I Wonder: Woman Enough?

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Image via Wonder Bros. Pictures


Well into the third week of Wonder Woman’s tenure at the local cinema, I slunk into the back row of the Tuesday 9pm session. I had been worn down by enthusiastic reviews from friends. “It’s great!” they would say, eyes shining. “Actually a good film! So empowering! So feminist!” So, by myself because everyone else has to ‘study’ for ‘exams’, I reluctantly leave the warmth and safety of my couch and brave the stigma of buying both popcorn and ice cream, settling back to enjoy some quality feminist, empowering entertainment in the hands of my long-time foe, Hollywood.

Empowering it was. Feminist, it ain’t.

Let me explain myself.

Full disclaimer: my idea of a good time involves long discussions of feminism, comic books, and/or my ultimate Justice League line up. I was resolutely Not Going to see Wonder Woman because a) the DC cinematic universe sucks and needs to like, lighten up a little; b) could I handle it if Wonder Woman sucked as well?; and c) I still remember Halle Berry’s Catwoman.

It’s a good film. It has an interesting setting, amazing visuals, limited hand waving typical of these films, and a compelling plot. I liked Gal Gadot and Chris Fine Pine, and it was all worth it to finally see the Amazons paid their dues onscreen. And as much as it is empowering to see a complex, female main character carry her own in a film with her name on it, Wonder Woman failed to live up to what I would consider the chief concern of any feminist work: it did not truly present a challenge to the traditional male guardians of the superhero genre. It did not provoke. It did not dare to defy the usual tropes governing the presence of a female-bodied character onscreen.

In 2017 I expect my feminism to work harder. Is it enough now to have our feminist entertainment centred on ‘a man tells her she can’t but she proves him wrong’? Yes, that is a great trope, but in these woke days, post-Lemonade and third-wave feminism, haven’t we gained enough ground that it is time to push further?

Feminism challenges the status quo, it aims to subvert the confines in which society defines ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’. I did not find much subversion in the relationship between Steve and Diana. At the end of the day, their relationship progresses along the lines that many action film romance plots proceed: surprised and dazzled by the prowess and fighting skills of the heroine, the hero is drawn to her beauty and her independence. The woman is bad ass, and attracted to the man, who represents the freedom she longs for. They have sex. They will never understand one another. At the end of the film, the man sacrifices himself to save the world – in her honour. Badabing badaboom. There’s ya movie, kid.

Wonder Woman does delve into interesting and complex themes of humanity and morality, but it fails to break free completely from male-dominated screen presence and tropes.

Even in my initial reluctance, I think I expected too much. For most of the film I kept expecting Dr Maru/Poison to be identified as the main villain, the god of war, Ares. Wow, I thought. Now this is a feminist film – female director, female protagonist, and female villain. Here was the subversion I was looking for; of course we the common movie going public would expect the god of war to be an archetypal, bloodthirsty General BUT all along it was the woman behind the great man. The creator of weapons of mass destruction was really the weapon of mass destruction herself. What a great commentary on the role women play in war, and on the way society neglects women’s achievements, discounts the work women have always performed behind the screen. Plus, queering the ‘god’ of war incarnate as a woman further incorporates intersectional values at the forefront of current feminist thought.

And then Remus Lupin comes in and says something about the armistice being a ruse and, honest to Hera, I was very disappointed. Okay movie, I get it. Next time hire me. They battle, and it’s big superhero battles in Aw Yeah Action Movie style. But here’s where my main disagreement with this film is: why, in Diana’s big moment when the whole movie has been delving into themes of humanity and justice and goodness, the film shifts to give ol’ trusty Steve the narrative agency. Only through Steve’s love for Diana and her love for him can she bring herself to decide humans are alright and probably don’t deserve to all die (I mean, do I agree?).

Diana has had interactions with other members of humanity. She has experienced enough of the world that she begins to understand how it works. Why then, must she only achieve her big hero moment through a man?

I know, I know. It’s a love story. It’s Captain America: The First Avenger, but with less sexual innuendo and more (final) death. Yet in 2017, I don’t want my feminist heroine and her big moment to still be defined by her relationship with a man. Is it selfish to wish her big moment to be hers alone? I don’t want to sound like a ‘shrill feminazi’ (like, gosh), but dear Demeter stop the heteronormativity steaming up my screen.

There were a few more moments that held a bit of a cringe for me – again, nothing terrible or even noteworthy in a typical superhero film, but noticeable in a film boasting of feminist credentials. The long male-gazey pan over Gal Gadot’s (insatiably hot) bod. Bloodthirsty and intelligent Dr Maru being seduced by Chris Pine’s charm. The makeover scene. The lack of visibly lesbian characters on an island solely populated by women like come ON. YES, it passed the Bechdel Test, YES, Diana is a complex female character in an industry that doesn’t understand how women can be strong and expressive, and YES, little girls all over the world are hearing the message that they too are powerful, they too are strong.

I get it. Isn’t it great that 76 years into Wonder Woman’s existence she finally has her own movie. It’s badass. It’s empowering. But if we are to really embrace Wonder Woman’s lasso, we must tell the truth.

And the truth is, is that enough?

Kate Riggs

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