Xena, Wonder Woman, and TV's allergy to female superheroes

Contributed by
Jan 21, 2014

Another one bites the dust. And by one, I mean a Wonder Woman pilot.

Last week, The CW president Mark Pedowitz announced that the network's Amazon pilot was dead. He explained, "We did not go forward with it … We were very careful with Arrow, and we're being very careful with Flash. These are iconic characters, so we're going to be very careful with Wonder Woman. You only get one shot before you get bit."

Even though it hurts my heart that another pilot's been tossed aside, I get it. But what I don't get is the industry's inability to create a new adaptation of the character in the first place. In 2011, David E. Kelley produced a Wonder Woman pilot for NBC. To say it missed the mark would be an understatement. I wasn't sure if it was trying to be campy or serious. Granted, the version I saw didn't have full SFX, but that's no excuse for questionable dialogue or acting.

In this day and age, why is it so hard to produce a show led by a female superhero? I don't mean someone who just looks pretty and can execute fight choreography. I mean a female who's powerful and not defined by her connection to a man. When I was a kid, I grew up watching Xena: Warrior Princess. As an adult, I've realized how rare and unique that character and show were.

Xena was the closest thing I had to Wonder Woman. She was strong, athletic and gorgeous but never led with her looks. Did she use them to her advantage from time to time? Absolutely. But it was always about one-upping her opponent. Xena was an intelligent and skilled warrior whose reputation preceded her. Her experience in battle was the stuff of legend. She was more than just a pretty face, and everyone knew that.

Xena: Warrior Princess debuted in 1995 as a spinoff from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Xena's origin is dark and unsavory, but her road to redemption was what made her so captivating. That was the selling point of the show, which was something both women and men could follow. Xena was greenlit nearly 20 years ago, but we can't get a decent Wonder Woman greenlit today?

Robert Tapert, who co-created Xena, admitted (via Whoosh!) that his producing partner Sam Raimi wasn't originally interested in the show. He wanted to go for something similar to Hercules, like Jason and the Argonauts. Raimi exclaimed, "You just can't do a female superhero show. It's not gonna work!" But Tapert stuck to his guns, and the show got made. Not only was it a success, but it became more popular than Hercules.

Broadcast networks are gung-ho to take on The Flash, Gotham (the Commissioner Gordon prequel) and Constantine, while Netflix is gearing up for its Daredevil series. Yet Wonder Woman's sitting on someone's desk gathering dust. The character will appear in Zack Snyder's Man of Steel sequel, but that shouldn't deter a series. Smallville and Superman Returns happily coincided with no trouble (at least to my knowledge).

Are networks still drinking the "women don't watch sci-fi and fantasy" Kool-Aid? Have we learned nothing from that Game of Thrones debacle? Women watch genre television and film. Some of us really, really enjoy it. Over the past 10 years, geek girl culture has become mainstream. Just go look on Tumblr; it's a rabbit hole dedicated to shows, films, books and comics traditionally targeted toward white male audiences.

The powers that be love their target demo, but they continue to overlook one major thing. Men like female superheroes, too. They're also fans of Wonder Woman, Xena and the like. These shows can sell if they have quality writing (which is most important), great actors and a network that's willing to promote them properly. Prior to Arrow's debut, I couldn't go anywhere without seeing Stephen Amell's face staring at me. That's because the show was pushed by a network that believed in it. 

This isn't just a Wonder Woman issue, this is a women-in-television issue. As a woman who loves all things sci-fi, fantasy and horror, I'm still here, and I'm still waiting.

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