Wonder Woman and Wrestling with Feminism

I saw Wonder Woman a couple weeks ago, the week it opened, and I was blown away. I was admittedly influenced by the reviews that had come out, and had primed myself for an amazing movie experience. What happened during those two hours and twenty-one minutes was a bit more than just “amazing.”

Three quick disclaimers: Some of this may get a bit circular, bear with me. I’m also not a DC comics expert, and the extent of my knowledge of Wonder Woman canon is knowing what the word “canon” means. And finally, I think it’ll be clear that I’m no film critic, and this post is really about what feminism means to me and the world I want to give my daughter.

A few knee jerk reactions hit me while watching WW. I was immediately annoyed by the skimpy outfits of the Amazons. Why, in a world without men, would they choose cropped skirts and buxomy tops? Sure, skintight “armor” is beneficial in combat, but generally the outfits seem too uncomfortable and traditionally feminine to make sense for an Amazonian army.

The next thing that bothered me was how *RAPT* Diana was at the arrival of Steve. It was very Little Mermaid (my favorite Disney movie as a kid; as an adult, it sends all the wrong messages). That she is the only one willing to lay herself on the line for this random…man…is striking. And here is one of many moments in WW that I start to loop-the-loop.

I’m irritated by her immediate defense of Steve because it looks as if she’d become paralyzed by her infatuation with this man. Case in point, though a highly skilled warrior herself, at first she cowers behind a rock. But if I strip a layer away, and remind myself that Ms. Patty Jenkins is behind the scenes, I realize that we’re being shown the strength of Woman. Yes, she just met this person. But she recognizes his vulnerability, she trusts his word, and she stands with him as an ally, rather than shutting him out as an intruder. She embodies empathy, and she fights valiantly for what is right. That’s pretty fucking powerful.

Cut forward a few scenes and naive Diana is in the “real world” with Steve, looking in earnest for Aries, not understanding why Steve is holding her back. At first I once again bristled at our heroine being led by the elbow through the big, scary world by the dashing man. But I believe Jenkins did this not to make her look weak, but to make men look so. The symbolism is not lost here: the woman being repeatedly cut off by the man, the woman speaking nonsense, the woman’s very presence being ridiculous and a threat to the men supposedly in charge. The audience knows the men who are threatened by Diana are weak because of it.

Interjection: I have already cried three times. Once, when small Diana mimed the Amazons training. A second time when Antiope (AKA Princess Buttercup) gave her life for Diana. A third time when her mother reluctantly set her one and only daughter on her path of fate. So many emotions.

Once she is trusted and believed, the plot moves forward and innocent lives are saved, all on the fleet feet of Diana and her near-blind servitude to justice. The story proceeds, with our heroine kicking plenty of ass, but with our hero Steve still guiding her along the way. WW is still coming off a bit wide-eyed, and it irks me. Her soliloquies on why man is how he is seem so emotional – why does she have to be so emotional? But then, she’s totally right, so I think the fact that I feel like she seems naive says something about me and the patriarchy I was raised in, more than it is Jenkins trying to actually make her look naive (Jenkins isn’t). My programmed reaction to her showing this kind of emotion is that it shows weakness, when really the emotion she shows is strong as hell.

Can I stop real quick to point out that WW always has her hair down? This is an action movie thing I will never understand (with the exception of Ridley Scott Sigourney Weaver treatments). I look forward to the day when a heroine will look slightly off camera and growl “Let’s see how these fuckers like a little REAL HEAT,” and puts her hair in a goddamn pony tail before throwing a Molotov cocktail into a mafia boss’s limo sunroof (copyright “Real Heat” 2021). Diana is part god right, does that make her hair impervious to flames as she’s dodging fires? What if those long locks got stuck on someone’s coat button during a dramatic mid-air fight spin? How can this possibly be comfortable???

Anyway, then comes the French village. WW saves the day, they enjoy a celebratory night dancing in a courtyard – it’s quite cute. She goes to go to sleep, gives Steve the look, they make out, and then presumably bang. I am annoyed at this. We’re in a movie about an awesome super heroine, and we have to make it about sex???!?!

But after I reflected a bit, I remembered every other super hero movie I’ve seen in the past decade. All of them featured male leads, and all of those male leads had a romantic moment with a woman (whether a damsel in distress or a co-heroine). There is nothing particularly WRONG with WW having sexy-time with Steve (especially considering her earlier commentary on the mail sex being “unnecessary”). Morning breaks, and our heroine is not more vulnerable than she was the night before. Sleeping with a man does not turn her into a needy, questioning…thing. So I came to accept the sex scene that wasn’t a sex scene, not as a gratuitous “Well this is what people expect” moment, but rather as a “This is a part of her path, a part of love, and it doesn’t make her any weaker” moment.

Later, when the same village is gassed, Diana darts around helplessly, somehow shocked at what has developed. Later still, in the battle with Aries, she again turns sappy, and there’s a quote in there somewhere at the end, “Only love will truly save the world.” Granted I am on my fifth or sixth crying bout by this point, as I have so many emotions running through me. But again my first instinct, watching this as a super hero movie with a female lead, is to think “Ugh WHY does her thing have to be about love and innocence and so on?! Why isn’t she just beating the bad guys and taking the glory like male superheroes?”

And herein lies one of the biggest struggles I have with being feminist (let me define that here in the most basic sense of the word – believing men and women should be treated equally). My urge is to push back against femininity, to feel that something can’t be effective or equal to what a man does if it’s weighted too heavily with traditional gender roles. If it’s girly or sexy or emotional then it can’t be powerful. But that’s because I’ve been brought up in, and still live in, a world that treats female as less-than. This is why you have straight women insisting they can wear suits or play football or lead tech companies and it’s celebrated by most people, but then you don’t see straight men scrambling to wear floral maxi dresses or sign up for ballet or open an Etsy craft shop. When we say we want equality, we generally mean that we want all of the “boy stuff” to not be off-limits to the girls, but we usually don’t expect the boys to want to do the “girl stuff” because it’s the weaker stuff.

The final feelings I left the movie with were pride and hope. I felt really, really proud to be a woman. Not only do we have the potential for bravery, power, and ass-kicking, but we also have the “traditional” female strength of emotional sensitivity. The world could really use more women in power: not women who act like men in power, but women who are powerful women. I also felt hopeful that women can keep progressing. More than just the 80s and 90s progression (power shoulders and Spice Girls grrrrrl power), more than even the 2000s progression when we saw female politicians and female CEOs and female everythings everywhere. This has all been great but we’re nowhere near the pinnacle, these have just been stepping stones. Really awesome stepping stones by really awesome women, but just part of the journey.

I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but I’m determined to teach my daughter that sure, she can and should do whatever boys and men do, but also that she doesn’t have to hide her emotions or be ashamed of anything that makes her traditionally female. What would our world be like if more men in power would have what Wonder Woman had in heart, an undying belief that love can save the world?

Bonus read: After ‘Wonder Woman,’ How Should Film Critics Write About Female Heroes?

What did you think about Wonder Woman? Did you feel it wasn’t feminist enough? How are you raising your daughters to smash the patriarchy without feeling like they need to “act like men”?

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