5 ways Hollywood can do Wonder Woman justice

Make sure she lives up to her powers.

 

Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Published Nov 14, 2014   Updated May 30, 2021, 5:12 am CDT

Fans know, it has not been easy to get a female superhero movie off the ground. That’s why even the upcoming Wonder Woman film, which DC confirmed last month among the unveiling of its massive new lineup, sounds almost too good to be true. 

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But there’s no need to pinch yourself yet. Assuming the world doesn’t end before 2017, the Wonder Woman movie is indeed happening. Moreover, this week saw another batch of exciting news about 2017’s Wonder Woman unfurl, when Variety reported that TV producer/director Michelle MacLaren was being approached to helm the film. A two time Emmy winner, MacLaren has directed on such iconic shows as The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad (for which she won her two Emmys.) Though it had previously been reported that DC wanted a female director to make its Wonder Woman movie, hearing MacLaren’s name tossed around is a whole new level of exciting, given that a) having someone attached helps make it real, and b) her TV résumé is incredible. 

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Having MacLaren work on Wonder Woman would be awesome. Taking that possibility into account, along with the female-centric projects  in Marvel’s recently announced slate, it’s starting to look like a brand new and very exciting day for female superheroes. But let’s not count our chickens before they’ve hatched, especially where Wonder Woman is concerned. 2017 is still a long way away, and there are a few things DC absolutely must do if they want to give us a successful Wonder Woman movie. 

1) Make sure she lives up to her powers. 

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Wonder Woman is strong. And not in some lame, generic, “strong female character” type of way. No, rather, Wonder Woman is powerful. As far as superpowers go, she does not lack in the skills department. Everyone remembers the invisible jet and the lasso of truth. But let’s not also forget her superhuman strength, and super abilities in combat. As far as superheroes go, she’s among the superest. 

Yet female superheroes’ powers aren’t often given the same treatment as male superheroes’ when it comes to movies. “Nearly every typical male superhero uses their gifts to attack, exercising power and dominance over whoever they face,” writes Screen Rant’s Andrew Dyce. “Yet the female superheroes (who are presumably their equals) are relegated to support roles; or even more troubling, have their powers originating from an unnatural energy source, or a mental abnormality.” 

That’s not to say that female superheroes need to be aggressively pounding their enemies and beating the living crap out of them. However, when it does come to facing her evil foes, one hopes that Wonder Woman will be allowed to take a more active role in the upcoming movie than the ones we’ve too often seen her peers employ onscreen. 

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Dyce continues:  

“In short: we’re sick and tired of seeing women view their powers as burdens, not gifts. Because in the end, who is that meant to please? Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and even the CW’s Flash all take childlike thrills in testing the limits of their powers, but we challenge any comic book fan to think of a film that showed a heroine reacting the same way. Men can love their powers as the gifts they are, but if women take joy in being different—something sinister lies ahead.

For evidence, look no farther than X2: X-Men United’s Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), The Wolverine’s Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), Iron Man 3’s Brandt (Stephanie Szostak), X-Men: First Class’s Emma Frost (January Jones) … If a superpowered woman is laughing or taking pleasure while using her powers in a film, odds are she’ll be a villain or morally ambiguous at best (hell, even Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman stopped enjoying herself once she decided to fight for good).”

The idea that female comic book characters aren’t able to be as powerful as men without being evil or unstable isn’t just boring, it’s offensive. For Wonder Woman to be as wondrous as she should be, it’s time that DC films’ recognize that women can be as virtuous and as commanding as any man. 

2) Acknowledge her femininity. 

With that said, let’s also realize that men and women are different. Hollywood tends to portray many heroines as overtly masculine, without giving them the same action-bearing responsibilities as their male counterparts. Certainly not all women, and more importantly, not all people, fall into the same gender norms. But just because Wonder Woman isn’t into pink doesn’t mean she’s not a “real” woman (it’s in her name, for crying out loud.) Whether she subscribes to traditionally held views on gender or not, the fact that Wonder Woman is a woman is, obviously, an integral part of the character, and the new Wonder Woman movie should celebrate that. 

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As Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress warrants, “superheroines don’t have to fight the same way as superheroes, or to have the same priorities and motivations. In fact, it would be interesting for them to be different.” Again, the ideal here is different, but not lesser. Rosenberg goes on to state that “whether it’s Black Widow circumventing the need to torture Loki by conducting a skilled interrogation that never gets physical or Mystique grappling with the fact that having a power sometimes makes people more frightened of you than admiring, that difference should be a means of articulating that there are multiple kinds of power that are equally effective, not that being a woman with powers means you can never be equal to a man.” 

Bottom line: Wonder Woman is tough, but her femininity, whatever that may be, is not in question. And it would be a shame if fans can’t deal with that and move on. 

3) Don’t oversexualize. 

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Wonder Woman’s femininity does not inherently have to be separate from her sexuality, but one shouldn’t define the other either. This is actually a bigger problem in the world of comic books than it is in screen adaptations of comic books, and a lot of it has to do with the simple truth that men and women view sexuality through separate prisms. It’s important to remember here that sexuality is as different from one person to another as anything else is. But the dominant viewpoint in comic book stories continues to be male, and that can lead to some pretty problematic interpretations where the concept of sex is concerned.  

“You’ve heard the argument that male superheroes are sexualized simply because they are often bare-chested. But a man taking off his shirt doesn’t make him a sex object. It’s actually rare to find examples of male superheroes who truly are sexualized the way women are in comics,” writes io9’s Lauren Davis. “When questions of female superhero costumes come up, inevitably someone will say, “But male superheroes wear skimpy costumes!” That’s true, but those wrestling costumes and loincloths are (usually) about highlighting a character’s physical strength rather than inviting the viewer to examine the character’s body in an erotic way.” 

Not erotic? “But what about some shirtless Chris Hemsworth!” you say. And you’d have a point. But again, the issue here is about the larger trends in the industry. “The people-who-are-attracted-to-men gaze is rarely invited into superhero media, especially compared to how often the people-who-are-attracted-to-women gaze is,” argues Davis. “The camera may occasionally zoom in on their butts or abs, but they still have their own rich stories without these fanservice moments.”

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How are movies doing with this right now? Well, that’s a difficult question. “Visual representation of female characters is key to understanding how the male gaze is used in these [superhero] films,” posits Everyday Feminism’s Amy Shackelford. “The female superheroes (Catwoman, Electra, Silk Spectre I and II, Black Widow) aren’t wearing outfits that are comfortable to kick butt in. They are wearing them for the male viewer.”

Yet perhaps the problem isn’t so much the outfits themselves as it is the way male viewers perceive said outfits. According to Daily Dot’s Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, the most sexist thing about female superheroes today is the men who can’t get female superheroes’ sexuality off their minds. “Pepper Potts is only seen as Tony Stark’s ‘equal’ once she puts on the Iron Man armor in Iron Man 3,” she writes. “Black Widow is a ‘voluptuous mascot’ because Scarlett Johansson is an attractive woman. Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster got relatively good reviews for Thor because she’s a scientist who wears plaid shirts and sensible shoes, but then she wound up being heavily criticized in Thor: The Dark World for fainting while terminally ill, because fainting is for damsels. If you’re a woman in a superhero movie, you’re shit outta luck.”

The good news is, things are getting better. The Black Widow that’s been created by Scarlett Johansson and Joss Whedon has emerged as a less sexualized, more fleshed out version of what female superheroes can be, no matter how many pigheaded journalists keep asking Johansson about her eating habits. For the new Wonder Woman, the correct answer lies not in making her character unsexy, but in making her character more than just sexy. 

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4) Get the wardrobe right. 

Look, as much as we all love silver age superheroes, the truth is that as the times change, so do the clothes. We all remember what happened when they released pictures from NBC’s unaired Wonder Woman pilot a few years ago; the words “shock” and “awe” don’t even begin to describe it. The sad thing is that the scrapped show’s star, Adrianne Palicki, is an extremely talented actress, and the outdated costume they stuck her in didn’t do anybody justice in what could’ve been an exciting venture. 

It might sound silly to grapple about costumes, but as we saw in the debate that emerged when new depictions of Wonder Woman put her in a pants rather than the traditional skirt, this stuff is important. Though there has already been some contention over the colors in Gal Godot’s new Wonder Woman garb, at least the sword-wielding, warrior look is a lot more appropriate of Wonder Woman’s ready-for-battle history. 

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5) Play up her iconic status. 

Back in July, when the new Wonder Woman movie was just a hopeful glimmer in comic book fans’ eyes, artist David Finch caused a minor uproar when he announced the new direction he was planning to take with the character. Using an unfortunate choice of words, Finch said, “We want to make sure it’s a book that treats her as a human being first and foremost, but is also respectful of the fact that she represents something more. We want her to be a strong—I don’t want to say feminist, but a strong character. Beautiful, but strong.”

That’s right: beautiful, strong, but not a feminist. Though Finch has since backpedaled on these comments, it’s hard not to find them disappointing. Because at her best, Wonder Woman is a feminist, and a feminist icon at that. And not to acknowledge that part of her legacy gets the character fundamentally wrong. The Guardian’s Laurenn McCubbin even takes it one step further, writing, “Contrast Finch’s statement with writer Grant Morrison’s recent interview, wherein he claimed to be “working [his] way through the entire history of feminism” in preparation for his upcoming Wonder Woman graphic novel. Morrison, unlike Finch, understands that Wonder Woman isn’t just a feminist icon—she’s the feminist icon.” 

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The history of Wonder Woman’s feminism, like the history of feminism itself (or the history of anything else, while we’re at it), is long and complicated. But that history matters. Following Finch’s claim that his Wonder Woman (who, in all fairness, is being written by his wife, Meredith Finch) would not be a feminist, Janelle Asselin at Comics Alliance discussed this history, writing, “Women were gaining power as Wonder Woman’s story began, thanks to more women entering the workplace to replace men who had gone to fight.” From there, Asselin details how, “Over the years, Wonder Woman’s story arcs have ranged from feminism to par-for-the-superheroine-course. Like all other female characters, she’s too often used as a prop in storylines about male characters, but unlike most other female characters she had a unique tool: her own television show.” 

Asselin is of course speaking about the Lynda Carter vehicle from the ’70s, which, she asserts, “struck a chord with women of all ages and cemented Wonder Woman’s place in the culture. She had already famously featured on the cover of the first issue of the feminist magazine Ms. in 1972, and for decades after, regardless of the quality of the comics, Wonder Woman has remained a feminist icon.” 

The only problem with describing Wonder Woman as a feminist is that, like describing any one person as any one thing, it can be somewhat limiting. Asselin notes, “What’s interesting about Wonder Woman is that people care more often about her as a figure than about her as a character in stories.” Except that if Wonder Woman was just a feminist icon, she wouldn’t have remained in the zeitgeist all these years. The triumph in all this is that it’s 2014, and we’re still talking about Wonder Woman. And though it’s long overdue, we’ll have a Wonder Woman movie by 2017. And that’s a big deal. As Asselin puts it, “she’s not just a feminist icon—she’s also one of the greatest superheroes of all time, and one of DC’s great trinity of characters alongside Batman and Superman.”

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McCubbin concludes her Guardian piece by stating, “feminism can remain one of Wonder Woman’s heroic traits—and a fight for what is just and fair and right. If the Finches want to reach a mainstream audience, they should embrace the idea that what Wonder Woman readers want to see is a Diana who is strong and then beautiful, and both a hero and a human being—with foibles, failings and a strong feminist core.”  

Feminism as a heroic trait, now there’s an idea. Hopefully, a Wonder Woman movie, with a female director, will help cement that reality for anyone who doesn’t already subscribe to it. To expect this film to be some kind of long, academic essay on the history of feminism, on the other hand, would be foolhardy, since the real victory would be a movie with a feminist slant that’s also as exciting and fun as any superhero movie should be. But wouldn’t that be something: a classic superhero movie that not only starred a feminist superhero, but took an actively feminist stance in its storytelling. 

If anyone can pull it off, it’s Wonder Woman. 

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Photo via jdhancock/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Nov 14, 2014, 12:00 pm CST