of her womanly ways, she is too weak, both mentally and physically, to control that power. And so she must die. The body count that Thelma and Louise leave behind is a drop in the bucket compared to what the Punisher gets done before breakfast. And yet, they have to die because there is no room in the world for a couple of lady vigilantes. After fighting tooth and nail for 3 films, Ripley ends up killing herself to save a fucking men’s prison colony.

In case you couldn’t tell, “Wonder Women” got me really riled up. The fact that women are mis/underrepresented in media is not news, but when you see it all laid out in chronological order like that, it’s pretty infuriating. Interviews with Lynda Carter (the “Wonder Woman” TV show) and Riot Grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna explore how the culture changed over time. “Ms. Magazine” founder and famed feminist, Gloria Steinem, beautifully orates how important it is for young girls to have super role models. Indeed, the film is filled with interviews with a multitude of smart, eloquent women explaining what should be evident but is so not: Girls need super heroes because they need to know that their gender is not an obstacle.

To drive the point home, the film also spends time with a couple of whip-smart young fan girls as well as a woman who wants to share Wonder Woman’s message of “Justice, compassion and friendship among women” with her daughter. She has a tattoo of the Amazon goddess to remind her every day of her own strength.

It’s not just the message of Guevara-Flanagan’s film that stirs. This is a well-paced and beautifully edited documentary, which deftly utilizes clips and photo animations. With a paltry 65-minute run time, it’s the first time in recent memory that I have wished a film were longer. This just drives home how parched we are for quality female-helmed and oriented films.

The good news is that there are some promising up-and-comers. They spend some time with students in a Seattle film program for girls. The students make their own film from start to finish. There are some very talented young ladies nipping at the heels of that big boy’s club known as the Film Industry. Here’s hoping they are able to break down the penis-enforced wall. Better yet, I hope that by the time they graduate from film school, their gender isn’t an issue at all.

It’s the personal stories that really got to me. I’m a tough nut to crack in terms of crying at a movie, but when the little girls started talking about what Wonder Woman means to them and how their moms are the real heroes, it was Niagara-fucking-Falls. If you have a daughter, it is a moral imperative that you show her this film as soon as possible. One little girl says that her mom “basically saves people every night” as a paramedic and that she would like to someday do the same. A fourth grade girl with a slight speech impediment talks about how Wonder Woman helps her through the pains of adolescence. “Sometimes I get picked on at school,” she says. “But I just tell myself, ‘Keep going, keep going, you’re going to be more.’ Because some day they’re going to be wishing that they treated me better.” You’re goddamned right they will, kid.

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SXSW Review: Girls Against Boys

2012 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
87 minutes

*

I don’t know why Austin Chick decided to attempt a feminist film. Did he feel that his surname made it his destiny? It’s certainly not for any truly feminist reason because homeboy went about it all wrong. I imagine Mr. Chick as the sort of guy who took Women’s Studies in college specifically to bang the straight ladies in the class. He certainly wasn’t there to learn because there is not one iota of legitimate feminism in “Girls Against Boys.”

Now, I’m not saying that every Girls and Guns caper has to be polemic. But a revenge plot as personal as the one that Shae and Lu embark on implies that Chick is trying to be poignant about something. Is the intended theme of this film anything more than just “Rape is bad, mmmkay”? Only Austin Chick knows.

The tale of beautiful co-ed, Shae, begins as she gushes to her friend about the romantic weekend she’s about to have with her boyfriend. A little expository dialog reveals that said boyfriend is married, but that he is currently separated from his wife. Phew! But low and behold, her low-rent Jason Statham beau unexpectedly dumps her ass because he’s decided to try and work it out with wifey (for the sake of his daughter). That’s the first strike, Men!

Shae’s fellow bartender, Lu, offers to cure her of the mopes. The girls do what girls always do on Get Over Your Ex dates: They get completely hammered, flirt with strange men and then agree to go home with them. Once inside the comically hipster Brooklyn loft (they have a house D.J.), Shae realizes she is way more hammered than she thought and retires to the bathroom where she remains for several hours. Eventually, the boy who got dibs offers to take her home where of course he rapes her. That’s strike 2, Boys!

Immediately after the departure of her rapist, Shae calls on her ex-boyfriend to comfort her. Apparently, in British, “comfort” means “rape.” This girl cannot stop getting raped. Strike 3.

Shae tells Lu about her rapetastic weekend and Lu convinces Shae to report the crime to the always-helpful movie police. Naturally, the precinct is filled with male officers who see nothing wrong with a little in-out and they send her on her way. That’s strike 4. Being a woman, I don’t know that much about sports metaphors, but I think that’s the last strike on the way to becoming a vigilante murderer.

Lu totally saw this coming and has the foresight to seduce and kill one of the cops in order to procure a gun. Commence rampage. After that, if a fellow even looks at one of these ladies wrong, he gets a cap. Did I mention they do all of this in the skimpiest outfits imaginable? You don’t want all that clothing to get in the way of your vendetta. That’s feminism in a nutshell.

I kid. Not only is it not feminism, it’s also a really fucking stupid idea. First of all, we know (from movies!) that killing rapists never solves anything. You kill one and a hundred take his place. Plus, murder is the dumbest kind of revenge because it just makes it impossible for you to live a normal life after that. If you get raped and decide to take it through legal channels, even if everyone you meet along the way is completely unhelpful, you will eventually recover from the trauma.

On the other hand, Shae is date raped twice in as many days, so either she’s just having a really bad week or else she just has the absolute worst taste in men ever. If it’s the latter, it’s probably easier to pinpoint the chink in her selection process than it is to become a vigilante. Look, I know that this is meant to be a fantasy, but even in that context, Shae’s transformation feels totally out of the blue. That makes her seem more crazy than wronged. And thus, she is a lot harder to sympathize with.

Meanwhile, Lu has zero redeeming qualities (unless you count being “the hot one”). If we are to assume that Lu has killed before (and based on her cavalier attitude about it, I think we are), then the only reason she convinced Shae to report the rape to the police was to prove that they had to take the law into their own hands. Later on, Lu reveals that there was no trauma in her life to make her this way. So she really is just loony tunes. Implying that all women are crazy is just about the least feminist stance a director can take.

One might argue that the key to understanding Austin Chick’s message is in the Women’s Studies class that Shae is taking. One lecture is about how women are objectified in the media. But since Lu and Shae are beautiful, scantily clad women with virtually no back story whose lives revolve around either getting raped by men or killing them, it often feels like one big middle finger to Women’s Studies. If that’s his game, well then to him I say, “Fuck you.” If, on the other hand, he really was trying, I think he ought to consider retaking that class.

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).