This groundbreaking superhero movie says a lot about the agency of women in what it contains and what it omits. My eyes welled with unshed tears of pride every time Diana (Gal Gadot) unleashed her fury and my heart sank at her high heeled boots and impractical, ‘designed for the male gaze’ outfit.
Wonder Woman is groundbreaking – embarrassingly for the movie industry and movie goers generally – for being the first of its genre to have a female hero and a female director. Like other recent movies of its ilk – Batman, Captain America, Avengers, Doctor Strange, Iron Man et al – the story relies heavily on gender and cultural stereotypes, has a western white world view, is predictable in its narrative and resolution and relies on CGI to create dramatic impetus. Character development is minimal and mostly for the male characters. So why are these films so popular? And why did I enjoy this one?
Well I did and I didn’t. I like films that don’t sideline all the female characters just because male stories are the norm. There are multiple strong, female characters in Wonder Woman but rather disappointingly, they are all (apart from WW herself) restricted to the first quarter of the story that is based on the all-female island of Themyscira. We get female stories but only when there aren’t any blokes around. For the rest of the film, there is a plump, female secretary, Etta (Lucy Davis), who gets a few funny lines and a disfigured, evil scientist, Dr Maru (Elena Anaya) who gets to do very little other than to be bitter and evil, and that’s it. It barely passes the Bechdel Test once it leaves Themyscira.
Character development generally is minimal and relies on typecasting that reflects a US-centric view of the world. Diana’s partners in the saving of the world are four stereotypes; Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), the American hero; Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), the Arab conman; Charlie (Ewen Bremner), the Scottish alcoholic; and The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), the black-marketeer Native American. He even sends smoke signals. The Germans are evil, the British stuffy and ineffectual.
The women of Themyscira fare better. It is the more interesting part of the film as we see Diana grow up, inexplicably banned from training to be a warrior by her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), the Queen of the Amazons, but trained in secret by her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). The training and battle scenes are glorious and the power and agency of the women is unapologetic. The only jarring point, other than the high heels and lack of body hair, is the reticence of Hippolyta to reveal to Diana her true story. It felt like a plot necessity and not a believable choice from a race of women who live without fear.
When the film was released, there was some online hysteria about people being unhappy that Diana has no armpit hair, particularly that the one scene where her armpits are visible looks to have been crudely digitally edited to remove all signs of hair. As Susannah Breslin of Forbes says, “In fact, one could venture that Wonder Woman’s armpits at the 1:47 mark represent the entire struggle with which a modern woman must grapple daily: I am woman, hear me roar, but so I don’t freak you the you-know-what out, let me take away everything I am so I can be everything you want me to be.” Those opposed to this sentiment argued that the character was created in 1941 so she absolutely must continue to conform to how women were personified 75 years ago.
This last viewpoint perhaps explains the cartoonish and retrograde cultural and gender characterisation but, when you think about the latitude for other Marvel and DC characters to modify and modernise their looks and character (the many iterations of Batman and Heath Ledger’s Joker spring to mind), it begins to sound like a rationale for perpetuating the dominance of white, male characters. Just because. The same rationale would be used for keeping Batman, Superman, Spiderman and Ironman white.
Gal Gadot is gorgeous but doesn’t have the acting chops to really give the role depth – she’s no Heath Ledger. How Diana looks, her youth and beauty, is commented on several times in the narrative and can’t easily be separated from her powers as a hero. I couldn’t help thinking how much better the film would have been if Robin Wright had played Diana. She would have had the gravitas to make it about more than how others saw her.
The action sequences, where Diana unleashes her fury and kicks the ass of every baddy in Europe, were the absolute highlight of the film for me and why I would watch it again. There is such a vicarious pleasure in watching a character you viscerally relate to be able to defend themselves without fear. Shoot my friend? Smack! Kill innocent people? Kapow! Feel me up on public transport? Bam!
That Wonder Woman has been such a financial success should pave the way for more block busters showcasing female heroes but I’m not hopeful that it will mean they get to have female friends and sidekicks or wear the cool and protective practical clothing of their male counterparts.
Have you seen this film? Let me know what you thought of it in the comments below.