Content Warning: This essay makes reference to sexual assault, rape and murder. Reader discretion is advised.
When I watched the scene of one of WW84’s antagonists, Barbara Minerva (player by Kristen Wiig) be stalked and catcalled by a man while walking through the park, I quickly felt uncomfortable. I had had a similar experience myself. Most women I know have had something reflecting that experience. When the catcalling quickly escalated into a violent assault, I felt even more uncomfortable. I felt uneasy that such a real danger for everyday women was playing out in front of me as a part of a superhero movie plot, and I did not know how to feel about it. On one hand, it could serve as representation for those who have not been subject to harassment, on the other — it could trivialise the whole thing.
Patty Jenkins' Disappointing Response to Criticism of Body-Swapping Storyline in Wonder Woman 1984
Once it was revealed that Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) would be returning in Wonder Woman 1984, after his death in the…
Of course, I’m not the first person to feel slightly uncomfortable about the dynamics of sexual assault in WW84. Princess Weekes’ highly insightful article on the canonical repercussions over the body-swap plotline in WW84, when Wonder Woman has sexual intercourse with the spirit of love interest Steve Trevor in the body of a third party of another unnamed man, is one such example. The film’s murky dynamics of bodily autonomy and possession, coupled with poor explanation of consent within this dynamic, leaves a compelling argument for critics of WW84 to view this plotline as a form of rape.
It is strange, with this issue in mind, that the same movie, when presented with an established canonical instance of sexual assault, chastises the character for reacting to it violently. When Barbara Minerva begins her antagonist arc and descent into the “Cheetah” persona, is confronted with the same man who catcalled and attacked her, and may have even murdered her had Wonder Woman not saved her. When he begins catcalling and stalking her once more, Minerva, with her new strength derived from Wonder Woman via the DreamStone, defends herself and physically attacks the man, kicking him several times when he’s down. Although pained and surprised, he is clearly still alive when Minerva stops kicking him, an onlooker is horrified, not viewing the act as a moment of self-defence, but of unprovoked savagery.
“Barbara? What are you doing?” the onlooker asks. He, knowing Barbara, is shocked by this dark turn in her typically timid personality, indicating that she has fully begun her transition into the film’s villain. “What did you lose, Barbara? You lost your warmth, your joy, your humanity. You’re attacking innocent men”, Wonder Woman tells her in their confrontation scene. Although directly referring to their White House brawl, this statement, with the establishing scene of Barbara beginning to fight back for the first time, sets an odd precedent for the character, and for all women to react to men in the face of sexual assault — especially odd considering the confusing matter of consent on Diana’s end.
Barbara Minerva’s establishing villain arc scene, in which she fights against a repeated sexual predator.
WW84 establishes that it’s fine, heroic even, for Wonder Woman and her Godly powers to pick up Barbara and push her away from her predator at their first confrontation. It is not okay, according to the film’s writing, for a normal human to move beyond neutrality and actively fight back when their safety is less at stake than normal — even when it’s in self defence and the consequences aren’t fatal. For Barbara to do this, she loses her humanity, her liveability, and her kindness, as Diana told her. Going by Wonder Woman’s moral code on the matter, that man she beat after attacking her was innocent in comparison to what she did to him.
The issue at hand here is not whether or not it is okay to be violent with someone when attacked, it is that the film wants us to actively be more horrified and willing to vilify Barbara for being violent with a sexual predator than the predator himself, or even Diana’s own possible violation of sexual ethics. In light of a renewed discussion about women’s safety, portraying women as responsible for their own actions when it comes to reacting to harassment and assault is hard to stomach. There are plenty of likeable things in WW84, and Kirsten Wiig performs her role excellently — but the film desperately needs redrafting in terms of editing its morality when it comes to sexual assault.