Wonder Woman as a Rorschach Test for Women
High hopes and low expectations. That was my attitude when I walked into a dark theater at 12:30 p.m. on a Friday, the opening weekend of Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins.
Since then, I have been reading countless opinion pieces about the film and gathering responses from the women in my midst. What’s striking, but not shocking, is how high the bar is for Wonder Woman. It seems to be nothing less than perfection—one film expected to be all things for all women. That’s a tough jumping off point for much of the discourse, discussion, and critique of Wonder Woman. I guess that’s what happens when a female superhero has to wait it out for decades before she gets to star in a film featuring her very own origin story. Women are bringing a lot of want to this film, and our reaction to it seems to be a kind of Rorschach test.
As a screenwriter and feminist, I did not expect a perfect film. It wasn’t. I also didn’t expect to be profoundly moved. I was. I smile-cried the moment I saw young Diana barreling through the streets of Themyscira, breaking a trail into her future as a superhero. My jaw dropped involuntarily at the sight of Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, and their world of women warriors training with total precision and ferocity. I burst into tears when Wonder Woman soldiered into “no man’s land,” steadying her shield against a hail of machine gun fire. I’ve never seen women do anything like that on screen, and I’m a film dork. I’ve seen a lot of films.
This film is an unapologetic celebration of women and of all that is embodied in Wonder Woman—empathy, a fiery disgust with human suffering, and a wholehearted compassion for marginalized people. When Steve Trevor, played by Chris Pine, urges Diana to wait for the men who can save the world, she responds with, “I am the man who can.” She is more than eager to shoulder the burden for all of us, and believes that no battle or war should be entered into with any other motivation. I’m a fan of all of that.
Wonder Woman is also full of funny and relatable moments, like when Diana arrives in 1918 London with Steve. Her gait and posture are neither proper nor demure. She strides through the streets of London like the warrior she is and doesn’t know a curtsy from a tip-of-the-hat. I both loved it and was uncomfortable with how many times I’ve seen this dynamic before—the untamable woman with the man who is trying to tamp down her natural instincts. For her own good, of course. I adore I Love Lucy, but it’s got its message problems, if you know what I mean.
I also experienced a deep sadness that muddied up some of my Wonder Woman joy. If Hillary Rodham Clinton—arguably the most qualified presidential candidate we’ve had in the history of our country—had won the electoral college, Wonder Woman would have felt more like a victory and an affirmation. (It bears repeating that she won the popular vote by nearly three million votes.)
Back to Wonder Woman and the Rorschach of it all. This film has flaws, and many women commentators and those I spoke with were quick to point them out, even when they loved the movie. Here are some of the complaints (legitimate, at least in my view) I have heard about Wonder Woman:
• The male characters collaborating with Diana are never sufficiently in awe of her powers.
• While Paradise Island is a diverse society of women—ethnically and culturally—the brown-skinned women are peripheral. At one point in the film, Diana disagrees with a woman of African descent with, “Forgive me, Senator.” But that’s all we get of said Senator.
• There was little to no queer or lesbian content. “I mean, hello! You know some shit is going down between these women,” one lesbian said to me. (It’s also worth noting that a number of queer, lesbian, and straight women expressed fantasies of living on such an island.)
• The “shitty, over-blown CGI.”
• Wonder Woman is the “white woman’s superhero.”
• One of the executive producers of Wonder Woman is Steve Mnuchin, Donald Trump’s Secretary of Treasury. This came up with anyone who stayed for the credits. Oy.
• Gal Gadot, the actor who plays Wonder Woman, is Israeli and served in Israel’s military. Three of my friends who are Palestinian expressed upset over how the message of the film was tainted for them with an Israeli-born superhero. The film has been banned in Lebanon for this reason. Al Jazeera published an op-ed by Hamid Dabashi entitled, “Watching ‘Wonder Woman’ in Gaza” with the tagline, “Is it possible to embrace a fanatical warrior in the cause of the Zionist theft of Palestine as a feminist hero?”
That last complaint is a lot to chew on, and warrants its own analysis. In fact, the entire inception and trajectory of Wonder Woman’s 75 years in existence is full of imperfections, paradoxes, and contradictions.
Her creator, psychologist William Molton Marston, was partly inspired by the suffrage movement and was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights. Marston once said, “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.” Pretty progressive, right?
The staff at Ms. Magazine saw the potency of Wonder Woman as a feminist icon and launched its very first issue in 1972 with the headline “Wonder Woman For President.” That sentiment continues to resonate. But Marston was also inspired by wartime pin-ups and a healthy dose of sadomasochism. He once wrote to Maxwell Gaines, the creator of comic books as we know them, that an integral part of women’s “allure” is that “women enjoy submission—being bound.” There’s a lingering question as to whether Marston believed that or was trying to subvert a feminist message by attracting erotic responses to submissive women, and then turning the tables. The answer is still up for grabs.
In the meantime, women can love and adore this version of Wonder Woman, take their daughters and sons to see it, and also contemplate the meaning of its flaws or perceived flaws. Cinema is most powerful when it holds a mirror up to our own experiences. Wishing for the presence of something or the absence of another in a creative work doesn't need to negate its value. Sometimes the richness is found in the questions rather than the answers. Because, after all, there is no such thing as a perfect film, a perfect woman, or a perfect superhero. Perhaps if we saw more female heroes on screen, we wouldn’t be so rankled by the imperfections of one film or expect it to be all things for all women.
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