The anticipation and speculation over Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman feels like déjà vu from last summer’s all-female Ghostbusters reboot. Since the first glimpse of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in teaser promotions, my head has been swirling with questions about feminism, representation, mythology, and the male gaze. Last summer, the MRA rage was all about protecting the sacred original Ghostbusters (1984) from the trappings of an unfunny misandrist feminist plot. This summer, MRAs are decrying the handful of women-only screenings of Wonder Woman. Their urge to hate-watch seemingly clouds their ability to google showtimes for the other 99.9% of screenings available to them. Or maybe they’re terrified that even the smallest conspiratorial gathering of women watching a film about a powerful woman will lead down the dangerous path to matriarchy.
But let’s jump back a bit. In her 1941 debut, Wonder Woman is the most feminist hero we could ask for—fatherless descendent of a matriarchal society, fierce demigoddess warrior trained in combat since youth, empowered sexual being with a penchant for bondage play, multilingual ambassador for peace. After all, she was created by a polyamorous feminist psychologist who believed women were the key to saving humanity. In her midlife as a cultural icon, Wonder Woman was relegated to the sexist roles of Justice League damsel and secretary (actually), whose main ambition was to marry Steve Trevor. She’s been simultaneously dragged out as fodder for straight male sexual fantasies, and held up as a symbol of female empowerment (the inaugural cover of Ms. Magazine in 1972 being one of many instances).
It’s unsurprising this beloved cultural icon is the subject of the first female-helmed superhero film (did you, too, forget Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005)? It’s for the best). It’s just shocking that it took 76 years. (I’ll remind you all, Superman has had 10 movies in his 79 year lifespan). We’re in a big-screen desert devoid of complex female characters, poised to drink up whatever pittance Hollywood throws at us. When women finally seize the screen (or, for that matter, the director’s chair, boardroom, and public office), they face undue pressure to be wildly successful on the first try, and to represent all women in the process. The stakes are higher for female-led everything, and the opportunities are few and far between, especially for storytellers and performers of colour. And yet, how many atrocious movies, sequels, and reboots with white men at the forefront have you endured? (I’m looking at you Spiderman, Hulk, and Fantastic Four franchises. And whoever keeps writing blank cheques to the likes of Adam Sandler and Michael Bay—just. stop. it.). As Daily Show correspondent Michelle Wolf exclaimed, “No one left crappy Batman vs. Superman, saying, “Well, I guess we’re done with making 'man' movies.” We deserve—nay, we need far more than unwatchable, whitewashed films that fail the Bechdel Test.
We’re beyond ready for Jenkins’s Wonder Woman. And moreover, ready for women-only film screenings (which have precedent, by the way. I recommend Anna Leszkiewicz’s piece in the Statesmen for some history on this matter). It’s not some discriminatory nation-wide ban that MRAs make it out to be. For that kind of thing, you can look to voting rights in Canada, which only extended to First Nations women as recently as 1960. A women-only screening is a private business decision made by a few theatres, who recognize that some women will pay for a safe viewing space free from the potential ogling of male patrons. A women-only screening is intended as a safe space, free from the male gaze both symbolically and physically. It is no different than local pools, bike shops, and beer festivals hosting women-, trans-, and queer-friendly nights and events. Creating safe space is not only politically and morally important, but it makes good business sense. If potential patrons avoid your establishment out of fear for their physical and mental well-being, frankly you should lose profits and face sanctions (ahem, looking at you, College Street Bar).
Evidently, I would have preferred a women-only and trans-and non-binary/queer-positive screening on Thursday night. As the end credits rolled, a drunk man lodged a transphobic slur at a non-binary individual in front of him. A trans female friend jumped to their defense, and the drunk man punched her and continued swinging until another patron jumped in. Apparently it’s too much to expect that three queer people could attend a movie incident-free, and have a smoke outside after to debrief. No, instead, they get a belligerent seat-kicker, verbal and physical assault, police statements, and further fears for safety. For my part, it’s the second time in a year I’ve witnessed transphobic violence and provided police statements in the wee hours following the incident. Silly of me to expect that at final curtain, I could focus my energy on reviewing my notes and flexing my feminist media studies brain. So to any man still whining about being excluded from women’s-only anything in 2017, kindly shut the fuck up. There’s work to be done and you’re distracting us. Better yet, make use of any number of the men’s only spaces you have access to, and begin to confront one another about the toxic masculinity and misogyny you’re perpetuating.
I came here to review a film, and I’ll be damned if I get sidetracked by MRAs' hurt feelings and drunk male violence.
So what did I think?
Wonder Woman is the best film of the DC cinematic universe thus far, and a solidly entertaining film in general. The DC offerings have been criticized for lacking the balance of comedy and drama and tight dialogue that Marvel seems to consistently deliver. Under the steady direction of Patty Jenkins, we are treated to an origin story of Diana Prince that is loyal to its creator’s vision, and relevant to modern-day discussions of gender politics. As we pan over the all-female Paradise Island, a tropical utopia out of place and time, we witness women in training — hand-to-hand combat, horseback acrobatics, archery, sword-fighting. On an overlooking rock, we meet young Diana, mimicking their moves with an intense glare. She begs her mother Queen Hippolyta (played by Connie Nielsen) to be trained for combat with the other Amazons, who are prepared in the event of an invasion from the spurned God of War. Her aunt, and the fiercest Amazon warrior, General Antiope (deftly portrayed by Robin Wright), trains her in secret, telling her, “You are stronger than you think, Diana.” And so, Diana is forged by a sense of duty to honour her people and protect humanity, raised with nothing but powerful and compassionate women to look up. Sure sounds like utopia to me! Indeed the literal and figurative sisterhood of the Amazons stands as the only nuanced depiction of female relationships in the superhero genre.
Throughout the film, it is obvious that Diana has grown up without any of the shackles of patriarchy. This is played to great effect care of the anachronistic storyline, and the commanding performance from Gal Gadot. I'm not going to comment on Gadot's time in the Israeli military or her pro-Israel statements, except to say an audible "BOOOO" #supportBDS #freegaza. You see, it is not a vengeful Ares who invades the shores of Paradise Island, but rather the boats of German soldiers during WWI, searching for the crashed plane of undercover spy, Steve Trevor (played by Chris Pine). It leads to the most surreal and breathtaking action sequence of the film, with the Amazons on horseback managing to out-maneuver the gun-toting soldiers and decimate them in hand-to-hand combat. And so, our heroine encounters her first ever man, but more importantly embarks on her destiny to save humanity from WWI (which, in her naive view, could only be a result of man’s corruption by Ares). And with that, we are treated to several instances of an ambitious, hardworking and self-assured woman not keen to follow the rules of a man’s world.
Just when you think Diana Prince (since "Princess of the Amazons" stands out a bit in wartime London) is naive, she undercuts your doubt. Like when Steve tries to determine whether she knows what sex is, Diana matter of factly states that she’s read 10 volumes on “reproductive biology and pleasures of the flesh”, which determined that men are essential for reproduction, but not necessary for pleasure. There’s a running gag about Steve telling her to “Stay here!” and it’s her immediate refusal that moves the plot and action forward, much to the delight of audiences. Which is another important feature of the film—Diana is motivating the plot forward by sheer will and devotion to her cause. She will not be told what to do or where to go, and will most definitely voice her opinions as they arise.
In fact, there are only one or two scenes in the film were we witness conversations about Diana in her absence. Once, on Paradise Island, when her maternal figures discuss whether or not to allow her to train for combat and realize her destiny. And again later, in one of the only scenes that I would cut entirely.
The scene, which plays as sort of a wink-wink, nudge-nudge to the male sexual fantasy of Wonder Woman, takes place as Diana is joined by Steve's rag-tag group of comrades on a journey towards the front line. It's a predictable throwaway comment from Sameer about his desire to visit an island full of Diana-like creatures immediately.
Oh, did I forget to mention this cast of secondary male characters? Whoops.
On the journey to the front lines of WWI, Steve recruits a trusted team of colleagues. It reads like a bit of a joke—something about a Scotsman, an Algerian actor and an Indigenous man walking into a bar. But the fact is, these characters play off Diana just fine and serve to demonstrate her ability to connect with people and display empathy above all else. Some might argue it's a clunky plot device, but I respect the filmmakers' efforts to have Sameer and Chief reveal to her the darkness of man—namely, racism and cultural genocide.
The parts of the film that play the best revolve around her "fish out of water" experience with patriarchy. For instance, on learning that Etta Candy (played by Lucy Davis) must attend to Steve’s every need as his secretary, Diana states flatly, “Where I come from, that’s called slavery.” This is not a one-off bone to throw to feminists—it's woven throughout.
Pressured to don the feminine frills of London’s fabulous dresses?
“Who cares, I just need to be able to kick and punch in it.”
Closed door meeting of military men discussing armistice without any plans to address the impending threat of mustard gas?
“Hey guys, what’s up, I’m Diana and you’re all wrong.”
Pervy comments from a colleague spoken in a foreign language to fool you?
“Naw dude I speak that language and a hundred more, so can we not?”
No Man’s Land?
“Super, because I’m no man, so I’m crossing through it to save that village of innocents.”
It’s all quite exhilarating and inspiring, to be honest. Can we get a “Rules According to Diana Prince?” guidebook, because I’d buy it. Diana deals with the executive floor having men’s only washrooms. Diana tackles equal pay. Diana’s comebacks to cat-callers. Whether it’s the best dialogue or storytelling doesn’t matter much to me. What matters is that we have, in a major motion picture, a female character that is deftly navigating the patriarchy, making new friends in a strange land, and saving the world. It’d be nice if she could wear pants though, it looked cold in those WWI trenches.
Image source: screenshot of official Wonder Woman trailer
Last updated 10:46 AM on Sunday, June 4th.
Lauren McNicol is a recovering academic who has published work on mainstream depictions of feminist activism and the bullshit MRA movement. After escaping the ivory tower, she's paid the bills working as a research coordinator, live-in nanny, grant writer, jewelry store clerk, and census enumerator. These days, she's finding her passion as a visual merchandiser, cocktail ambassador and occasional recipe tester. She lives happily with her partner and plants in a one bedroom rental.
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