There is a moment, during Wonder Woman, when Diana and Steve are rushing through one of the trenches on the front lines, and Diana stops to speak with a distraught woman who begs for her help. Steve tries to pull her with him, saying they need to keep going and this is not what they’re here for. Diana says no, this is what I’m here for. She throws off her cloak, and steps out onto the battlefield. She walks with conviction, with determination; with the unstoppable force of a superhero who intends to deliver justice. She drives back the enemy, and liberates the innocent.
It was at that point that the friend who was with me in the cinema started crying. She didn’t stop until the end of the movie. I managed to hold it together until I left the theatre and then, then I cried my eyes out. We had to go get a drink and talk and just take some time to process everything, and recover from the emotional impact.
I was not prepared to see Wonder Woman.
The best I can do here is try to explain why this movie is so deeply important, and why it affected us so. Let it be understood, however, that I’m speaking only for white women. Gal Gadot is white, and Wonder Woman will never have the same significance for women of colour who are still waiting for their superhero movie. Plus, the movie has the usual Hollywood stink of not really having any significant black characters with speaking parts… but saying Hollywood is racist is a bit like saying Ireland is a bit rainy. So bear in mind: this movie is far from perfect. No spoilers, mostly.
Waiting for Wonder Woman
I’ve been essentially boycotting most superhero movies for, oh, a few years now. If it was a big summer blockbuster with a single white male superhero with a shitty brown haircut, I did not go to see it. Why bother? I’d lost interest in those stories, being retold over and over with slightly different witty dialogue. Even the rare superhero movie with a woman in it was difficult to watch, because it was always, always clear that said woman (and there was usually only one woman) was there for the male gaze. She had her part, and she also had to look sexy to straight men. And she was sidelined, underused, and lacked character development.
There were glimmers of hope. I watched Thor, because Chris Hemsworth with his shirt off was so blatantly playing to the female gaze, and because René Russo is incredible, and because Natalie Portman did an okay job even though I can’t stand her. I watched Guardians of the Galaxy, the first and the second, because I like Gamora and Nebula so much. I watched some movies and I was still frustrated and annoyed because I kept asking, when will it be my turn? Why should I keep having to settle for whatever scraps Hollywood deems suitable to throw my way, in movies that clearly aren’t made for me?
So I haven’t seen any Spider-Man movie since the first time it was rebooted. I stopped watching anything to do with Batman since The Dark Knight – and, for what it’s worth, I think Christopher Nolan is horribly overrated as a director. I’ve seen no new Superman movies after Superman Returns in 2006. I’ve ignored all the X-Men movies after X-2 in 2003. I’ve missed dozens of other movies, including ones that everyone agrees are pretty good, because I just got tired of being ignored. Those movies aren’t for me, I thought. They’re made to appeal to a male audience. Why bother?
So I waited. We all waited. Rumors of this female superhero or that one getting her own movie never panned out. Hollywood constantly seemed to have issues with the very thought that a woman could carry a big summer blockbuster. DC had sexist issues all over, and Marvel were better in general but just couldn’t seem to commit to anything even though they had Scarlet Witch, Black Widow, Gamora, and a whole bunch of recognizable X-Women. I have to say, when I heard Spider-Man was getting yet another reboot, I just about gave up. I was never going to see the superhero movie I really wanted.
But what did I want? Honestly, I just wanted a movie with a woman as the main character, being heroic, without being treated as a sex object by the camera, without having her gender used against her in cheap ways. I wanted to see myself on the screen. I wanted a movie without the sting of disappointment that comes from suddenly having sexism leap out at you and remind you that your gender is still treated as the Other, and this space – of superheroes, of fantastic powers, of extraordinary people doing great things – this space is not for you, and it never will be.
When you’ve given up all hope, you tend not to have very high expectations. You’re just waiting for that crushing disappointment to hit you again, so you watch very carefully, and guard your heart. But when you’ve been waiting for something so long, and suddenly it arrives literally out of nowhere, well… it’s overwhelming. It’s hard to handle without cracking up and crying.
Wonder Woman got amazing reviews, and I didn’t dare get my hopes up. Still, I booked tickets for me and my friend. We had to go. Gotta get those box office numbers, and maybe we’ll see more female-led superhero movies. It was probably going to be okay, we thought.
We were not prepared.
Wonder Woman starts on Themiscyra, among the Amazons; women of every size and shape and color, living and working and fighting together. General Antiope (Robin Wright) is the old, scarred, battle-hardened warrior with fearsome fighting skills. Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) is regal and commanding and wise.
Every scene was shot for their character. I kept waiting for that shot, that I’ve seen so often before, where the camera swings around in an unnatural way and I’m suddenly and harshly reminded that no matter how good or interesting or powerful a female character is, it means nothing unless they’re also sexually appealing to straight men. But there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that presented this island paradise full of women as sexual objects. They were portrayed as real people.
Once Steve Traynor showed up (that’s Chris Pine), I was worried that he’d take control of the narrative. I was still waiting for that moment, when Diana would be shoved to the side, and a man would start directing her story. It never came. She chose to leave the island, and never once handed narrative control over to anyone.
On the boat from Themiscyra, there’s a wonderful little scene where Diana and Steve get talking about sex. I was waiting for that moment, when it turns out that Diana fulfils the “What is this thing you call love” trope, seeing as she grew up on an island without men and the sexist assumption of no men equals no sex is so horribly ingrained. It never came. With a single throwaway line, she adverts the trope, and hard. “I’ve read all twelve volumes of Cleo’s treatises on body and pleasure,” she says. “She concluded that men are essential for procreation, but for pleasure, unnecessary.”
I wanted to stand up and cheer when I heard that line. Diana didn’t just advert a sexist trope; she explicitly shattered the sexist assumption of women not being sexual beings in their own right. Women can handle their own pleasure. Women have their own sexual agency. Women have no need of men.
And then Diana walked out on the front lines, through no man’s land (notice the symbolism?) and I swear I was with her in every step. I was with her in every sword swing. She fought her way through with the wrath of an angry goddess, never once being shown off for the gratification of straight men in the audience, and every scene seemed to shout “this is for you! All for you! This is your power fantasy, enjoy every second of it!” I was with her, and I did.
I know a lot of people like to disparage inclusivity as political correctness run amok (cue the ignorant bleating of “but what if the story REQUIRES a white male protagonist?!” Answer: your lack of imagination is showing). But this is what inclusivity means. It means that I felt like I belonged. I kept waiting for Wonder Woman to betray me, as so many movies have done before, and it… didn’t. I got to see myself as a superhero – THE superhero, the center around which all else revolves, the nexus of power and narrative. My gender was not used in cheap ways to appeal to men.
I didn’t have to suffer the sting of knowing that, well, Black Widow is a major part of the plot in Avengers, but she’s constantly put into outfits that show off her tits and ass, and her fighting style puts a lot of emphasis on wrapping her legs around her opponent, and she’s one of the least powerful of the team. I didn’t have to put up with Gamora playing second fiddle to yet another brown-haired white guy clone with a Snarky-Everyman personality. I didn’t have to sit through a damn sausage fest with one token woman, a la Captain America. Every other superhero movie might be for the gratification and gaze of men above all else, but this one… this one’s for me. This one says that I can be a superhero too.
I don’t want to make it seem like the movie can’t be criticized. I’m normally the first to slam bad writing, and this one has some really terribly weak parts that get right up my nose in retrospect. It’s got Issues, especially when it comes to race. But I have to be honest here: Wonder Woman is so significant, so deeply personal, that I can’t write that critique. My mind goes back to Diana on the battlefield, and that slow, indomitable walk of power, and I start to choke up all over again. Thankfully, there have been some excellent critiques written, one of the best of which (in my opinion) is this one – My Soul Looks Back and Wonders: A Critical Examination of the Wonder Woman Movie. (There have also been critiques that talk about how Diana wasn’t portrayed sexily enough, and those particular critics can fuck off forever.)
So, in short: Wonder Woman made me cry, completely unexpectedly, and I loved it enough to go see it twice. It may even make me forgive DC for the bullshit sexism they’ve perpetrated over the years – and don’t think I’m not asking myself how the hell they managed to get Wonder Woman so very right, considering their track record. Go see if you haven’t already. It’s pretty good, if you’re a man, and if you’re a woman, it might just make you happy-cry too.
The 3D is utter rubbish, but I don’t think you need me to tell you that.