When Will Wonder Woman Be a Fat, Femme Woman of Color?

Wonder Woman is a feminist. She’s certainly been considered an icon of feminism at different times throughout her 76-year career. In the early ’40s, when she first debuted in All-American Comics, she freed herself from chains, a symbol used by the suffragists to represent patriarchy. When Ms. launched in 1972, Wonder Woman graced its cover, solidifying her place as a feminist figure.

Now that the female superhero has finally made it to the big screen, critics and audiences are asking whether Wonder Woman is a feminist film. But the question itself is problematic. For one, it makes “feminist” a subjective adjective. Also, it suggests there’s a monolithic Feminism, when really feminist movement encompasses innumerous feminisms in motion. The more inciting questions are: How does this film represent Wonder Woman? What’s missing from this representation? And, what does it say about this particular moment in time?

There’s no doubt that the film has already broken records. In its first week, it surpassed its $149 million budget by bringing in over $200 million globally. It had the biggest opening weekend ever for a female director (Patty Jenkins) and is the highest-grossing comic book superhero movie with a female lead. Gal Gadot, who plays Wonder Woman, will likely arrive in the prestigious list of female leads in a top-100 domestic grossing film.

These statistics, however, are more about the poor state of affairs for women in the industry than the film itself. For example, this is only the third time that a woman has ever directed a comic book movie, and the only time they’ve had a budget over $30M. We could count on a hand or two the number of famous female comic book superheroes, let alone the blockbusters made about them. Since 1996, four out of the top 10 highest-grossing films with female leads were cartoons. Hollywood is still in the dark ages when it comes to gender equality. This movie and its record numbers may help change that.

In a nutshell, the movie starts with Diana’s early life, before she is Wonder Woman, on the island of Themyscira, where only female warriors live. By the time her love interest Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) arrives, Diana is a young woman ready for battle. Trevor is from the U.S. but works for the British as a spy in World War I and must get back to London to save the day. Wonder Woman goes with him and the story unfolds.

Although it doesn’t go far enough, the film tries some things around race and representation, as seen in Steve’s motley crew of sidekicks. A Native American sidekick called Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) tells Diana, “The last war took everything from my people.” When she asks who took everything, he responds, “His people,” pointing to Steve. Later, Chief ends up communicating via smoke signals, which seems a bit trite, but having a Native American in Europe in the early 1900’s doesn’t just happen: it was a conscious decision by the filmmakers. Samir (Said Taghmaoui), an Arab character who wears a fez, tells Diana about his lost dreams: “I wanted to be an actor, but I was the wrong color.” This seems out of place and more about the filmmakers calling out Hollywood than about character development.

Wonder Woman no longer fights on behalf of U.S. imperialism, which is a big shift from the early comics and a welcome change, even if it’s likely more about wanting to capture global audiences than politics. In December, the UN voted Wonder Woman an honorary ambassador, but members protested and she was subsequently dropped. They felt that a white woman in a bustier was not a good role model for girls around the globe.

Indeed, there are many ways this film does not challenge the status quo. Without the first 15 minutes on the island, it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test. And it does nothing to challenge modern-day racist beauty standards.

Why couldn’t Wonder Woman be a woman of color? When it was announced that Gadot would play Wonder Woman, audiences went wild body shaming her for not having large enough breasts. One can only imagine the white supremacy that would have emerged had the announcement said instead that she would be played by a Black woman. On Paradise Island, there are Black warriors in addition to white ones, which is a good start, but other women of color are missing. Also, while the female warriors are strong and ass-kicking, they all have tall, thin body types and they all could be models on a runway. In fact, in a pivotal battle scene, Wonder Woman struts across the battlefield as if on a catwalk. As a result, their physical strength plays second fiddle to their beauty, upholding the notion that in order to access power women must be beautiful in a traditional way. Especially with the body positivity movement gaining steam, the film could have spotlighted female warriors with fat, thick and short body types. While people have said that warriors can’t be fat, some of our best paid male athletes are, particularly linebackers on the football field, and no one doubts their physical strength.

Another problem is that the story’s overt queerness gets sublimated by heteronormativity. Diana comes from a separatist commune of women who have intentionally chosen to live without men. In one of the first scenes between Diana and Steve, she explains that she read 12 volumes of a series on sex that concluded that while men are required for reproduction, when it comes to female pleasure, they’re unnecessary. While a love story develops between them, a requirement in superhero stories, Diana thankfully doesn’t compromise her integrity for him.

In the end, Wonder Woman concludes that “only love can save the world.” While this may be true, I’ve never heard any other superhero say so. Why couldn’t Wonder Woman fight for justice and eliminate bad guys without having to in the end make it about love? Perhaps a more interesting question is: Why don’t male superheroes do the same?

While people argue that women are “feminine” and naturally more inclined to love, this thinking quickly slides into dangerous assumptions like women are more cut out for caring for children and processing feelings. This gender essentialism not only keeps women in the home, it undercuts men’s emotional and creative capabilities. It also reflects the current double standard that women can have it all, but in order to do so we have to work harder than everyone else and carry it all on our shoulders.

Like Wonder Woman, we have to lead on the battlefield and be the ones responsible for the emotional well-being of the family, community and world.

Stephanie Abraham is a non-fiction writer and media critic based in Los Angeles. Her writings have recently appeared in McSweeney’s, Al Jazeera and Bitch. She’s the Pop Culture Correspondent and Film Critic for Rising Up with Sonali. Follow her on Twitter @abrahamsteph and at StephanieAbraham.com.

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    Comments

    1. Joey Eliza says:

      Excellent thoughts on this issue. I hope in the future we’ll have more female-identifying heroes who are not simply “eye candy” for male viewers in the end. I was also struck by the post-island sausage fest, though I did love that for the first time that I can remember, a girl looked to women – not men (Arya stark or Mulan for example) – to learn how to be a soldier. And, not strictly a superhero, but when Diana said “only love can save the world,” my immediate thought was Harry Potter. He’s certainly the typical male representative of the hero’s journey and he espouses the ideal that love will conquer all.

    2. I can’t say I agree with much in this article at all. It seems like yet another article who only wants to complain without doing any research.

      1) Why isn’t this Wonder Woman a “person of color”? Because this Wonder Woman is about Diana who always has been Greek. Wonder Woman is a mantle and many characters have held that mantle, but this story is about Diana. Diana is intensely tethered to Greek history. It’s like asking why Bruce Wayne’s Batman isn’t a transgender Chinese person. Because he isn’t and has never been.

      2) You complain about how many of the characters are presented without doing any research at all.
      – Ann Wolfe who plays Artemis (by the way, a race swap as the character is a redheaded caucasian in the comics) is a professional boxer.
      – Samantha Jo who portrays Euboea is a professional stuntwoman and Olympic medal-winning Wushu martial artist.
      – Madeleine Vall who portrays Egaria is also a stuntwoman and member of the Swedish national Kickboxing team with over 50 wins.
      – Hari James who portrays Trigona is a Crossfit champion.
      – Brook Ence who plays Penthiselea is a Crossfit champion as well.
      – Mayling Ng who plays Orana is a personal trainer and martial artist who represented Singapore at the Arnold Classic 2013.

      So quite amazing that you complain that essentially the entire cast was chosen purely for their looks or because they embody some stereotypical appearance. It seems to me that many of them were chosen because they’re already top level athletes that would require little training to do the stunts and physical battles portrayed in the movie. Some had no prior movie experience at all.

      Heights of the actresses portraying Amazons range from the towering 6’1″ Jacqui-Lee Pryce (Niobe) to 5’4″ Samantha Jo (Euboea) and possibly shorter. I wasn’t able to find heights for every single actress.

      Body types range from the heavyweight boxer Ann Wolfe (Artemis) to the slight Samantha Jo or Mayling Ng.

      Of 18 named Amazons, 6 are black (hailing from US, UK and even Uganda), 3 are Asian, there’s a Norwegian, a Welsh, a Swede, a Dutch actress. Seems pretty diverse to me?

      Numerous characters were race-swapped. Artemis, Timandra, Acantha, Mnemosyne are “white” in the comics but portrayed by black actresses in the movie. Epione and Orana in the comics are also caucasian but portrayed by Asian actresses.

      Artemis was Wonder Woman for a while, which pretty much every Wonder Woman fan knows. So they DID, in a way, make ‘Wonder Woman’ (one of them) a woman of color.

      But you glossed over pretty much all of this to complain about Diana not being portrayed as a transgender black disabled lesbian.

      3) Why does Wonder Woman harp about love? Because part of her origin is that she was given something by the largest Goddesses of the Greek pantheon. This includes Aphrodite who gifted Diana her amazing heart. I could turn the question around and ask why you seem to think that women have to be portrayed as aggressive, cold and any sign of empathy or warmth makes you feel uncomfortable or patronized? What’s wrong with Diana talking about love? Why does it make you so uncomfortable and offended?

      In the end the article comes across as precisely why so many people are fed up with “social justice warriors”, no matter how much you do it’s never good enough and they’ll complain anyway instead of making positive comments about what you DID do, which in this movie was a lot.

    3. C. Stevens says:

      Surprised to see confusion between linebackers and linemen in Ms. Magazine.

    4. DanielleinDC says:

      Can’t we just be happy that a movie with a female superhero lead is killing it at the box office? And that even guys are enjoying it?

      As for her role about love saving the world, I was a kid when the TV series was out and don’t recall Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman ever carrying a sword and a shield. She wasn’t a warrior. She was supposed to be a diplomat and a healer (according to my comic-reading boyfriend) and an antithesis to all the male superheroes who fought. (At least that was her creator’s intent.)

      As for a fat/gay/non-white superhero, if we want one, someone should maybe write one. Wonder Woman herself is the daughter of Zeus, meaning she’d likely be Greek. It’s not inappropriate that she’s portrayed by an Israeli woman.

    5. I agree with most of this, however I do think it’s cool to see emotion and love being a source of power, heroism, and justice…
      We are taught at a young age that leaders have to adhere to toxic masculinity (see every movie ever). When a woman in particular expresses compassion, she’s considered hysterical. This film flipped the tables on that narrative. Wonder Woman shows us (from that first scene on the front) that emotions have a place at the table and that they can make you strong, NOT weak. Instead of calling out this aspect in WW, I’d rather call out the lack of it in other block buster films.
      The solution isn’t to brainwash women and girls to hide their emotions like we have with men and boys (see suicide rates and feminist analysises of mass shootings), it’s to spread the message of love and feeling farther.

      WW is a movie about human nature and while we can take the “only love” line to mean romantic love, I saw it in a much broader light. This is the first superhero movie I’ve seen that held individuals accountable for their actions (“i wish i could blame just one bad guy… but maybe we’re all to blame”) and the “only love” line seemed to me to work to encourage individuals to choose the good (love)in themselves over the bad (fear, hatred).

    6. All of this commentary could be turned completely on its head and still make sense.

      1) Does it occur to the author that casting the heroine as someone deliberately “less attractive” also perpetuates a stereotype–the one that only “ugly” females can be tough and strong.

      2) There is nothing stopping any aspiring artist from creating a new character that embodies the characteristics described. Why do all such commentators believe instead that they need to hijack an EXISTING character whose original creator did not envision them that way? Don’t like the old characters? Go invent your own!

      3) “In the end, Wonder Woman concludes that “only love can save the world.” While this may be true, I’ve never heard any other superhero say so.” So the commentator is saying that she would prefer that (say) a male superhero be the first one to say this? Hmm……

    7. No, just no.
      No it is not a feminist film, it is a good film.

    8. Pat McRotch says:

      She is from Israel and only for the purpose of your post is she “white.” Also, if Wonder Woman was fat, she would need to defeat gravity, heart disease, and diabetes before saving the word. Rascal scooters would have a hell of an endorsement though.

    9. Michael Windwalker says:

      The WoC thing I absolutely agree with. What is believed to be the historical basis for Homers’ Amazons were the Scythian-Sarmatians (and possibly Kurgan) and pretty much had territory as far north as Southern Siberia and as far south as Syria. Women played a prominent role in warfare as well.

      The fat? Not so much. When you have about 20lbs of armor (waxed leather with metal overplating breast and back,admittedly with a lot of liberties taken with the armor,metal vambraces,metal greaves) and another 7lbs of sword and shield strapped to your back you tend to shed weight fast when running cross country,though streams and fields on top of weapons practice for several hours a day. At this point one is talking about an island of warrior women,who are incredibly active wearing nearly 30 lbs of additional weight and train in it (much like ancient warriors did) to the point it was like wearing clothing. Meaning anything you could do wearing jeans and a t-shirt,they could do in their armor. Honestly with that said,honestly I am surprised they were not even more defined. The rubenesque period of beauty from the 17th century through the 19th was there for a reason. Because women were not allowed to be active in the higher stratospheres of society. That rubenesque stylized ideal was because the women did not have to work they were not meant to be active. Only the lower classes were fit because their lives were hard. They did not have servants and they did not get the opportunity to lay about as they had to survive.

      As to the token Native American? You were aware of Choctaw code talkers in WWI (the time that this takes place) correct? Here is a history link http://www.history.com/news/world-war-is-native-american-code-talkers

      The love thing? Yes that was not needed, plain and simple. Personally I am thinking they set it there to play on a potential love interest between Superman and Wonder Woman in the forthcoming movies. Which admittedly was foolish.,though it is what is going on in the comics. from what I have heard. Personally I would rather see her hamstringing supervillians like Doomsday or shield bashing them in the face.

    10. Belinda Sanchez says:

      Dear Stephanie –
      You have an interesting point. However, if there was a market for the kind of movie you suggest, it would be made. Hollywood is a business. Businesses that produce a product for which there is no demand … fail. If you feel so strongly about the type of super hero we all need to see, maybe you could write the script, find the investors and make the movie?

    11. Llana G. says:

      I have a great idea. If Wonder Woman isn’t __________ (insert brown, queer, feminist, busty, etc) enough for you, rather than criticize a story from the 40’s or how it’s been remade in 2016 by the people who bothered to remake it… why don’t you create your own story? Write your own comic book heroine/hero with the qualities you’re looking for! Instead of trying to fit someone else’s art into your world of what “SHOULD” be, create YOUR OWN option for people to read or watch and enjoy! Someone had a vision and they made it. It succeeded to the point of mass popularity. Cool. If you wish it represented something different, get off your judging bottom and create a masterpiece of your own vision! Maybe your idea’s time has come! Maybe your idea really is better or more ideal!
      But quit bullying other people’s art, expression, and hard work. Your energy is better used elsewhere.

    12. A Black Wonder Woman does exist. You clearly have never heard of Wonder Woman’s sister – Nubia. Hopefully, they will feature her in a future film.

    13. The Heteronormativity Scene is a Christmas tradition.

    14. What’s stopping you from creating your own superhero?

    15. Surely the notion of Wonder Woman is an outdated one? How does the LGBTQI community get represented by this? A Trans actor would go a long way in addressing this power imbalance. And surely a Trans actor from the most marginalised community, the Palestinians, would give a message to the cabal that controls Hollywood & their puppet actress. Even the idea of an able-bodied actor is regressive & of course the notion that a Wonder Woman figure, a “super hero”, can save the day for the rest of us is insulting & un-egalitarian. Surely our contemporary Trans, Palestinian, blind, deaf, paraplegic, ordinary, figure just lives a normal life & doesn’t “save” us. Let’s make this film please.

    16. Oh for gawd’s sake! Stop with the beauty shaming. As a female I have no problem with Ms. Gadot’s casting.
      BTW, as an Israeli, she IS considered a POC. And Ms. Abraham, who identifies as an Arab-American, while looking full-on white, probably considers HERSELF a POC. She should know better.
      I am ashamed of fellow females who make a career out of playing the victim card. Doing that gains you no respect at all. Grow up.

    17. As a female I can only say she will never be that. She was designed like that and not for male eye candy. Be happy there’s a female superhero. Lots of love~!

    18. Murtaza says:

      Ugh this movie is so sexiest. Patriarchy.
      Why can’t WW be a black albino gay lesbian transgender fat sleazy fighter?
      Better yet why is WW a woman? As gender is a construct I want to see Dwayne Johnson as the next Wonder Woman. That movie would kick ass. Literally.

    19. Ma’am as a freelance amateur comic artist and writer (I also dabble in bodybuilding and weight training) let me say this…and while I’m indeed a straight male I have a point to make in a way that doesn’t disregard your concerns and is meant in a respectful manner. If anyone feels this isn’t, than I’m sorry.
      Wonder Woman is a character who’s origins (in reality are indeed awkward to discuss) are tied into her creator’s relationship with his wife and their shared girlfriend. And while the Amazons are historically viewed as being homosexual icons. I believe this is more of a link to the oracles of Lesbos…but my Greek History is a tad rusty.
      To dismiss a character’s physical fitness as being strictly for attractiveness seems a bit silly if you realize that she’s a warrior, trained to fight at levels beyond human endurance. Her demigod status is a part of this…as the ancient Greeks viewed their Gods and Goddesses as physically perfect beings. To give humans something to aspire to. To view NFL players (who often sport thick pads of fat over their muscles) or Powerlifters, as physical perfection is sort of against the aesthetic of their ideals. The thing is you cannot portray this in a visual medium as easily as you can with someone sporting carved muscles….I’m by no means a small man, but stand me next to a fellow of similar height and build who is more ripped and compare us shirtless without any weight to move and the skinnier fellow will look physically stronger. It’s kind of like the reality of the character of Wolverine. In the comics he was 5’3 tall and nearly 300lbs (100lbs of which is his metallic bones) with wild hair and a hirsute physique. Not the 6’3 sculpted chunk of talent that is Hugh Jackman….but either way. Fans aren’t complaining as Gadot perfectly captured the spirit of the character and made her entry solo film worth watching. Have a lovely day.

    20. Just My Ownself says:

      Wonder Woman’s creator considered women to be the perfect blend of strength and softness. His views do not fit modern 3rd wave feminists’ ideas on feminism. He believed that women’s compassion and love and ability to nurture made them better suited as leaders. He also had a serious bondage kink which is well known which is why WW was constantly getting tied up.

      The article does not mention that the Amazons did not CHOOSE to live away from men, they were removed to protect them. The reason there are no fat Amazons is because they do not eat to excess and every one of them, despite other skills, is a warrior and they train incessantly. An out of shape Amazon would not survive. Linebackers are fat, yes, and they are strong, but they are fat because they need to be. If they were working out like the Amazons where speed and strength and agility were demanded, then they too would be slim and trim.

      The human body’s natural state is to be trim and lithe. It is only through hard work that bulging muscles appear. It is only through excessive eating and minimal exertion that obesity appears. The Amazons were created to be beautiful and alluring and incredible warriors. They were not “born” of flesh and none of them save Hippolyta can even conceive a child and she only could because it was the will of Zeus.

      Diana is an Amazon and a demi-goddess. That means her beauty and power cannot be surpassed by any mortal woman. In the comics she was blessed by the goddess of beauty herself to have no equal. With a god for a father and a mother beautiful enough to catch his eye, it’s guaranteed that Diana would be beautiful beyond measure. Leave her alone and go create new female characters that fit your agenda if you want ones that you can “relate” to.

    21. When Superman becomes a Short, Fat, Ugly balding man of Color?

    22. It is clear by this article the author is Reaching to find problems with the film. Rather than just celebrate a movie which has not been made or the fact that a live action wonder woman has not really been done since the 1970’s.

      The author comes off as ungrateful for having something so fun, and so awesome. She complains about the actresses skin color when you have a israeli portraying a greek which based on mediterainian skin tones is not all that far off. If some one is using logic. (I know god forbid we start using that)

      Speaking of logic. How dumb would it be to have a large ass woman playing wonder woman and the fact how very very very unlikely that someone with unhealthy body weight would even hold their own in any physical combat. Military have standards in terms of weight. So would a magic island full of militant amazons. (again Logic)

      Basing love interest in a time period of World War I and complaining that because she has interest in men that it is wrong? There is nothing wrong with relationships. especially when it comes from a woman who spent her entire life never seeing a man.

      In the end there was NOTHING wrong with the movie. j

    23. You can’t look at this film as though it happened in a vacuum. The risks they took were quite enough to have sunk this film and yet instead it has flourished bringing what good it could to it’s greatest point of leverage and making what”s better (the things you mentioned) that much more viable. It’s a marathon not a sprint and I’d rather applaud this film for how much it may have helped than deride it for not being everything all the time.

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