Feminist Elements of Wonder Woman
by Emma Regan
** Spoilers ahead for the new Wonder Woman film. Just go and see it already! **
I went to see Wonder Woman again. Why did I do it? Was it because it’s the most amazing film ever made? No, although it is pretty good. Instead, it was due to this female-led superhero film’s heady combination of feminist elements that are unfortunately still so rare in mainstream movies. So Hollywood, are you ready? These are the secret feminist ingredients for box office success…
In Western culture, our heroes are overwhelming male, not to mention straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, middle class etc. Think Hercules, Sherlock Holmes, Luke Skywalker, or Harry Potter. While I adore superhero and action movies, the endless parade of strong men in spandex can be tiring. Both Marvel and DC have churned out film after film featuring male leads from their male-dominated teams, Avengers and Justice League. The antidote to this feeble homogeneity is the female superhero. Watching people like you being represented as heroic and strong is meaningful. It undermines our dominant cultural narrative about what women can be and achieve. Just like the typical male hero, Wonder Woman, aka Diana Prince, has physical strength in spades. In this regard, she’s no less credible than her male counterparts – isn’t fantasy great?! Also, Diana boasts the superior moral strength that motivates her to “save the world”. She is the quintessential hero, but female, and watching her is an indulgent fantasy of female power.
Most onscreen stories centre on men’s lives, and few films even pass the low bar set by the Bechdel Test. Wonder Woman immediately subverts this standard by opening with Diana’s upbringing on Themyscira, a mythical island paradise populated only by women. Raised by her mother, Hippolyta, and a thriving female community, Diana grows up in the warm embrace of the sisterhood. Patriarchy’s sordid strategies for dividing women and pitting them against one another don’t exist on Themyscira, and, in their absence, the female solidarity and mutual respect is palpable.
The Amazons are also a warrior tribe, and we witness women of all ages training and fighting alongside one another. As a young girl, Diana spies on and emulates these exemplary adults. The revered Antiope, Themyscira’s greatest general, becomes her personal mentor. It is explained that training Diana so that she can defend herself in the challenges ahead is the greatest act of love possible, and the whole community participates. Finally, on the day her student eclipses her, Antiope takes a bullet to save Diana’s life. What an incredible act of heroism and bravery by an older female warrior! Think Gerard Butler in 300, a role which is literally never afforded to a woman, with Robin Wright killing it as Antiope. This positive portrayal of women fighting alongside and supporting one another on Themyscira is truly inspiring.
And of course, women also govern Themyscira, albeit possibly undemocratically. Hippolyta is the Queen of the Amazons, and Diana, their princess. Fortunately, there is some clear political power-sharing going on as Diana addresses one woman of colour as “senator”. This is an onscreen portrayal of a senate made up entirely of wise women. Contrast this with the gender make-up of any real world political assembly, like our Dáil which boasts 22% women or our Seanad with 29%, and tell me it’s not uplifting.
Challenging Gender Norms
When Diana leaves Themyscira and travels to London, she enters a foreign culture and begins to question the “mystifying gender constraints of early 20th century society” (Slate). Ever ready to stand up for herself and address injustice, Diana refuses to take culture shock lying down; she shocks back! Reviewing ‘women’s place’ in 1910’s London, we delight in Diana’s resistance. The first victim of her wit is the stereotypical secretarial job. As a profession it was notoriously demanding, underpaid, undervalued and unsurprisingly dominated by women. When Secretary Etta Candy explains her position to Diana, she quips “Where I come from, we call that slavery”. Cue instant female bonding! Next, Etta is given the unenviable task of outfitting our heroine in dignified feminine attire. Staggering around in a million layers of purple satin, Diana calls out its ridiculousness, “How do women fight in this?” To which Etta replies, “We use our principles. That’s how we’ll get the vote.” Note the reference to the struggle for female suffrage, a key feminist campaign of the time.
Finally, Steve (our leading man) and Diana take a trip to the all-male British parliament. Ignoring his instructions, Diana follows him right into the chamber where the politicians are engaged in a testosterone-fuelled shouting contest. Stunned silence falls when they notice the woman in their midst, and she is summarily ushered out of the room. Later, again despite Steve’s protestations, Diana gives some of the generals a piece of her mind, contrasting their spineless leadership with that of her mentor, Antiope. It’s like Wilfred Owen squaring up to the military elite, if he were also being denied all political rights in the UK. Together, these cultural clashes allow Diana to challenge the prevailing gender norms of WW1-era Britain, and also those of the modern world. Campaigns for political and employment rights for women continue to be fought today, while women’s clothing is still judged and policed worldwide.
Resisting Benevolent Sexism
In addition to calling out discrimination, Diana also effectively resists the benevolent sexism of her eventual romantic partner, Steve Trevor. From the outset, he attempts to protect her by holding her back. He does it on the beach in Themyscira, in the London alleyway, in the trench at the Front, and at the Germans’ Gala. While he might fairly have assumed that Diana was not trained in combat initially, as women from his culture usually aren’t, his behaviour becomes increasingly patronising after he has repeatedly witnessed her incredible abilities. Thankfully, Wonder Woman adopts an admirable approach to Steve’s frustrating “concern” by ignoring him and doing what she wants regardless. In doing so she slips out from the shadow of patriarchal control to shine. Refusing to accept the limitations Steve prescribes, Diana forges her own path, aiming high.
Perhaps this is the inevitable dynamic of a female-led superhero film set 100 years ago? It certainly doesn’t increase the likeability of our leading man. However, over the course of the film, Steve slowly learns to trust and support Diana, even asking for her assistance before the final battle scene. Crucially, Wonder Woman’s war of attrition with constant benevolent sexism, mansplaining and unwarranted protection is familiar to many women who are underestimated and whose competence is undermined. It is fresh to watch Diana effortlessly fend this all off, never doubting herself. Women’s battle for recognition of their potential is illustrated best in the trenches when Steve asserts, “It’s called No Man’s Land. No man can cross it”, to which Wonder Woman replies, “I am no man.”
In closing out this list of feminist wins from Wonder Woman, I have to admit that there are also legitimate feminist gripes with the film. I acknowledge issues such as the costume, glorification of war, lack of diversity and Gal Gadot's vocal support of the IDF. However, I’ve chosen not to delve into them here, preferring to bask in my bubble of unabashed feminist joy. I hope that there will be more films like Wonder Woman, and even better ones, so that this isn’t such a rare treat and isn’t necessarily the feminist film of the year.
Some great reviews and commentaries I have read:
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