Wonder Woman, Representation, and Feminist Film

This June, Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, finally hit the cinemas. After the complete bombshell that was Batman v Superman (2016), I was half worried for the film — given the ridiculous sexist history of movies since the beginning of film — and half excited — given that a woman was directing the film. To a man, this might not seem like a big deal. We live in a world where action movies a dominated by male cast and crew members. The Avengers’ cast ratio from male to female is 8:2. Age of Ultron’s is 13:4. Guardians of the Galaxy, although co-written by a woman, is 8:3. Harry Potter’s Golden Trio is two males to one female. The Lord of the Rings trilogy features an entirely all-male cast with the exceptions of two female elven characters and Eowyn, whose “I am no man” scene does not redeem the entire trilogy of its utter lack of female characters nor does the book’s version justice. Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise features a female lead, although she is seriously outnumbered. Star Wars’ featured trios are 2:1 for each instalment. Even Star Trek lacks in female leads (although their upcoming show, Star Trek: Discovery, will feature two female leads — one Asian and one black, too).

To a woman, this inequality is a serious problem. The message we interpret from the male to female ratio in these blockbuster franchises is that women are less essential, less capable, and less wanted. We see ourselves onscreen through the lens of a male writer and director, and what we see is not always good. Even though we are given badass female characters like Natasha Romanoff, Gamora, Hermione Granger, Ellen Ripley, Leia Organa, or Uhura, the majority of the time they have been sexualized in one way or another. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both Romanoff and Gamora’s characters are trained assassins, reduced to either a sex object or love interest. Romanoff’s first appearance in Iron Man 2 leads to a comment made by Pepper Potts that she was a “very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit” waiting to happen. From there on, she was seen by the audience as something pretty, completely forgetting the fact that she took down Tony’s bodyguard Happy Hogan with ease. Her portrayal in the consecutive films she appears in stays relatively the same. She is smart, fierce, and witty — but the script uses that in ways to make her alluring, sexy, and desirable. Fast-forward to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where Romanoff serves as a wonderful main character in one of, in my opinion, the best MCU movies to date. However. If you take a look at her promo poster, there are several things wrong with it. Firstly, it is agonizingly obvious that her entire body has been photoshopped. We have watched Romanoff in action in both Iron Man 2 and The Avengers already, and are familiar with her tight suit — but not so tight to completely alter the size of her arms, breasts, waist, and thighs. In the poster, Romanoff’s body is nothing like Scarlett Johansson’s.

Scarlett_Johansson-Comparison-

In addition, her pose is not one of a trained deadly assassin. It is not comparable with Nick Fury’s death glare or Falcon’s action shot. As Bustle put it, “Despite the fact that Johansson’s character Black Widow is a superhero and a member of the Avengers, her poster is wildly sexualized. Rather than striking a pose of strength — something even Nick Fury gets to enjoy in his poster appearances — Black Widow appears softened and coy, almost blowing in the wind along with her hair.”

Age of Ultron brings the worst of it with her completely inexplicable love story arc with Bruce Banner/Hulk. The character of Black Widow deserves so much more than serving as just a love interest. As the only female Avenger, she represents every woman everywhere. That is the burden put on her as the only female lead in the cast. Of course, at the end of Age of Ultron, Scarlet Witch joins the team — only to go from a fierce fighter for what she believes in to a love interest of Vision’s. In Guardians of the Galaxy, even Gamora is reduced to a potential love interest of Peter Quill’s. She turns him down in the first film, but yet at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, she hints at what Peter kept referring to as “some unspoken thing” between the two of them.

What I am trying to say is, simply, we need some representation of a female superhero that isn’t sexualized for once.

I entered the theatre for Wonder Woman with all of this running through my head. I was worried that she would become a love interest first, and a fighter second. I knew that this first female-led superhero movie in a blockbuster franchise was going to set a precedent for any upcoming films — DCEU’s Batgirl, MCU’s Captain Marvel — and I was scared that it was going to keep the standard that the previous films had. I went in with the knowledge that the movie had been directed by a woman, but then again, Guardians of the Galaxy was co-written by a woman.

Nothing could have prepared me for the beautiful film that was Wonder Woman. The island of Themyscira was populated entirely by strong, fierce female warriors, training to fight together; wearing functional battle armour that was beautifully crafted but never sexual. Their ages varied greatly, but the elders’ crows feet and wrinkles were nothing to be ashamed of. Their scars and bruises and weathered skin were marks to be proud of, not to be hidden or photoshopped out. I had never, ever seen a film with a scene like that. My friend had sent me her thoughts on the scene on tumblr in this post, reading:

“i had no intentions of actually going to see wonder woman bc i never really loved the brand or whatever, but catch me in the first ten minutes before anyone had even been hurt or died deadass SOBBING in the theatre bc the visual of hundreds of strong, non-sexually depicted, fearless women descending down a wall and prepping for battle in unity and strength rendered me a complete mess. wonder woman wasnt the movie i asked for, but it was the movie i needed.”

“The visual of hundreds of strong, non-sexually depicted, fearless women descending down a wall and prepping for battle in unity and strength rendered me a complete mess.”

How can a scene be that powerful? This Tumblr post nails it right on the head:

“Watching a super hero movie directed by a woman is like putting glasses on for the first time. 

I didn’t realize how much I had to squint through the ‘male gaze’ till suddenly, miraculously, I didn’t have to.

There were absolutely NO eye candy shots of Diana. There were Amazons with ageing skin and crows feet and not ONE of them wore armor that was a glorified corset. When Diana did the superhero landing, her thigh jiggled onscreen.

Did you hear me? HER FUCKING THIGH JIGGLED. Wonder Woman’s thigh jiggled on a 20-foot tall screen in front of everyone.

Because she wasn’t there to make men drool. She wasn’t there to be sexy and alluring and flirt her way to victory, and that means she has big, muscular thighs, and when they absorb the impact of a superhero landing, they jiggle, and.that’s.WONDERFUL.

Thank you, Patty Jenkins, for giving me a movie about a woman, told by a woman,so I can see it through my eyes, not some dude bro who’s there for boobs and butts.”

“I didn’t realize how much I had to squint through the ‘male gaze’ until suddenly, miraculously, I didn’t have to.”

Think about that for a second. We live in this society where our entertainment is so male-dominated and male-centric that us women did not even realize how bad it was until we finally received something that was the opposite. Finally, we have a superhero film for everyone — men and women. The men I have spoken to that have watched it enjoyed it just as much as they have enjoyed any other superhero movie. The women, however, have noticed each and every single difference, because, for once, we have a lovely representation of women onscreen, not catering to the male audience. We have several female characters, not just one token female lead. Diana can hold her own, and her male counterpart quickly realizes that. Steve Trevor is a tough fighter and a good soldier, but never once tries to take control of a situation. He guides Diana through modern society but on the battlefield lets her do what she does best. He will purchase her clothes and ice cream, but never belittles her for not knowing the rules of society or war. He understands and gently guides her in the right directions, but in the end following her where she goes. Even when he falls in love with her, it is because of her spirit and kindness. Steve respects Diana as an equal in his squad, and is in complete awe of her abilities. There is no denying that Gal Gadot is drop-dead gorgeous, but never onscreen is that exaggerated, and I am incredibly thankful for that. 

There are several powerful scenes in Wonder Woman, but not all of them are as intense or visually stunning as the No-Man’s Land scene. My personal favourite is that scene where Steve purchases Diana ice cream. This post breaks it down into several micro-elements that are hard to catch (I have paraphrased):

  • The way she eats the ice cream. She just eats it. No coy lick or self-conscious taste, no male gaze here, no oral/sexual pleasure of the viewer. Diana just she eats the ice cream, and it’s the kind of sloppy big bite of someone who is not self-conscious of eating, who hasn’t been trained from birth to think about how she looks as she does everything, even eating. She hasn’t spent her life being told that her purpose is in being attractive, even as she does a vital daily thing like eating. She doesn’t have a voice in her head saying, “oh, but ice cream, it’s kind of fatty, and what will people think?” She’s just, “wow, this thing is delicious, I think it’s great, the person who makes it deserves to be told how great their skill is, how great their actions that have lead to this product are.” Even in this she demonstrates valuing people by their actions and abilities and choices and who they are, not what they look like.
    The fact that is so rare and startling and obvious to me, the fact that Diana Prince eating ice cream moves me so much is So Terrible and makes me despair for our civilization and (nearly) all media produced before this.
  • During the shot when she takes the first bite, Steve is reaching his arm out to pay the ice cream seller. That movement is much bigger and more eye-catching than Diana eating the ice cream. This scene normalizes females eating on screen, through both subverting the erotic eating trope and allowing women to eat and enjoy whatever they want without feeling self-conscious.
  • Even more, Steve isn’t looking at Diana as she eats. A big part of the male gaze is that the default POV of films is generally that of the straight, white, male viewer. Generally, Steve would be the stand in for that default gaze, but he doesn’t even look at her! He doesn’t buy it for her so he can watch. He doesn’t even pull some Nice Guy bullshit like, I did something nice for you now do something nice for me, even as a vague joke or subtext. He isn’t trying to  get anything out of it. He just thinks she’s probably never had it and might enjoy it. It’s about her enjoyment, not his, despite everything trying to tell us that women feed appetites but aren’t meant to have any of their own.
  • In addition to that, there’s also the overt humour of the moment that could have been gross, too, but wasn’t. The ice cream seller offers her the ice cream but Diana is not familiar with the concept of “goods for money” so they could have made a big joke about it with Steve basically giving her an immediate “lesson” about how she can’t just TAKE the ice cream and how you’re supposed to pay for it. That’s basically how introducing a character from an Utopian society to a capitalist world always works. And that’s always the joke, “oh look how silly and uneducated this person is, doesn’t even know they have to pay for stuff!” But here though Diana does take the ice cream without planning to pay, but Steve doesn’t make it into a “big deal,” he just reaches over and pays. And so the scene flawlessly skips over any need to publicly shame or embarrass Diana and we can just focus on how adorable Diana is when eating ice cream for the first time in her life.

The character of Diana is wonderfully multi-dimensional. She can kick ass, but she also lives in complete awe of the human world. She excitedly exclaims, “A baby!” when she passes by one on the street. She enjoys an ice cream for the first time. She takes complete joy in a light snowfall. She is not just fierce but she is kind, she is strong but she loves deeply. She crosses No-Man’s Land (which, by the way, is a much better “I am no man”) to save the lives of men and women she does not know, because she feels such deep empathy for those crying out for help. She fights alongside men but sees more to them than just their dog tags. She realizes the full potential of each and every man she fights with. This post puts it into words I don’t want to steal or try to paraphrase:

After Veld is liberated and before they’re getting ready to go to the Gala, Charlie finally falters, expressing his self-doubt at joining them after choking earlier.

And Diana – kind, good, darling Diana – she smiles and laughs, not in a way that mocks or belittles, but rather expresses a purity and sincerity.

“Oh Charlie,” she breathes, “Then who will sing for us?”

With such a simple, seemingly innocent gesture, she reminds us of her true superpower. Yes, she’s strong. She’s a fierce warrior, she can fight like a badass and make us cry while watching her deflect bullets and swing a sword, but more than that, more than making us believe in her, she makes us believe in ourselves. 

Wonder Woman inspires and reminds us of the goodness within; of our own value, strength, and significance. 

She reminds Charlie of his own worth. That he is more than an eye behind a lens and a finger above a trigger. That a moment of weakness doesn’t define us, any more than our pasts, and she lifts him out of that insecurity effortlessly.

On the topic of her comrades, one extremely important aspect I noticed about them is that they are of wildly different backgrounds. Of course there’s Steve Trevor and Etta Candy, both white, but Steve is incredibly progressive in his respect for both women and his fellow soldiers, and Etta not only runs their entire mission from London but also is an advocate for female suffrage and equality. Most importantly are the men that join Steve and Diana on the mission: we have Sameer, a Moroccan actor-turned-spy played by Saïd Taghmaoui, a French actor of Moroccan descent; Charlie, a Scottish sniper struggling with PTSD, played by Ewen Bremner; and Chief, a Blackfoot Native American played by Eugene Brave Rock, a Blackfoot from the Blood Tribe in southern Alberta, Canada. By incorporating these three men in the mission, rather than three other white soldiers, Wonder Woman has progressed from representing women to also representing people from other cultures and ethnicities.

Of course, the main cast is composed of mostly men. We still have a long way to go for female cinema. But this film, this beautifully written and directed film, is taking modern cinema in the right direction towards more feminist and representational content. The effect has been overwhelming for me, having a female-led superhero movie that is not sexualized or set from the perspective of a male. It is so refreshing. Its effect on children is the most important of all, because they are so highly influenced by the books they read and movies they watch. This post was shared by Patty Jenkins on Twitter and quickly went viral.

I work at a kindergarten and this is a collection of cute Wonder Woman related things that happened within a week of the movie being released. 

  • On Monday, a boy who was obsessed with Iron Man, told me he had asked his parents for a new Wonder Woman lunchbox. 
  • A little girl said “When I grow up I want to speak hundreds of languages like Diana”
  • This girl had her parents revamp her Beauty and the Beast birthday party in THREE DAYS because she simply had to have a Wonder Woman party. 
  • Seven girls playing together during recess on Tuesday, saying that since they all wanted to be Wonder Woman they had agreed to be Amazons and not fight but work together to defeat evil. 
  • There is this one girl that refuses to listen to you unless you address her as Wonder Woman. 
  • Another girl very seriously asked the teacher if she could ditch her uniform for the Wonder Woman armor bc she “wanted to be ready if she needed to save the world”. The teacher laughed and said it was okay, and the next day the girl came dressed as Wonder Woman and not a single kid batted an eye.
  • They are making a wrap-up dance show, and they asked the teacher if they could come as superheroes, they are going to sing a song about bunnies. 
  • This kid got angry and threw a plastic car over his head and a girl gasped “LIKE IN THE MOVIE”
  • A boy threw his candy wrapping in the floor and a 5-year-old girl screamed “DON’T POLLUTE YOU IDIOT, THAT IS WHY THERE ARE NO MEN IN THEMYSCIRA”
  • On Wednesday, a girl came with a printed list of every single female superhero and her powers, to avoid any trouble when deciding roles at recess. 
  • I was talking to one of the girls that hadn’t seen the movie, and the next day she came and very seriously told me “you were right, Wonder Woman was way better than Frozen.”
  • Consider this your friendly reminder that if this movie completely changed the way these girls and boys thought about themselves and the world in a week, imagine what the next generation will achieve if we give them more movies like Wonder Woman.  

The impact Wonder Woman has and will continue to have on audiences astounds and excites me. The DCEU has taken a progressive step in the right direction and I truly hope that the MCU follows in their stride with their portrayals of Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, and the upcoming instalment Captain Marvel.

If you have not made it to the theatres to see Wonder Woman yet, please do so. You will not be disappointed.


References and for further reading:

http://variety.com/2015/film/news/women-lead-roles-in-movies-study-hunger-games-gone-girl-1201429016/

https://www.nyfa.edu/film-school-blog/gender-inequality-in-film/

https://pudding.cool/2017/03/film-dialogue/

http://www.thedailybeast.com/the-avengers-black-widow-problem-how-marvel-slut-shamed-their-most-badass-superheroine

http://www.btchflcks.com/2016/05/why-black-widow-is-the-realest-superheroine-of-the-marvel-cinematic-universe.html

https://www.bustle.com/articles/14238-scarlett-johanssons-waist-isnt-actually-the-issue-with-her-captain-america-2-poster

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