The assertion that gender representation across television and film could be extensively improved is far from novel. For decades, equality seekers have argued that women should be represented more, feminine traits should be celebrated more, and that women should be portrayed in a variety of ways rather than as stereotypical caricatures (read: feeble, emotional, and overly-sexual). Wider understanding and adherence to the Bechdel test might be a start for media producers.
And movies like Wonder Woman may help too.
The film, directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, is still the talk of the Internet nearly three weeks after its record-breaking initial release. From June 9th to June 15th alone, a week and a half after its opening weekend, the phrase “Wonder Woman” garnered over 700 thousand mentions and 5.1 million engagement on social media. People are talking, and for good reason.
The film’s feminist undercurrents have helped it to explode as a cultural phenomenon. As the first female-led and female-directed superhero film, it breaks barriers by simply existing. But mere production is a pretty low standard; after reading Joss Whedon’s drippingly misogynistic Wonder Woman script that never came to be, it’s clear that audience-goers (particularly women) deserve more than just the existence of females in film. This Wonder Woman embodies feminism because it centers on a female superhero who is strong and able, and it mostly excludes the male gaze. Diana’s apparent brawn, fortitude, and general badassery—embodied most clearly and epically in her rush into “No Man’s Land”—stand in stark contrast to feminine clichés like the damsel in distress. The Amazons are painted as fierce and resilient. And Diana’s evening gown accessory sent Twitter alight with women unsheathing swords from their dresses (#WWgotyourback).
The superhero genre is one of the least diverse in film, overflowing with straight, white, male protagonists. Wonder Woman is canonically LGBTQ+, but the film doesn’t make any mention of her bisexuality; and the first hero of color will only arrive with the highly anticipated Black Panther film. Wonder Woman is the first successful counterpoint to at least the gender misrepresentation in hero movies.
This newest adaption of the Wonder Woman comic comes at a time when gender equality in the media must still be actively defended. Parents are increasingly concerned about the gender portrayals their children see in media, but content producers have been slow to adapt to these changes and continue to create characters rooted in gender tropes. The results, according to a recently released Common Sense study, include: “girls focusing on their appearance and value as sexual objects; more tolerant views of sexual harassment; gendered behavior in sexual relationships; riskier behavior in boys; and career choices limited by gender norms.” What children (and adults) see on on-screen shapes how they perceive themselves, society, and the world; repeated exposure to gendered narratives in the media contribute to shaping cultural gender norms.
With a persistent lack of female representation, the sexualization of women, and the rejection of feminine qualities, children continue to be exposed to pigeon-holed stereotypes of women.
In the same study, actor Geena Davis recalls how her films Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own failed to spur the changes for women in film that so many believed would arrive. Rather than highlighting women’s capabilities, their intelligence, and their existence outside any relation to a man, the appearance and sex appeal of women remain media focuses. Davis also notes that women and girls are sidelined in most media, with male characters more prominent throughout the industry.
The response to Wonder Woman is powerful proof that Davis is correct: we need more women on screen. The widespread positive and uplifted reaction on social media confirms that representation matters and that it shapes how viewers see the world. And that empowerment doesn’t only affect children. Every group of every age wants to see themselves represented fairly in popular media. Wonder Woman’s astronomical success should be message enough to film studios and content creators that diversity not only matters, but it sells. This superhero film was the first to have a female majority audience—and it’s safe to say that Chris Pine wasn’t the reason why. Diana is the hero that girls have been waiting for, the one that they can identify with and see themselves in. Continuing to present female and minority figures in the media can only benefit our perceptions and understanding of each other.
Still, some have questioned the “feminist icon” status of the 2017 version of Wonder Woman. Lewis Beale of CNN took it upon himself to deem the protagonist “just a bodacious fantasy figure” and to decry “the worst kind of female objectification [that] is being uploaded into the minds of another generation.” Diana’s attractive figure seems to be the crux of the issue, with Christina Cauterucci of Slate stating that the “prevailing occupation with the titular heroine’s sex appeal” disqualifies the film from being dubbed a feminist feature.
While Diana indeed is scantily-clad for much of the film, judging based on appearance inherently conflicts with feminist thought. Beale suggests that women like those portrayed in Hidden Figures are examples of real feminists, because their physiques aren’t part of their job description. But Beale and others concerned with Diana’s beauty denounce the film’s feminist nature without understanding the definition of feminism, which holds that women and feminists can be whatever they want to be—a CEO, a scientist, a warrior, short, tall, brainy, sexy. And none of those terms are mutually exclusive.
Yes, Diana Prince is a character with lots of sex appeal. But those exposed legs? They’re used for sprinting and kicking through walls. Those defined shoulders? For controlling her Lasso of Truth and wielding the God Killer. Diana cuts an impressive figure, but her body is only a component of her arc, her story that is entrenched in strength, resilience, and justice. Beyond her “Strong Female Character” trope, Diana is also naïvely optimistic, fiercely compassionate, and uninhibited by the social norms of the time. Principle guides how she exercises her powers, which she ultimately uses to protect others and free them from oppression. She is a nuanced, complex character, not simply an attractive figure.
These are the themes that are being extolled. These are the feats that young people are noting. And these are the empowering moments that women and girls (and men and boys) deserve more of in popular media. Gadot’s Wonder Woman comes from a world where bestowing respect, visibility, and value on women is normalized. Imagining a similar utopia in our own world and media seems implausible, but Wonder Woman may be another leap in the right direction. Creators and writers and producers should take note—representation matters. And it kills at the box office.
Feature image by Doaly