How Wonderful is Wonder Woman, Really?

By Matthew Harris-Ridker (Community Outreach, GED, & Cultural Intern)

Since the release of Wonder Woman, it seems like the face of the woman with the golden lasso of truth and bulletproof bracers is everywhere. From billboards to the t-shirts of both kids and adults, everyone cannot seem to get enough of Wonder Woman. While many viewers are talking about how Wonder Woman is the most popular superhero in the world right now, few appear to have considered her origins as a character. Even more concerning, while the film is getting good reviews, audiences are failing to have in depth conversations about the issues with the Wonder Woman character that was finally brought to the big screen.

To start with some history, the idea behind Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, came to be in 1940 when the publishing house that would go on to become DC Comics needed something to combat the “bloodcurdling masculinity” of current popular comics (Cavna). Harvard alum and psychologist William Moulton Marsten would officially create the Amazon heroine response to this demand in 1941 and a timely press release explained how Wonder Woman could be used to set a standard for powerful femininity, inspire women to achieve success in athletic and corporate fields dominated by men, and dissemble the patriarchal idea that women were inferior to men (Lepore). Marsten is quoted as saying, “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should…rule the world” (Lepore). To go along with the feminist dogma behind her, Wonder Woman was fashioned wearing bullet-blocking bracelets that acted as a visual symbol that women “must always keep aloof from men” as well as the golden Lasso of Truth which forced truth from anyone bound by it (Cavna). Wonder Woman seemed to be the best of both worlds for readers at the time, combining the strength of Superman along with the allure of a beautiful woman (Cavna). 
Despite all the positive traits Wonder Woman may possess as a character, her storylines and origination were, are, and continue to be consistently controversial.

Much debate stems from the fact that Wonder Woman was created by men, and Marsten was not only a man, but a problematic man at that. While Marsten himself had very progressive ideas about women, he also was party to a polyamorous arrangement with two women: his wife, Elizabeth Holloway and his former student Olive Byme (Cavna). Marsten also believed Wonder Woman should be chained (or bound) in every issue because, as he put it to his editor, “women love submission” (Cavna).

Even more problematic though is the fact that Marsten worked with male artist, Harry G. Peter, to create the flesh baring outfit that Wonder Woman is not only famous for, but still wears (Cavna). Instead of being a product of the empowerment and employment of female artists and writers, Wonder Woman’s image was created for the male gaze by men. Adding insult to injury, even as Wonder Woman broke barriers by becoming an honorary member of the DC flagship team Justice Society of America (a.k.a. Justice League) she was delegated to the title of Secretary, which she retains at present, even though it positions her subordinate to her male colleagues (Cavna).

Essentially Wonder Woman is a fictional figure derived from the collision of good intentions with questionable creative methodology. As a result, the recent film adaption of Wonder Woman had the potential to fall into the same problematic tropes that plagued her original incarnation. Thankfully, the film attempts to bring the feminist intent behind Diana’s creation without the sexism of the 1940s by showing a woman in command, and for the most part, the film succeeded. However, there are many aspects of the film that endorse a very stereotypical female image and fail to challenge modern patriarchal ideals.

To elaborate, I want to start with what the film did well, from a feminist point of view. Unlike 1940s DC Comics, Hollywood chose to go the more authentic route and hired a female director; Patty Jenkins. This is unfortunately odd and commendable in an industry where only one woman has won an Oscar for Best Director and action films are usually entrusted with male directors. With the success of Wonder Woman, one hopes that Hollywood will finally start to take women directors and movies about women more seriously as potentially successful productions.

That being said, the most impressive thing about the film is that it manages to be a film with a feminist message without throwing feminism in the viewer’s face. The film starts by depicting Diana’s upbringing on Themyscira, a utopian island inhabited solely by women called the Amazons who fill their time with collaborative combat training in preparation for the eventual violent return of Ares, the God of war. The scenes showing the Amazons depict them as strong and determined soldiers without sexualizing them or pitting them against each other in a misogynistic way. In one of the most epic scenes, the Amazons all ride in on galloping horses to battle with the intruding World War 1 era German soldiers. It was a very refreshing sight to see these woman warriors coming out and standing their ground against these technologically-advantaged men with atypical tenacity and fearlessness. There was never a red herring that told audiences, “look how these strong women are defeating these weak men.” Instead, the film kept the feminism implicit, allowing the audience to be entranced by the fight scene, and then simply move on with the story — a choice that says, “yes, women can hold their own against men but why call much attention to it as it is not a big deal so much as a normal occurrence.”

Furthermore, actress Gal Gadot does a great job in portraying Wonder Woman without allowing her character to be overshadowed by her male costars. Given that Wonder Woman leaves her island home and ends up stuck in the “real world” in the middle of World War 1, there were many times the filmmakers could have lazily had her listen to men’s instructions in order to navigate this unfamiliar realm. Yet, Gadot and the writers kept Wonder Woman’s identity consistent as a strong, determined and goal oriented character. The best scene that showed this was when Diana was getting new clothes to better fit in with the real world, at Steve Trevor’s insistence. When asked to wear unnecessarily elaborate and cumbersome apparel, Diana unflinchingly asks questions about why anyone would wear something this uncomfortable and unpractical. Throughout the film, it seemed Wonder Woman was put on an equal playing field with male supporting characters despite obvious differences in skills and talents. Diana is neither condescending nor simpering; she is genuine and simply aware that saving the world without help is unlikely, a view and mutual respect that is shared by her male comrades.

Lastly, Wonder Woman blended in with all the men and was not an obvious token. In scenes where she is a lone woman in a wave of men, there are rarely instances where the men look at Wonder Woman judgmentally because she is in a “man’s place.” Likewise, when Wonder Woman saves a village and is greeted by the thankful residents afterwards, the scene does not show the residents treating Wonder Woman differently from her male cohorts — they’re just unilaterally grateful. In my view, this seems like another instance of subtle feminist thought by the director — a no attention needs to be called to the fact that there is a woman on the battlefield, because women are just as capable as men, and this ought to be normal.

Unfortunately, while Wonder Woman did a lot right, there are a few problematic things about this version of the story. The first issue is that Wonder Woman was created into a more heterosexual character on screen even though she has been implicitly cited as “not straight” for some time and explicitly confirmed as such in the past year (Abrams; Nicolaou). Her homeland of Themyscira is also seen as being a utopian queer society where the concept of gay does not exist because the women would be able to live fulfilling, romantic, and sexual relationships with each other because they are the only options they have (Abrams). Diana’s past makes her sexual identity at least fluid. Yet, in the film, there is no portrayal of the Amazons being a queer culture or even sexually partnered culture. All we really see, in a cultural sense, is the training the women do every day and Diana being told a bedtime story. However, once Steve arrives, suddenly Diana isn’t an asexual being. This is problematic because it reinforces societal heterosexism, fails to portray Diana’s fluid sexuality and/or potential romance/sexual aspects of the Amazon culture, and leaves viewers with a dishonest heteronormative view of Wonder Woman as a superhero and role model. To my knowledge, this is one more LGBTQ-free film.

Also, I find it problematic that Wonder Woman only realized how strong she was because of her love for a man. At the climax, Diana is bound in sheet metal and Ares is about to finish her off, but then, she sees Steve sacrifice himself in order to destroy a dangerous chemical weapon that could have killed millions. Infused with new power, she manages to break free and overwhelm Ares. While delivering the final blow, Diana says that she, “fight(s) for love,” alluding to her feelings for Steve as the catalyst of her newfound strength.

Because of this ending, Wonder Woman fell into the unfortunate paradigm of many female film characters: without a heterosexual romance, discovering their own purpose and worth is portrayed as impossible. This is disappointing for me on several levels; it sends the message that women can only be badass when the presence of a male romantic partner is there to help her grow and evolve as a person. Some people might argue that romance with Steve made Wonder Woman more relatable or human; but that begs a disturbing question: why did Wonder Woman specifically need a boyfriend in order to be human and/or relatable given her multi-faceted and believable character development?

Wonder Woman proves that films about women can make money at the box office; that female directors can make quality films; and women do not have to be outshined by their male co-stars for a film to be good. However, I am worried this film is going to become the ideal model of success for films about women in future cinema. While Wonder Woman may be the strongest superheroine character to succeed at the box office and merit a feature film, she is still kept inside the box of stereotypes and tropes Hollywood forces on female characters. I want to see a movie about a woman who can kick ass without anything to prove or anybody to impress but herself. Wonder Woman is a step in the right direction, but it is far from the end of the journey Hollywood needs to make in order to achieve true equal representation and opportunity.

Sources:
Abrams, Sean. “Wonder Woman Is Bisexual, DC Comics Confirms.” Maxim. Maxim Media Inc, 29 Sept. 2016. Web. 11 July 2017.

Cavna, Michael. “ A Look Back at Wonder Woman’s Feminist (and Not-so-feminist) History.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 30 May 2017. Web. 11 July 2017.

Lepore, Jill. “The Last Amazon.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 06 July 2017. Web. 11 July 2017.

Nicolaou, Elena. “A Guide To Wonder Woman’s Former Flames.” Refinery29. Refinery29 Inc., 1 June 2017. Web. 11 July 2017.

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