Some Preliminary Thoughts on Wonder Woman

I saw Wonder Woman last night and I thought it was excellent. Director Patty Jenkins pulls off a bold and ambitious story with aplomb.

There’s a lot to say about the film, and even more to say about the 76-year history of Wonder Woman as a character, but for now I just want to get a few preliminary thoughts about the movie down.

These are basic, raw thoughts, and I may change this blog post as my thoughts continue to develop. If you have any comments or you can correct / challenge me on any of the below, please do so!

This is also my first foray into the critical discussion of the film, and I am indebted to Abigail Nussbaum’s blogpost for its inspiration and links to other articles discussing aspects of the film.

Spoilers follow…

Smashing the Patriarchy from the Outside

In her blogpost on Wonder Woman, Nussbaum notes that:

More than almost any other character in pop culture, Diana exists outside of patriarchy.  And while it’s powerful to see a woman who brushes aside the assumption that she’s not as good as a man because the very idea that this might be true is completely foreign to her heritage and upbringing, what this also means is that a lot of the central questions of feminism are equally foreign to her.

Nussbaum argues that Diana’s position outside the patriarchy raises issues in the context of the film’s setting that the film does not address, and she discusses some of the negative effects of this. There are, however, also positive repercussions to a character who exists outside patriarchy in the context of the history of cinema.

Near the beginning of the film the male hero Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) takes Diana’s hand and runs with her, leading her away from the invading force of German soldiers. We’ve seen the man leading the woman out of danger before: for example, in The Princess Bride (1987), when Buttercup is led through the Fire Swamp by her lover; or, more recently, in Doctor Who (1963 -) when the Doctor leads his female companion away from danger.

Wesley (Cary Elwes) leads Buttercup (Robin Wright) through the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride. Wright plays General Antiope in Wonder Woman
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman in a Doctor Who press photo

In Wonder Woman, Diana pulls her hand away from Steve and runs by herself. This makes complete sense, as Diana is much more powerful than Steve and does not need protecting.

A similar moment occurs in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), when Finn, the male stormtrooper, grabs Rey’s hand and, whilst running, pulls her away from danger. Rey objects:

Let go of me!

No, we gotta move!

[REY pulls her hand back]

I know how to run without you holding my hand!

Rey, like Diana, does not need protecting. But Star Wars makes a statement about this: it turns it into a moment even in the middle of the characters’ escape. Rey is a strong independent character who does not need her hand held; in fact, she objects to it. Wonder Woman is a strong independent character who does not need her hand held; she doesn’t even think to object. The idea of men naturally taking the role of protector does not exist in Themyscira.

The difference reminded me of the Always #LikeAGirl advertising campaign.1 In the Always video, a man, a woman, and a young boy are asked to run ‘like a girl’; throw ‘like a girl’ and fight ‘like a girl’. They run with flailing limbs; throw half-heartedly; fight with limp hands, slapping imaginary faces. When young girls are asked to repeat the actions, they do so earnestly: the run as fast as they can; throw as far as they can; fight as if they were karate experts.

The idea supporting the campaign is that young girls are unfamiliar with – or have so far rejected – the idea that ‘like a girl’ in a demeaning insult. Like Diana in Themyscira, they act the only way they know how: as themselves.

In my opinion the subtle, easily-missed moment when Diana runs free from Steve is every bit as powerful as the moment when Rey objects to Finn holding her hand.

No-Man’s Land

Another moment which echoes one from a different movie occurs in the trenches scene, when Steve Trevor tells Diana that she can’t go over the top because ‘that’s no man’s land. It means that no man can go there.’

I was waiting for Diana to point out that ‘no man’s land’ doesn’t apply to her as a woman. Screenplay writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson made that same play on words in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003):

           WITCH KING
No man can kill me . . . Die now!

[EOWYN pulls off her helmet, revealing her face and long hair.]

I am no man. She STABS the WITCH KING in the face with her sword.

In Wonder Woman, Diana doesn’t make such a quip: she simply states her intention to go over the top, and then walks towards the German trenches.

Admittedly, it’s a different scenario than the one Eowyn faces. The ‘no man’ rule doesn’t apply to Diana not just because she’s a woman but because she’s not a human; her demi-god powers mean she can survive where others, male or female, would be killed.

But Diana still breaks a rule that assumes the person engaging in the act is male. Eowyn is aware – if only on the level of a quip – that her actions are symbolically anti-patriarchal. Diana breaks a rule that does not apply to her because of her strength, but her actions are not less significant, in the context of cinema history, because of that.

Power Relations and Sex

To begin with a general statement: in male superhero films the love interest can be a hero, an anti-hero / villain, or a sort of ‘reward’. Louis Lane is a type of hero because she is a fearless reporter. Elsa in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a villain. Some of the women in the James Bond movies seem to merely act as a reward for James’s strong and heroic actions.

In terms of power dynamics, the love interest might attempt to overpower the hero and ends up being overpowered herself (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), or attempt to overpower the hero and meets a stalemate (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), or never puts up a fight to begin with (James Bond).

The point I’m clumsily trying to make is that in superhero films, the love story is often as much of a power-struggle or demonstration of power as the action scenes are.

I expected to see Diana overpower Steve. After all, she’s the more powerful hero. Instead, the film didn’t follow the power dynamics of most other superhero films.

Diana and Steve first sleep together as friends, after Diana makes Steve understand that a man and a woman can sleep together without it being sexual, even when both are sexually mature.

Later in the movie, Steve hovers around the door of Diana’s room. She fixes him with a gaze and her look seems to give him permission to close the door and spend the night with her. Who asks, and who gives permission? Who leans in for the kiss? They both ask; they both give permission; they both kiss. It’s as if sex can be instigated without a show of power at all!

This dynamic means that Steve is no less of a man – in the context of the dominant First World War era idea of masculinity in Britain and America – even though he is in a sexual relationship with a powerful woman. Diana’s power does not make Steve the weak partner or the equivalent of the woman. They can both be strong, which is good for anyone who fears the idea of strong women because they think it leads to emasculated men.

The above image, of unknown origin, is often used to make the point that homosexual couples have sex in a different way to heterosexual couples; there does not need to be the equivalent of a ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in every sexual relationship. Likewise, there doesn’t need to be a dominant person and a submissive person in a heterosexual relationship, such as the one between Diana and Steve. Both partners can be strong… like chopsticks!

The morning after, Diana is cheerful and making plans for the day. There’s no shame, and no feeling that things have changed in the dynamic between Diana and Steve. Later on that day, Diana is angry at Steve for a decision he made. In no way does it feel that Diana owes Steve anything, or belongs to him to any extent, just because they had sex.

The above should be completely obvious whenever two people have sex, but I don’t feel that this is usually how sex is portrayed in films; especially not in superhero films. We rarely see the morning after, and when we do, we often only see the male hero leaving the woman asleep in the bed.

At the end of the film we see a victory celebration in London. A man and a woman kiss each other.

Any kiss at a victory celebration brings Alfred Eisenstaedt’s ‘V-J Day in Times Square’ to mind.  The photo has been used to represent the joy of victory after war, but more recently people have argued that it depicts a sexual assault. Certainly the man is physically overpowering the woman.

Zack Snyder – who was one of the  producers of Wonder Woman – subverted this image in Watchmen (2009) by replacing the man with another woman.

We also see, from the build-up to the photo, that the kiss is consensual, although one person is still being overpowered by the other, physically bent over by the woman on the left.

In Wonder Woman, the couple are merely kissing. It is consensual. There is no power imbalance.

Sexual power imbalances are not necessarily unhealthy, but it is refreshing to see  Wonder Woman portraying a sexual relationship in a different way to most other superhero films.

Non White, Non Western (To Some Extent)

As well as being male-dominated, Superhero films have to date been Western, mostly white, dominated. Marvel’s Black Panther movie (2018), set in a fictional African country, will help address that, although there is already some debate over whether it is celebrating African culture or appropriating it.

Wonder Woman features a Native American character, Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). Jenkins approached that character by casting a Native actor and allowing him to have input in the costume:

Patty Jenkins was extremely respectful. There was so much respect from everyone for my culture. I also have to give a shout out to John Baker, when I showed him Native designs I saw on an old Winchester rifle, he created it for me.

I had input as to the designs that were put on my gun belt, my vest, my hat and it was just awesome. I am so glad they didn’t dress me up in a breastplate and a breech cloth! (laughs)

(From this interview with Brave Rock, Vincent Schilling, Indian Country Today, June 14, 2017)

This – and the fact that the character speaks Blackfoot – seems to be the way to include a non-Western character without seeming to appropriate their culture.

I don’t have much to say about this, other than: I liked it. I also like how Gal Gadot keeps her natural Israeli accent. It’s just good to see other races and accents on the screen. Star Wars Rogue One (2016), featuring a Mexican-accented hero, is also worth praising for widening the variety of sound and appearance of heroes in cinema.

Unfortunately the film doesn’t do such a good job of representing its black characters, who are kept in the background (for more information on this issue, see this discussion between Valerie Complex and Robert Jones, Jr.).

Beauty Versus Ugliness

One last point: Wonder Woman is beautiful, and other characters remark on her beauty. There is nothing wrong with being beautiful, and a beautiful woman is no less a representation of feminine power.

However, the female villain in the movie has a facial injury which she covers up with ceramic plates. On one level her facial injury symbolises a deformity within her: just as her face is broken and warped, so is her conscience and morals. But I’m uncomfortable with how, in struggles between good and bad, the good are beautiful and the bad physically deformed or broken. There are occasional subversions, such as when the bad are beautiful but secretly ugly (e.g. Stardust, 2007). There are also some exceptions (e.g. Queen Jadis in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), but not nearly enough, especially not in cinema.

According to the visual language of cinema, anyone with a facial deformity is a monster, and Wonder Woman doesn’t help address this.

The villain’s deformity is particularly problematic in the context of the First World War, when such ‘deformities’ were common, as Aleksei Valentín explains in this Twitter thread.

Elena Anaya as Isabel ‘Dr Poison’ Maru

  1. William Moulton Marston, the main creator of Wonder Woman, was once employed by a film studio to conduct experiments on cinema audiences, measuring their emotional responses. The Always campaign, which also uses psychological experimentation to sell products, may have interested him. See Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, pp. 138-41. Go back.

Further Reading

Valerie Complex and Robert Jones, Jr. My Soul Looks Back and Wonders: A Critical Examination of the Wonder Woman Movie,  Medium, June 6th 2017.

Abigail Nussbaum, Five (Additional) Comments on Wonder Woman, Asking the Wrong Questions, June 12th 2017.

Jill Lepore, Wonder Woman’s Unwinnable War, New Yorker, June 2nd 2017.

Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Melbourne and London: Scribe, 2014).

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