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Wonder Woman: Awesome Movie, Awful Gender Politics

Art doesn’t exist to reinforce politics. Who knew?

Wonder Woman’s box-office dominance is no surprise. The lead character is the most iconic of superheroines, and the movie is hugely enjoyable: entertaining, often moving, visually gorgeous, appealingly fresh. Gal Gadot is outstanding as the Amazonian warrior princess Diana, conveying both the heroine’s physicality and her blend of courage, compassion, strong will, sharp intelligence and naiveté; she has great chemistry with Chris Pine as love interest Steve Trevor, and the rest of the cast is excellent as well. With a female director, Patty Jenkins, and an empowered female protagonist, Wonder Woman is not only a very good movie but a feminist success in the best sense of the word.

But, also unsurprisingly, the movie has become a magnet for gender politics — and in ways that don’t show modern feminism in a particularly good light.

First, there was the dust-up about women-only Wonder Woman screenings. After the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain announced such an event at its Austin location, some people — mostly, but not only, men — voiced objections on the theater’s Facebook page, arguing that the exclusion of males was sexist and discriminatory.

Sure, one may legitimately see this as an overreaction to an extremely petty grievance, given that men could see the movie elsewhere (though Stephen Clark, a liberal, gay professor at Albany Law School, is taking the sex discrimination issue seriously enough to sue). However, the overreaction to the complaints was far more ludicrous — with dozens of headlines, from Salon to The Hollywood Reporter to The Washington Post, gleefully skewering the “manbabies” and “dumb-ass sexists” who were “horrified,” “furious,” “crying,” “seething with rage” and “freaking out” at the idea that women and girls could watch Wonder Woman with no males around.

But take a look at the actual Facebook thread, and you will see that the “backlash” was absurdly blown out of proportion. First of all, there were no hordes of complainers, as the reports implied — just a handful of posts from maybe a dozen men and five or six women. (Granted, it was difficult to track them down in an avalanche of posts assailing or mocking those complainers in response to media coverage.) Secondly, none of the comments, including the ones cited in the articles, were particularly rage-filled or whiny. One male commenter did call the idea “pretty pathetic,” adding that “you can’t fight for equal rights on one hand and segregate on the other.” Others thought the women-only event was disappointing or “odd,” or asked, mostly sarcastically, about all-male screenings. Probably the angriest post criticizing the Alamo’s “gender segregation” came from a woman and a self-identified feminist who saw the event as “an insult” to Wonder Woman’s legacy, given that Wonder Woman left the Amazons’ female world to embrace all humanity.

If anyone was “seething,” it was many defenders of the all-female screenings. They told critics to “shut up” and flung insults, mocking “male fragility” and attacking female dissenters as gender traitors performing for men — or, in one case, as a “nasty cunt.”

And there was some disturbing male-bashing. A woman who wrote that she would have liked to bring her three young sons to a special Wonder Woman screening was advised to explain to her boys “*why* women and girls would feel more comfortable attending a screening without dudes around.”

Several people suggested that a women-only screening is needed because men are killers and abusers of women, so keeping them out is the only way women can feel safe. (Let’s be real: a woman is probably more likely to be struck by lightning on her way to a movie theater than to be murdered by a man inside one.)

Steve Miller, a writer for the right-of-center website Heat Street, was pelted with Twitter invective after revealing he had bought a ticket for a Wonder Woman screening advertised as women-only at the New York Alamo. Some went beyond insults: A tweet from a self-described “feminist nerd” offered $20 through PayPal to “anyone who pours their soda on this dude at the movie theater”; Miller says that someone else offered money to mace him. (Both tweets were deleted after he reported them.)

Another Twitter user expressed the hope that Miller would get “tazered [sic] by security or kicked in the nuts by a woman.” Freelance movie critic Jordan Hoffman accused Miller of exhibiting “a rapist’s mentality.”

That probably qualifies as “freaking out.”

Another male critic, New York’s David Edelstein, earned the wrath of the gender warriors with a review that some regarded as insufficiently enthusiastic about the film and too enthusiastic about Gadot’s sex appeal. His very innocuous comments were denounced as “creepy,” “sleazy,” “misogynistic,” “sexist” and “leering.” Some of his own New York colleagues expressed dismay, while some Twitter users called for Edelstein to be fired.

Edelstein felt compelled to follow up with a somewhat contrite explanation; the semi-apology mollified no one, particularly since Edelstein’s detractors felt he was still failing to properly recognize Wonder Woman’s importance. Obviously, such heresy cannot be allowed to stand uncondemned.

Ironically, when Wonder Woman isn’t treated as a feminist bastion to be zealously guarded from male assault, it has often been under assault from feminists and progressives for not being feminist enough or progressive enough. (It started even before the film’s release when some took offense to Diana’s hairless armpits in a trailer.)

For instance, to Slate’s Christina Cauterucci, the focus on the heroine’s sexiness made the film worthless as a “feminist antidote to … superhero movies made by and for bros.” Cauterucci also frowned on Diana’s romance with Steve, both because it negates her “queer backstory” as a woman on a man-free island and because her innocence about men raises doubts about her capacity to consent to sex. (Never mind that long before they get to that point, Diana explicitly lets on that she has studied everything there is to know on the subject. Or that a man who tried to coerce Diana into something she didn’t want would never stand a chance.)

In The Village Voice, Melissa Anderson lamented that Wonder Woman fails to sustain the “appealing misandry” of its early all-female scenes and that Diana’s ignorance of the modern world put her in the position of being “mansplained to” by Steve. On the online women’s magazine Bustle, the movie’s feminism got chided for being insufficiently “intersectional” — i.e. attuned to multiple forms of inequality — and for failing to feature female nurses, or even female soldiers fighting in male disguise, in its World War I scenes. (Never mind that the team Steve assembles for his and Diana’s mission includes an Arab who mentions the barriers he faces due to his ethnicity and a Native American who mentions his people’s dispossession. Or that another sidekick, Steve’s secretary Etta Candy, is a feisty suffragist.) Even a male criticThe Guardian’s Steve Rose — could get away with deriding Diana as a “weaponized Smurfette” as long as his Wonder Woman-bashing focused on the movie’s failure at “patriarchy-upending subversion.”

But perhaps the weirdest feminist take on Wonder Woman came from Ben Kuchera, a writer for Polygon, a videogame website associated with Vox Media, in the form of a “letter to [his] sons after watching Wonder Woman.” Much of Kuchera’s piece is based on the repeatedly stated assumption that all or nearly all men and boys get an “uncomfortable feeling” and a “strange twist in [their] gut” watching the movie’s all-female early scenes, and should use the occasion to understand to what extent they are used to seeing people like themselves at the center of everything. Also, Kuchera is very concerned that his fellow males might think we have moved past the patriarchal world of 1918 in which British government officials discussing war strategy are scandalized when Diana, a woman, is brought into the meeting room. Not so, says Kuchera: after all, Sen. Kamala Harris still gets interrupted by the male chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. (Never mind that the current head of the British government is a woman.)

Has there been a relative shortage of female protagonists in fiction and film, particularly in heroic stories? Yes, there has — even if the heroine dearth that preceded Wonder Woman’s big-screen appearance wasn’t nearly as bad as some Wonder Woman think pieces imply. Inflating Wonder Woman’s significance does a disservice to a rich history of female onscreen heroics that includes Ripley in Alien, The Bride in Kill Bill, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, and Xena and Buffy on television.

Still, we can celebrate Wonder Woman as a fine addition to this history, a girl-power adventure that can be enjoyed by both women and men — of whom there were plenty at the screening I attended, none seeming uncomfortable.

But we should be able to celebrate a female hero onscreen without whipping up faux outrage about a non-existent male backlash, demanding that everyone sing the movie’s praises, or shaming men who show a healthy male appreciation of the heroine’s sexual charisma.



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Cathy Young

Cathy Young

Russian-Jewish-American writer. Associate editor, Arc Digital; contributor, Reason, Newsday, The Forward etc.