Why Are We So Critical of Female Superheroes?
We've been loving 'Wonder Woman.' And then we started picking the movie apart—at a time when we most need to immerse ourselves in a story about fierce women saving the day.
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About midway through Wonder Woman, our titular hero (a.k.a. Diana Prince) and her team members, a ragtag band of soldiers of fortune (is there any other kind?), maneuver their way through the German front of WWI—they mean to get to some soirée of the Hun high command, but to get there, they pass through the trenches of No Man’s Land, a brutal impasse where no Allied forces can advance, even though the enemy soldiers have killed, displaced, or enslaved everyone in the nearby village. Diana implores her companions to stop, to help the people, and her companions tell her no, there’s nothing they can do. There may be nothing they can do, but Diana, daughter of Themyscira, is damn sight coming to the rescue: She climbs out of the foxhole and runs toward the enemy fire, deflecting bullets with her metal bracelets; when she finally reaches the town (her ragtag band and the Allied front behind her), she unleashes a balletic Hell upon the occupiers—a symphony of grunts and kicks, fists careening into jawbones and a sword lancing through sternums—and, at the end of that Hell, there is peace. The villagers are free.
This scene, more than any other (even onscreen deaths) has stirred many women to tears. Writing for the L.A. Times, Meredith Woerner describes her own tears as a reaction to seeing a deep, inchoate longing finally fulfilled: “This was the movie—female warriors kicking ass … A need that I had boxed up and buried deep after three movies of Iron Man punching bad guys in the face, [and] three more movies of Captain America punching bad guys in the face …” Of course, before Diana ever demolished a warehouse full of German soldiers (in super slow-mo) other women heroes of the silver and small screen battled for their own fuck-yeah moments: Ellen Ripley blasts the alien queen into the arctic fathoms of deep space (and “Get away from her, you bitch” remains one of the greatest action-flick lines ever uttered); Buffy the Vampire Slayer stakes gods and monsters and saves the world (a lot); Beatrix Kiddo juliennes the Crazy-88; Katniss Everdeen blows up the 75th Hunger Games arena and, as the emblem of the rebellion, threatens the autocrat who’s enslaved her nation that “if we burn, you burn with us”; and Jessica Jones snaps the neck of the mind-controller who repeatedly raped her.
These women have taken Hanzo steel and wooden stake and exploding arrow to the patriarchy—but their power, and their fight, is inextricably linked to trauma. Ripley has become an avatar of the mother-as-warrior, and yet, she spends most of her franchise literally battling for her life. Buffy’s calling denies her the chance to ever live normally—and, twice during the series’ run, to even live at all; as the girl who saves the world (a lot), she is wrenched out of Heaven and forced to fight some more. Kill Bill may be about the “deadliest woman in the world,” but it also begins with a tight close-up of that woman’s face, blood-spattered and bruised, as she pants and moans for mercy. Katniss Everdeen is a child soldier, conscripted into the arena and exploited by the rebels, wracked by PTSD. And Jessica Jones’ story functions as an extended metaphor for surviving sexually abusive, emotionally-manipulative relationships. Even Fury Road—which blessed the world with the sharp-shooting, raw-brawling, cult leader-toppling Imperator Furiosa—derives its narrative momentum from women’s continued violation.
This is not to say that these heroines’ traumatic origins negate their stories’ significance—far from it. Women suffer every day, all over the world, in ways that are inextricably linked to their gender, and it is vital to show the valor of survivorship, of reclaiming the body and soul from the bad guys—whether they are the cruel old men who call themselves “leaders”; the exes who think they own us; the monsters in Senate, the alleyways, and the frat party; and the creepy bastards who believe they’re entitled to our bodies and our smiles—even when that valor necessitates violence. I feel close to these characters—and I know I’m not the only one—because their stories are about being strong in the broken places; their victories are so satisfying because they seem, at times, improbable.
Diana, however, isn’t just strong in the broken places—she’s strong enough to save the whole damn broken world. There’s something profound, even healing, about watching a woman un-self-consciously lift tanks and leap tall buildings in a single bound—displaying the raw physical power that has become so route among male superheroes that a film like Logan is considered innovative simply for making its lead vulnerable and infirm. But there’s something even more profound about the fact that she’s not deploying that power to defend or avenge herself; she’s fighting because saving the guy, and liberating the village, and ending the war to end all wars is the right thing to do. Director Patty Jenkins has cited the 1978 version of Superman, the epitome of superhero as the ultimate do-gooder, as a foundational influence on Wonder Woman. That influence is evident in a few wry winks (like Diana’s “costume” of black spectacles) and overt homages (the scene where Diana protects Steve against an alleyway mugging), but it resides, mostly, in the sunny altruism of its hero, who is driven to derring-do by her conscience and her compassion.
When a god-like villain offers her the chance to rule the world, she refuses because she knows that (to quote another seminal superhero flick) with “great power comes great responsibility,” and that responsibility is not a dirge-like burden—like how Jessica Jones experiences her super-strength and limited invulnerability (Kilgrave, the mind-controller, takes hold of her the first time she stops a mugging) or Buffy regards her Slayer skills (although dying twice will do that to a gal). Instead, there is a joyfulness, an exuberant sense of purpose to her fight. Diana’s arc is not propelled by trauma or terror, which endows her with a greater agency. She makes a conscious choice to leave Themyscira for the world of man—even after Steve tells her that the world of man is consuming itself in war. And she makes a conscious choice to step out of those trenches—even after Steve tells her that this is not what they’re there to do. “You’re right,” she says. “But it’s what I’m going to do.” This act of will stirs tears because here, finally, we see a woman become a true champion—not because she’s taking revenge by deploying the finger-fingered exploding heart technique on her battering ex; or because she’s trying to save herself and her friends by driving the War Rig through a blistering desert—because it is the good and righteous thing to do. Her motivations are not linked to some deeper, more personal agony, only her sense of justice. She is proactive, not reactive.
Characters like Furiosa, Ripley, Buffy, and Katniss are vaunted for their protectiveness, but they quite literally do not choose their battles: Sure, Ripley doesn’t have to save Newt or Hicks, but she does have to blast the Xenomorphs to kingdom come if she wants to make it to her cryochamber in one piece. Buffy is the Chosen One, the mall babe who only wants to fit in, whose powers often estrange her from the people she loves most. Katniss takes her soft-hearted little sister’s place in the games, but it’s more of a desperate (if still loving) decision, than an expression of empowerment (and everything that happens to her afterward, in the arenas and the rebellion, must be either outwitted or endured). And yes, Furiosa does stick it to the Immortan Joe by liberating his five wives—but we learn (in one of the film’s more clever subversive feminist twists) that these cloistered beauties militantly agitated for their freedom (“They begged her to go,” their caretaker screams at Joe). These versions of the feminine heroic speak volumes about women’s relationships to pain and power, and about the perils of living while female. Conversely, Wonder Woman’s take on gender is revelatory simply because it offers, in full technicolor, technopunk-soundtrack glory, a real goddamn woman superhero.
Though it is revelatory, it is not necessarily complex—beyond a brief mention of women getting the vote, there’s no sense of women’s struggles in a broader context; one can’t contextualize Diana’s story with the woes of her times, the way that one extrapolate a treatise on rape culture from Jessica Jones or Fury Road. Many cultural critics find fault with this, insisting that the film isn’t “as feminist as it thinks it is” (in part, apparently, because it doesn’t portray the real-life, gender-based restrictions Diana would’ve encountered in the early 1900s—as if there wasn’t already at least one very boring, very self-satisfied movie about this subject); functions as propaganda for “American military ideology” (because Wonder Woman is, um, really, really good at fighting?) or upholds ableist standards of beauty (since one of the villains, “Dr. Poison,” a chemist whose evil is rivaled only by her genius, has lost portions of her face to her previous experiments—like, say, Captain America’s Red Skull or Batman’s Two-Face, who somehow didn’t merit a think piece of his own). Gal Gadot’s tenure in the Israel Defense Forces has sparked its own share of controversy (this gets no shade from me; I understand why some folks can’t separate the artist from the art). Wonder Woman may conquer the god of war and defend the defenseless, and, in doing so, give little girls a way to play hero with the boys—but she is not all things to all people, and, by some Herculean bent of logic, that means she’s nothing at all.
This is not to suggest that every part of the backlash is unearned. Critiques that the Amazonian wonderland is far too homogenous ring true—though there are women of color in the Themiscirian battle armor, the primary Amazons are white women. There is no reason Angela Bassett couldn’t have played Hippolyta. Agitating for better representation has brought us to the point of getting a goddamn Wonder Woman in the first place, and it’s the reason why we’ll have a Black Panther movie in February 2018, and, it will someday be the reason we get a Storm solo movie or Netflix spin-offs for Misty Knight and Elektra. I worry that these films would suffer from the same burden of expectation—a very granular parsing of political merits and flaws that never seems to accompany the latest Batman release (and Battfleck uses a gun!). Maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to love an uncomplicated superhero flick—and to fangirl out over Diana.
After all, male heroes can range the gamut from broody Batman to Superman, the ultimate Boy Scout; Wolverine, a victim of state-sponsored experiments and torture, to your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man; alcoholic Iron Man with all his Daddy Issues™ to the aggressively earnest Captain America (these last two are even on the same team). Why can’t women have Jessica Jones, who first tries to walk away from Kilgrave’s next victim in a desperate panic before steeling herself to go help the girl and face her past, and Diana striding purposefully out of a foxhole, stoically swatting away bullets?
We need Diana’s purity, her lack of bitterness and ache, as much as we need to know how to live in our own broken places. We need that uncomplicated model of bravery, that push to enact love and righteousness—even through dishing out a heaping helping of whoop-ass—because we live in this broken world, where gay men are being tortured in Chechen concentration camps and white supremacists are going on killing sprees; where terror finds a concert for young girls, and a public square on a crisp summer night. Wonder Woman’s vision of heroism feels especially urgent in the time of Trump. So many of us are—in our own letter-writing, congressmen-calling, calling out our Trumpist fathers, marching in the streets way—warring against a Republican party that is enthralled to a foreign enemy, a party that would reduce us all to simpering, perpetually-pregnant, domestic servants called wife and mother (by the same man – if you’re married to Mike Pence); grind the sickest and poorest among us into oblivion; and starve our children. We need a champion to help us fight with passion and compassion alike, to lead us out of the trenches.
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