Wonder Women: From the Page to the Screen, and Finally, Beyond

by Alexa Boehringer

What are the consequences when women are strong? When they aspire to do great things, and when, against tremendous odds, they achieve them? These are the questions explored by three profound woman-centered documentaries presented at the 2012 Savannah Film Festival: Wonder Women!: The Untold Story of American Superheroines; No Woman, No Cry; and Sweet Dreams. Featuring women ranging from action superheroines to expectant mothers to Rwandan drummers, these films reimagine the face of the heroine.  In the end, viewers find, she is closer than we might think.

Wonder Women chronicles the history of the superheroine, specifically the evolution of the Wonder Woman, the raven-haired icon of Marvel notoriety. Dressed in red-white-and-blue and wielding a truth-seeking lasso, the documentary explains how Wonder Woman, perhaps most immortalized by Lynda Carter in the 1970s television series, represents an American icon of justice, with a distinctly female twist. Wonder Woman, also know as Princess Diana of the Amazonian Paradise Island in the original 1940s comics, emerged not only as a tough warrioress, but also as a compassionate female protector, which was—and is—an interesting comparison to the more familiar male hero who, in the name of protecting, usually kills. Wonder Woman, however, did not fight to kill. She fought for something more, something bigger than and beyond death, which for her fans, and particularly her female fans, perhaps meant the most.

As Gloria Steinem explains in the film, iconic female characters like Wonder Woman allow women to “think [themselves] into someone who is powerful.” In an unjust and often oppressive world where women often do not feel or see themselves as powerful beings, such an imagining is crucial. When Wonder Woman and other legendary superheroines—think Charlie’s Angels, the Bionic Woman, Sarah Connor, Thelma and Louise, G.I. Jane, Xena, Buffy—beat the bad guys and save themselves—it gives women the ability to realize the power of their own inner strength. It confirms what we may have only suspected on the inside—that there is some untapped depth, some formidable potential in all of us, waiting for us when we need it the most. As one young passionate fan puts it, “No matter how much traffic there is on that highway, they keep going.” Superheroines inspire us to fight the battles we face in our own lives, to push through, to keep going. Most importantly, they give us the hope that we can win.

The documentary No Woman, No Cry introduces viewers to heroines of another kind: expectant mothers facing life-threatening health challenges in the delivery of their babies. Director Christy Turlington Burns was inspired to make the film after experiencing complications during the birth of one of her children, which prompted her to research the statistics of maternal mortality across the world. Although the film touches on conditions in the United States—which ranks 50th in the world for maternal mortality—the producers narrowed in on three developing countries: Tanzania, Bangladesh, and Guatemala. Despite progress towards a lower maternal mortality rate in these countries, risks to women’s health are still very serious, and often grim.

For example, in Tanzania, Janet, a woman in the early stages of labor, must walk miles from her remote tribe to reach the nearest health clinic. After a few days of contractions and discomfort, her water still does not break, and she is asked to leave in order to make room for others. The small local clinic has only four beds. She makes the journey on foot back to her village, only to make it back to the clinic the next day, still in pain from the contractions. The clinic, however, does not have the necessary tools or medicine to induce her labor.  Her family must pay for her to make the long and mercilessly bumpy drive to a hospital in the city. There, she finally gives birth to a healthy baby, her third child. Although the story ends well, we cannot help but wonder how many women face these same life-threatening challenges—and how many stories do not end so happily.

Monica faces similar challenges during her pregnancy. In her native Bangladesh, women are discouraged from receiving medical help during their pregnancies. Cultural mistrust in doctors and hospitals discourages women from seeking reproductive healthcare. When complications during a late-night labor threaten her life, Monica, who is already a mother to a small child, chooses not to go to the hospital. Later, she reveals to a health worker that she feared being shamed by her mother-in-law and other female relatives for not giving birth at home.

In Guatemala, the documentary’s third stop, maternal health is equally, if not more, precarious. The cultural perception that contraceptive methods make women ill scares them from seeking birth control, even when they do not wish to have any more children. Additionally, all abortions, even emergency abortion to save a mother’s life, are illegal. An interview with Dr. Linda Valencia reveals that maternal mortality in Guatemala is viewed as both “natural” and “heroic,” and thus remains a death to which many remain unconcerned. Although healthcare professionals work to deconstruct these harmful perceptions, the documentary explains how they are stubbornly ingrained in the minds of many—making maternity itself an act of heroine-ism in its ever-present request for self-sacrifice.

Sweet Dreams, though, reminds viewers that heroines are sometimes those women who inspire us simply with the strength of their spirit. The documentary follows a group of Tutsi and Hutu women—survivors, orphans, and children of the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. Together, these women form Rwanda’s first all female drum troupe, named Ingoma Nysha. In Rwanda, the drum is an instrument traditionally reserved for men. “I never thought that I could drum,” says Clementine, a smiling, soft-spoken young woman who plays the lead drum. “I didn’t even know there were women who drum.”

But besides their drumming—powerful performances that radiate spine-chilling energy—the group is going out on another limb: they are opening their own ice cream shop, another first for their local area. With the help of the owners of Blue Marble Ice Cream in Brooklyn, NY, the women plan the business from start to finish, learning how to handle the books, advertise their store, and, of course, make ice cream. In the beginning, there are some setbacks, such as a faulty ice cream machine, the firing of an employee, and an initial lack of business. Although viewers can see the quiet disappointment on their faces, their enthusiasm for the project never wanes—after all, these women have faced far worse.

“When you believe something is possible, it’s done already,” says Rwandan playwright and director Odile Gakire Katese, who leads the project. The ice cream shop not only gives the women employment opportunities and increases the community’s economic development, but also provides something else: a simple human pleasure. The treat, perhaps, is just as important as everything else. For some, it could be a reminder—a taste—of hope. “I have sweet dreams for the future,” says Olive, a drummer and employee at the shop. And in that moment, for her and for every member of Ingoma Nysha, viewers do, too.

Wonder Women, No Woman, No Cry, and Sweet Dreams prove that the title of “superheroine” is not reserved for the heroines of action-packed stories on the page and the screen. Real heroines lead stories that inspire, enliven, and impassion. They motivate us to be the wonder women of our own lives—to stop and think, “If she could do it, I can.” Most importantly, wonder women leave legacies. They change the world for others, and for the better. If nothing else, perhaps that is the consequence of their power—triumph.

Published December 3, 2012.

A Georgia-raised writer, Alexa Boehringer graduated from Wesleyan College in 2011 with degrees in Women’s Studies and Religious Studies.  She now attends the Savannah College of Art and Design, for the MFA in Writing.  Much of her work explores women’s experiences, lives, and relationships—past and present, near and far.