The Wandering, woeful ‘Feminism’ of Wonder Woman

By Shahana Siddiqui

Like millions of men and women globally, who either grew up with the comic books or Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman TV series, I too was eagerly looking forward to the much awaited standalone WW movie. Though no expert, comic books and superhero movies are kryptonite to me and my nine year old son! But as the release date drew closer, with over-hyping of WW’s symbol for feminism (i.e. the UN Honorary Ambassador controversy) and more so seeing Gal
Gadot, the actress who plays the Amazon princess, actively supporting Israel Defense Forces (IDF), made the movie less appealing to me. I understand that as an Israeli citizen, she had to serve IDF as part of mandatory military services, but it is quite another issue to actively support an army that has been widely recorded and criticised for killing civilians and especially children. But of course, Hollywood has no problem casting someone like Gadot for a character who is supposedly the protector of the weak.

But I digress. Back to the movie itself.

So slightly unwillingly, I took my son to watch WW. Given the hype around it, especially global raging reviews by feminist writers and film critics, I must admit, the expectation bar was set quite high. What I did not expect was over two hours of cringe worthy experience!

As a friend rightfully stated on social media, the movie tried to do too many things and ended up doing everything badly. Diana is strong, feisty yet doe-eyed innocent who is clueless of her own strength, identity and hence her destiny (as daughter of Amazonian queen Hippolyta and the Greek god Zeus, she is destined to destroy god of war Ares). Diana saves Steve Trevor, an
American spy from the depth of the waters that surround her magical and invisible island of Themyscira, when his plane is shot down by the Germans. The confused stare she gives Trevor on the beach seemed like a carbon copy of ‘The Little Mermaid’, with all that was missing was Ariel/Diana (what’s the difference at this point?) bursting out in a song to be a part of his world! I must say, the fight scene among the Amazon warriors and the German soldiers on the beach was quite spectacular and perhaps the only redeeming part of the entire movie.

But alas, maybe not in an epic song, but in her new-found conviction which to be honest, was highly baffling to me, Diana wants to be a part of Steve’s world, more so, his war. Without any proof, she is convinced that Ares is behind this war and goes against her wise mother and beloved community to follow a strange man into an unknown world. Woman leaving the comfort of her maa’erbaari to follow a man to clean up his mess – now, where have I heard that before?

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What would follow is a series of badly scripted dialogues and a bunch of random stereotyped side-kicks (the drunk Scottish marksman who doesn’t really do much other than sing badly, the smart-mouthed, multi-tongued, ethnically ambiguous Muslim con artist, and the Native American ‘Chief’ smuggler who makes smoke signals!) coming together to find the evil scientist Maru and her boss General Ludendorff. There is more Little Mermaid-esque discoveries of Steve’s world as Diana figures out London fashion and politics, followed by the much anticipated sexy outfit change to go into battle! Also, I am still confused as to why World War I was chosen as the backdrop when the original WW comic was conceptualised and published in the early 1940s in the context of World War II. So, if Ares was destroyed to end all wars, does that mean WWII never happened?

To add insult to injury, Diana is also portrayed as bit of adits because though the audience saw Ares from a mile away, with all her linguistic and historical knowledge, the princess remained oblivious to war god’s charms. Comic world has a horrible history/trend in making women look like fools with the classic case of investigative journalist Lois Lane being oblivious to Superman/Clark Kent identity because of a pair of glasses! While characters like Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne, figure out evil plots using their calculative minds, female characters are usually portrayed as headstrong, irrational and emotional reinforcing the women-are-hormonal narrative and thus, unable to be strategic under pressure.

Male fantasies are dominant throughout the film and does little to problematize it. Lynda Carter once said in an interview how uncomfortable she was with men treating WW as a sex symbol when that was never the intention of the comic book. Yet, 30 years later, the makers did exactly that by oversexualizing WW by reinforcing patriarchal notion of double burden of work whereby women are expected to be beautiful, sexy, forever size two, and fight all battles in skimpy metal lingerie with not a hair out of place!

But what really made me want to scream like tormented Diana is when she comes to the realisation that she will fight for love! Oh for Athena’s sake! Can we stop with this we-first-have-sex-and-then-tell-each-other-how-we-feel, heterosexual love conquers all theme already? It is to say nothing else matters – not loyalty, trust, justice, equality – none of those values matter other than love, which is the ultimate teacher and changer of all. Yet, it is exactly because of this romantic love-obsessed cultural hegemony, women are unable to leave abusive partners, unhappy marriages, and made to feel inadequate without a man. But alas, even the Amazon goddess is shackled and whipped by love and that too for a mere mortal!

There is a trend in superhero movies in reiterating white American mortal male characters as the pinnacle (pun intended!) of manhood with compassion and valor, who somehow survive global/galactic destructions, and always deserving of god-like relationships and statuses (same theme appears in Guardian of the Galaxy 2). In WW, Steve keeps referring to his ‘above average endowment’ because that is exactly how manhood is measured! This constant, almost comical phallic references of the white male lead is a cheap way of asserting otherwise a very fragile white heterosexual male ego which I personally am tired of paying my hard earned money to go watch!

Traditional gender-sexuality narrative aside, WW is filled with racism, tokenism, and Islamophobia. WW makers applied what I call ‘quick and dirty Hollywood diversity formula’ where in the name of inclusivity, there is in fact blatant tokenism and reinforcement of racist discourses. Along with the randomly placed Black Amazonians in otherwise a Greek mythological island, the training scene between Diana and one of the Black warriors was nothing short of racist depiction of black bodies as ‘beast-like’, something that athletes such as the tennis stars, the Williams sisters and Ghanaian-Italian footballer Mario Balotelli are subjected to both on the courts/fields and online. Moreover, with some dash of ‘colour’ here and there in Themyscira and the Punjabi soldiers in London, Sameer (but please call him Sammy), was the friendly-Muslim who was clearly placed to counter the otherwise blatant Islamophobia of having the German secret chemical lab based in Turkey/Ottoman Empire with layers of implications of current stereotypes around Muslim jihadists. A major facepalm moment in the film was when Diana immediately deciphers the secret languages used by Mura as ‘Ottoman’ and ‘Sumerian’ when in fact the script shown on the notebook was modern Arabic!

But the poor plot, abysmal acting (superhero movies are not front runners for the Oscars but neither should they look like Bollywood action films!), even tokenism did not make me half as angry as the general attitude globally which is to be grateful for FINALLY having a female superhero movie! Even though it was neatly packaged happy meal of shallow, sexist, overtly white interpretation of what feminism ought to be, we are somehow expected to consume and accept it because WW came alive on the big screen after 70 years of its publication!

In this neo-liberal market mechanism of making a product out of everything, it bothers me that WW became a symbol of feminism and that feminism got associated with WW. Had this been just another superhero movie with cool weapons, big fight scenes and bad plot, I would have enjoyed the movie far more, in the same manner as my son did. Maybe that is exactly what Wonder Woman set out to do – to be the Spice Girls of the silver screen; but too much marketing and fabricated feminism got in the way. There have been tons of female-positive films in recent times that deserve more traction and support from moviegoers and reviewers alike. We also need to be careful to not call everything with a female lead as feminist, a term in my opinion used too frequently, too fashionably, too carelessly.

Wonder Woman may be a giant leap for Hollywood, but it certainly was no step in our constant struggles for equality, justice, and respect.
The author is a PhD candidate at University van Amsterdam, focusing on sexual reproductive health and violence.