A rebuttal to Slashfilm.com’s negative take on James Cameron’s Wonder Woman comments

I’m a big fan of Slashfilm.com, it’s the best movie news site in the world in my opinion, but recently they’ve started commenting on diversity-related issues, and the commentary is so one-sided, so dumb, so lacking of nuance and insistent on being outraged for the sake of being outraged that I feel like my head is going to explode whenever I stumble upon one of those articles. So this is my catharsis, my steam release, my deliverance.

In their latest commentary, Hoai-Tran Bui takes on James Cameron’s recent Wonder Woman comments. In an interview with The Guardian, Cameron said the following:

“All of the self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood’s been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided. She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing! I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie but, to me, it’s a step backwards. Sarah Connor was not a beauty icon. She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit. And to me, [the benefit of characters like Sarah] is so obvious. I mean, half the audience is female!”

This has resulted in a bit of outrage and a widely spread comment from the movie’s director, which we’ll also look at below. To me, the most obvious reading of this is that Cameron is stating he found the character of Wonder Woman to be objectified and defined by her beauty and then he mentions one of his own female characters as a counter point. Let’s see if Hoai-Tran Bui agrees with this reading:

Instead of being a watershed moment in Hollywood, Cameron accused Wonder Woman of being a “step backwards” for women compared to his beloved Ripley. It was an incredibly reductive way of viewing Wonder Woman and its cultural impact — and his comments naturally caused such an uproar that Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins stepped in to tell him exactly how he was wrong.
Jenkins had the following to say:
“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. Strong women are great. His praise of my film Monster, and our portrayal of a strong yet damaged woman was so appreciated. But if women have to always be hard, tough and troubled to be strong, and we aren’t free to be multidimensional or celebrate an icon of women everywhere because she is attractive and loving, then we haven’t come very far have we. I believe women can and should be EVERYTHING just like male lead characters should be. There is no right and wrong kind of powerful woman. And the massive female audience who made the film a hit it is, can surely choose and judge their own icons of progress.”

I guess not. Let’s start by looking at Jenkins’ comment. Right off the bat she makes a silly, sexist claim that because Cameron isn’t a woman, it’s not surprising that he doesn’t understand what Wonder Woman is or stands for. It’s a nonsensical statement, especially when directed at a man famous for featuring great female characters in his movies.

Jenkins then starts putting words in Cameron’s mouth, implying that he thinks women always have to be hard, tough and troubled to be strong. Hoai-Tran Bui also claims the same, even going a little further:

This archetype asks that for women to be considered equal to male heroes, they have to embody these traditionally male qualities — of brute strength and resilience — while giving up anything “feminine” that could make them weaker: compassion, empathy, beauty, or vanity.

This seems to sum up the criticism Cameron has received, and I guess it’s somewhat understandable if you take his comments at face value, but the most minute amount of research would immediately make you think differently, think that maybe Cameron’s comments were not as articulate as they would’ve been had they come from, say, a written article as opposed to a verbal interview.

Because, if we do look at Cameron’s work, we see a long line of great female characters that aren’t all hard, tough and troubled — and when they are, they certainly also exhibit traits like compassion, empathy, beauty or vanity. Characters like Ellen Ripley in Aliens, Rose Dewitt Bukater in Titanic, Helen Tasker in True Lies and Lindsey Brigman in The Abyss. Even Sarah Connor shows some of these traits; one of the defining moments of Terminator 2 is when she attempts to assassinate Miles Dyson and breaks down sobbing instead. So, clearly, Cameron is not asking for more female characters without these traits, and it’s dishonest in the most tabloid-like way to imply that he is.

The rest of the article goes on with the same assumption about Cameron’s views:

There’s an idea that to be a “strong female character,” a woman has to be mentally and physically powerful, smart, solitary, and a general “badass.” It’s an archetype that has been ingrained in us with every female icon from Sarah Connor, to Ripley, to Game of Thrones‘ Arya Stark. And it’s nonsense.

Yes, that is nonsense, and Cameron’s filmography shows that he agrees. I mean, even Wonder Woman clearly fits this characterisation as well, so that alone should tell you that that’s not what he’s complaining about.

There’s a reason that we see tomboys as superior to “most girls” — in shedding their feminine qualities, they put themselves on an equal playing field with men, on men’s terms. It’s a patronizing way of elevating women we deem “worthy” above all other women, because only a select few can really be one of the boys. Not only does it isolate these female heroes — it’s why it’s common to see a lone female hero in a team of male heroes (*cough* Avengers, Hunger Games, Justice League, The Smurfs), because the concept of various women being worthy of fighting alongside men is alien to most men.

Take note that there’s not a single reference to back up the claim that society sees tomboys as superior to women or that most men don’t think women superheroes are worthy of fighting alongside men. These claims are completely nonsensical to me, and this has become a staple of these kinds of commentaries: outrageous claims about how society views gender roles with no references.

It’s insulting to whittle female heroes down to one personality type. I love Sarah Connor to death, and I will acknowledge that more than just being tough and kick-ass, she has flaws and complexities. But the way we venerate her falls in line with that reductive reasoning that only women who are hard and brutal are worthy of our adoration.

Again, this is directly countered by looking at Cameron’s own filmography and plenty of other popular, female characters.

My problem with the kind of outrage put forth in articles like this is that it’s another example of the left attacking the left, something we’re seeing more and more of. Not only does it not help improve healthy diversity in Hollywood, it actively hurts it by stifling honest, rational discussions about these topics, because it outright shows that if you even remotely step out of line — e.g. by mildly criticising a movie widely seen as a feminist breakthrough — you become the target of ridicule and boycotts.