Last week a panel featuring Susana Polo (Founder/Editor of The Mary Sue), Karen Boykin-Towns (Vice President, Worldwide Policy at Pfizer), Dr. Jonathan Gray, (Assistant Professor of English with John Jay College), feminist activist/speaker Shelby Knox, and So-Chung Shinn (co-host of The Portfolio TV) convened to discuss the new PBS documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines (directed by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan). The hour-long panel following the screening was more diverse and did more issue unpacking than the hour-long film.
Some of that may have been for reasons of accessibility. The film is aimed at fans of all ages, and focuses more on Wonder Woman’s inspirational value to women and young girls than it does Serious Issues of Feminism. It’s a look at the comic and television origins of the character, (some of) the heroines that debuted in her wake, and some of the social change that occurred at different points during the highs and lows of her popularity. At an hour long it doesn’t necessarily have the time to fully dive into some of the issues brought up–that was left to the panel.
You can watch the entire film here, and the entire panel below when you have a spare hour, but for now few highlights from the guest speakers:
- Polo immediately dives into question of why there’s not been a successful Wonder Woman film. She quickly shoots down the idea that Diana’s origin is too difficult to film, but admits that Hollywood has a problem when it comes to making movies with lead female characters vs. making movies with lead female characters that also manages to address issues “about being a woman,” which a movie would have to include.
- Another hurdle a movie faces is the Hollywood merchandising monster. Knox rightly points out that Hollywood makes films for the merchandise, and while young girls have huge purchasing power, big business isn’t used to marketing superhero toys, costumes, etc., to young girls. When your instinct to make everything on the shelves pink and you’re not willing to expand your branding, it’s hard to take that extra step and actively market Hawkeye’s bow or Black Widow’s outfit to young female consumer base.
- One of the better segues of the night began when Shinn summarised the Buffy The Vampire Slayer finale, reminding the audience that end of the show boils down to the idea of women sharing their power with other women in order to help us all get ahead. “We want to foster that sensibility and that culture,” she says before pointing out that the media and the news likes to promote the opposite, that women are constantly out for only themselves and are willing to step over other women to get what they want. Knox deflects, calling that portrayal not only a trope, but a “cruel trick of patriarchy. We’re taught as women that there are a limited number of spots, so we have to crawl over each other to get them.” She also points out that the 90s and millennial generation of women have be consistently told that they’re equal to men, that there are no barriers, and that they can do whatever they want in the world. This consistent encouragement isn’t necessarily realistic and causes confusions when the barriers that we all know exist are hit. Instead of realizing that it’s a systemic societal problem and asking what can be done about it, the question is, “what did I do wrong?” It would have been worth discussing further how the barriers differ for different groups of women, but they were working on a timed discussion.
- Boykin-Towns jumps in to point out that media keeps this one-sided portrayal of women in circulation with reality shows like the Real Housewives franchise. Her experience as an executive with Phizer led her to see that change in a diversity and inclusion in Fortune 500 companies goes beyond just attempting to hire diversely. It’s a thought process and series of policies that have to be implemented in all aspects of the culture, from how companies determine compensation to how performance reviews are completed.
- Adding on to that, Gray notes that, unlike many companies with diversity initiatives, the comics industry is “still an old boys club.” Male writers of color are rare, but female writers and female writers of color are rarer. Not only are the staffs less diverse than we’d like, female writers aren’t necessarily being allowed to shape the characters and teams they’d like. Gray shares that at one point a few years back, Marjorie Liu attempted to pitch an all female X-Team book. Marvel turned her down, yet a month from now a book working with the same concept will debut…written by Brian Wood.
- Polo and Knox go further into the idea that companies need to retool their policies in order to do more for gender equality in the workplace. Etsy’s “hacking scholarship” is an example of an initiative (a really cool one) that reaches out to a company’s core user base to bring them into the work force.
- We end the discussion with the reminder that when it comes to diversifying in the comics industry, the idea of voting with your wallet remains absolutely crucial, as does supporting the companies that aren’t Marvel and DC/Vertigo where you’ll often find books of a more diverse nature. Boykin-Towns adds that in the workforce it’s about getting involved, whether it’s in an office diversity initiative or a networking group outside of your job. Change isn’t easy, but the challenge is lessened if you’re working from within the system.