The (Ignored) Feminist Heroes of Wonder Woman

Scheherazade Khan | 13 June 2017

Warning : Spoilers ahead for Wonder Woman (2017)

What does the modern feminist look like today? The ideal answer would be that there is no one way of being. Nonetheless, the professional woman is touted as the epitome of the progressive female. There was a day when a full-time working woman would be criticized for being unfeminine, poor wife material and a bad mother. Now, a woman’s success is no longer measured by her relation to those around her, specifically her partner or children. Great strides have been made in the face of historically debilitating oppressions. However, a question still lingers: has the notion of an ideal woman proposed by patriarchal traditions been replaced by female ideas of what constitutes an ideal feminist women, which sometimes holds vestiges of patriarchal ideals?

Wonder Woman premiered last week to a flurry of excitement. As some women understood it, this film was a chance to prove that female superheroes deserve the same amount of attention as male superheroes.

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From The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, 31 May 2017

Though box office ratings and some critiques seem to suggest that Wonder Woman is finally giving a female role the appropriate attention, I join with other critics who argue that the movie itself failed to deliver on the hope that it would be a feminist dream. For me, Wonder Woman suggests that the only way for female superheroes to be successful is to mimic traditionally male roles. That is, having adventures, engaging in physical violence while proclaiming superior – if not slightly naïve – moral standards, all while wearing absurdly tight clothing that seems like it would be a hindrance when fighting for one’s life. In comparison, the working women in the movie (of which there are a grand total of two) are used either as comic relief or for nefarious purposes.

The first of these women is Etta Candy, Steve Trevor’s secretary, and she becomes the butt of a joke intended to draw attention to the lack of female rights in the early twentieth century. Wonder Woman describes being a secretary as something akin to slavery. However, what is not mentioned is the incredible feat Etta has accomplished by being a working woman in 1918 Europe, with enough of a salary to suggest she is able to have a modicum of financial independence. Though, undoubtedly, Etta’s wages would have been unfair and minimal for the work that she is doing, to call these actions slavery dismisses Etta’s accomplishments in that role. Moreover, to cite slavery in a film that is largely dominated by white actors is problematic and facetious. It willingly ignores the racial history of slavery wherein slaves were not paid at all and were denied agency.

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Etta Candy

The second woman is Dr. Maru, the villainous chemist whose poison gas concoction is the reason behind Steve Trevor’s heroics throughout the movie and who is only a supporting character. Her intellectual achievements (being the foremost chemist for the German army) are never commented on outside of Trevor’s feeble attempts to seduce her into betraying the German army. Once again, the achievements of women who have found independence and success are diminished.

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Dr. Maru

For a film that claims to have presented the newest feminist hero of our generation, Wonder Woman’s  representation of women who are not Wonder Woman leaves much to be desired. Though this is but one movie, it demonstrates a trend regarding the contemporary representation of women. During the closing press conference of the Cannes film festival, Jessica Chastain, who was on the festival’s jury panel, expressed her disappointment with the lack of female storytelling about uniquely female experiences. She states further that it is “disturbing” to see “how the world views women from the female characters that were represented [in the festival] [1].” In light of this critique, it is worth considering what kind of story Wonder Woman is telling about women.

Though undoubtedly powerful and intelligent, even Wonder Woman is used as a comedic outlet. Much of the humour in the film comes from Diana’s ignorance of the world outside the paradise that she grew up in. Because Diana knows very little about customs and dress, she is frequently too forward and scantily clad for the liking of 1918 England. Her merits are based on her fighting skills, upstanding morality and compassion. This seems a marked departure from the original comic book Wonder Woman, who was intended to be a strong, self-sufficient woman, armed with the most powerful weapon: her lasso of truth. While the lasso continues to be used in the film, it is mostly used as a weapon. This tool was a homage to the creator of the original Wonder Woman, Dr. William Marston, who also contributed to the invention of the polygraph. Marston was similarly radical in his day-to-day life, living with two women in a polyamorous relationship, one of whom was the main bread winner of the radical family. The motive of the weapon has been replaced with the purpose of delivering pain should the truth be withheld. In other words, it becomes an instrument of torture.

While the comic book version seems intent on making Wonder Woman a uniquely female character, born from clay and raised without the help of a man, the movie version turns her into a god when it is revealed that Zeus is her biological father. Even putting aside the obvious reliance on a patriarchal relationship, it seems a common trope these days that in order to be considered a woman worth representing on screen, one must be extraordinary. What about the ordinary women?

Let us for a moment consider the women who work at home. The management of a household has often been compared to the secretarial role as it requires many of the same skills: organization, time management, multi-tasking, to name only a few.  In film, women have historically been overrepresented in domestic roles due to social oppressions that isolate women to the private sphere, minimizing the potential for women to impact/affect politics. With this context in mind, it makes sense that the domestic continues to be viewed as a consequence of the patriarchy. However, this reading in modern contexts can begin to have a negative effect if it ignores the incredible effort that goes into maintaining a functioning domestic sphere, and is particularly unfair to the women who happily choose to be there. The need to acknowledge the limitations of historical patriarchy is fundamental; however, it should not be at the cost of demonizing and ignoring the accomplishments of women in the domestic sphere.

By this, I do not in any way mean to suggest that women should not work, nor am I suggesting that they should be domestic. It is important for an inclusive intersectional feminism to recognize that a feminist hero does not have to be one that looks like male heroes, but can be distinctly feminine and female. This includes the everyday women who have had to suffer under patriarchal traditions and are attempting to, or have succeeded in successfully paving a path for themselves in whatever sphere they choose.

About Scheherazade

An alumna from the University of Toronto with a BA (Hons) in English, History and Fine Arts, and undertaking a MSc in Gender and Culture, my interests lie in uncovering the complexities of identity politics in postcolonial fiction. Novels that allow me to dislike the protagonist(s) are my preferred choices.

Article edited by Dylan Taylor

Work Cited 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/may/30/jessica-chastain-women-cannes-disturbing-palme-dor

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