Jun 25, 2017

Wonder Woman Is Not a Feminist Film

            I have heard many people talking about the new Wonder Woman film, directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot, as if it’s some sort of feminist triumph.  One review read, “Gadot proves that women can be fierce and loyal, as well as empathetic.”  The same review also noted that there was more romance in the film than in many of the male-centric superhero films.  I have seen many people I know on Facebook dressing up in Wonder Woman costumes to celebrate feminism, and while it is always fun to wear a bustier, I doubt people are doing it for the reasons they think they are.
The premise of the film is this seemingly feminist idea of Wonder Woman and the film is being marketed as an empowering film for women, but when I saw it in the movie theatre last weekend I felt rather disappointed. It seemed like all that talk of feminism was just hype. And maybe even something more insidious, since it’s teaching us to unite female empowerment with something mythical, revealing clothes, and a sheltered childhood. I enjoyed the film, but I don’t think it is nearly as feminist as it’s being touted, nor is it a sincere contribution to feminism in any way.
Wonder Woman, Diana, did not grow up with men or boys. She isn’t even exposed to them until she is an adult. She did not accumulate the lifetime of experiences that trains, conditions, and to an extent brainwashes women to undervalue themselves, to think of how they are viewed instead of how they view themselves.  She did not go through puberty under the male gaze.  Culturally and socially, Diana is a foreigner; she’s not part of the system, nor is she trying to be. She’s separate.
There is a scene where Diana is the only woman in a room filled with men and they are all astounded and aghast at her presence. This is sold as a kind of feminist scene, like “Here she is, breaking some patriarchal rule!” But that is a façade to make the movie look more feminist without actually being more feminist, because she does not invite other women into the room with her.  She does not consider other women to be equal to herself or herself to be like other women. And she holds herself above both sexes. Women and men are less powerful than she is, and she knows it.
When she acts surprised by the differences between men and women in society - for instance in dress, this is another pandering device because no one can be as educated as she claims to be (able to speak over a hundred languages) and ignorant of how the world treats and thinks of women, or of women’s limited roles in recorded history.  Every language reflects these aspects of gender roles; they pervade society at every level.
There is a scene in London when Diana sees a baby for the first time and she exclaims, “Oh, a baby!” in joy and tries to rush over to it, but is stopped by Chris Pine’s character, Steve Trevor.  Now, we know that part of it is funny because Diana has never seen a baby before, being the only child on an island entirely populated by adult warrior women. It was funny, the audience laughed, I laughed. Gal Gadot showed great comedic timing.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t see it for what it was –a joke about women, for a male audience. Laughing about a woman’s response to a baby is much older than Wonder Woman, and in fact has long been used to say that women are not meant for higher thinking or to tackle complex problems, when they have such a visceral response to the mere sight of a small child. Personally, I think it’s sort of sad that a joke like that had to be used in a film about Wonder Woman in 2017. It lowers the bar for the audience, expectations for other films, what feminism looks like on screen, and it instantly lowered my respect for all of the hard work that went into Wonder Woman (2017), even as I laughed. Because it meant that the creators of this film, with all their skill in directing, acting, and writing, weren’t confident that they would be able to keep an audience’s attention on the heroine, so they used put-down humor, and instead of humanizing Wonder Woman, it just turned her into a joke, an example of the female image women are trying to get away from.
The Amazons seem, at least superficially, mildly feminist, or perhaps some people might think that the Amazons, a society comprised entirely of women, are what feminists admire and strive to emulate. And so, maybe the movie becomes feminist that way. Both conclusions are wrong. The Amazons are only in the movie for beginning and background purposes and Diana doesn’t stay with them or stay in touch, so the sisterhood aspect is lost anyway.  Also, the Amazons, a somewhat mythic ancient society that we only really have stories and theories about, have been sort of fetishized by history and used to mock feminism. The way they are used in the comic industry and in Wonder Woman’s origin story is proof of that.
 Wonder Woman’s Amazons are an extremely militant race of female warriors and yet they talk about war as if it’s something men do. “Be careful of mankind,” Hippolyta warns Diana. Though there is some kind of prophecy that men will bring war on them, it’s still hypocritical that with all their warmongering, they are against war and think of it as someone else’s problem, not to mention the whole, “we’ve had bad experiences, we can’t do this again” attitude, also at odds with the constant training. It resembles the idea that women, without men, would choose not to fight and not go to war. As if women are not real fighters. As if we are not continually fighting against something that’s physical, dominating and cultural. That’s a disempowering idea, and one of those archaic notions about women. In another scene of the movie, when Diana is trying on different outfits with Etta, Trevor’s secretary, she asks, “How do women fight in this?” and Etta says, “Well, we use our minds,” and mutters something about suffrage which is sort of lost, then jokingly adds, “But I’m not opposed to a bit of fisticuffs myself.”  Whatever feminist tones are supposed to be emphasized in this scene are too subtle and too Amazon-specific to make the connection between women’s fashion and women’s oppression. The message here is that it’s so ingrained in the culture that women don’t fight, that it’s simply an unsaid rule. It's notable that the lone female villain also only uses her mind to fight. However, the best way to challenge that rule in the film would have been to force it to be said.
 The question Diana should have asked, that would have actually challenged the conventions of the time and in the movie, is “How do women move in this?”  True, there would have been no joke about fisticuffs, no mention of suffrage (but that seemed to function more as a period anchor than feminist plug, anyway) and Etta would not have been able to say, “We use our minds,” – although I think that would have been a great response.
  This is 2017 and third wave feminism. We are no longer just using our minds, we have passed that, and are using our bodies, our voices, and our presence. We should be using our power as an audience and consumers, too. The idea of women using their minds to fight for their beliefs is from the beginning of the twentieth century, when women owned nothing and were the property of their husband or father.  Simply including this sort of historical allusion or detail is not enough for a film to count as feminist, especially not in 2017, and especially not about a female super-hero. There should be more and it should be able to connect to the feminists of today, not the feminists of 1918. Those women had lower expectations and they got what they wanted, the right to vote, because they believed that once women had the right to vote, they would be able to use that power to change the world, fighting for women’s rights over generations, for lifetimes to come. They were not fighting for themselves, they knew that in their own lifetime they were not going to be able to have the freedom of choice, or equality they felt women should have. They were just fighting to get the one position that they would be able to defend because holding that position gave them an advantage against people who would want to take it away from them. These women were using the concept of trench warfare.
And the feminists of 1918 absolutely did not just use their minds. They physically protested, they were beat up, they were thrown in prison, they went on hunger strikes. Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and Emmeline Pankhurst, along with many others did all this in England fifteen or more years before World War I and the period Wonder Woman is supposed to take place in. The Pankhursts, Emmeline and her daughters, were especially militant feminism activists. They favored arson and were repeatedly thrown into prison, where they staged hunger strikes. The movie doesn’t mention this but in 1918, the year Wonder Woman is supposed to take place, the Representation of the People Act granted votes to all men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30 in Britain. Feminists had fought for this and were they satisfied with it? No, they kept fighting to close the discrepancy between men and women.
What we have today is because of them, and I think we owe those women a hundred years ago to keep trying to change our culture and our media into something that reflects ourselves. If those women had been born with what we have today, they would still be fighting for more, that was the whole point. They wanted the right to vote so that more women would be able to participate, women who didn’t have the ability or independent wealth to fight for their own rights would still be able to make a difference if they could vote in elections and on laws. Feminism is all about empowering other women, not just yourself.
That is what is insidious about this film. It’s so wrong to contribute and reaffirm the glossed-over versions of history that recite phrases like, “women fight with their minds,” when that is not at all how women got the vote.  
Diana does not invite other women into the sphere of power she occupies. She stands alone, in a highly sexualized outfit.  She is exceptional and she is the exception. Feminism is not about being the exception, or being different from everyone else. It is about basic human rights.
The most feminist character is the entire film is Steve Trevor. He has a suffragette secretary, who he puts in charge of running the mission, he falls in love with Diana as an equal, not as someone who would ever be dependent on him or share the same beliefs, and he chooses a horrible death that would save the lives of countless others by getting rid of the poisonous gas.  He is willing to share his power and use it to empower others.  He’s the real hero of the film and he’s not a woman.
I also want to point out that Wonder Woman is actually a rather difficult heroine to use for feminism. Wonder Woman and Feminism don’t actually coincide – despite how badly people want these two ideas to come together and embody the REAL Wonder Woman, the one inside everyone’s minds that is less woman and more wonder. Wonder Woman is a terrible example of feminism because it’s not at all feminist. Wonder Woman herself – forever sexy, badass, and young, forever from an island only populated by women, and curious about and protective of men - is a male idea.  The character was created by men, William Moulton Marston (Charles Moulton) and H. G. Peter in 1942, and even though Moulton apparently created her with feminist ideals, in the first comics, she occupied the typical female roles of nurse and secretary. In the early forties, perhaps even the idea of women working counted as feminist but times have changed. Regardless of era, there are inherent aspects of Wonder Woman that disqualify her from being an example of feminism, a relatable symbol that we as individuals feel a bond with, that does not depend on admiration but mutual respect, that can empower others and be a gateway to a kind of sisterhood where everyone is united by the common goal of owning ourselves. That is not what Wonder Woman is. Wonder Woman and her story give us a false sense of empowerment because of the fantasy of what it would be like to be her, to have so much power and independence. That’s not what feminism is about, it’s not about buying into an unreachable idea of a lone woman with super powers that someone else has imagined, that is controlled by someone else, and that a corporation called DC Comics makes millions of dollars off of.  Feminism is not about being alone, it’s about being part of something bigger than yourself that you can draw support from when you need it, and being your own person at the same time. 
 Wonder Woman is not a real woman and in the real world no woman will ever be like her.  She is not her own person, she is a superhero and while everyone possesses a version of her, she’s trademarked by DC Comics. She does not belong to herself.

Maybe this movie passes the Bechdel test. But I think to be a feminist film, a movie has to do more than just pass the test. It has to actually support its claims with an honest and easily identifiable, concrete endorsement of feminism, not just imply feminism. It can’t rely on mentioning historical events to convey support for feminism. As the motto of the Women’s Social and Political Union, the leading militant organization campaigning for women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom until 1917, states, “Deeds Not Words”. Wonder Women (2017) is not a feminist film and in my mind does more damage than good for feminism by selling itself as a feminist film and perpetuating an inaccurate idea of historical women. If the people writing and directing this film had done any amount of research, it would have been apparent that the image of feminism they painted was so inferior to what we as women are looking for, not to mention so incredibly uninformed about the history of feminism, that its almost as if their mistakes and misrepresentations were made on purpose, which is kind of subversive and kind of like propaganda.  It is mindboggling that this film has managed to convince people that what we see in it is feminism.

       Since I wrote this two months ago, several articles have been published about Wonder Woman discussing the feminism of the film.
       Here is one, I Wish Wonder Woman Were As Feminist As It Thinks It Is by Christina Cauterucci. Her article in Slate Magazine begins, "While reading my colleagues’ laudatory reviews of Wonder Woman this week, I kept wondering if I’d blacked out during some essential scenes."  “Wonder Woman Made Me Finally See the Importance of Female Representation,” Dana Stevens wrote on Thursday. "Two of Slate’s male editors compared notes on which parts of the new DC Universe film made them cry. My eyes were not only dry during the movie—half the time, they were rolling out of my head." 
       In another Slate article, Marissa Martinelli writes, Are You A Woman Who Didn't Love Wonder Woman? Funny Or Die Has a Support Group For You.  
       You might be thinking, this movie came out months ago, why is it still being discussed? Or, why are these damn women harping on about something that's over and in the past?  Maybe you think a discussion like this is futile, or a close examination of a Hollywood film is a useless exercise. Maybe you feel personally betrayed by my opinion of this movie.  Maybe you grew up watching Disney films and don't deal well with conflict or dissent. Maybe you haven't noticed anything wrong with the treatment of women in film, history, media, or your own life. Maybe you prefer to think of the world in a more convenient, uncomplicated way.
       That's too bad. 
       Discussions like these are important. Here's another article, recently published in the New York Times, Is 'Wonder Woman' A Feminist Film? James Cameron's Comments Draw Rebuke.  The article quotes James Cameron and Patty Jenkins,
“All of the self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood’s been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided,” he told The Guardian. “She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing.”
Patty Jenkins, the director of “Wonder Woman,” responded with a note on Twitter. “James Cameron’s inability to understand what Wonder Woman is, or stands for, to women all over the world is unsurprising as, though he is a great filmmaker, he is not a woman,” she wrote, adding, “There is no right and wrong powerful kind of woman."
       Patty Jenkins expresses such a wonderful sentiment here, "There is no right and wrong powerful kind of woman." It shows unity and strength! And also narrow-minded denial. It so delightfully misses James Cameron's point. Her response purposefully ignores and steers away from examining what's labeled as feminism and what a powerful woman really is, and she dismisses James Cameron's perspective and opinion by pointing out that he is not a woman. As if saying that because he doesn't share the female perspective, he doesn't actually recognize empowerment.  This is wrong. He's a man. He recognizes power, it's something he's probably had before. And the kind of power that Wonder Woman shows us is not real power, it's a fantasy. Not even a female fantasy, but a male fantasy of a woman who has no issue with our society because she's not really a part of it. Is that the kind of power Patty Jenkins thinks women all over the world want? Escape? The power to be separate and untied to a society they were born into? The power to be willfully un-involved and un-invested? That's not independence. That's denial.  That's the power of burying your head in the sand to ignore the big picture, and distracting yourself.  I'm not saying that Wonder Woman can't be an inspiration to work harder, to be aggressive. I'm saying that personally, as a woman, the kind of power I want is the kind James Cameron has. Not Wonder Woman.  And I'm not going to kid myself that Wonder Woman represents any kind of female empowerment. James Cameron recognizing Wonder Woman as an objectified icon shows more female empowerment than the blind denial of Patty Jenkins, or her recent film.