I was late to the game for Wonder Woman, only getting to the theaters to see it after it had been out several weeks. That meant there was plenty of time for me to see all the Facebook comments and have all the conversations about how amazing it was, and how empowering my female friends found it. And to be honest, I heard all that and thought, yeah, okay, cool, I like strong women stories. Then I saw the movie. And they were ALL SO RIGHT!! There are other (not enough) strong female characters in movies, but this one was something special.
Wonder Woman gives us the origin story of Diana (Gal Gadot), daughter of the Amazon Queen, who grew up in an entirely female community on a magically-shrouded island. She grows up among female warriors who fight for peace, and is trained by their greatest fighter (Princess Buttercup–I mean, Robin Wright). When Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy pursued by German ships, breaches the island’s secrecy, Diana learns of World War I raging across the planet. Convinced Ares is behind the conflict, she leaves with Steve, intent on ending the war by destroying Ares.
Diana is amazing–but I think the real hero(ine) of this story may be Patty Jenkins, the director. Like I said, there are other strong women in film, but this one felt different–and I think it’s the female director, making different choices.
Watching the Amazon women go into battle together was incredibly powerful. I feel like I may have a new insight into why men (speaking broadly) like action movies. There really is something empowering about watching people like you perform feats of strength and skill. And then of course there’s the added layer here of women warriors defeating male German soldiers, a flip of the historical reality where women at the time had no vote and few rights. I hope the day will come when that imbalance is purely a historical thing; watching the movie today, women are still fighting for equality and watching victorious Amazons is moving.
I heard somewhere that the movie cast female bodybuilders as Amazons and that was a good choice. These aren’t cute little model Amazons–they look like warriors, and it’s plausible when they take down the Germans despite being vastly outgunned (literally). And besides–let’s show some women with actual muscle!
Diana is in a landscape of powerful women, and emerges as a strong character who still leads with her heart, and that’s important too. She doesn’t go to World War I for the glory or the power or the joy of fighting. She is always driven by the desire to help people and to bring peace. She’s horrified by the human cost of war. But the movie portrays her emotional motivation as a strength, not a weakness. No one ever tells her she’s being an emotional girl and she needs to man up and be strong. That whole concept would be utterly foreign in this narrative.
The sequence that sticks with me most is when Diana chooses to enter No Man’s Land, between the French and German trenches. She does it because another woman tells her that the French civilians in the village nearby are suffering, and pleads for help. I think I get the Bechdel Test a little better now. I still think it’s imperfect (because it doesn’t say anything about how women are portrayed, just whether they’re there), but I got the point here. This was more meaningful because it was one woman asking another for help.
When Diana rises up out of the trench to enter No Man’s Land, the camera pans over her body. And here we see a female director again. The shot highlights her boots–her lasso–her sword and shield. There’s no shot of her chest. Because the director chose to show her as a fighter, not as eye candy or pin-up material. And that’s true throughout. Yes, that’s a fairly revealing outfit she’s in–but it’s not actually that low-cut, plus there’s an entire sequence demonstrating that she can’t fight in more concealing clothing.
Oh, and once she gets into No Man’s Land, and a woman leads troops of men into a fight who are apparently cool with following her? Yeah. That’s awesome too.
The female power extends beyond Diana and the Amazons–Steve’s female secretary coordinates the infiltration mission the heroes are on, and we have a female villain. She’s extremely unsexy, and excels in the traditionally male area of science.
I’m citing specific moments and examples, but the values they suggest carry through the whole movie. Diana and the women around her are never held back by their gender, and they can use feminine strengths without being viewed as weak or as sex objects. And that is an amazing portrayal.
But it shouldn’t be. This was an incredible, mind-blowing, empowering movie. And now I want to see Hollywood shift far enough, make enough movies giving women equal power and positive portrayals, that it stops being an incredible thing. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy Wonder Woman.