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Feminism Through the Male Gaze: A Critique of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman
Anna Tatelman

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman (Image © Warner Bros.) 

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman (Image © Warner Bros.) 

The setting is fourteen feet underground, dirt walls supported by a jumble of plywood. The air is thick with gunfire, horse whinnies, and screams. Soldiers emerge from the ground with their rifles as generals yell to “fire,” and soldiers sit nursing their injuries. We are inside a WWI trench.

A woman, her face dirty and her arms clutching a small child, pulls Diana (Gal Gadot) aside and explains how their village has been ransacked, and how everyone who did not escape has been taken as a slave.

Diana’s compassion is instantaneous. She turns to her companion Steve (Chris Pine) and announces they must help. Steve argues with her: they are here to find the Germans in charge and to stop the war. But Diana is not so goal-driven; Diana sees all lives as equal, and her empathy will not allow her to let innocent people suffer.

“We can’t save everyone in this war,” Steve objects. “This is not what we came here to do.”

The camera goes into slow motion as Diana faces away from the audience, removing her hair clip and shaking loose her locks. When she turns back to face us, she’s wearing her iconic headband. “No,” she says, “but it’s what I’m going to do.”

As Diana climbs out of the trench, we glimpse bits of her outfit in close up: her shield. Her wristband. Her boot. Her lasso. Finally she emerges from the trench and we see Wonder Woman, in her superheroine outfit for the first time in this film, marching across No Man’s Land. Shells explode around her as she deflects bullets with her wristbands and shield. Although at first they yell at her to retreat, Steve and the rest of the men eventually take off after her. Diana literally has done what no man can do, enduring a crazy physical feat because her empathy will not allow her to let innocent people suffer, and in doing so, she gives others the physical and moral courage to follow.

Scenes like this make it easy to see why Wonder Woman’s big-screen debut has been highly anticipated for seventy-five years, and why this particular film has been applauded. This summer blockbuster, directed by Patty Jenkins, not only captures all the conventions that make superhero movies such larger-than-life fun, but does so with a female protagonist. Throughout this film, Diana is portrayed as the physical and moral superior to everyone around her. She protects helpless victims of war when she saves their town from German occupation, and she protects her male comrades in a bar fight. She challenges the sexism of Edwardian England, questioning why women cannot partake in battles or in government meetings. She confronts everyone, regardless of their social status, on their cowardice, such as a room full of British generals who stay holed up in meetings rather than fighting alongside their soldiers.

Part of the reason this film was delayed so many times is because few Hollywood bigshots believed that a female-led, female-directed superhero flick could be a financial and critical success. We can only hope they will not make this mistake again. Audiences don’t just overwhelmingly love the film: they view it as a feminist triumph. Fans of both genders crowded premieres and midnight screenings with DC comics bags, t-shirts, and full costumes. Social media became riddled with GIFs, stories about sitting next to awed girls and boys in the movie theatres, and female-empowering messages. Gal Gadot is hailed as a champion of feminism both on- and off-screen. Her bite-sized quotes get swept around the Internet, such as this one from Rolling Stone: “‘People always ask me, “Are you a feminist?” And I find the question surprising, because I think, “Yes, of course… Because whoever is not a feminist is a sexist.”’” That Gadot was pregnant while shooting Wonder Woman has further cemented her status as a feminist icon. “Not only did Gadot spend her year kicking superhero ass and shattering box office records, she also brought a human into the world while doing it,” a BuzzFeed article raves. “WOMEN GET SHIT DONE.” Wonder Woman has even inspired several articles about what women in the workplace can learn from this female superhero, such as Patti Fletcher’s article in Entrepreneur titled “3 Ways to Embrace Uncharted Territory Like Wonder Woman.” One of the women Fletcher quotes is Jeanne Sullivan, a venture capitalist who drew on Wonder Woman during a recent keynote address to female entrepreneurs:  “‘Take these arm bands and let them keep you back from the jerks and bozos that may stand in your way… and go build your businesses.’”

The critics are floored, too. Rotten Tomatoes’ critical rating is at an exceptionally high 92%. “I didn’t know how much I needed a Wonder Woman movie until I got it,” says Leah Cornish of Glamour. “The moment Gadot first stripped down to her nonsexist skivvies and started beating the hell out of those civilian-targeting no-goodniks, I was shocked to find my eyes welling with tears and my mind toggling between the Great War and the Women’s March,” gushes Dana Stevens in her review for Slate. “As a woman,” Wendy Ide declares in The Guardian, “it’s impossible not to feel a sense of ownership over the first female-led superhero flick since the lamentable Catwoman… And it’s impossible not to feel a warm swell of relief that she is such a glorious badass.” Angelica Jade Bastien, writing for Robert Ebert’s site, declares Wonder Woman proves to females that they can be “the architects of their own destiny.”

If it feels like I’m beating you over the head with how much the entire world adores Wonder Woman, it’s because I am.

To be fair, because this is the age of the internet and not everyone can like absolutely everything, there are some critical responses. Most of these are about the film’s failure to even try to incorporate intersectional feminism, such as Cameron Glover’s excellent “Why Wonder Woman Is Bittersweet For Black Women.” Although there are non-white women included in the film, they exist on the peripheries. Of the two black characters with speaking lines, one is reduced to Diana’s “mammy” figure, and the other, although a senator, gets her one line cut short when Diana interrupts her. There’s also a cringe-worthy line in which Diana equates female secretaries of the 1900s to slaves. It’s one thing to acknowledge the struggles of twentieth-century women to obtain greater socio-political freedom, but it’s entirely another to equate that with systematic injustice by which people were stripped of all human rights. Gal Gadot has also come under fire for being openly supportive of Israel Defense Forces. As Rafia Ali discusses in “Why Wonder Woman Isn’t Feminist,” it is difficult for some feminists to swallow Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman preaching the value of all lives while failing to acknowledge the value of Palestinian lives.

But what I have failed to see any criticism about, and what confuses me most about Wonder Woman and its reception, is how it continues to be lauded for something it did not achieve: that this is a film that freed itself from the male gaze. Patty Jenkins states she did not go into Wonder Woman wanting to make a specifically feminist movie. In her interview at Collider, she states, “‘This is a universal movie about a person wanting to be a hero; this one happens to be a woman.’”

Most everyone agrees that Jenkins was successful in this pursuit. As a Tumblr post with over 94,000 notes states: “Watching a super hero movie directed by a woman is like putting glasses on for the first time. I didn’t realize how much I had to squint through the ‘male gaze’ till suddenly, miraculously, I didn’t have to.” I can’t help but feel as if those 94,000 users and I watched totally different films.

Because the reality is that Diana, and the Wonder Woman film itself, cannot escape the male gaze. When male characters meet Diana for the first time, they ogle her as if they cannot help themselves, and they make exclamations as if Diana is not even there: “Wow.” “Oh my goodness gracious – that is a work of art.” “Where did you find her?” And the objectifying comments continue long after the introductions. Nearly every one of Diana’s battles is bracketed by a misogynistic comment. “I am both frightened and aroused,” announces Sameer, one of their male cohort, after Diana defends them in a bar fight. Can you imagine Mary Jane saying that about Spider-Man, or Lois Lane about Super-Man? No. Because the physical and moral accomplishments of those superheroes aren’t continually reduced to foreplay or sexual titillation.

Some argue, such as Noah Berlatsky of The Verge, that Wonder Woman’s sex appeal is crucial to her character. Wonder Woman was meant to dispel the myth that a woman cannot be both attractive and powerful. Now, I’m all for getting more sexy and sex-positive superheroes on-screen, especially if we can get James Franco onboard again with the superhero craze. What’s problematic about Wonder Woman’s sexiness is how it becomes a fetishized character trait. The men around Diana verbally reduce her to a beautiful object because that is the only way they can control her. When Steve and Diana are engaged in a serious argument about whether Diana can go undercover to murder one of the film’s villains, Sameer interrupts to point out wryly that she does a very good job being “undercover,” punning on the fact that her outfit shows a lot of skin. Similarly, when Sameer learns “there is a whole island of women like” Diana and “not a single man among them,” he immediately asks, “How do we get there?” This is not empowering. This is a means of continually turning beautiful, strong women into toys for men’s enjoyment.

It is ultimately not her physical strength, moral code, or self-confidence that makes her a superhero, but how Diana can possess all of this while looking super sexy, that makes her a superhero. This is not a requirement for male superheroes. Yes, male actors who play superheroes are also usually attractive, but their beauty is not constantly reinforced by the people around them and by the script itself. Apparently heterosexual men cannot stomach a woman being stronger, smarter, and more ethical than them unless they are also constantly turned on.

Diana’s sex appeal is furthermore problematic because her physical beauty is equated with her moral compass and her worthiness of love. Diana and her fellow Amazons possess amazing bodies and aren’t afraid to show them off. More power to them, except we only have two women in this film who do not meet Hollywood’s traditional beauty standards. One of our other female characters is Etta (Lucy Davis), Steve’s secretary, so she is by proxy involved in the war. She is also a known suffragette. However, since Etta is not conventionally attractive, she’s not allowed to contribute to the film’s plot beyond helping Diana buy some period-appropriate clothes. Because, as you know, fashion advice is all that politically aware women who are not super models are capable of providing.

Elena Anaya as Dr. Poison in Wonder Woman (Image © Warner Bros.) 

Elena Anaya as Dr. Poison in Wonder Woman (Image © Warner Bros.) 

What’s even worse is that our only other female character, Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), a sadistic chemist employed by the German army, has to have her evilness reinforced by her physical disfigurement. Wonder Woman doesn’t explore whether this deformation was a result of her profession, or if she gravitated towards evil because of her perceived ugliness, but it doesn’t matter. In either case, Diana’s goodness is reinforced by her beauty, and Dr. Poison’s evilness is reinforced by her facial disfigurement. The moral here is women can only have ethical standards and compassion if they’re conventionally attractive. It’s bad enough that we rarely get any portrayals of people with disabilities in film or other media, and in the few instances we do, as in Wonder Woman, disabilities become equated with warped characters and ethics, too.

Think I’m taking this too far? Let me also point out that Dr. Poison is clearly infatuated with General Ludendorff, another German baddie, and creates her various lethal poisons as both an outlet for her sexual frustration and a means of winning him over. Dr. Poison doesn’t even get to be evil for her own damn self. Instead, Dr. Poison has to be evil because she’s in love with her boss, and because this love is doomed to be unrequited given that her physical disfigurement makes her unworthy of romantic/sexual love. The height of feminism here.

Since Diana, however, is not unworthy of love, this love eventually allows her to save the day. Specifically, of course, the love of a man in the shape of Chris Pine. Their attraction to one another is apparent immediately. While they are both on Diana’s homeland, she conveniently happens upon him as he rises from his bath water. They stare at each other.

Diana tilts her head to one side. “Would you say that you are a typical example of your sex?”

Steve contemplates this, then humble-brags, “I am above average.”

“What’s that?” Diana asks next.

Steve looks down, then looks back up, eyebrows raised and mouth agape. “It’s uhhh . . .” Then he realizes Diana is looking to the side of his nether regions. “Oh! It’s a watch.”

Since Diana has no knowledge of modern technology, he explains further as he exits the bath. “My father gave it to me… It tells time. When to eat, sleep, wake up, work.”

Diana laughs. “You let this little thing tell you what to do.” Her words are more fact than question.

Diana’s blatant derision towards Steve’s attachment to his watch would probably be less palatable to Steve if she were not also smiling as she verbally cuts him down. Steve’s watch is used here as a symbol of his traditional masculinity: a single-minded, agenda-driven version of heroism that Diana admires on some level, but does not ascribe to.

The film is vague about whether Steve and Diana do have sex, but it’s pretty heavily implied given the numerous conversations they have about marriage and sex, and how they only kiss after Steve has closed the door of Diana’s bedroom. Even if you want to argue that they just ate face for a while, you can’t argue with the fact that it’s ultimately physical/romantic love that gives Diana inner strength for the final battle.

In this scene, Diana is furiously fighting Ares (David Thewlis), the god of war. Diana is fighting hard, but she keeps faltering: Ares is stronger than her. Eventually Ares manages to pin Diana to the ground with a metal vice. She struggles, but cannot get free. She looks up and sees Steve’s plane rumbling through the sky. The camera cuts to the interior of the plane: Steve aims his gun into the back of the plane, braces himself, and fires, heroically blowing up the supply of Dr. Poison’s lethal gas bombs, along with himself, to save countless innocent lives.

The film cuts back to Diana as an orange eruption fills the sky and Diana screams. Then she erupts from her steel bondage and flies into the air. In her grieving rage, she cuts down dozens of German soldiers as the flaming light of Steve’s explosion glows around her.

Ares asks Diana if she yet understands that all humans are inherently evil and selfish. He presents her with Dr. Poison, whose mask falls apart to reveal her mutated face. Diana prepares to crush the woman, but then she flashes back to her final moments with Steve, before he got into the airplane. Steve will not tell her what he’s about to do, insisting only, “It has to be me. It has to be me. I can save today. You can save the world.” He gives her his watch and tells her he loves her. With this gesture, he acknowledges that Diana has made him into a man with the courage to value all human lives, just as she has always done. Not to mention ensuring that Diana holds onto his metaphorical penis for the next 100 years.

The flashback ends. Diana refuses to crush Dr. Poison, and instead throws the tank to the side. Ares throws Diana’s mother’s words back in her face, reminding her humans do not deserve her protection. But Diana repeats Steve’s words to Ares, the words that he spoke to her when she first recognized that humans are not wholly good: “It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe.” This new conviction gives Diana the power to absorb Ares’s own lightning and destroy the god once and for all.

We’ll put aside how problematic it is that, despite Diana’s certainty that all human lives have value, apparently most German lives don’t. We’ll also put aside the fact that her selective act of mercy towards Dr. Poison is supposed to show how Diana would never harm the weak, because however evil and unlovable this woman is, she’s ultimately still worthy of pity because of her disfigurement. We’ll put aside the fact that this is just another example of a character with a disability being used as a sad prop to make the able-bodied person feel better about themselves.

But back to Steve. In making him the deliverer of Diana’s motivational speech and his death the reason she has the strength to finish Ares off, Diana is only allowed to become a true superhero after becoming romantically involved with a man. This is not a prerequisite for male superheroes, to have known and/or lost romantic/sexual love with a woman. And even those male superheroes with loss as part of their backstory, such as Captain America, do not derive their ultimate strength from this knowing/losing, as Wonder Woman is forced to.

Diana could have drawn on any number of inspirational speeches and/or people who love her. She could have picked many Amazon warriors from the all-women island, Themysciria, where she grew up: her comrades, the women she watched die in battle, her mother whom she can never see again, her aunt who trained her for years as a warrior and then sacrificed her own life to save Diana. She could have thought about the people she’d fought alongside since coming to Earth, or the innocent humans she’d tried and failed to save. She could have thought about all of these people! But no. Diana dwells solely upon her love interest. She is empowered by Steve’s love and self-sacrifice, and she literally relies upon the language he gave her to finally defeat Ares. In order to at last become the hero/goddess she was always destined to be, Diana needed Steve’s dick.

A big to-do is made about the fact that Diana hails from a land of all-women – all powerful Amazons, no less – and that Diana technically has no father, as she was sculpted from clay by her mother and then given a spark of life by Zeus. But Diana’s maternal lineage and female upbringing are made irrelevant by the final battle. It is not her Amazon training or girl-power-background that allow her to win. It is that her father, even if by proxy, is Zeus. This means that Diana is a goddess and that she can murder other gods, which she does by literally absorbing her brother Ares’s powers. Apparently her own skills aren’t enough.

The ending is not the first instance that Diana has to rely upon men. Part of this is the nature of an origin story: Diana has spent her entire life on an isolated island and now must learn about Earth and the evil men are capable of. But that does not justify the way in which all of the men, Steve included, attempt to control Diana through their language. When Diana meets a group of British generals, for instance, she begins to introduce herself as the Princess of Themysciria, but Steve interrupts her: “Prince. Diana Prince. She is – she and I are – working together.” To be fair, Steve interrupts because explaining Diana’s fantastical origins would make them both sound deluded. But there’s no logical reason that Diana would have revealed her true origins by this point in the narrative, because she’s learned already that humans have no idea her Amazon tribe actually exists. The only justification for this moment is to allow Steve to gift Diana with a masculine language and identity. I don’t feel like that needs further analysis.

Image © Warner Bros. 

Image © Warner Bros. 

One of the film’s most quoted moments on social media is a conversation that Steve and Diana have on their boat ride to England. Diana scoffs at the idea of marriage, of two people declaring to love one another forever even though they rarely do. She also finds it funny when Steve is worried about offending her by sleeping next to her. When he awkwardly broaches the subject of sex, Diana says she knows all about “the pleasures of the flesh.” She’s read “all twelve volumes of Clio’s criticism on earthly pleasure,” and that Steve would not enjoy these books because they came to the conclusion that men are “essential for reproduction,” but “unnecessary” for pleasure. Diana, while not having any Victorian-esque hang-ups about sex or masturbation the way that Steve does, is also not someone who feels defined by her hetero-sexual-inexperience.

But the film itself undercuts this by ensuring that she cannot become a real superhero without first losing the dreaded v-card. It seems at times as if Diana becomes so romantically attached to Steve as a ‘no homo’ reaction, to ward off viewers from daring to wonder (gasp!) if Diana and/or others on her island are lesbians or at least bisexuals. It would not have been so difficult to depict Diana or one of the other Amazons as having a queer identity, or even just to get a hint, such as a shot of two women holding hands. Instead, to reassure the straight male audience that their dicks are holy grails, we’ve got an island full of women with sexual knowledge but no sexual experience. Anything else would be too dangerously progressive.

What’s more, Diana hasn’t had any other romantic and/or sexual interests since Steve. This woman who once scoffed at the idea of loving someone eternally still loves Steve 100 years on, which I’ll admit is tragically beautiful, but it hinders her ability to love anyone else, which is just tragic. Diana is a sex object who can apparently only have sex once, so that she is sexually liberated and not deemed a prude, but not again, because then she would be deemed promiscuous. In one fell swoop, Wonder Woman buys into three nasty tropes: that a woman is incomplete until she’s had vaginal intercourse, that both sexual inexperience and sexual promiscuity are things for women to be ashamed of, and that a woman is going to remain emotionally hung up on her first even 100 years on.

It is not wrong for a woman to be physically and morally powerful while being sexually alluring. And it’s also not wrong for her to have heterosexual love interests. But it is appalling that this BAMF woman ultimately has to be dependent on masculine language, paternal lineage, and heterosexual sex in order to become the fullest, best version of herself. Despite its best efforts, Wonder Woman cannot escape its awareness of the male gaze.

Why can’t we acknowledge Wonder Woman for what it is? It is a fantastic superhero film. It is filled with all of the fun we’ve come to expect from superhero movies: stunning action shots, engagement with grand moral questions of good and evil, a protagonist who must confront the reality of mankind versus their own false expectations, some awkward humor. It is a movie that deserves to be praised for bringing lifeblood back to the DC film universe. It is not, however, a feminist film. It is a film with a female superhero protagonist directed by a woman, and these are both, for Hollywood, big deals, but we cannot confuse female representation with feminism. Because Wonder Woman is not the feminist movie that we deserve. But, apparently, it is all that we believe we can have.

Anna Tatelman is pursuing her M.F.A. at the University of New Orleans’s Creative Writing Workshop. Her play, Life on the Moon, is the winner of the Triad Shakes Theatre’s New Play Competition and of Southeastern Louisiana University’s Inkslinger Playwriting Competition, and will be produced by the Vonnie Borden Theatre this season. Her fiction has appeared in publications such as The Bookends Review and FLARE: The Flagler Review, and her non-fiction has appeared in publications such as The Gallatin Research Journal and GLASS Quarterly Magazine.