Wonder Woman, the first superhero film to be directed by a female director Patty Jenkins, was hyped greatly to be a promising film featuring a female protagonist, a feminist icon who will smash the glass ceiling. This hype, however, set a high bar for the expectations that the film couldn’t completely fulfil.
Diana a.k.a Wonder Woman is not a perfect feminist icon, but her character forms a progressive step towards a better depiction of women in the superhero universe.
Diana, played by Gal Gadot, is a fierce, strong and independent woman who is able to take care of herself. She goes from the safety of her home on the island of Themyscira (the notion of which is quite sexist in itself, but more on that later) to the “world of men”, warned by her mother how they don’t deserve her. Her journey becomes symbolic as she literally finds herself in a man’s world where a woman’s role is menial and subjugated.
She constantly finds herself being underestimated by the men around her who sneer at her presence and opinions in the matters concerning war, so basically, the matters concerning men, never mind her greater knowledge than all of them combined. In this world, women were reduced to lesser jobs like that of a secretary, which Diana pronounces to be a lot like slavery. Time and again, she is even underestimated by Steve Trevor, her love interest in the film played by Chris Pine, who acknowledges her strength but doesn’t really believes her story until proved otherwise.
Diana can be seen kicking butts left, right and centre, and meanwhile, the femininity of her character can also be glimpsed time and again. She leads the charge into the war and even saves Steve’s life, not once but twice. This sword, shield and lasso of truth wielding demigod doesn’t hesitate to express her opinions, even when unwelcome, and defies orders to do what she thinks is right. “I’m both frightened and aroused,” says a male character in the film upon seeing Diana fight, depicting how a woman’s strength is perceived as a threat by the society.
The film also features several strong female side characters, in both positive and negative roles. Diana’s mother, Hippolyta, who led the charge of a battle once and now rules Themyscira, Antiope, a fierce warrior who lives for the battle and Dr. Poison or Isabel Maru, who is a mastermind behind the deadly gas that can cause vast destruction.
We also see Diana not caring about the way women are expected to dress, rather addressing the practicality of the clothing women wear and choosing the clothes that she can comfortably fight in.
And yet, the film somehow gives off the vibe as if the creators have simply co-opted the trends of feminism and diversity and presented them in bits and pieces within the film as and when it suited them. Diana’s naivety at times appears to be an occupational hazard of her being a woman, largely driven by her emotions, and once reaching to the “world of men”, she inadvertently falls under the guidance of Steve Trevor, despite being his superior in intelligence and strength, being a demigod et al.
Not to mention, the movie hasn’t really deviated from Wonder Woman’s highly sexualised body image, which was once created simply as a bodacious fantasy figure by a man named William Moultan Marsan geared towards a teenage boy mentality. She presents the conventional ideas of a woman’s beauty that cater to the male gaze. In fact, several times the tales of her beauty are reiterated and she is referred to as “the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen.” She marks highly sensitised body image ideals for women and girls.
The island Wonder Woman hails from, Themyscira also presents a sexist notion. It appears to replace patriarchy with matriarchy. Several times in the film Diana argues against the customs she sees in the “world of men” and presents her counter opinions beginning “Where I come from…” indicating at how everything is right, as it should be, at the place she comes from; a place comprised of only women. She also makes a remark, “Men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary,” which appears to objectify men for the purposes of procreation only.
Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress, has also been criticised for supporting Israel Defence Forces on her official Facebook page as the conflict between Israel and Gaza worsened. The picture she posted of herself and her daughter praying for the people of Israel sparked a debate online with comments from both pro-IDF supporters and those against it. Audience of the film Wonder Woman took to social media to express how Gal Gadot’s personal views have affected their opinions of the movie as well, some even called for a boycott of the film.
Many opinions have been rallied about the film and the ones that have pointed out Wonder Woman to not be a true feminist icon have been called out. But here’s the thing, her being a female and a lead character in a superhero film doesn’t simply make her a feminist icon. There has to be more to it than just that, surely. What it does make her, though, is progressive. Her being a female lead in a superhero film shouldn’t be overestimated for its feminism and neither should it be underestimated for its progressivism.
Women in the male-dominated superhero universe are often reduced to being simply the superhero’s love interest and otherwise, largely insignificant. They don’t usually get their independent storylines or their own heroic deeds. It mustn’t escape our notice, however, that Steve Trevor in the film Wonder Woman didn’t meet this unfortunate fate. He receives some screen time dedicated to his heroism as well.
And the other times when the superhero universe attempted to explore more of their female characters instead of simply incorporating them for a bit of romance in their heroes’ lives, the films didn’t meet much success. The failures of the films like Elektra, Catwoman and Supergirl, which all featured female leads, were cited as the reason for not investing time, efforts and funds in producing more female superheroes by the studios for a long time, as recently as 2014. Because let’s be real, studios don’t want causes, they want big bucks.
So, amidst this mindset in the superhero universe, when a film like Wonder Woman releases, it still deserves to be commended even if it’s not a true feminist icon. It lays down a path for the possibility of seeing more competent feminist superheroes being produced.
As for how to make sure this progression is taken forward and not backwards, the simple solution would be the presence of more female directors. CNN reported that according to a recent study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University, just 7% of 2016’s top-grossing films were directed by women, down 2% from the previous year. This emphasises the pressing need of more women working in creative departments like these to be able to change the face of women’s representation in the superhero universe.
Featured Image Credit: IMP Awards