The first DC movie of this year, the Patty Jenkins-directed Wonder Woman is now in theaters and punched its way to a $100 million debut in its opening weekend, becoming the biggest blockbuster ever directed by a woman. Perhaps that’s because this superhero film is a different beast than any of those that went before it. In this film, Wonder Woman isn’t just a feminist icon – she’s the feminist icon. She embodies a feminine sense of peace, justice and emotional intelligence combined with classic superhero charisma; if you had any doubts about Diana Prince being able to hold her own in this blockbuster iteration, then don’t worry. She got this.
All of the earliest superheroes were created by male writers for a primarily male audience, leading to some questionable-at-best portrayals of today’s best known female superheroes. But in 1941, William Moulton Marston, a man who lived in a polyamorous relationship with two feminists and was inspired by the suffrage movement, gave us this badass breath of fresh air with his invention of the most famous heroine of all time: Wonder Woman was born, bringing with her a promise of feminism. And while some of Marston’s ideas about feminism don’t translate as particularly feminist today, he worked to promote the idea that women are just as powerful as men – and should be represented as such.
That’s exactly what Jenkins’ new movie does. Set against the backdrop of Wonder Woman’s first interaction with humans during the First World War, we see her rise from strength to strength on the island of women who left ancient Greece to escape the enslavement of men. As the film progresses, Wonder Woman is slowly but surely liberating the superhero genre from decades of ridiculous sexism, appearing to do the impossible for women: Lead without becoming unlikeable…
A Step Forward for Feminism
The film begins with our young protagonist growing up among her fellow Amazons on Paradise Island, a rocky place with a good amount of space for fight training. Complete with a wealth of powers that include a golden truth-extracting lasso, bullet-deflecting bracelets, and unparalleled athleticism, we see the half-God beginning to possess her celebrated battle skills.
The Amazons are depicted as honorable, hard-as-nails fighters who give as good as they get. The film’s women aren’t all goodies, however. Possibly the film’s most heinous baddie is a woman; Doctor Poison is a seriously unnerving chemist working with the Germans. She’s an important inclusion in the film, as it takes an intelligent mind to recognize that being erased from historical or social references of evil is not great for feminism any more than being erased from any “good” historical or social reference.
But throughout the film, it’s Wonder Woman’s cool brand of feminism that really steals the show. As it turns out, her secret weapon isn’t any of her fancy gadgets, it’s her empathy. Upon landing in the trenches from her isolated Paradise Island, she’s a character who values love over hate and peace over war, finds it hard to ignore the cries for help she hears, and holds fast to her morals even when others try to deter her from going further into German territory.
At one point in the film, Steve’s (Chris Pine) secretary meets Wonder Woman, who appears confused by the foreign concept of a secretary. “Where I come from, that’s called slavery,” she says. Wonder Woman is equally unimpressed by the women’s fashion of the day (voicing in her dress-up montage that “It’s itchy”, “I can’t fight in this”, and “It’s choking me”), she’s similarly pissed by the boys club of the British military and their stiff upper lip brand of misogyny, and neither does she hesitate to tell the first man she’s ever met that “What I do is not up to you.”
What’s more, when Wonder Woman grabs the arm of an attacker and hurls him across a room, Ewen Bremner’s character (better known as Spud from Trainspotting) comments that he’s “both frightened, and aroused.” It’s a reflective reference to the fact that sometimes, women being both strong and sexy is hard for men to comprehend. It’s an acknowledgment that this is a protagonist who combines force and beauty, claiming the right to be both tender and tenacious. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman clearly values her femininity and womanhood, but is never intimidated by fighting alongside or against men in battle – and she wipes the floor with them all.
This superhero remains a feminist icon so many years after her creation because she symbolizes the idea that balance is the key to equality. Being able to embrace both the masculine and the feminine inside us – the tenderness and the tenacity – is a sign of strength. If we do that well, then maybe one day we’ll arrive somewhere where personality traits aren’t gendered… They’re very simply all the things a human being can be.
That said, we can’t help but ask ourselves what it might have been like if, rather than creating a feminine character with all strength of any other male superhero and the beauty of a sensual woman, instead Marston had created a masculine character with exactly the same traits. While the world is just about okay with a character like Wonder Woman, unfortunately it’s probably not ready for a male hero who finds strength and power in the feminine.
And that’s just one of the feminist takedowns that this movie has encountered so far…
Is Wonder Woman a Bad Feminist Icon?
Another criticism of Wonder Woman is the appearance of the movie’s Amazonian women. Yes, we get that they’re an insular society kept locked away from humanity for millennia, but seriously, did Jenkins really have to develop this paradise as a place where everyone looks like a Victoria’s Secret model?
Wonder Woman’s slim physique, tanned skin, and distinct lack of armpit hair has sparked a feminist debate of its own, asking whether feminism has been swept aside in favor of achieving the ideal female aesthetic. It’s easy enough to see her smooth, hairless pits as reflective of the larger struggle with which modern women must contend: “I am strong and autonomous and capable and beautiful just as I am… But, just so I don’t weird you out, I’ll rip out all of my body hair with hot wax so that I can be everything you want me to be (men, come and get me if you’re into naked mole rats).”
Gadot herself recently revealed that a lot of the questions she gets revolve around how she can wear a sexy outfit and shave her armpits and proclaim to be a feminist. She said:
“I think as a feminist, you should be able to wear whatever you like! In any case, there is such a misunderstanding of the concept. Feminism is about equality and choice and freedom. And the writers, Patty and myself all figured that the best way to show that is to show Diana as having no awareness of social roles. She has no gender boundaries. To her, everyone is equal.”
There’re often a lot of misconceptions out there about what feminism is supposed to be, but Gadot seems to nail it here, talking as she does about choice and freedom. Feminism is about valuing freedom and protecting the right of women to be the people they want to be and make the choices they want to make. As the internet continues to try and provide competing versions of it, the most basic point remains: Women have the right to choose how they present themselves to the world – hairy pits or not. Any brand of feminism that says otherwise is only as oppressive as the patriarchies that it attempts to take down.
And while the criticism is that Jenkins’ Wonder Woman film is yet another male-produced, unachievable beauty standard for women, we should also remember that as a comic book hero, Wonder Woman’s image has always been massively stylized. Superheroes are by their very nature romanticized versions of humanity, wearing their underpants on the outside.
Essentially, Jenkins was presented with a near-impossible task. She’s expected to sell a hero in a sexy Halloween costume as a symbol of female empowerment. Without veering way off course, there’s no way that Jenkins could’ve created the perfect answer to feminism with her Wonder Woman flick. Yet, somehow, she still managed to do us justice with a powerful and human female protagonist who is both a hero and a human being, but always with a strong feminist core.
But as positive an advancement in superhero blockbuster movies as it might be, Wonder Woman is certainly not a film made with all women in mind…
In recent years, people have become more aware of how the feminist movement has excluded anyone who isn’t a privileged woman. Feminism’s answer to that was to start acknowledging how things like race, class and gender affect how every individual is affected by different societal oppressions. Intersectional feminism was coined in 1989 by Kimberle Crenshaw, who defines it as:
“The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability and ethnicity.”
Simply put, there are varying degrees of discrimination based on who you are; a queer, black woman who lives in a lower middle class neighborhood will probably have different experiences of oppression than a straight, white woman who lives in an upper middle class neighborhood. Intersectional feminism says that all of the different degrees of oppression are interlinked and that the experiences of these women are all important. They must be acknowledged as such.
As such, it would be considered a little simplistic for us to encourage you to go and enjoy Wonder Woman as a feminist savior without questioning all women’s experiences of it. Intersectional feminism seeks to give proper notice to underrepresented groups of people within the larger community of women, and our sneaking suspicion is that – given that this is quite obviously a film about a beautiful, thin, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender woman (and, incidentally, is supported by Amazons whose only black members are used as props for Diana’s training) – this Wonder Woman film would represent quite a narrow conception of what feminism is, or should be.
Actually, some conceptions of feminism can frequently erase or insult anyone that dares to be a woman while fat or gay or disabled – or any other notion of a woman that represents everything Gal Gadot’s character is not. Historically, it has largely been women of colour, queer and lesbian women, poor women, and women with disabilities whose lived experiences have been excluded from the gains of mainstream feminism…
We’d do well to remember this before waxing lyrical about how the wonderful new feminist superhero film is the answer to all of womankind’s prayers.
So, where does that leave us?
Of course, Warner Bros’ aim was probably never feminism, let alone intersectional feminism. Its aim was to make an enjoyable blockbuster movie – and that’s exactly what happened. Wonder Woman is not the feminist dream that some of us wished for, and neither will we mistake it for that.
We’re looking at an industry that caters to the idea of mostly male nerds writing for mostly male nerds and a comic centered on a female character, even one as well-known as Wonder Woman, wasn’t likely to be on their priorities list for films that needed making into the next bible of feminism.
For all the missteps, though, comic book writers and filmmakers alike are making big progress. And Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman went as far as it could realistically be expected to go in crushing the idea that women cannot be both strong and sensual or – worse still – that women are nothing more than tits and ass in improbable costumes… This Wonder Woman won’t go down without a fight.
In case you missed it, check out our list of the 50 best movies coming out in 2017.
- Lead Image: Clay Enos