I went to see “Wonder Woman” on opening night with about 15 feminists – women who work in organizations confronting the issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, and abortion rights, as well as women who make documentary films and do radio commentary. The consensus – “Wonder Woman” is fun! Unfortunately, I was unable to get a consensus on whether or not it’s a feminist film. I find it hard to use the term feminist for “Wonder Woman,” but it’s definitely not your average superhero blockbuster.
In her role as Diana, Gal Gadot joins the ranks of recent progressive female leads coming out of Hollywood, including Daisy Ridley in “Star Wars,” Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae in “Hidden Figures,” Ava Duvernay in “A Wrinkle in Time,” and, let us not forget the heroine Katniss Everdeen played by Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games” series. Wonder Woman is the first film in the DC Extended Universe to feature a female superhero solo, and the first to be directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins.
Jenkins’ perspective on the film is that it is not a female film, but a film about a major superhero. OK, Patty, but we can’t ignore this superhero’s gender when she is the first female hero in this genre to be portrayed solo in a blockbuster hit. In fact, her gender is a significant part of the theme of the movie, and while there have been quite a few strong female leads recently (see above), let’s face it: A strong female lead is not Hollywood’s strong point. Nor is Hollywood big on putting money into movies directed by female directors. Gender matters, Patty, though I get why you have to say is doesn’t.
I will admit, I took the requisite picture in front of the life-sized “Wonder Woman” poster, my friends and I with our arms crossed deflecting bullets – so let’s start with the positives. Some of my favorite scenes in the movie are those I can view through a female empowerment lens. I love the scene in which Diana goes into the meeting full of men, completely ignoring being told she cannot enter and cannot speak because she is a woman. She is oblivious to the rules she must abide by as a woman in World War I era patriarchal Europe. Diana does what she thinks is right throughout the film, regardless of being told she is not allowed to do it or cannot succeed. She shows compassion is power in the scene where she confronts no man’s land, refusing to back down or give up. For laughs, I love when Diana tells Trevor that men are important for reproduction but unnecessary for pleasure. Ha!
The stats on “Wonder Woman” are great. To date, the film has earned more than $797 million, meaning big success in capitalist terms. It debuted as the number four best performing superhero film ever, and surpassed every debut for solo superhero films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Further, “Wonder Woman” is the biggest debut by a woman filmmaker in history. The fact that “Wonder Woman” made even a nod at female empowerment is newsworthy, considering the statistics. It is well known that the more any form of art costs, the less it can risk and the less likely it is to challenge any form of social norms or marketing power. With the vast majority of directors of well-funded Hollywood movies being men, there was even more at stake for stepping even slightly out of the Hollywood norm.
Now the feminist-not-so-much side. Regardless of what some reviewers will tell you, “Wonder Woman” is full of your typical sexist Hollywood fare. The female lead is gorgeous and scantily clad, even if her clothing is portrayed as warrior clothing that she chooses against the societal norms of dress of the time period. Her beauty is key to the story, and key to Hollywood casting this actress as lead. She is naïve and innocent, just the way men often like their female lead. Yes, her mother and her aunt are knowledgeable and worldly, but Diana has been sheltered from the world. Then there are the sexist one-liners that get laughs, such as this response to Diana’s bar-room brawl, “I’m both frightened and aroused.”
So… my vote is this: “Wonder Woman” is edging slowly towards a female empowered pop culture. It is Hollywood and mainstream, a blockbuster with mass appeal, yet “Wonder Woman” still manages to portray some peaceful, feminist ideas to crowds that watch this pop culture, violence-infested genre. Diana can deflect bullets, destroy the god of war, and still be emotional and honest. In the end, the message is not one of war, but of fighting for truth and justice and believing in the good in people, even when we know the bad. OK… and she kicks ass.
If you miss the film in theaters, the digital movie will be released on Aug. 29 & on Blu-Ray on Sept. 19.