Feminists Respond to Wonder Woman

June 20, 2017

Wonder Woman iconic girl boss

There’s a reason Gloria Steinem chose Wonder Woman for the first cover of her groundbreaking feminist publication, Ms. Magazine. The first female superhero called into question gender constructs that had long been considered fact: That men are stronger than women. That strength is purely physical, violent, dominating. That women can’t do the jobs historically assigned to men.

Forty-five years later, on the heels of a potential first female president’s loss and in the early days of an administration that looks at women as little more than fetus incubators, Americans still want to overthrow these gender norms — and they’re hungry to, judging by the more than $100 million dollars that the female-directed film adaptation earned in its opening weekend. But while women expected to (and certainly did) cathartically engage in the historical experience of watching a woman display superhuman strength to physically save not only her love interest (for goddamn once) but the whole world, it was perhaps not the most resonant aspect of this film’s treatment of Wonder Woman. The most profound takeaway for many was, somewhat ironically, not the display of female superhuman power itself so much as the way that power allowed Wonder Woman to express the humanity women are rarely permitted.

The chances are you will read a feminist takedown of Wonder Woman before you see the film. And you’ll probably agree with it. Wonder Woman is a half-god, half-mortal super-creature; she is without peer even in superhero leagues. And yet, when she arrives in London to put a stop to the war to end all wars, she instinctively obeys a handsome meathead who has no skills apart from moderate decisiveness and pretty eyes. This is a patriarchal figment. Then, naturally, you begin to wonder why does she have to fight in knickers that look like a fancy letterbox made of leather? Does her appearance and its effect on the men around her really have to play such a big part in all her fight scenes? Even my son lodged a feminist critique: if she were half god, he said, she would have recognised the god Ares immediately – unless he were a better god than her (being a male god).

I agree with all of that, but I still loved it. I didn’t love it as a guilty pleasure. I loved it with my whole heart. Wonder Woman, or Diana Prince, as her civilian associates would know her, first appeared as a character in DC Comics in 1941, her creator supposedly inspired by the feminism of the time, and specifically the contraception pioneer Margaret Sanger. Being able to stop people getting pregnant would be a cool superpower, but, in fact, her skills were: bullet-pinging with bracelets; lassoing; basic psychology; great strength and athleticism; and being half-god (the result of unholy congress between Zeus and Hyppolyta). The 1970s TV version lost a lot of the poetry of that, and was just all-American cheesecake. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman made her cinematic debut last year in Batman v Superman, and this first live-action incarnation makes good on the character’s original premise, the classical-warrior element amped up and textured. Her might makes sense.

Wonder Woman’s first battle in full costume was near-orgasmic, as she rebukes Steve’s demand that they not storm across an impossible battleground. He tells Diana/Wonder Woman, “This isn’t what we came here to do” to which she responds, “No. But it’s what I am going to do.” Her outright rejection of male authority is liberating to watch. Later she reminds Steve, “What I do is not up to you.” Diana’s behavior is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in a superhero movie—and rare, really, in any film I can recall.

From the soldiers’ shock and awe at Diana’s strength, to her defeat of Aries, to the subtle sparing of the female super-villain, Jenkins left no feminist stone unturned. And hearing “she” instead of “he” for nearly two and a half hours was pure ecstasy—the fact that I clocked it at all should speak volumes.

So, men, maybe you’re feeling threatened or excluded. Maybe you’re worried that superhero films will be female-driven now, or that all movies will be directed by women, with female leads, marketed toward women. Well, you’re absolutely correct in feeling that way, because we’re coming for your jobs and we’re never looking back. My empathy muscle wants me to say, “I’m sorry,” or “we want you to share this with us,” but I’m not, and we really don’t. When you watch Wonder Woman and you feel like an outsider, or your feel a pang of missing out, or you get a sudden urge to yell “What about me?!”—hold on to that feeling. Cherish it. Recognize it. Because every woman, girl and non-cisgender male on Earth has lived a lifetime with that experience. That feeling is the slightest glimpse into what oppressive sexism feels like. Now you know what it’s like to be a secondary character in our culture.

Pulling off her disguise to reveal her true Wonder Woman self, she climbs a ladder and walks solemnly into No Man’s Land. Deflecting bullets with her bracelets, leaning into machine gun fire with her shield, she marches forward spurring the men to follow her. Wonder Woman takes the town.

It was tremendous.

I felt like I was discovering something I didn’t even know I had always wanted. A need that I had boxed up and buried deep after three movies of Iron Man punching bad guys in the face, three more movies of Captain America punching bad guys in the face, a movie about Superman and Batman punching each other in the face and then “Suicide Squad.”

Witnessing a woman hold the field, and the camera, for that long blew open an arguably monotonous genre. We didn’t need a computer-generated tree or a sassy raccoon to change the superhero game; what we needed was a woman.

In the days since I saw “Wonder Woman,” Patty Jenkins‘s buoyant, sharp take on the iconic character and arguably the best movie in the faltering DC Cinematic Universe, I’ve thought a lot about the moments when I learned that being a girl (or a woman) meant taking on a series of sexist ideas and expectations. There was a pink, smocked dress I despised. A series of nasty incidents on my high school debate team, where I was the only girl in my graduating class to make varsity. The first time someone shouted something ugly at me on the street. None of these experiences crushed me, of course, but I do wonder what it might have been like if they hadn’t happened.

The power of Wonder Woman, and one of the things that gives Jenkins’s adaptation of the character such a lift, is in the answer to that question. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) doesn’t have any idea what women and men are — or aren’t — supposed to do. Even when she does encounter other people’s ideas about gender roles, she doesn’t automatically accept them, and she never lets anyone stop her. And the movie goes a step further and argues that it’s not merely little girls all over the world who stand to gain if they can grow up free of the distorting influence of misogyny: a world like that would be liberating and wonderful for men in lots of ways, too.

Wonder Woman is set to defy the odds. Currently this summer’s most anticipated release according to Fandango, the film is tracking north of $75 million for its debut weekend, with $90 million to $100 million possible with a boost from good reviews (sure enough, it’s certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with 93 percent—the highest for a DC/Warner Bros. movie since The Dark Knight Rises). That would certainly be a signal to risk-averse studios to get over their fear of female superhero cooties. But Gadot’s and Jenkins’ sweetest triumph is the sorely needed warmth of the film itself. It’s a beacon of unabashedly heartfelt emotion and hope.

This Diana Prince laughs in delight at her own power when she discovers her ability to break through stone by hand; she marvels at her first snowfall and first ice-cream cone with appropriate wide-eyed wonder; she feels others’ pain deeply and personally, and absolutely believes in the redeemability of mankind. And she’s so good, so inspiring, that she makes you want to do the same. She can save a franchise, and the world, backwards and in heels—with bullet-deflecting bracelets to match. That is a hero worth rooting for.

When J.J. Abrams was wrapping up Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he showed a rough cut to Ava DuVernay, the Selma director he’d recently befriended. It needed something, she told him. Daisy Ridley’s Rey needed to have one more powerful moment, one more show of strength in her final battle with Kylo Ren. Abrams took her advice, shot some new footage, and added a close-up of Rey’s face as she strikes a massive lightsaber blow. If you watch it now, it’s very clear which one it is. Just ask any 15-year-old female Star Wars fan—even now, she can probably recall it from memory. When you don’t expect to see yourself as the hero, you don’t easily forget what it looks like.

Wonder Woman has more than 20 hero moments like this. It even ends on one. They’re not all close-ups like the one Abrams added to Force Awakens, but they do show a hero in action. Filmed in slow motion, almost always in battle, they feature Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), as well as other women. It’s trite to say, but I’ll say it anyway: This is revolutionary.

When it comes to pop culture, we speak often about representation; the simple yet often unfulfilled idea that it matters to see someone like you fill a variety of imagined roles on screen. After awhile, these conversations almost begin to feel obvious. We know that it’s good to see women and people of color and disabled people and trans people and queer people in the same numbers and variety of roles that white, cisgender, straight men have long been afforded. But what these discussions often lose is the emotional impact of finally seeing something you may have never even realized you were missing. For many women viewers, “Wonder Woman” filled a hole they didn’t know they had.

“I reacted emotionally because I immediately knew how potentially life-changing it would have been to see such depictions of blatant, unapologetic female strength as a kid,” Julie Zeilinger, Founding Editor of the FBomb, told me. “In this time of complete turmoil and attacks on women, it was just so uplifting to see something go *right* for women ― for us to have a powerful example of reclaiming not only our humanity but strength.”

The most exciting thing about Wonder Woman is that she expects more of us. Like Superman, one of her powers is freedom from illusion: She doesn’t belong to our culture, and can rescue us not just from supernatural foes, but from the lies we tell ourselves to get through the day. She sees feminism and equality as a birthright. She doesn’t know why anyone else would ever feel differently—and she certainly couldn’t imagine why people would be so surprised at her finally getting her own movie.

“America, the last citadel of democracy,” Wonder Woman exclaimed in her comics debut, as she flew toward a country she had never seen, “and of equal rights for women!”

By Carmen Rios

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