There’s been a lot of talk about Wonder Woman, very favorable reviews (one of them, by Piotrek, on this blog), fan hype and critical acclaim. The movie’s heyday is already past, with Justice League on screen and other superhero movies crowding the benches. So why do I come back to it now?
Well, probably partly because I’ve been recently reading Moses Finley’s seminal work, The World of Odysseus – very highly recommended to anyone interested in ancient Greece. And partly because the movie sits like a thorn in my side, its popularity and acclaim, when confronted with its painfully stereotypical message, truly baffling.
Wonder Woman has been hailed as the first superhero movie with a woman as a lead. This is surely something laudable? After all, thanks to this movie we’ve read about subversive feminism and whatnots, discussed chainmail bikinis as a source of empowerment or subjugation, depending on one’s stance, and so on. Even Gloria Steinem took a stand, saying the film was very good, although noting at the same time that she “may be desperate – […] just happy that the Amazons had wild hair”. It’s been called the best of DCU movies so far, and while it in itself is not a big feat, it definitely forces comparison to other movies. It all seems highly beneficial to a summer flick which on its own is rather mediocre. We’ve all probably heard the voice of reason, saying, “it’s not perfect, but better this than nothing”, “it’s a step in right direction”, “I’ve seen worse”.
Fair enough. Most of it bears up to scrutiny, I suppose. Still, my idealism seems incurable. I’m not satisfied with “steps in right direction”. If you make a high-grossing movie and label it as a female-centered, creating a female fanbase, you should not only strive to make it live up to the expectations, but to surpass them. You’re making new tracks in the snow – why not go bold and risk something? I’m actually all for Spidey’s motto (Voltaire authorship is still disputed, but you can go with Luke 12:48 :P), “With great power comes great responsibility”.
Wonder Woman had become a very popular blockbuster, with a sizeable impact on popular culture. So let’s take a closer look at the message it conveys.
The movie’s main protagonist is Diana, the princess of Themiscyra/Themyscira, the Utopian island of Amazons hidden by gods from the eyes of man. Diana is strong and willful, learned in languages and theoretical sex (one of the lamest jokes of the movie, btw), and, first and foremost, is beautiful. She wears makeup in every single scene, and her face is fresh and spotless even in the middle of the fiercest battle – just as her hair. She fights with her hair unbound, in a mail straight from cosplay garage sale, which protects almost nothing but nicely emphasizes her shapes. In contrast, Ares, after all a god from the same pantheon, wears a full body armor, with greaves, shin protection and a full-face helmet. What kind of subversive feminism is that? That you can flaunt your naked thighs in clear breach of any physical laws, just to show that you can be sexy and strong at the same time? Is it an evolutionary adaptation akin to peacock’s tail or antlers of a deer? If so, why not go naked?
To be clear: she can, and she should be beautiful. She just needn’t be an eye-candy, pimped-out in every scene. In discussion centered around themes of graphic violence, strength and fighting, Trinity looks much more like the embodiment of female empowerment to me:
Diana’s not-so-formidable enemy, Ares, makes plans and long-term strategies, not barges into battle mindlessly, at the dictates of his heart. He is clever, deeply involved in modern politics and war. Diana is a newcomer, without knowledge, without skill, but with a heart as big as the world, prattling all movie long about the force of love as the saving power of universe. And here we come to the oldest stereotype of all, one I had shortly discussed in the review of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. The opposition between male and female as the metaphoric transformation of the opposition between culture and nature. Men are rational, whereas women are intuitive. Men think, women feel. Men create technology, women long for peaceful Arcadian life. It is this exact myth which Ares uses in his attempt to get Diana to his side. It is this exact myth which Diana is sorely tempted to follow. It’s in her nature, right? According to this stereotype, women, through their physiology, are bound to the natural order of things and unable to transcend it. They need men to enable them. Just look at the first half of the movie. Dumb Diana’s teacher and protector in the modern world is Steve Trevor, a worldly, charming man who can mold her like Galatea, like Fanny. And molded she is, falling in love with her creator. Yeah, I realize Thor in his first movie was dumb as well, another god learning on the go the ways of humans – but the difference is that he grew. He evolved. This is an origin story, after all. If the main protagonist doesn’t change, even a bit, than it’s simply a shitty origin story. And Diana ends the story not much different from when she began – more worldly, sure, and the only god of Greek pantheon to be alive, but that’s about it.
The confirmation of this stereotype comes unexpectedly in the form of the second woman in the movie – the evil Isabel Maru. She is far removed from her natural roots, dabbing in the man’s domain: science. Her beauty is marred, and her evil becomes unmasked for all to see in a scene where her real porcelain mask is lifted and an ugly, scarred face half-leers at the audience. A good woman versus and evil one. A force of nature and good heart versus horrors of science and cynical, logical brain.
I could go on, discussing the idea of putting the whole movie during WWI and the logical conundrum of WWII in this case, or about anachronisms in a time-set piece, from zippers to motorcycles… A nice list can be found here. I could take my time and pull apart the flimsy logic holding the plot together – for the plot is really thin. However, all of these are, ironically enough, details I really don’t mind so much. It is a superhero movie, after all, based on a series of comic books where the empowerment of the main protagonist was mostly sexual (the lasso and bondage fetishes, to name a few). Considering the background, and the other DCU entries to date, and the WB desperation to score a safe hit, the end result seems like a lesser evil. It is a professional production, with solid CGI and heartfelt performances, especially from the main lead. And yet, I was really disappointed. My disenchantment here, just as with Thor: Ragnarok, stems partly from what the movie is, but also from what it could have been. I see it as a lost chance to create something ambitious, something that can really impact the popular culture in new, unique, thoughtful ways. Is Diana really the best female superhero role-model we have? Then I guess it’s time to create a new one. Wonder Woman reminded me of a very passionate and disheartening quote from Adorno’s Minima Moralia:
Every visit to the cinema, despite the utmost watchfulness, leaves me dumber and worse than before