The Feminist Burden Wonder Woman Carries
Every summer blockbuster film arrives with anxiety over its reception. Will it be the summer champ? Will it be liked? Movies based on beloved harassers such as comic book heroes come with extra anxiety over reception. Then there is Wonder Woman.
Summer 2017 felt like a lifetime away when word came in 2014 that our favorite Amazon princess (Sorry, Gabrielle) would find her way to the big screen. But honestly as we crept closer and closer to the day my stomach churned. Why? The Wonder Woman movie will be the first woman superhero since Electra in 2005 and that was a flop. Not to mention Catwoman, but we must. In addition, Wonder Woman has a woman director. When this film started up filmmaker Lexi Alexander publicly stated she wouldn't take the job if offered over the pressure placed on women directors. If the film flops, not only will the director take the fall, but will all women directors? This may be one of the biggest challenges to feminism in pop culture. Will feminists show up to support the biggest feminist icon to grace the silver screen? Lastly in the age of Trump and still in the fledgling days of the Resistance, will Wonder Woman deliver the inspiration we seek to continue to resist? Now that I list all of those challenges, maybe Ginger Rogers has it easy.
Now you're thinking - it's just a movie! Yeah, not so much...
First of all the movie industry is still a sexist operation. Despite the success of the Rogue One, Hunger Games and Twilight, women-led films are still undervalued. Women continue to have the highest ROIs in the movie business, but still do not demand the same gravitas that their male counterparts do. The mega success of Hidden Figures at the box office was only a surprise if you aren't a woman of color eager to pay to see women of color take center stage in their own stories. Women are hungry to devour stories featuring strong women who reflect our realities and inspire us to dream big.
Reese and Sandra’s success has done little to kill the myth that women can't open or direct hit movies. This level of scrutiny is not only unfair but it is not even a carrot for women directors. First of all every man who has directed a hit has also released a dud. It happens! Including dud superhero flicks like Green Lantern and Daredevil. Then there is the case of Catherine Hardwicke. She directed the first Twilight film when it seemed no one else would touch it. It grossed almost $200 million in the USA when it cost $37 million to make. What was Hardwicke's reward for directing a film to such heights? Being replaced for Chris Weitz. With rewards like that why even try?
But back to Wonder Woman...
She takes to the big screen, not in LEGO form, at a time when she is not just popular but enveloped in the resistance zeitgeist. Before Trump was even done taking the oath of office I was tagged on a t-shirt depicting Wonder Woman punching the new president. The day after Senator McConnell silenced Senator Warren a RESIST tee with Wonder Woman, fist raised in defiance, was cluttering my Facebook feed.
We have to remember that Wonder Woman was launched during World War II and the US government ensured that her and other comic books would be a conduit for pro-USA propaganda. In the pages of her comic books she fought and punched Nazis. The comics also peddled in racist imagery, especially when depicting Japanese fighters. Wonder Woman is known to fight for justice. This makes her the perfect superhero, comic book character for the resistance, especially for women. She is a reluctant fighter, only recently militarized. But when pushed, she will fight injustice, on behalf of others, and for most of her history with non-lethal force.
Wonder Woman’s standing as the most recognizable woman superhero has propelled her to feminist icon. She appeared on the first issue of Ms. Magazine. Many of the stories told in the 2014 Sensation Comics series were feminist stories such as Wonder Woman coming to the defense of a boy whose classmates were teasing him over his fandom of Wonder Woman. In the movie trailer Wonder Woman is puzzled over the idea of a secretary and equates to the job description given by Etta Candy to slavery. William Moulton Marston created her as a feminist image or as he put it as a role model for modern womanhood. His inspiration was the suffragists including Margaret Sanger the founder of Planned Parenthood. Her feminism is the core of her being, not the result of co-optation by the feminist movement.
These issues are important to keep in mind as we await the response to the movie. Wonder Woman is entering the theaters with Princess Vespa sized baggage. 75 years of comic books, TV, small roles in two LEGO movies and Batman v Superman and cartoon depictions plus the trailers have us all guessing as to what will come.
What we do know from the trailers is that Wonder Woman meets Steve Trevor and leaves Themyscira during World War I. After washing ashore, he tells the Amazon leadership that he is fighting to end the war to end all wars. But he also warns the, that their lives on Themyscira is not as safe as they think. This appears to prompt Diana into deciding to leave and fight to defend innocent lives.
The pulling back of Wonder Woman's origin story to WWI and not WWII is a risk. One that some believe was made to avoid comparisons with Captain America and the Marvel Universe. The other is to reinforce Diana’s ambivalence with war, as World War I was not a war as clear of a just cause as World War II. While a year ago I think the risk would pay off, today in the political climate we are in, I see that risk higher. Because who wouldn’t want to see Wonder Woman punch Nazis?
A screening in late February had twitter abuzz with phrases like “blown away” and “best of the DC movies” thrown about. Of course this just raised my expectations when I thought they couldn’t get any higher!
And that is the bottom line, Wonder Woman fans are more than just eager for this movie. We are desperate for it. For my fellow GenXers, we have been waiting for this movie since we were kids in our Under Roos twirling around like Linda Carter with tin foil wrapped around our wrists. Our grandmothers who read Wonder Woman in the early comics are eager. We raised our girls to worship the Amazon goddess who then consider themselves Wonder Women. It is not fair that this movie has so much riding on it. But it does. We have waited through the excitement that Joss Whedon wrote a screenplay, but then was rejected by studios. We were up in arms over the 2011 TV pilot because we want her to reflect exactly the way she is in our minds.
What I hope we take away from the movie, no matter what, good or bad, is that Diana, Wonder Woman, fights for what she believes in. As we continue to resist against a national administration that attempts to pit communities against each other and empower bullies, we must find the Wonder Woman in ourselves. Not in the sense that we will do it all. But as people who will speak up for those we see being attacked and who will offer sanctuary to those being targeted. If we can walk out of the theaters with that mission, the movie will have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.