To be honest, I didn’t know if I was going to write anything about Wonder Woman. So many journalists and critics have written excellent, insightful pieces about the film, its importance and impact that it seemed unnecessary to add my voice to the fray.
But then, in the same week, I saw a scathing Guardian headline which described Gal Gadot as a ‘weaponised Smurfette’ and a comment from someone I (still) follow and admire on Twitter which suggested that, while Gadot is good, the film itself was ‘nothing to get excited about.’ #RedRag.
While I disagree vehemently with both of these observations — both made by men, incidentally — this is not intended as any kind of rebuttal; the world of film criticism is fuelled by opinions and they are fully entitled to theirs. Instead, these somewhat dismissive responses got me thinking more about my own emotional response to the film, and what it means to me on a deeply personal level.
The Gender Gap
The issue of women in film is one close to my heart, and I’ve been writing about the topic for the last five of my fifteen years as a journalist and critic. Shamefully, in the first decade of my career I was somewhat oblivious to the gender problem but once the scales dropped (or, rather, were ripped) from my eyes, the treatment (and lack) of women in front of and behind the camera became a subject impossible to ignore. It has informed my watching and writing ever since.
This means that, even though I am not a huge fan of modern superhero movies and — don’t judge me — know next to nothing about the character herself, this Wonder Woman was always going to be a Very Big Deal. There was not just my usual hope that it would be entertaining, but a need for it work in universal terms; i.e, be good enough to galvanise audiences, do well at the box office, prove that a blockbuster made by — and about — a woman could be successful and, hopefully, spark a sustainable on-screen diversity revolution.
It is, of course, deeply unfair for a single film to shoulder so much cultural responsibility, but there’s no denying that director Patty Jenkins held the fate of female filmmakers (at least those working on studio projects) in her hand. Her film is, after all, a product of a world in which men are allowed to succeed or fail on their own terms, but individual women are always accountable for their entire gender.
More specifically, it is the product of a film industry that has a proven ingrained bias towards films made by, for and about anyone who isn’t white, male and able-bodied; i.e women, people of colour, the LGBTQ, transgender and disabled communities and anyone who identifies as ‘other’. An industry that views handing mega-budget projects to unproven male directors as an ‘exciting opportunity’, and to similarly qualified women — and, often, more experienced women — as a ‘risk’ they are usually unprepared to take. (Even this long-gestating version of Wonder Woman has had several male directors attached, including Ivan Reitman, Joss Whedon and Paul Feig.) If this film had flopped, it wouldn’t have been merely disappointing; it would have given those purse string-holding naysayers yet more misguided validation.
We CAN Save The World
So, yes, I was nervous when I took my seat for Wonder Woman; not in a critics screening, but with my (female) friend in my packed local cinema. I needn’t have worried. Right from the opening scenes, in which a young Diana watches her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, legend), Aunt Antiope (Robin Wright, legend) and the legion of spectacular Amazon women engage in brutal combat training and, through hard work and determination, grows to become her community’s greatest warrior, I was in tears. Tears of relief, of joy, of the realisation that Hollywood may finally have come to its senses. This wasn’t just going to be good; it was going to be game-changing.
The genius of the film, from Allan Heinberg’s screenplay and Patty Jenkins’ direction to Gal Gadot’s central performance, is that it is, first and foremost, a kick-ass superhero movie; one that is fairly conventional in all aspects except the gender of its protagonist. It’s played as a straight role reversal and, crucially, never makes issue of Diana’s womanhood (even if some of its characters do). Her beauty, her skills, her sheer awesomeness are all presented as matter of fact; the story and camera respect her as much as they admire her. Her femininity is never displayed as a weakness, nor used as a particular strength; it’s just a part of who she is.
That Diana has taken her equality entirely for granted from childhood is another of the film’s great joys; more bemused than surprised when that equality is questioned, she never allows anyone to force (or persuade) her to deviate from her course of action. In the face of this confidence, Chris Pine’s All-American World War I spy Steve takes the more submissive — and traditionally female — role of love interest. After Diana rebuffs all of his efforts to protect her, and saves his life on multiple occasions, he is the one to sacrifice himself in service to her mission.
Although heroic (and, obviously, super cute), Steve also represents ‘everyman’ in the way in which he responds to Diana. He is initially shocked to see a woman embody such strength and authority, conditioned to expect her to yield to his manly heroism. Diana, however, is equally as perplexed that he doubts her ability to effectively handle her shit.
“I am the man that can,” she says confidently, and with no hint of irony, about her ability to save the world. ‘What I do is not up to you,’ she retorts when he attempts to protect her from danger, before getting on with the mission at hand. By the climactic battle, however, Steve is in total thrall, responding to her power with acceptance and gratitude. “I can save the day,” he says. “You can save the world.” Reader, I cheered. (And cried. Again.)
I am not alone in my visceral, emotional response to this groundbreaking blockbuster. Fellow critics, journalists, commentators and — most importantly — audiences have responded in kind. On the wretched day in June that Britain went to the polls for the General Election, I interviewed award-winning political feminist journalist Laurie Penny about her new book Bitch Doctrine. Amidst our discussions about Trump, Theresa May and the terrifying rise of the misogynistic far right, our conversation naturally turned to Wonder Woman. Of course, we both loved it, but we also shared surprise at just how moving the experience was.
“I cried!,” Penny exclaimed. “I rarely cry in public at all, I’m very British about things. But it was overwhelming. A bit like Mad Max. You look at it, and suddenly you realise what’s been missing in the stories we tell about women.
That overwhelming sense that Wonder Woman is filling a huge gap in cinematic storytelling is no hyperbole; indeed, it is the very reason that women are responding in their droves with joy, pride and emotion. It’s one of very few films — and, really, the only blockbuster — that boasts a powerful, multi-faceted female protagonist who genuinely stands alone in, and is the driving force of, her own narrative. The closest may indeed be Mad Max, which really belonged to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa; but even she shared her story to some extent with Tom Hardy’s eponymous ‘hero’. The titular Wonder Woman, however, owns her film outright, from title to final reel.
Emperor’s New Clothes
Over the last few years, we have been offered a roster of films purporting to be ‘feminist’. But a central female character is simply not enough; true gender equality lies in the portrayal and treatment of these women. Which means that works like Under The Skin (in which Scarlett Johansson plays an often-naked alien who uses sex as a weapon and is sacrificed after discovering human empathy), Ex_Machina (in which Alicia Vikander plays an often-naked sentient sexbot, whose so-called revenge against her pervy creator doesn’t excuse her appalling treatment) and Duke Of Burgundy (which features an entire cast of often-naked sado-masochistic lesbians) are ‘emperors new clothes’ attempts at feminism. Beyond their headline-grabbing central female character, films such as these prove, time and again, to be the same old male-gazey stories of submission, objectification and subjugation.
There have, of course, been notable and brilliant exceptions alongside the aforementioned Mad Max. Alice Lowe’s Prevenge, Jennifer Kent’s Babadook and Susanne Bier’s A Second Chance all challenge traditional notions of motherhood; Alex Taylor’s Spaceship and Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood present female adolescence as empowering and celebratory; and Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette honours ordinary women’s fearless fight for the right to vote. These are truly feminist films, with female characters who embody the full range of the human experience in entirely their own terms. They are, in short, allowed to be as strong, flawed, messy, complicated and interesting as their male counterparts.
Fight The Status Quo
For the Women in Film issue of movieScope in March 2013, filmmaker/actress Alice Lowe told me how angry she was about the traditional on-screen portrayal of women. “It’s a constant frustration to me how one-dimensional the characters are in the scripts I get handed,” she said. “Women usually remain constant and unchanging in film and support the man on his journey.”
And, when I spoke to Lowe for the BFI earlier this year about her directorial debut Prevenge, which sees a pregnant woman driven to murder by her unborn foetus, she stressed the continuing need to fight the status quo. “It’s important to show female characters experiencing other emotions and actions that what we are conditioned to expect,” she asserted. “You can see the whole of Prevenge as an American Psycho-type fantasy if you wish; it’s a metaphor for a woman tearing through the societal net she feels herself snared within.”
As both film and character, Wonder Woman is doing exactly that. While Diana may not be a run-of-the-mill ‘everywoman’, she is recognisably female (and not just in terms of her smoking hotness) and tears through gender expectations with every defiant action. As Gadot herself told Entertainment Weekly in a July 2016 interview, she and Jenkins were determined to keep the character as grounded as possible. “When Patty and I had our creative conversations, we realised that Diana can still be a normal woman, one with very high values but still a woman. She can be sensitive. She is smart and independent and emotional. She can be confused. She can lose her confidence. She can have confidence. She is everything.”
Diana is everything, an uber-goddess version of us. A woman fuelled by emotion, sure, but also pride, justice and righteous indignation. And, crucially, she is a woman who is not only proud of her talents and achievements, but acknowledged and celebrated for them. She is allowed to not only succeed in a landscape populated almost entirely by men, but to dominate it. While there are some who try to put her in her place, they are inconsequential; both to Diana and her story. There is no man alive that can get in her way — not even the one she comes to love.
It’s also no coincidence that, that in Diana’s first big-screen solo story, she is pitted not against the outlandish super villains of other comic book movies but ordinary men, from those who rule the boardroom to those facing off on either side of No Man’s Land — across which she strides without fear. Diana is literally taking on the traditional all-male establishment, and her fight is the fight of all women, writ large.
Kick In A Bear
It’s impossible, then, to overstate the empowering experience of watching a film like Wonder Woman. My friend and I came out of the screening filled with energy, feeling like we could take on the world — or at least, in Laurie Penny’s words, ‘kick in a bear’. We finally shared in the experiences of male audiences, who have long watched versions of themselves — from the most heroic to the most undeserving — step up, save the world and get the girl.
Wonder Woman’s message that women can be heroes too — and ones imbued with humanity, bravery and grace — is already hitting home, the internet crammed with legions of photos of girls dressed like, or meeting, or in awe of Diana. Now, though, the challenge is to make that idea stick and keep the momentum going, by continuing to make mainstream films which celebrate (rather than objectify) the ‘other’. That means not only more female heroes, but also protagonists of colour, and from the LGBTQ, transgender and disabled communities. Wonder Woman has more than proved that the so-called ‘risk’ of deviating from the tired cinematic norms can bring huge rewards. As Diana herself would probably say, it’s about bloody time.