Tod Davies on storytelling, lost superheroines, and tonight's screening of Wonder Women!
As Tod Davies describes it, she's "been a kazillion things" over the years. From work as a film producer (of Revengers Tragedy and Three Businessmen) to a screenwriter (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) to her current role as publisher of the independent press Exterminating Angel, Davies has been involved in the creation and telling of stories that diverge from the traditional narrative for many years. So she'll be the perfect person to introduce the International Film Series' screening tonight of Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines at 7 p.m. at Muenzinger Auditorium. Along with prolific independent film producer Margaret Matheson (of Antonia's Line, which will screen for free Wednesday), Davies will introduce the film and lead a discussion afterward on this fascinating documentary that traces the history of such superheroines as Wonder Woman through the years.
In advance of the screening, we spoke with Davies about the film, the power of storytelling, and superheroines lost to time.
Westword: What attracted you to this film?
Tod Davies: There's two reasons why we are presenting it and why I had suggested it to Pablo [Kjolseth, director of the International Film Series]. One is that I am an independent publisher. I publish about two or three books a year and all of my books focus on how stories affect culture and how stories can possibly change cultures for the better, you know, like what stories we tell ourselves and what stories are our default settings. And the first book that I published back in 2009 was a book called The Supergirls by a guy named Mike Madrid, which is a history of the American superheroine in American comics and how their evolution is tied to the evolution of American culture. So after having written The Supergirls, the director of this documentary asked Mike to be in the documentary. He's in it as an expert because he knows everything there is to know, literally, about the American superheroine and he's obsessed with Wonder Woman. I had gone to see the documentary with him in San Francisco and was really impressed with it. It's really, really good and the appearances by Gloria Steinem and Lynda Carter are spectacular.
How did Margaret Matheson get involved in presenting this screening?
I produced a film with Margaret Matheson titled Revengers Tragedy, and she is one of the most spectacular people in history; she was my mentor for producing. All of her work has been story-driven, the films that she does are always about story. So I said to Pablo, you know, don't you want to show this documentary, and since Margaret's coming have me and Margaret talk about how story impacts culture and how the story of Wonder Woman has impacted culture and how changing stories for young women can help change how young women are treated and how the world works. And he said, yeah, that sounds like a good idea. So that's how we got to this.
How does Wonder Women fit into the idea of how story impacts culture?
This film traces how the evolution of Wonder Woman has been affected by culture and also how it affects people. Gloria Steinem is very, very articulate about it in the film and she talks about how Wonder Woman just knocked her for a loop when she was a little kid and was a huge icon for her and symbol for what could happen for women. What I'm really interested in is the fact that it's a story that we tell and the story comes out of our culture and reflects it and then we look at it and say, why is it that way? Let's change it to this. And then the culture changes, too. That's what I'm interested in.
What is your experience with Wonder Woman? Did you read the comic growing up?
I did, you know. And I loved her. In those days, we didn't have comic-book stores; we had a candy store near us that had a revolving rack of comic books and, of course, there weren't that many women heroines at that time. It was Supergirl and Wonder Woman and I was totally taken with Wonder Woman. Yes, I loved her.
Can you talk about what you see running your press, Exterminating Angel, and the legacy Wonder Woman created?
There are two things that are going on. There's definitely a corporate reaction against all these, what I think of as green shoots. There is a lot of activity going on where people are coming up with alternative stories and demanding alternative stories and demanding content that is different from the standardized, homogenized, corporatized, branded stories that we're getting through the mainstream media all the time. That seems to be locking up more and more. Movies, major newspapers, major publishers -- the stories are getting tighter and tighter and more constipated. They're less creative, they're more about the same thing over and over again which is essentially a culture that's about aggression and violence and domination, rather than a culture of partnership and help.
What Wonder Woman does is she beats the hell out of people when she has to, but she's always trying to find some kind of ground where they can work together. And why don't we have more stories like that? I mean, it would be quite helpful in our foreign policy if we had more stories like that.
So that was why I founded the press originally -- because all of us should be, in our own small ways, trying to do whatever we think is best and what we can do to make things better for the next generation if possible. And in my own small way I thought, if I can bring out stories which are different than those corporatized, standardized stories which emphasize -- well, I hate to say "women's values" because it sounds like I'm dissing men -- the values that we think of generally as female values. These are values of partnership and values of nurturing and values of trying to find consensus rather than trying to have one point of view dominate another point of view. A value that says, why can't we have a nice time now, together, even if it's not perfect? And those are the kind of stories that I want to, and do, publish and bring out. And this and the documentary is about how one of those stories came about and how it has affected people, how it's striven to make itself heard in a comic book world where it's all wham bam, you're dead, I'm on top, fuck you, you know?
You could say that we're having another resurgence of feminism, but they've really managed to give the word feminism such a bad rap, which is a shame because it's a wonderful word and a wonderful thing. But what's happening now, I think, with young women -- I hope, all the ones I know -- is that they're saying, wait a minute, I'm looking around and I have got a lot of responsibilities in this world and the world has not been handed down to me in the best possible way it could be. We seem to have hit a cul-de-sac here, culturally, and what are the other alternatives? That's one of the things that comic books reflect is those kinds of conflicts going on.
What are you working on next at Exterminating Angel?
Mike Madrid is now the creative director for my press and he's doing another book for me on the forgotten heroines of the '40s and '50s. Superheroines who never made it, who never got their own comic book. We found a lot of public domain stuff and we're doing a lot of stuff about that, including -- this is fascinating -- a postmenopausal superheroine named Mother Hubbard. We've got a debutante who makes herself really ugly in order to be a superheroine, we've got these two scientists, women in their twenties, who invent things out of what they see around them. In one of the frames they share two double beds pushed up together in a bedroom and it's not commented on, it's just in the comic. They're waking up in the morning and one of them is brushing her hair and talking about the invention.
So all of these things are storylines and threads that could have come into the culture more, but didn't. But why didn't they? Why did Wonder Woman make it? What happened to Wonder Woman when she got there? What does that say about the place of women in our culture generally?
Wonder Woman, she was invented by the guy who invented the lie detector. And he was a very interesting guy and he was involved in an unusual relationship between his wife and his secretary -- they had a threesome going for years and years. And the wife and secretary worked on the character of Wonder Woman with him and the original Wonder Woman was much freer and much more aggressive than some of the iterations that she went through. There were periods when there was a reaction against feminism and Wonder Woman suddenly didn't have as many super powers as she had had in previous stories. And then people would protest and she would get more super powers. The Supergirls has got a whole chapter on it about this back and forth and how Wonder Woman keeps trying to break free, and essentially Mike's thesis about Wonder Woman was that she never gets the breaks that Superman and Batman get. She does everything in high heels and tights and does everything that they do, and yet she doesn't get the breaks that they do. And why is that?
Why did all these superheroines disappear? Why is it always these glamor girls? And it's getting worse. It's getting very corporatized, the superheroine thing. Wonder Woman was one of the few images that really made it out there for young girls when I was young and continues to as well.
It's interesting how much they sexualized Wonder Woman at different points in history.
Oh yeah. And also sexualizing the female characters is a way of belittling any other qualities that they have, because the thing that you can see are the breasts, right?
It's showing that sexuality is the only way they can be worthwhile.
Exactly. That's what I love about this superheroine that Mike found that never made the cut, the debutante who makes herself ugly to be a superheroine. I mean, that's an alternative. How come she didn't make it? How come we don't have her around? You make yourself dumpy and then nobody suspects you, and the next things you know the villains have eaten it. Why does it have to be you stick your breasts in their face?
What do you hope that people get out of the attending the film and discussion?
I always hope that people get support for looking at themselves and their own opinions and thinking about what their own opinions are. I always hope that any kind of interaction with art supports the audience's autonomy and sense of ability to act, rather than making themselves passive observers of things. So what Margaret and I are going to do, she's going to be watching the film for the first time just like anybody else, and we're essentially going to be leading a discussion, we're not going to be talking at the audience. Both of us are always more interested in what's going on in other people's heads.
So that's what I would hope for the most, is that we get a really good discussion going about the impact of story on culture and what kind of stories people would like to see that could maybe be completely different than the ones they're seeing now.
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