CultureCinema Wonder Woman And The Refreshing Absence Of The Male Gaze

Wonder Woman And The Refreshing Absence Of The Male Gaze

Wonder Woman is perhaps the most relatable big screen superherione I’ve come across, off-setting years of unidimensional female leads.

I love watching women kick ass. As a teenager undergoing a feminist awakening, the ubiquity of gender injustice in our world would often leave me in despair. In such times, I would find refuge in TV shows and movies portraying gallant heroines breaking bones and clichés. Watching a woman beat up people – a motif so at odds with eternalised feminine conventions – was an exhilarating delight. Of course, real life can’t harbour that kind of glamourized violence, but if some folks watch rom-coms or quintessential Bollywood movies to get their chill on, for me it’s always been badass women who can hammer the bad guys.

As a child of the nineties there weren’t too many choices for me. The first time I watched a woman dealing blows was in the movie Barb Wire. Unfortunately, what I took away from it was that Pamela Anderson could be a mercenary, along with being a lifeguard (read: Baywatch), the prerequisite for both being hot boobs.

Then there was Dark Angel, a show where a human Jessica Alba struggles to emote while playing a genetically engineered mutant who is pretending to be a regular human. I watched the Charlie’s Angels movies too, uncomfortable with the bubble-gum girl power masking internalised sexism. And I saw Angelina Jolie play Lara Croft with awe while simultaneously wondering if the gratuitous close-ups of her body were really necessary.

Also Read: Super Hot Super Heroines: Unrealistic Comic Book Portrayals Of Powerful Women

In my undergrad, when I read Laura Mulvey and John Berger it all started to make sense. They wrote about the male gaze and its object – women – and the ways that women’s bodies and images were constructed for the gaze of the man. Despite being formidable women who could clobber men senseless, there was something that kept these characters from becoming convincingly whole.

In general, these characters would be lone wild wolves who were tough-as-nails (read: emotionally impervious), whose hypersexualisation would alienate women fans. They were still, as Margaret Atwood would put it, women with a man inside watching themselves. This trend makes up a long list: Catwoman, Elektra, Aeon Flux, Resident Evil, Salt, and Domino to name a few. In a world where most media is made of men, by men and for men I learned that I would have to take what I could get.

In a world where most media is made of men, by men and for men I learned that I would have to take what I could get.

Obviously, there are always alternatives. There was Xena the Warrior Princess, an unapologetically rugged protagonist who oozed sex-appeal but didn’t really need a man around to affirm her womanhood. And don’t even get me started on my litany to Buffy Summers, often the final word on discussions of female badassery on TV. And yet, despite their brilliance, these shows are regarded as cult TV today, niche media remaining outside mainstream circles.

Xena The Warrior Princess & Buffy The Vampire Slayer

In recent years the trend seems to be improving with notable characters such as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road and Rey in Star Wars. However, they’ve also been scrutinised from all angles with MRAs finding some or the other fault with them, and some women wondering if they’re a bit too perfect.

The advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has led to a superhero obsession in the average movie buff. I am an ardent fan of Marvel movies too, but watching yet another male-led superhero movie often makes me question my feminist credentials.

Sexism in the big-budget superhero movie industry is no secret, the box-office failures of the only two superherione movies in recent times – which also happened to be bad movies, Elektra and Catwoman – have been cited as proof that cinema goers don’t want to watch women-led superhero movies.

It’s been infamously stated that the MCU’s first solo superherione movie (Captain Marvel) will only come out after twenty male-led superhero movies. Sure there’s Black Widow, but there’s a horde of problematic issues regarding the sexist treatment of the character, ranging from co-stars slut-shaming her, Black Widow having to awkwardly carry out emotional labour onscreen and serve as potential sexual interest for four male characters etc. The character of Gamora from Guardians is almost a pseudo Black Widow, an unfeeling, deadly assassin who also serves as a love interest to the team lead. Moreover, in casting Zoe Saldana, the MCU painted a black woman green to portray an alien, rather than showing us a strong black woman character who is comfortable in her own skin.

When DC announced that it would be making a Wonder Woman movie, I was excited but my expectations were reasonably restrained. If this movie turned out to be bad, would superherione movies be put on a backlog again?

Ten minutes into the movie, my fears were thwarted as I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I realised that a magnificent battle scene featuring women, like the one in Themyscira where the powerful and fearless Amazons dive in from cliff-tops and horses to defend their territory was something I had wanted to watch ever since I was a kid. In the next two hours we see a well-rounded character who is invincible yet compassionate, idealistic yet empathetic. Despite being a goddess, Diana is perhaps the most relatable big screen superherione I’ve come across, one who gushes over babies and ice-cream.

Diana becomes the superherione we’ve waited 75 years to watch, embodying heroism in a way that only a woman could.

My favourite part of the movie, like everyone else’s, is something that almost didn’t make the final cut of the movie. The build-up to it starts the very second Diana, and her gang start to journey toward the war front. Diana sees horses being whipped while struggling to get out of a marsh and naturally wants to help them, but her companions say they need to hurry and that she can’t help everyone. Next, she sees a badly wounded soldier and wants to rush to his aid, but she is told yet again that there is nothing she can do. Finally, when they reach the trenches, she learns about a village in siege on the other side. This third time, Diana can’t stand doing nothing anymore, despite Steve explicitly telling her that this was No Man’s Land, where no man could venture. And so Diana walks the unclaimed land taking all the enemy fire upon herself so that her gang with the rest of the allied soldiers can attack the enemy. (She then goes on to liberate the village, furiously lassoing enemies, flipping tanks over and obliterating buildings with the help of her awestruck gang.)

This is a marvellous and moving scene of self-realisation, where we get to see Diana in her iconic garb for the first time. After being repeatedly told that she can do nothing – in a war made up of men’s rules – Diana defiantly rises above the battalion of soldiers and walks through a desolate landscape repelling bullets. In the theatre, I was struck by the sudden urge to get up on my seat and start clapping, because this moment was feminist AF!

In that scene, Diana becomes the superherione we’ve waited 75 years to watch on the big screen, embodying heroism in a way that only a woman could. The scene is ultra-powerful because she is a woman in a man’s world – in her cinematic universe and in real life. You can’t replace her with Superman, Batman, Captain America or whoever.

What makes this scene especially ingenuous, is that it is allegorical of real life. Diana is repeatedly told that she can’t do what she wants. (I can’t recall a moment when a male superhero was told the same thing). This policing of her agency is comparable to the lived experiences of millions of women and girls across the world, who have been told at some point or the other that they can’t do something because of the dear old patriarchal world order; because ‘that’s how things are!’.

Was the movie perfect? Nope. The plot was arguably simplistic, the charming Steve Trevor’s mansplaining got annoying after a point, and the final fight with Ares was tedious and bloated. Even so, the reverential way the camera treats Diana, the tangible absence of a lecherous male gaze, the graceful yet gloriously badass fighting sequences, all of it contributes enormously to the sheer joy of watching a superherione who is the embodiment of dignity and poise, truly heroic in the romantic sense.

The policing of Diana’s agency is comparable to the lived experiences of millions of women across the world.

As much as I loved Wonder Woman, I left the theatre feeling this movie wasn’t timely but overdue. I wondered how many awe-inspiring heroines we’ve been deprived of over the years. In recent years, superhero movies have evolved to have complex and thought-provoking narratives such as The Dark Knight, Captain America: Civil War, Logan, etc. If you compare Wonder Woman to such movies, it will understandably fall short, because it’s not meant to be such a movie. Yet, these are the type of movies that fans are getting used to nowadays.

Also Read: A Feminist Reading Of Wonder Woman

I wish that Wonder Woman was made at least a decade ago, so that today we could have equally intricate superherione narratives. I have my fingers crossed because this is one hell of a good start. I am also thrilled for this generation of young girls who will get to watch a superherione movie made for them. And I hope that there are many such movies coming our way.


  1. Loved this piece. 🙂

    Patty Jenkin’s vision and Gal Gadot’s grace have made wonder woman a perfect warrior icon. The camera focussed on her weapons, the way she moved and the confident look on her face during battle sequences. Success of this film proved once and for all that it is time for women to leave their signature.

    Both Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot have suffered sexist setbacks. Hollywood reporter published a piece saying that “Warner bros is gambling 150 million with a director whose previous film was an 8 million indie flick”. They wouldn’t say the same about a male director. Some self-proclaimed “feminists” (men mostly, mansplaining) actually slut shamed Diana because she is “half naked” and for leaving her hair open. *facepalm*. Apparently, for them, women should be covered from head to toe and tie their hair to have super hero appeal. Wonder woman is simply who she is, and people will remember her for being a badass and not for being half naked. That’s beauty of a director-cinematographer’s vision of not capturing male gaze.

    Both Catwoman and Elektra were medrocre films in terms of storyline and direction. Catwoman has male gaze written all over it. Elektra showed the female lead being subjugated at several instances. Wonder woman, as a film, showed her the way we wanted to see. Wonder woman became a superhero, not due to extra motivation or push, but because they is simply who she is. Everyother super hero had an external motivation.

    Pity that Marvel kept sticking to their sexist agenda. A solo Black widow movie is supposed to have happened long back as she is the most complex character and her storyline is supposed more interesting when compared to her male counterparts with their motivated backgrounds. Black widow film not happening itself proves the studio’s painful sexism, since both producers Kevin Feige and Joss Whedon were more than ready to go forward with the same. Black Widow is a more popular brand when compared to Doctor Strange and Ant-man. Just like how it is mentioned in the article, Black widow is reduced to love interest of male characters, side kick and had setbacks like being a damsel in distress in Avengers age of Ultron. The only movie which actually gave justice to Black widow is Avengers.

    Watching wonder woman was like taking a fresh breath in since what we received is back-to-back super hero film starring Caucasian men, sprinkled with internalised misogyny. A deeper breath could be taken when Marvel’s Black panther is released next year as the film features Black super heroes, taking place in Africa. Lack of intersectionality should not be limited debates or sticks used to to beat marginalised section.

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