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.