Wonder Woman and Feminism

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Recent comments by a specific Hollywood director have sparked conversation around Wonder Woman and its feminist takeaways. While not surprising, I’m not entirely interested in discussing the way in which Diana’s costuming choices can or cannot be labeled ‘objectifying’, especially when they come from James “I gave a non-mammalian alien breasts so that the presumably straight white male audience would lust over them” Cameron. I don’t consider him an authority on the objectification of women’s bodies, and I think treating him as such gives more credence to his critique than it deserves.

However, there are other criticisms of the film I’ve heard that I do believe bear closer examination. Specifically, the lack of women after Diana leaves Themiscyra and the casting of a Greek God with a white male actor rather than someone of Greek or otherwise Middle Eastern descent.

I’m sympathetic to the criticism that apart from Etta Candy, Diana has no significant interactions with female characters after leaving Themiscyra. However, there’s more to this decision than a simple failure on Patty Jenkin’s part or merely an artifact of making a film about World War I. I do think that a more prominent role for women in the British army—as soldiers, not as nurses or factory workers, which are roles they did fill—would have been anachronistic, but that’s beside the point. There are ways female characters could have been more integrated into the story and to me, it’s significant that they aren’t.

Think about it. Diana leaves a society run by women where militaristic action is entirely defensive and protective and enters a world of violent, aggressive conflict. This is also a world dominated by men. The coexistence of these two elements feels intentional. Patty Jenkins is making a point about the inherent violence of patriarchal society that relegates women to secondary involvement at best (Etta Candy), downright exploitation and manipulation at worst (Isabel Maru, aka Doctor Poison).

Isabel Maru is so starved for positive interaction that all it takes is a random stranger telling her he admires her work with zero strings attached for her to consider changing allegiances. Her bitter reaction to Trevor zeroing in on Diana without any context says everything. She is what a toxic, patriarchal society has made her to be: a bitter, angry, intelligent woman whose lack of conventional beauty due to scars means she can never quite be what society asks of her. Would I have preferred her to be the secondary antagonist to Ares? Yes, of course. She’s an interesting character, and I’m a fan of well-written female villains to complement a female protagonist. I also think a conflict with a female villain would have been a fascinating internal struggle for Diana given her heritage.

At the same time, I think my desire for that doesn’t line up with one of the thematic goals of the film, which is a giant fuck you to the patriarchy. Both of Diana’s villains are middle-aged white males, one a violent, megalomaniacal warmonger with delusions of grandeur. The other, a seemingly mild-mannered, sympathetic politician who’s secretly pulling all the strings to keep the world in utter chaos because he believes human beings are beneath him. I mean, that’s a pretty pointed critique of our current society and political landscape. As much as I hate to admit it, a more prominent role for Dr. Maru and other female characters would interfere with that messaging.

The ultimate message of Wonder Woman is the radical, subversive heroism of women who believe in love, empathy, compassion, and protecting humanity so that it can become it’s best self. To make that point, Diana enters a world dominated by white men, where women cannot rise above the role of secretary or exploited scientist, because men will not allow them to. Diana relies on an all-male team to assist her—a racially diverse all-male team I might add, which was not necessary for Jenkins to include, but she did, which, again, is telling—not because women are less capable. But because in this world, women are not allowed to.

We know Etta Candy is capable. As Tumblerites have pointed out, she wields the sword Hippolyta claimed “only the fiercest among us even could”. Candy even admits she engages in “a bit of fisticuffs, should the occasion arise” (an improvised line from Lucy Davis that I adore) and we’re never given any reason to doubt that she would kick ass. And that’s the whole point. She’s smart, funny, capable, a suffragist, and likely physically powerful, but human society won’t let her reach her full potential. Because the patriarchy is bullshit.

Exhibit 25 for pointed critique of patriarchal views of women.

Same with Dr. Maru. We know she’s more than capable of filling the secondary villain role to Ares. I find her callous indifference in developing mustard gas infinitely more terrifying than Ludendorff’s loud, blustering bloodlust. The fact that she isn’t the secondary villain, I believe, is meant to further highlight just how messed up patriarchal systems are. They can’t even let women be proper antagonists. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, I think Diana facing down two middle-aged white males is a more incisive way to direct the critique of modern patriarchy. Dr. Maru is a more compelling villain on paper, but ultimately, the true villain of modern society is the patriarchy, not other women. And Diana steps in to punch that shit down.

In a sense, Diana frees Dr. Maru from the patriarchy to be…well, whatever she wants. Dr. Maru can go on to become the ultimate villain in the next film (please oh please let that happen) because Diana has removed the barrier relegating Isabel Maru to the role of secondary villain.

Depicting the negative effects of the patriarchy on women, including how it relegates women to secondary roles, in order to blast a hole through it isn’t ‘unfeminist’. In fact, it’s quite feminist. What on the surface appears to be counter to our instincts in wanting more and better representation for women is, to my mind, a scathing critique of how the patriarchy oppresses women in both stories and real life. Etta and Isobel aren’t depicted as less capable; if they were, we’d have a problem. One can argue that by showing us that they are, in fact, capable, and then keeping them secondary, Jenkins reproduces patriarchal oppressions. But we can’t miss the fact that she’s doing so to make a point: that they’re fucked up and need to be destroyed.

Diana gives a resounding middle finger to these oppressive strictures by proving that women are just as, if not more, capable than the men around her. And she does so not with more aggressive violence, but with a defensive posture and an eye toward saving those that her (male) colleagues have deemed themselves unable to help. The patriarchy, and it’s fucked up devaluation of intelligent, capable women, exists for Etta and Isobel to prove wrong by example and for Diana to tear down.

I also believe this intersects with why Ares was played by David Thewlis rather than someone of of Greek or Middle Eastern descent. It’s important thematically that the ultimate villain be the face of a patriarchal system that overwhelmingly favors rich white men. Rather than a case of whitewashing by casting a white male actor over a racially or ethnically more accurate choice, David Thewlis’ casting is a visual representation of everything Diana must defeat.

Everything about him from his benign, condescending demeanor to his privileged position of power and wealth to his physique to the way he goes from patronizing to cruel when he doesn’t get his way speaks to peak white male privilege. Every woman in that audience knows Ares. We’ve met Ares in real life. We live with, work with, heck, may even be married to or the daughter of an Ares. So when Diana kicks his ass, we know exactly what that means. She’s punching the heck out of the patriarchal system that’s oppressed us all, and we get to watch her take it down.

This still makes me teary.

The one critique I’m extremely sympathetic too is the background role for women of color. Yes, the Amazons are quite racially diverse, and visually, that’s awesome to see. At the same time, none of the Black or Latinx or Asian Amazons had any speaking lines, nor were they on screen for significant lengths of time. As with the discussion of women in general, they disappear once Diana leaves Themiscyra.

While it does at some level intersect with the absence of women of color in patriarchal societies—and therefore with my discussion above—this is an absence that doesn’t sit as easily with me even in this light. Elena Anaya (Isabel Maru) is Spanish, so that’s something. But still. I’m discomfited with the dearth of women of color in prominent speaking roles throughout the film. Due to how complicated the discussion of ‘whiteness’ is in America when it comes to people of certain descents versus how they’re perceived globally, I’m not sure just saying “Gal Gadot is Israeli and Elena Anaya is Spanish so it’s fine” is the best option.

At the end of the day, I sympathize those who critique Wonder Woman for not leaning into intersectional feminism enough. Given what I strongly believe Jenkins was doing with the human world as a representation of oppressive patriarchy—which includes the sidelining of women—so that Diana could shatter it, the only solution I can think of is re-casting either Isabel Maru or Etta Candy, which definitely could have worked. I believe Etta is black in one of the most recent comic book runs for Wonder Woman, so it wouldn’t have been out of place. As much as I absolutely adore Lucy Davis as Etta, that role need not necessarily be played by a white woman.

I adore this Etta.

Another, potentially parallel option would have been to give one of the Amazons played by a woman of color a more prominent speaking role. Again, as much as I absolutely love Robin Wright as Antiope and Connie Nielson as Hippolyta, there’s no reason either or both of them could not have been played by non-white actors.

These aren’t onerous choices to be made, so more definitely could have been done to fit Wonder Woman better into an intersectional feminist framework. I both acknowledge how much good Jenkins did with Wonder Woman in telling the story of a female superhero who punches the patriarchy and chooses compassion, empathy, and love over violence, and recognize that there are still areas to improve, especially within an intersectional feminist framework.

Despite what I said at first, I’d like to close out by addressing one of Cameron’s critiques. Yes, Diana isn’t a conventional ‘action hero’ type. She’s not hard, cynical, emotionally distant, or terse. She doesn’t dress in more masculinized clothing. She’s emotional, she’s soft, she’s feminine. She likes babies. But she’s also physically powerful, has staunch beliefs, and stands up for what’s right. She breaks the mold of ‘conventional’ female action heroes, thereby furthering the point of how limiting patriarchal notions can be. Patriarchy defines ‘strong women’ typically in masculine terms; they have to behave like their male counterparts in the film or television genre in order to be truly strong. Anything that smacks of conventional femininity is rejected as being ‘weak’.

Diana undermines that idea. Her existences as both a physically strong, superpowered person with more feminine coded traits defies conventional logic about what a Strong Woman™ is. She likes ice cream and practical battle gear and neither one cancels out the other. As with the preceding points, I believe this is intentional on Jenkins’ part. Everything about this film feels intentional. And while that doesn’t mean everything will land with the same power or meaning, that doesn’t mean that the choices were casually made.

It also doesn’t mean I can’t be frustrated with the lack of other strong female characters or wish roles for women of color had been more significant. There’s a fine line between depiction and endorsement, and for some, Wonder Woman may not pass muster. But to my mind, given how much else Patty Jenkins did right about this film, she deserves the benefit of the doubt and a closer look at what her choices point to before labeling this or that choice as contrary to feminism.

Images Courtesy of Warner Bros. and DC Comics