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Woman Left Wondering: An Overdue Criticism of a Feminist Film Failure

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As Women’s History Month becomes another closed chapter in our diversity textbook, I feel unsatisfied. Despite the Women’s March or the Vagina Monologues, nothing could recapture the black pride I felt in February for my womanhood. A lot of that had to do with Black Panther. Watching a black-centered narrative that depicted black strength instead black pain was something worth marveling at (pun intended.) However, throughout the lackluster month of March, Black Panther made me realize and remember just how disappointing Wonder Woman truly was.

At its core Wonder Woman was supposed to accomplish a similar task to Black Panther: to celebrate a people of marginalization by superhero representation. Yet where Black Panther was able to evoke pride and perspective (and arguably reconcile African-born and African American plight), Wonder Woman was watery and weak. Full disclosure: I felt more feminist representation from the women in Black Panther; they were fierce and human.

When I first watched it last year in May, I thought I’d watched the wrong film. Where was the feminist film I heard so much about? As a DC fan, I am no stranger to the failures of DC live-actions; they’re cringey, devoid of plot and a slap in the face to its comic book canon. My expectations for Wonder Women were no different at first. But then I gave way to the hype. However, unlike the shared dismay at Suicide Squad or Batman Vs Superman, so many of my friends were beguiled into thinking Wonder Woman was an amazing film. I held my tongue of my negative critique for most of the year; I thought I was an outlier; maybe my pretentiousness got the best of me and I couldn’t enjoy a film just on the principle that everyone else enjoyed it. After all, little girls everywhere were dressing like Wonder Woman and inspired by Gal Gadot’s portrayal of strength. After all, the director of the film was the first woman to be given that large of a film budget for production. After all, women could finally enjoy a superhero movie without the male-gaze camera treatment.  After all, the film was a victory for womanhood. Only… that victory that rang so hollow.

Sure, the female-lead wasn’t oversexualized nor was she pushed the sidelines during fight scenes. Sure, she never used her body to distract or manipulate enemies while the men took care of the rest of the plot. Sure, Gal Gadot was a white-passing woman-of-color (question mark?) who invoked the nobility and strength in the character she played, but that’s about the end of my praise.

Once you remove the thin layer of palatable womanhood, we are left with the same tired superhero tropes. I’m wondering why we insist on pretending this film had a deeper message than it actually had. While some friends wept in the movie theatre at Diana’s display of supposed inner and outer strength, I was left underwhelmed.

I’ve tried to count my blessings; Wonder Woman wasn’t the worst film I’ve seen.  But is it the shining beacon of feminist philosophy its been described as? Well, no.

While many viewers were able to see the fictional dismantling of patriarchy, all I saw were missed opportunities. I tried so hard to drink the Kool-Aid of praise and toast to Wonder Woman, but I couldn’t swallow it. I had to spit it out.

Wonder Woman, aka Princess Diana, is character with one of the most incredible back-stories in DC universe history (stop pretending Batman’s backstory is interesting, please,) and the film watered her down. Which is not unlike the way society often waters down powerful women.

Princess Diana is an immigrant woman warrior who fought long and hard against Nazis. Though this 2017 reimagining took place in WWI not WWII, the crux of her character development is around that fact that she helped American soldier defeat their enemies and advance in the war despite not being an American herself, despite not liking men at all. The crux of her arc. So why was it glossed over in the film in order to favor the plot of a dreamy patriotic pilot-turned martyr. Tell me why it only half-heartedly addressed the problematic assumptions and implication war has on woman and her “place.” There wasn’t even the acknowledgement or development in the male-fighters reconciling with their own preconceived notions of women.

There were so many opportunities for Diana to meaningfully interact with the other woman and what their roles were. Instead, we saw her make fun of how the women in that time-period dressed.

There wasn’t a moment where Diana had to wrestle with her own immortality after seeing so much blood and carnage of war. The bitter realities of war is a lot to breathe in for someone that, despite being trained as a great warrior, has never had to face its ramifications until after the meet-cue.

In comic characterization, Diana struggles with her own superiority complex from the “world of man” and her disgust sometimes interferes with her want to help them. This flaw isn’t just “solved” after falling in love with one man. Steve is important to Diana’s character development not because he’s her love-interest, but because they both change each other’s outlook and challenge their own preconceived notions.

His love of country and fellow man–despite being exposed to the problematic dark underbelly of government–is important in order to prove to Diana that men are redeemable. Diana’s regard of her womanhood as a source of strength–not something she has to overcome in order to fight–is important to prove to Steve that being a woman is the same thing as being a warrior.

These are the moments that were important to both their character development and important for audience members to see. Don’t try to tell me there was no time for it. We glossed over this in an exchange for a dance scene in the village. Now, Wonder Woman’s original storyline has elements of this cheap romance too, don’t get me wrong.

Wonder Woman was created in the 50s and anything “too-feminist” was heavily sanitized or forgone completely. She was given a hot housewife vibe for the sake of comic-book-reading boys with internalized misogyny. But this film was supposed to be created for women as the consumers in the 21st century, no less. How could a film with a plot backdropped on world war, dipped in Greek mythology and charged with superpowered feminism be equally as “progressive” as its original comic conception. I know societal change is all about baby steps, but damn.

There were so many moments that this film could have talked about xenophobia, if just a bit.  The film’s American patriotic subtleties don’t take any time to reflect on what it must mean for a foreigner fighting American battles.

The film didn’t have time for it, some say. But the film did have time for the village-dance scene, a bar crawl, eye-contact-hints for sexual intercourse, a non-sequitur scene of antagonists poisoning their allies with toxic gas, and, of course, a shopping scene.

Also, why did we spend so much time dehumanizing Dr. Poison only to have Diana spare her because she felt pity for her scars? Now, tell me how a film that plays into the cliché that all disfigured people are evil and harbor resentment and should be pity dares to call itself progressive? Doesn’t sound very feminist to me.

And let’s discuss Aries a little. Bear with me. Weren’t we all confused when his flashback still depicted him, a Greek God, in his Englishman disguise? Moreover, his connected with Diana’s origin story was confusing. Her mission was “defeat him, restore balance.” As the God of War, he feeds of natural world’s tendency toward chaos, which he further escalates into violence through humans. But like… by fighting him…he becomes more powerful… his feat is restoring peace… not fists. I know superheroes often contradict themselves. After all how can Diana go through this spiel about peace and forgiveness and worthiness of all life, and then go ahead and smite Aries? With my basic understand of Greek mythology, Aries is the spirit of chaos, his power ebbs and rises, so as long as there’s violence in the world. So unless Diana ushered in World Peace, he’s not dead. Otherwise, Diana would have no reason to keep fighting and being a hero because there would be no crime. Which doesn’t seem right because we all know how Batman’s parents were killed. Ah yes, greed and violence. I’m just saying. That’s a pretty glaring plot hole.

I don’t discredit the strides and achievements of this film. In fact, I am beyond happy that the box office numbers and the fanbase and the girls who are beginning to see their own strengths reflected in their Wonder Woman costumes, but, at the same time, I am wary of using this film as a measure of feminism. Is the bar set so low for progressiveness in media that we should be blindly happy with Wonder Woman? Perhaps that’s what the film industry wants (whom I suspect the script was sanitized for), but it’s not in mine. Keep rewatching the movie, keep loving Diana, just know that she should be flying higher.

1 Comment

One Response to “Woman Left Wondering: An Overdue Criticism of a Feminist Film Failure”

  1. Jenna Algieri on October 25th, 2018 11:26 am

    First and foremost, great article and analysis! I too had my own problems with the film and it’s praise as a feminist icon though I did enjoy it as a theatrical film. While naturally the film is a step in the right direction in some ways, in others it stayed where it was. There are some issues not covered here however that I think are important to note! You mention she had the ‘hot housewife’ vibe for the 50’s audience but that’s not quite it. I study Wonder Woman as one of my focus’s in history (in addition to Betty Boop) and her history is weird, bizarre, and totally wrapped around BSDM culture and DISC theory. I’m very afraid I’m gonna write a lot here, and I am, but I know too much about her history to not talk about it to discuss the issues of the movie. So, her outfit is 100% meant to be sexual because it’s bondage gear. The suit, the thigh-high boots, the Bracelets of Subjugation and the Lasso of Truth/Persuasion are all bondage gear. This was done to showcase the creator, Dr. Marsdon and his wife’s work on DISC theory, or the idea that all people want to be dominated by a loving authority. That authority is Wonder Woman. She is woman born of women raised by women born of woman. The Amazons were made by Aphrodite and then Hippolyta and Aphrodite create Diana. Marsdon believed women were the natural dominants of the world and therefore a woman with only women for parents who grows up only surrounded by women would be the dominant of not just men but other women. She donned the BDSM gear because it was 1: A sign of dominance and 2: Something only women ‘could’ wear. Putting her in Roman armor was nice, as it’s actually fighting gear, but it is also something only men wore. Stripping her of the bondage gear is a pro and con situation because obviously bondage gear oversexualizes her but it also misses the point of why she was wearing it. It’s a difficult thing to figure out, and I don’t have a right answer for how to do her clothes properly as DISC theory can’t exactly be explained in an opening monologue. Changing her origins as being the daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta also missed the mark. It takes away the fact that her strength, abilities, and powers all come from her femininity. Nothing about her comes from the masculine, not even her fighting which is always coded as a male trait but her has no grounding in men. She was born of women, trained by women, and lived exclusively among women. They also removed her essentially ‘female army’ of sorority sisters. While there were problems there, especially with they’re portayal of Etta Candy, and the overwhelming bondage play the sister’s engaged in, this could have been updated so Wonder Woman would have female friends and allies to rely on as they were always a strong semi-army for her in the original comics. Her story with Steve Trevor is the only thing that could have been absolutely changed for the better that the kept mostly in tact. Her instantaneous love-at-first-sight with Steve could definitely use an update and be done in a far better way but instead it seems to be the only part of her origins that the makers decided to keep.

    That’s a lot of information, I know, but this article on how Wonder Woman doesn’t exactly hit the mark is a good thing but I think context from a historian on how she in her incarnation was somewhat better and in some ways more feminist than the modern retelling. Strong Female Character usually just means A Woman Who Acts Like A Man and that’s a problem that Wonder Woman originally didn’t have that they gave her in the movie. Still, I like the movie in many ways and for different reasons as it had many quality actors, lines, etc. but the heart and soul that knows the original comics back-and-forth can’t let go of a Wonder Woman who was quite the Wonder, especially for her time. Sorry for the info dump tho, but thanks for a great article!

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Woman Left Wondering: An Overdue Criticism of a Feminist Film Failure