(written in January 2018)
Last night I finally got the chance to watch Wonder Woman. Today I’ve decided to review it. *THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*
Firstly, I knew nothing-nil-zilch about Wonder Woman prior to yesterday, and I know very little about superhero culture period. Maybe that means I’m not the right person to review this film; maybe it puts me in a unique position, having no preconceptions about Wonder Woman beyond knowing that she’s supposed to be a feminist icon.
Either way, I realise what I have to say goes against most of my friends’ opinions, both on- and offline. I can’t tell if this review is an ‘angry feminist rant’ or if I have something worth saying—after all, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m not here to answer those questions right now; take my thoughts as you find them, and please do tell me if and where you disagree.
Whenever I review a book or story, the first thing I look for is the primary relationship. Wonder Woman began strongly: there was potential for a royal tug-of-war between Diana’s duties to her mum and her dream to train with her aunt. Sadly, after the first plot point we saw no more of the Amazons—in fact the film barely passes the Bechdel Test thereafter! Instead to the forefront comes Diana’s relationship with Chris Pine’s character, Steve. And there most of my issues begin.
I’ll briefly mention instalove, because I’m forever criticising it and frankly it bores me. I classify the romance between Diana and Chris/Steve as instalove because they fall in love, have sex, and are parted by his death within the space of mere days (three/four days?). Throughout this time it’s unclear why she likes him, beyond the fact that he’s the first man she ever sees (EWWW). There is no chemistry; they don’t get to know each other beyond what her quest requires. The whole thing feels like an overblown statement of rejection to her all-female upbringing.
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with a woman having a relationship with a man, loving him, or having sex with him or with anyone else. It’s just as feminist for a woman to love and want a man as for a woman to do otherwise. What was not feminist was how the men treated Diana when she arrived in 1918 England.
Steve’s first move is to bundle Diana into the arms of his (female) secretary and abandon them at a clothes shop so Diana can find something less conspicuous to wear. While this scene was treated with practicality, mostly in Diana’s reactions to the uncomfortable and restrictive outfits with which she was presented, a makeover scene of any sort was surely unnecessary. How would a Wonder Man be introduced to Steve’s world? He would electrify himself on a toaster or accidentally crush a door handle. Wonder Woman was taken to a clothes shop and taught how to blend in. That made me really sad.
Sexist comments abound, which I will not permit even for the sake of historical context (my criticisms of the setting to follow). Most of the humour in the script comes from these comments. I like humour; I understand humour is a social construct; in this instance I also found it alienating, considering Diana’s naivety and cultural vulnerability. The humour is clearly aimed at men—come to that, the whole damn movie is written with one question in mind: “what would a man think of Diana at this moment?”
In another scene, Steve teaches Diana how to dance—again, something that would never happen with a Wonder Man. Then they go into a bedroom, he pushes her backwards as they make out, aaaand cut to black. Given that they met two days ago, have next to no chemistry, and he hasn’t stopped mansplaining since they landed in his country, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to wish there’d been some verbal consent. And that’s notwithstanding her two-day whirlwind introduction to the male sex! Her position to consent at all is dubious at best.
Yes, it’s established that Diana is well-informed about sex. Yes, she read all twelve volumes of a book that concludes men are not essential to female pleasure. So Diana’s decision to have sex with Steve a few days later could be an act of curiosity, if not true love (I am sceptical). Yet for me, it seemed like an opportunity for men to get off on the idea of an inexperienced woman thinking she knows about sex, and a man stepping in and showing her what’s what. Plus there’s a sick reek of entitlement about the fact that he’s the first man she ever sees.
And if it’s my own insecurity imagining men are laughing at her as she admits proudly to having read all twelve volumes, and actually nobody’s laughing at all, then let that be a sign that everybody needs to do better.
Diana’s naivety is understandable given she grew up on an island paradise in a tribe of warrior women. What is not understandable is why some bloke called Steve was allowed to control and instruct her in fitting into his world merely for his comfort. It’s plain unnecessary.
The crowning glory came with Steve’s death. Because that was the moment Diana amassed the strength to beat her enemy. BLEUGH!!!! Yes, that’s right: Wonder Woman’s lover had to die for her to come into her full potential. Through heartbreak, she learnt that love was the only way to beat the God of War. Love of a man. Just, why?
Now let’s untangle my issues with the World War I setting. I’m still racking my brains for why this particular war and time period was chosen.
From the beginning, ordinary German soldiers are demonised. One of Steve’s first lines goes something like, “I’m the good guy; they’re the bad guys.” And the Amazons proceed to slaughter the ‘bad guys’ for no apparent reason. It left me contemplating how differently the movie might’ve gone if the German boats had landed on the island ahead of Steve’s plane crash—or if maybe Steve had been a German spy and the boats full of Allied pursuers. Diana’s allegiance would surely have been reversed, and German lives would’ve been spared.
Which comes to that scene in the trenches. A glorious, sexy Wonder Woman heroically goes over the top, murders some Germans who, by the way, probably don’t know what they’re fighting for either, and what do we learn? That she’s pretty much bloody invincible. Whose idea was it to put a superhero in the trenches? I didn’t think the trenches could get much more unfair. I was wrong.
I was genuinely shocked when I discovered that this is an original WW story. The entire setting, in my opinion, was a sloppy decision designed to minimise worldbuilding—for a movie stuffed with gratuitous scenes that centre the male gaze! A feminist movie? Who was I kidding?
The most feminist thing they did was include a female antagonist: a brilliant Nazi chemist. But why did she have to have facial deformities? It hurts me every time an aesthetically diverse antagonist is juxtaposed against a hero with the world’s most symmetrical face. I’m so tired of the same trope over and over again: the demonization of the ‘ugly’ woman for the greater idolisation of the heroine, the ‘pretty’ woman. It reinforces the whole traditional beauty=good, physical deformity=bad thing – a narrative chiefly pushed by men, and frankly they can stop it. In fact, stop pitting women against each other without any nuance whatsoever. It hurts. And you know I said I was tired of the trope? I’m more tired still of Diana’s beauty and sexiness being referred to by the men around her again and again and again. Who wrote this damn script? Yeah, she’s attractive. Get over it.
I will admit that the feminist issues in this film are far from straightforward. Even the scenes that make me most uncomfortable contain acts and dialogue that do debunk the objectification of women. For example, in the makeover scene Diana asks, “How does one fight in this?” of an outfit. Yet for me, there did not seem to be any layer of awareness that it is a choice to include such scenes at all. That would have required Diana fighting back against the patriarchal stereotypes. There were throwaway comments, written in, probably, for either humour or brownie points. But there was no real substance to the so-called feminism in this movie, in my opinion.
In one respect, I acknowledge that Wonder Woman was not treated exactly the same as if she were a Wonder Man. Her gender is inherent to her presentation. But is that the aim, or is that the special hell of discussions around gender equality? My criticisms come down to the fact that the same movie can talk about men being inessential to female pleasure, and an hour later conclude that the ultimate female warrior cannot defeat evil without the knowledge of a man’s love.
In truth, I have barely even begun to unpick that.
And in fact, I hate that I’ve spent this entire review doing my angry feminist yelling about MEN THIS and MEN THAT. I loved Gal Gadot’s balance of strength and sensitivity. I loved the incredible Amazons, just…goals. I loved the shooting style and the CGI and the beautiful choreography. I wish there had been more of these complex, layered women and less of the insidious objectification and subordination of them.
I wanted a feminist icon and I suppose, all things considered, I got one. But that icon was Diana, who learned that drawing a sword does not maketh a warrior, and not Wonder Woman, who learned that to fulfil her destiny, she needed the context of a man.
That really brings me to my conclusion. My expectations were too high. Clearly, after all the hype, I imagined this film to be a feminist antidote to the male dominance centred in most superhero stories. But beyond having a female lead, Wonder Woman did not deliver. It’s another Hollywood blockbuster: a mediocre-to-decent superhero movie, but its feminism is as shallow as a gutter.