Wonder Woman, a feminist superhero film?
Article written by Sophie Charlotte Rieger,
translated into English by Cecilia Johnson-Ferguson
Fifteen years after Sam Raimi launched the era of comic superhero blockbusters with « Spider-Man », we finally get a female superhero movie: « Wonder Woman » from the DC Universe. This alone is already a reason to rejoice, but there is more : the film is directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, which is by no means self-evident, but might even be an historic turning point for women in Hollywood. . « Wonder Woman » paves the way for female directors who wish to enter the mainstream entertainment cinema, directing big blockbusters with corresponding budgets. Furthermore, the film is named after its main character turning her into an eponymous heroine. And it goes on: « Wonder Woman » tells her « Origin Story », the coming of age tale of a super heroine. The film couldn’t be more passionately devoted to its female lead character.
As a supremely strong, courageous and noble heroine, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is undoubtedly a thoroughly powerful and exceptional female figure. Isolated from the world of men, she has not « learnt to inhabit »the restricted space a sexist society designs for its female members . The concept of misogyny is completely alien to her. And so, Wonder Woman, aka Diana Prince, occupies the public space she lives in with refreshing instinctiveness, something which should inspire each and every woman. In addition, she does not on any occasion depend on the help of men, but on the contrary saves her male love interest several times. Patty Jenkins most obviously enjoys the exaltation of her main figure to the fullest, emphasizing here heroic moments with slow motion and dramatic music. Altogether, the Wonder Woman’s Amazon family seems to stand for a second wave feminism, which is expressed above all in the appreciation of femininity and the demarcation of the masculine. According to them, the human world, the world of “men” does not deserve Diana. Wonder Woman, however, decides against black-and-white thinking and comes to the conclusion that humans ( = men) are not all bad, but do have positive qualities as well. In this respect, Wonder Woman can also be read as a history of feminism, as a development from a culture of demarcation and (back then necessary!) self-affirmation to a deconstruction of the gender binary.
The heroine’s character development is interesting from a feminist stand point as well, because Wonder Woman must first recognize her abilities and strengths before she can apply them. This is a classic emancipatory process in which women become aware of their potential as well as the goals they can achieve with it. This heroine however can only fully empower herself with a certain degree of anger. It is this moment which in my eyes is truly magical: Diana, so her "bourgeois" name, should, no, she must be angry. I do not believe that this is an advocacy of violence and aggression, but rather a cinematic enaction of the « stop telling women to smile » slogan Anger is fine. There are good reasons to be angry. And anger can be powerful.
In « Wonder Woman », the love story of the main character does undermine her empowerment at any point and is thus not a weakness, but merely one detail of a multifaceted character. For Diana leaves the island of the Amazons, on which she grew up, not for the beautiful Steve (Chris Pine), as would be the case in every fairy tale. She’s leaving to save the world! The fact that Steve falls in love with Diana, a woman who is clearly superior to him in all matters, is a powerful statement in itself.
However... If only there was no "however"... For all joy and praise, there are a few things left to criticize.
Wonder Woman’s Sexuality
First of all, Wonder Woman is a largely asexual girl. Despite all her power, she is not a sexually empowered woman. With overbearing naiveté in regard to physical love, Diana acts asexually in an almost childlike way. Wonder Woman remains the « girl » seduced by the strong man. It seems as if the attempt not to stage Diana as an object of desire led to a complete desexualization of the character. As if the step from object to subject of sexual desire was still too big a leap for mainstream Hollywood.
At least, even though Wonder Woman’s outfit is ridiculously inexistant, the camera by Matthew Jensen does not stage the Amazon as sex object. However, what the camera doesn’t show is revealed buy the dialogue. Diana’s overtly perfect appearance is discussed far more often than her physical and intellectual abilities. Moreover, there is a truly disgusting dialogue between two male figures,“good people” within the film’s logic, reducing the Amazon warriors to sex objects . If they, as characters who the viewer does not draw into moral doubt, lack respect for these powerful women, this will alter our perception of the Amazons as well
The only female enemy, Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), a cruel German chemist, can hardly convince as a malicious figure, which is due to her marginalized position in the screenplay. Contrary to her male counterpart, she is not allowed any backstory and appears as an obedient victim of her villain supervisor. Dr. Poison is not only easily wrapped around the finger with flattery, but gets to act the party of the jealous woman, thus serving two stereotypes that undermine her empowerment. Ultimately, Dr. Poison shows scarcely more charisma than a Hamster, and all in all her character suggests hasty cuts in the script.
A further drawback, amidst all the heroic spirit, is the lack of a « martyr moment » for Wonder Woman. This particularly magic movie moment is still performed by a male hero – even in a film about a super heroine! . Furthermore, and in contrast to her male sidekicks, Wonder Woman never seems to get covered in any kind of dirt. Yes, even if a whole house collapses over her, there is not a single grain of dust in her hair . This doll-like perfection of the heroine is very disputable.
Also the mutual exclusion of maternity and warriorism the movie suggests, could and should be questioned. The simple answer would be the lack of men on the Amazon island, but this is a very superficial analysis. For whatever the explanation may be, the movie fails to convey an idea of femininity and that entails both motherhood and warriorism, instead perpetuating the dichotomy of female characters that are either motherly OR strong and empowered. In the end of the day, WONDER WOMAN can offer no real identification figure for women, other than Etta (Lucy Davis), David’s plus sized secretary, who has far too little screentime to unfold her great potential. The Amazons are too strong and perfect (for which average woman is truly as well-trained and beautiful as Wonder Woman?) to be identified with, and there are no other women figures the movie grants a name, let a lone a character.
Importance of the male character
A last point to criticize is the overly important role of Steve. Even if Diana decides, on her own initiative, to leave her native island to save the world, it is, temporarily, David, who paves the way for salvation, develops a strategy and a plan, and maneuvers Diana through. Steve remains a strong driving force for the course of action until the end of the film and when we compare him to the female sidekicks of Peter Parker or Clark Kent, he still occupies an unproportional amount of space as a side figure.
But amidst all the criticism, there is one message we should keep from the film: Women, believe in yourselves, don’t hide, be angry and fight for your space. And it’s never too late to save the world!