Onscreen, Lynda Carter’s Diana Prince stands abruptly from her desk, removing black-rimmed glasses that are far too big for her face.
“Steve needs me,” she says, “I’ve got to go!”
The theme music blares, and Carter begins her iconic twirl-in-place. Between flashes of psychedelic light, Officer Prince becomes Wonder Woman, lasso at her hip. Major Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman’s damsel in distress, has been captured in this episode’s dramatic twist, and the strongest, bravest, most beautiful woman in Washington must save him.
Wonder Woman ran from 1975 to 1979, and even as a kid in the early 2000s, I was captivated by the show. Despite its often heavy plots and less-than-stellar special effects, it had heart, and—most importantly for me—it starred a dynamic character that I could relate and aspire to. I haven’t seen a show quite like it since. It’s campy, it’s dated, but it’s an accurate representation of a powerful female comic-book icon.
Since then, we’ve made a lot of progress. Female leads have permeated mainstream television over the last few decades. We have sci-fi queens like Xena, Buffy, and Agent Scully; we have dedicated crime-drama protagonists like Law & Order: SVU’s Olivia Benson. Gone, you might say, are the days of housewives waiting for their buff FBI husbands to come home from an action-packed day.
No doubt both the Marvel and DC franchises have gained quite a lot of traction in the last decade through the Avengers and Batman movies. Fanboys clutching their limited-edition comic books have seen a revival in their obsessions, and with it, a whirlwind of television spin offs like Arrow (CW), Gotham (FOX), and Agents of SHIELD (ABC). In representing women, Marvel has stepped up its game via Netflix with shows like Jessica Jones and Daredevil. But not everyone has access to Netflix, and I find that when it comes to DC and Marvel’s prime time television, stories about powerful women have notoriously been shuffled around or shut down altogether.
Forty years later, we still need Wonder Woman. Why? Because of DC and Marvel’s tremendous reach. Sure, a Captain Marvel movie will be released in 2018 (despite fans’ consistent demand for a solo Black Widow movie over the last five years—but that’s another story); and yes, Wonder Woman is getting her turn in the feature-film spotlight even sooner. But even in the digital age, prime time TV is what we see regularly. It’s what little kids watch after school on their tablets or household flat screens; it’s all over TV and radio advertisements. When we’re not actively paying twelve bucks a pop to see these blockbuster hits in theatres, we’re constantly exposed to the networks that promote DC and Marvel in our daily lives.
And, frankly, with respect to women, they could be doing better.
In the last few weeks, Marvel’s Agent Carter was cancelled due to poor ratings. It was a great little show centered around the woman who initially existed primarily as Captain America’s love interest in his first title film. She got her own show, her own story line, and proved that not all superheroines need to be “super” in the physical sense. She was a trained SHIELD agent who grew up in the English countryside. She had a family; she lost a brother, and we learned all this about her because she moved on from losing Steve Rogers and became her own character outside his shadow. So what went wrong? Most Agent Carter fans have taken to blaming ABC for dropping the ball—and are they wrong to do so?
Since the cancellation, a petition has surfaced to bring Agent Carter to Netflix. This proves even further that the fanbase is there—and ABC won’t hear it. Due to poor marketing and a likely changeover of producers, Agent Carter never got the attention it deserved.
Around the same time, DC’s Arrow fans have launched the #NoLaurelNoArrow campaign in response to the show’s decision to kill off their principal female superhero. Laurel (AKA the Black Canary) drove much of not only the female following, but the show’s popularity in general. Fans have since begun to boycott the show, referring to it as “Error” instead of Arrow with the goal to decrease the show’s ratings.
And what about women of color? In what seems to be direct conflict with their Black Canary decision, Arrow introduced an African-American superheroine, Vixen, into this season’s arc. But fans are already worried about this character’s outcome in light of what most believe was a destruction of a powerful, relatable character. Said one fan on Twitter, “I’d rather see Vixen join Supergirl or the Flash. Cancel Arrow already.” Meanwhile, Agent Phil Coulson and his band of heroes thrive in Agents of SHIELD, and CW’s The Flash grows in popularity weekly. Ensemble and male-led shows, it seems, are doing just fine.
Now, this isn’t to say there aren’t success stories here and there. We have proof that these comic-book forerunners can pull off a female-led show, and while Netflix and prime time are two different media, that isn’t to say one can’t affect the other. With Netflix ever on the rise, Twitter hashtags and Tumblr posts have taken the place of ratings to measure a show’s reach. Marvel’s Jessica Jones skyrocketed to trending-topic popularity in a matter of hours after its Netflix release in November 2015. Jones (Krysten Ritter), a young woman with supernatural abilities and her own private investigation business, sets the tone for the show’s treatment of women from the very first episode. The show sets up a dark, twisted dynamic between Jessica and the principal villain, David Tennant’s Kilgrave, but Jessica establishes very early on that she will not let him control her—physically or emotionally—any longer: “Knowing [the situation]’s real means you gotta make a decision,” she says at the end of the pilot. “One, keep denying it. Or two… do something about it.”
Jones continually sets the bar high for female-led superhero shows, and the hope is its sheer popularity will lead to a shift in how women are treated on prime time comic book TV. On the DC front, for example, the CW picked up Supergirl to save it from sure extinction at CBS—and fans are confident it will now have the opportunity to thrive. Essentially, as Agent Carter has shown, the right channels make all the difference. And both Marvel and DC have been overall quite lazy in how they’ve marketed and presented their female-led shows.
This isn’t just a comic-book problem, of course. The latest Nancy Drew pilot was nixed by CBS for being “too female;” CW’s popular The 100 is ever receiving backlash for its treatment of women, and of lesbian relationships specifically. Sleepy Hollow recently lost its WOC lead. Castle attempted to run with only Nathan Fillion after firing their lead actress and subsequently cancelled the show altogether when they realized their mistake.
There’s no way to avoid it: the backlash against the lack of powerful women on TV isn’t a passing fad. It’s here; it’s always been here, and when we speak up about it, we generate headlines.
And if we need to start anywhere, I think we should start with superheroes. TV’s intrinsic relationship with film is more apparent than ever, especially with the rise of online streaming services which generate greater access to prime time television. Despite the decline of print journalism and radio, TV still thrives, and the rise in Marvel and DC television adaptations are part of the reason why. Superheroes have always been our means of escape; they’re ideal versions of ourselves and everything we aspire to be.
So why should women be excluded from that? Why do petitions to give women more screen-time still exist? We still live in an age where Microsoft Word underlines the term “superheroine” in red each time I type it. Timeless stories of a person with inspiring values and strength in body and mind should not only apply to one sex. Women are not just the damsels swept away by their heroes at the end of the episode, and they never have been.
Women can be—and are—doing the saving.
We need to keep the positive progression going. What can we do? Keep tweeting. Keep blogging. Keep pitching to Netflix and other networks that you feel do better justice to women in sci-fi television. If we make enough noise, we’re bound to be heard, and, hopefully, understood.
Women in televised DC and Marvel adaptations are flitter-fluttering uphill. With enough generated awareness, we can make them soar above the ratings and onto our television screens every night.