How Wonder Woman Is and Isn't a Feminist Superheroine Movie

Three ways a fun film stumbles in its portrayal of "feminist icon" Wonder Woman.

Posted Jun 19, 2017

I went to see Wonder Woman in a quaint, small town cinema built in 1912, 30 years before Wonder Woman first appeared in her own comic book. The theater’s long history is analogous to Wonder Woman’s character arc, and how long we as an audience had to wait to see her star in her own feature film. Is the movie entertaining and well-made? Was it an enjoyable action flick? Certainly.

The direction is adroit, and the screenplay was above average as far as comic book movies go, and way above average for the DC cinematic universe (Batman v. Superman was awful, and Suicide Squad amounted to a big screen lobotomy). Gal Gadot, the lead, is tall and has dutifully completed the superhero workout, and her costume is spot on in terms of color and continuity with the more recent incarnations of Diana Prince in DC comics.

Fanboy and fangirl outrage about “liberties” taken regarding her cinematic origin, how she looks, and what she does on screen has been quite muted. Director Patty Jenkins captures an emotional range from Gadot, who thankfully displays comedic chops that add to the entertainment value. There is no nudity or gratuitous sex play. In fact, we can barely see the onscreen kiss between the primary characters, as they are cloaked in shadow.

Consistent with the vast majority of comic book films, blood spatter is almost nonexistent, especially in light of the setting of the Great War to End All Wars. So, the film demonstrates good production values and is fun to watch. Therefore, it is not what I would call a guilty pleasure. But before we do a round of high fives and declare “we've come a long way, baby”, let’s consider what this film says about how a heroine is portrayed in the 21st century. Because, the feminist in me didn’t give Wonder Woman, or me, a total pass, persisting and resisting throughout my walk home from the theater. Here are three issues to consider.

A feminist warrior ought to be defined by what she does, not how she looks. In the film, Diana is a warrior, but she is also presented as being as sexy as the day is long. On screen, folks who meet her, and can find their tongues, comment that she is the most beautiful woman they have seen. I can imagine that some members of the audience may consider Gal Gadot one of the most beautiful women they have ever seen as well.

But that should not be the focus of a kickass heroine—her beauty, bone structure, and sexiness—if she is to be a feminist icon. Elsewhere in the DC cinematic universe, in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend Rachel tells Bruce, who has now apparently grown up to be a drunken playboy, “it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”

I would suggest that in a feminist superheroine movie, it’s not who she is on the outside, either, but what she does that should define the heroine. Her sex appeal should be tertiary, or not highlighted at all, especially in the film’s dialogue. The audience can make up its own mind about her attractiveness without characters repeatedly pointing that out for us. This aspect of the film reveals something that is still deemed very important in Hollywood and society in general. How a woman looks. But at least Diana leaves her island, probably never to return, for a powerful reason: Women need to safeguard the world from the male propensity for violence and destruction, via their superior skills and inner character. And this Diana does, impeccably.

The source of Diana’s warrior abilities. She’s a powerful woman, but she’s also [spoiler alert] a goddess, or perhaps a demi-goddess. She possesses skills from having been trained by the best general in the Amazon warrior army. But at a certain point, she becomes “more powerful than she knows,” because of the identity of her father. What could be more patriarchal than that? Her super strength comes from a source that is beyond human, and yet most definitely masculine.

William Marston, the creator of the character Wonder Woman, expressed wildly incongruous views on gender in his fiction and in life, dallying in themes of BDSM, and dominance and submission on the page and in his home with his wife and live-in mistress (see Jill LePore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman; you may or may not be glad you did). Suffice it to say his contradictory ideas about Wonder Woman’s powers, and her ability to get out of tight spots, and tight ropes and chains, would not be seen as particularly feminist or politically progressive, unless, of course, you are into that sort of thing.

But even Marston back in the day stated his view that women were inherently superior to men, and his origin story held that Diana’s birth required no man or masculine entity. In this specific sense, the origin story from 1942 was more woman-centric or feminist than that presented in the 2017 film.

Queer backstory takes a backseat to heteronormativity. Coming from the island of the Amazons, where there are no men, Diana’s backstory has a decidedly queer subtext. What’s a young single gal to do on an island populated only by terrifically in shape women? But then, of course, Captain Steve Trevor crashes through the barrier that magically surrounds and protects Themyscira from the impurity of man, and the good Captain penetrates deeply into Diana’s society and life. She has learned that while men are integral to human reproduction, they are not needed for sexual pleasure. And that would seem to be that.

Except Steve Trevor is played by Chris Pine, and this film is ensconced in Hollywood and US culture; are they ready for a super hero, or super heroine, who is non-heteronormative? Probably not. So, Wonder Woman must fall for Steve Trevor, because that is what happens in the source material from decades ago, and because Hollywood and 90% of audiences expect, no, demand this to happen. Wonder Woman eventually must become as American as red, white and blue, apple pie, and hot dogs in buns.

After all, a sequel is in the works. The first step in the process of Diana’s assimilation to American culture is the predictable but increasingly tiresome formula of girl meets guy, girl falls for guy, and girl does guy before he goes and has to be a hero. This formulaic plotline feels almost inevitable as the movie marches methodically towards its conclusion. Was it really necessary [spoiler] for Diana and Steve to have a night together? No, it was not integral to the story, but this plot line fulfilled the heteronormativity requirement in the Hollywood formula.

Did I enjoy watching Wonder Woman kick butt on the big screen? Yes I did. Was she able to stand on her own, not needing rescuing, and specifically, a man, to save her? For sure. In fact, she saves the intrepid Captain Trevor at least three times, and he does not return the favor. Perhaps that’s as much as we could expect from a feminist superheroine produced by the Hollywood movie machine. 

And I note that Wonder Woman is a summer box office juggernaut; at the time of this writing, it has crossed the $600 million mark, a record for a female director; this is in and of itself an accomplishment. But would the film have broken box office records if it had hinted that Diana was the least bit queer, or bi-curious? Or if she had one bad hair day (poison gas and explosions can really do a number on one’s do)? Perhaps not. Maybe someday soon, a feminist superhero will appear on the screen who brings both brains and brawn, without having to be so overtly heterosexual, and so beautiful, with everyone standing around saying so. Because, this we already knew, and it really shouldn’t matter so darn much.

Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press.