Wonder Woman's Best Superpower Is Destroying Sexist Tropes
The latest and greatest installment in the DC Comics movie universe goes against the grain when it comes to toxic gender trends.
Note: This article contains spoilers for Wonder Woman.
Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman is a triumph, and it's almost absurd how good her movie is compared to the other films released in the current DC Comics canon. But getting here wasn't easy, as Jenkins was tasked with doing what for many years was considered impossible in Hollywood: producing a profitable, critically acclaimed superhero movie starring a woman. It's equally impressive that the film finds many ways to deliberately cater to and center the experiences, cultural references, and wish-fulfillment fantasies of a female audience.
The image of the bathing woman observed by a fully clothed man is a staple of Western visual art. Famous versions of this trope include paintings by Renoir, Rembrandt, and Degas, which in turn had their effect on cinema and television. Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie that was lauded for its feminist undertones, even attempted to subvert this trope by showing a man who's more interested in the water than the women who are using it to bathe.
But Wonder Woman delves into complete role reversal. Steve Trevor is a pilot and a spy who finds himself unexpectedly on Themyscira, the island where Diana lives with her Amazon tribe. In a scene straight out of a classic painting, Steve bathes in pure, glowing water as Diana enters the room, dressed in her uniform. As Steve rises from the bath to get dressed, Diana examines his body, remarking on his unfamiliar shape.
It would have been easy to make Diana the object with Steve as subject, focusing on Steve's fantasy of being desired by an island of women. But the movie puts the viewer squarely in Diana's point of view, putting us in her head with her pleasure at seeing Steve naked—her curiosity about what he is and her surefootedness compared to his awkwardness as the focus.
Perhaps the most quietly stunning scene in Wonder Woman is when Diana and Steve leave Themyscira on a boat, headed for Europe. When night comes, Steve behaves like a gentleman: He gives Diana the makeshift bed and chooses to sleep uncomfortably elsewhere. Diana is confused by this, since it doesn't occur to her that sleeping next to a strange man might be considered inappropriate or dangerous by a "normal" woman.
It's not simply that Diana is so strong and fast that Steve wouldn't be able to harm her: It's that she grew up without the experience of rape culture as we know it in our world. It wouldn't occur to her to be concerned about a man's physical presence, even alone in the dark. So, instead of crediting Steve for his chivalry, Wonder Woman seems to ask: What is the source of "gentlemanly" behavior? Why is that protection even necessary? What violence is it designed to compensate for?
Diana's lack of cultural and accumulated background trauma is perhaps what makes this version of her so iconic compared to other superheroes, across both Marvel and DC. While all superheroes personify various fantasies of power, in this iteration Diana represents the fantasy of freedom from structural violence and harassment. It's not just that she can fight her way out of danger—it's that she's a vision of what could be possible if women weren't in danger as often as they are.
Over the course of Wonder Woman, Diana is also continually shown listening to and respecting other women, when the men around her are eager to underestimate or dismiss them. This is particularly noteworthy, since Diana is a warrior and a princess and the women she meets are not only ordinary 20th-century residents, but lack institutional power.
It would be easy to portray Diana as valuing strength or courage, finding the women who grew up under patriarchy confusing. Instead, there's Trevor's secretary, who Diana treats with kindness and respect from the moment they meet. There's a woman from a destroyed village, ignored by the soldiers in the trenches and seen as another acceptable victim of the war, whose plight Diana takes seriously. Even the female villain of the piece, Doctor Maru, is spared by Wonder Woman in the hopes that she could be reformed.
Diana will argue with other women and fight against them, but she'll never be their rival or feel threatened by them, and refuses to condescend to them as well. In a genre of film that glorifies strength and fighting skills—particularly in the rare instances that women are allowed to be action stars—Diana's kindness and respect is a deliberate subversion.
Wonder Woman also tries to speak the language of women's cultural touchstones—to manifest their fantasies of safety, of being seen and respected. Much has been said about Buffy the Vampire Slayer since the show ended in 2003; it's been rightly criticized, analyzed, and elevated to the status of cultural iconography. The show was about many different kinds of women, and it had a massive female audience, especially among genre fans.
There's a scene in Wonder Woman that will speak to Buffy fans in a particular and intimate way. During Diana's final battle with the god of war Ares, there's a point where he seems to have vanquished her. Her weapons are lost, her friends are facing the enemy with no bullets left, she's been rendered immobile, and Ares is poised to strike the final blow. He points this out to her, watching her misery as she takes in how dire things are. In that moment, Diana has to decide whether she's strong enough to win on her own. Ares swings his sword, and Diana catches it between her bare palms and breaks free of her bonds. She rises, she fights on, she wins.
It's impossible not to see this as a deliberate callback to the iconic second season finale of Buffy, "Becoming," where her boyfriend-turned-monster slowly strips her of her support system, friends, and weapons. In their final confrontation, with her cornered and him holding a sword, he says "No weapons. No friends. No hope. Take all that away and what's left?"
"Me," Buffy answers, grabs his sword between her bare palms, and wins. Ares delivers almost the same dialogue, but Diana is silent, as if expecting everyone in the audience familiar with Buffy to fill in the quote.
Above all, Wonder Woman tries to cater to women's tastes and viewpoints, even as it has to balance the expectations of what women are and aren't allowed to be and look like on the screen. Imagine if the lesson Hollywood learned from this movie is that the path to making a good superhero film is to cater to women. What a world we'd live in.
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