This post contains spoilers for the 2017 Wonder Woman movie. Loving the craft of movies as I do, I don’t want to spoil a good one and Wonder Woman, without needing to call it a classic of cinema, is a good one. Come back after you’ve watched the movie. Even if you have to wait for the DVD this will still be here.
This isn’t intended to be a general review of Wonder Woman. I’m only going to focus on what I see as the substantial political, philosophical and theological content of the film. In one quick aside though, Wonder Woman deserves to be complimented on the contrasting use of colour between Diana’s bright birthplace and “the world of Men”. I wish we’d lingered in the sunlight for longer – the tendency of modern films to shoot so much in shadow annoys me – but I get the point they were trying to make. The world of WW1, and Industrialisation as grey, muddy and smogfilled makes sense. That was just one of many clever film making choices of this movie.
The gender politics deserve special mention. Even if this wasn’t the first blockbuster superhero film directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, and the first mainstream success of the sub-genre with a female lead (The 1984 Supergirl movie by comparison returned less than half its production budget in ticket sales), the setting of the film with its Amazonian idyllism in contrast with WW1 before women got the vote in England, put gender front and centre in the film. For me two points stood out. The male allies of Wonder Woman stand as testaments to the brokenness of the world she has entered. Their depictions are sympathetic and complex. Many male lead action movies have treated their female side characters as having far less depth. As a male I particularly liked viewing men in a softening role, helping the action hero to not lose themselves in god-like power by reminding them of their humanity, ironically in Wonder Woman’s case. I might grow tired of seeing my gender cast that way a hundred times over in some alternative reality but as a change it was more than refreshing. In fact, it felt healing. There has been a lot of ink over how empowering it is to see a strong female on screen but seeing softness in male characters, in the action genre, was an equally rare delight.
Secondly I do not think it is too great a stretch to suggest that the films treatment of sex and sexuality owes a lot to the considered gender politics of the film. Wonder Woman was originally written by a man with a penchant for female sexual dominance. Her original character was strong and fierce but also for her time very sexual, often either tying others up or being tied up herself while, again for her time, scantily clad. Much has also been said about the inadequacies of women’s attire in both superhero and fantasy genres and Wonder Woman’s corsetry and hot pants never bucked that trend. With this back story and context and in today’s time when sexualized violence against women in shows like Game of Thrones is a proven seller Patty Jenkins could have chosen to have capitulated to such trends. Catwoman with Halle Berry did just this by practically reducing that character to a walking butt shot and it was punished commercially for its lack of depth. Alternatively Wonder Woman could have skirted any controversy by avoiding all hint of sexuality in the film, and making no overt reference to either the politics of modesty or overt sexuality, as the Wonder Woman tv show and orginal comics did. Patty Jenkins chose neither.
The films cleverness lies in tackling the issue of sexualized female heroines head on. The immodesty by early 20th century standards of her costume is treated as a comment on the prudishness of such a society and its effect on woman’s capacity to move is exposed. When Wonder Woman attempts to kick while wearing one dress there are unhelpful gasps at the revelation of her bloomers and the womanly attire she is given to wear is ultimately deemed inadequate for fighting. Mary Wollstonecraft in her vindication of the Rights of Woman would agree. This point is aided by the fact that Wonder Woman's armour has a practicality to it. Crucially her guts are protected, exactly what armour in Ancient Greece was designed for and like Wonder Woman, the Ancient Greeks did not generally use leg or arm protection. The bare midriff that Zena the warrior princess sometimes wore is nowhere, thankfully, to be seen.
Perhaps best of all in terms of gender politics is how clearly the film depicts Diana’s agency regarding sexuality in a way that also includes the audiences relationship with her character. When Diana sleeps with Steve Trevor the initiative is hers and Steve is clearly shown to consent but then that is the extent to which our voyeurism is permitted. This is not sex for us the audience in the way that HBO practically guarantees a woman will be stripped to the waist in every episode but sex as part of Wonder Womans control over herself. I’m not saying that nudity is in any way always negative in story telling. Nudity can be funny. Nudity can be powerful. Nudity can be incidental or tragic. Nudity however can also titillate. Titilation, also not necessarily a bad thing, shapes audience relationships with characters so that they are there for us, not merely in the context of the story, but in a seperate context of our own sexuality. I was thrilled with a directorial decision that meant Wonder Woman was a sexual being without our relationship to her as viewers being sexualized in any way. Thankfully the particular combination of titilation along with violence against women was a mistake the film never came close to. Too often directors emphasis the vileness of a villain by showing them molesting a women, especially a heroine, in a way that is not accidentally erotic for audiences and which affects our relationship as fans to that character.
In a few brush strokes the film even holds up to the viewer the divisions of race and class between the gender of men. The deep respect of the Native American character in the film, nicknamed Chief, played by the actor Eugene Brave Rock, when Wonder Woman speaks to him in his native Blackfoot language is palpable. The poignancy when Chief points out that his land was taken by the people of Steve Trevor is real. This character and this interplay could have been dropped from the film without changing the story much. I am so glad it wasn’t however. Besides being a rare respectful portrayal of first nations people in US cinema, it adds a richness to the location of the story in time and an understanding of feminist and patriarchal history that goes beyond the cartoon idea of bad men. Race and class in contemporary politics confound simple caricatures of women=victims/saviours, men = powerful/oppressors. This film, with its basis in comics, could have stayed with such a cartoon analysis, for cheap effect, but didn’t. By going beyond, it gave Wonder Woman that feminism that goes hand in hand with tackling all injustices, in which women’s equality is a necessary part but not the end of making the world a better place.
My comments so far were originally only intended to be introductory for another discussion. The way this film deals with human evil and with the concept of judgment has a lot to teach us. Instead I found I had more than just a few things I wanted to say about Wonder Woman’s treatment of gender. Consequently I’m going to leave those thoughts about evil for a second post. As always I would love to hear your comments on what I’ve said so far. Do you disagree? Were there other elements of the films gender politics you consider worth mentioning? Would you rate the film less favourably? Feel free to comment below.