Growing up with three younger sisters, a stay at home mom and a dad that was either working or getting his (eventual) doctorate diploma, I didn’t understand gender bias (there was too much estrogen). I knew I was a girl, but I didn’t comprehend that being female meant anything less. Pink was my favorite color, and I owned my share of Barbies that oftentimes adventured with my teddy bears that involved cliff (bed) diving and tunneling through dark forests (under the bed or through peaked bed sheets). I enjoyed shows like Charlie’s Angels and held my breath at every Batman episode, hoping that Yvonne Craig would ride along on her Batcycle, solidifying her appearance as Batgirl in that week’s episode. It was inspiring to me at a time and in an era that I didn’t understand should be inspiring – all I understood was as a girl I could kick ass. Even watching shows like The A-Team and MacGyver didn’t deter me from the idea that I was just as capable behind the wheel of a black van or with a roll of duct tape and Swiss Army knife. It wasn’t until I was an adult I became aware that my girl bits might put me at a disadvantage.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve become increasingly despondent at the lack of Batgirls, my indignation on par with this little girl’s. Yes, there was a female Avenger –several, in fact – is it so hard to remind people of that?
Apparently, it is. We can’t get a proper jumping off point for an iconic figure such as Wonder Woman, whose only real media contribution outside of the comics was a TV show in the 1970’s, and now two failed attempts at TV shows. No one seems to know what to do with her; not the powers that be that fired Joss Whedon from his surely-would-have-been-fantastic script, who went on to do The Avengers, one of the highest grossing movies of all time.
One of the more infuriating things I read was this article where David Goyer – a man behind some great films - talks about WW:
“I think Wonder Woman is a very difficult character to crack. More difficult than Superman, who is also more difficult than Batman. Also, a lot of people in Hollywood believe that it’s hard to do a big action movie with a female lead. I happen to disagree with that. But that tends to be the prevailing wisdom.”
While I will appreciate his disagreement, this safecracker (firecracker?) would like to say this: she’s not. It’s not about difficulty – it’s about fear and profitability. The fear stems from the fact that she’s not infused with testosterone fury, or that she is, as if she needs to be played by the Hulk in drag. Why does there have to be a dichotomy of female and strong?
Let me take a step back and get a little ugly, if you’re going to lambast Wonder Woman’s gender as being “more difficult”: Superman can easily be dismissed as a wide-eyed alien goody-two-shoes dullard; Batman as a bored rich playboy with ample money for toys. Of course, in capable hands, those are not the pervading stories that are told – both Superman and Batman have had the advantage of great storytellers in comic, film and TV form. Go into the richness of the WW mythology, and there is ripeness there, and arguments against why it wouldn’t work. She’s a Goddess – OK how about the success of Thor? She’s a warrior, OK, how about Xena Warrior Princess? The real fear is that she’s a woman and, therefore, unprofitable. In fact the awe of the success of a film like Bridesmaids with a female heavy cast still stuns Hollywood executives; but the argument will be made that was a comedy, and WW is about a superhero.
Maybe part of the problem is not getting enough women involved in the telling. It’s not that a man couldn’t do it; go back to Joss Whedon, who has often created and written great characters, male and female.I could argue for Quentin Tarantino, who created The Bride. There are great depictions of women in film and TV written by men, so they are capable of fully fleshed three dimensional women both hard and soft, capable and kind, fierce and loyal and fighters. Yet somehow WW eludes everyone.
One of my favorite scenes in The Avengers is (spoiler!) Black Widow’s tearful “takedown” by Loki only for her to recoup as quickly –exploiting that “weakness” to get the information she needed. Unfortunately, Wonder Woman can’t even use that weakness – she doesn’t understand that her emotions can be used for manipulation that way, because she’ s never kowtowed to her emotions. She does what is necessary as a warrior – gender be damned. That she falls in love with Steve isn’t a weakness; it’s an exploration of her emotions she’d never allowed before, this newness, tapping into the innate curiosity of all beings, male or female.
Personally, I think that a distinction that fails to be taken into account is that Diana of Themyscira is a blend of innocent and naive, but not without wisdom. She comes to “Man’s World” (“Patriarch’s World”) and is confused. She grew up without bias, so all women are automatically equal and, if anything, men in their absence would be lesser, whereas in Man’s World women exist but are consistently treated with an inferiority. That fails to compute to Wonder Woman.
Plus she is one of the few superheroes that understands that sacrifices have to made for a greater good – and is willing to make those sacrifices. In one of the more debated storylines, WW kills a human – Max Lord. He is mind-controlling Superman, whose power in the wrong hands wrecks a havoc of Biblical proportions. WW fights both Supes and Max and tells Max to stop but the only way he will stop is if she kills him. And with that permission (as it were) she does. HE TELLS HER THAT IS THE ONLY WAY TO STOP HIM AND KNOWING SHE NEEDS TO STOP HIM SHE DOES JUST THAT. It that not within the basic parameters of the definition of hero? A hero doesn’t do what is popular, but what is right and what is necessary? WW isn’t trying to win a popularity contest, she is trying to survive and preserve the world in as much (ultimate) peace as possible. And how is THAT not a ready storyline for film?!?
To step back and expand focus, let’s consider that, yes, there are more examples of female superhero failure than success on the big screen, Elektra, Catwoman and, going back further, Supergirl, all failed, but their reasons aren’t so much “female” as they are about “story”. Elektra gets bogged with a “maternal” plotline and tries too hard to be deep; Catwoman can’t quite decide if it’s deliberately camp or not; Supergirl is saddled with cheesy special effects and “wide-eyed cheer[iness]“. The few successes fall outside the traditional genres, such as this awesome direct-to-video cartoon or, sadly, a porn film*.
While females have had successful appearances in recent films, such as Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass, or Silk Spectre in Watchmen, they mostly manifest in an ensemble piece with the focus on the male characters (including The Avengers and The X-Men series). The truth is the examples – good and bad – are few and far between. For every cinematic success of a Lara Croft**, we contend with an Aeon Flux.
I’m tired of screaming myself hoarse about this (literally and metaphotrically), and I’m not the only one. Even superhero incarnates Lynda Carter and Scarlett Johansson have spoken up about such. Carter believes Hollywood only sees Wonder Woman as “a female version of a male superhero, and that’s not what she is”, while Johansson expressed her frustrations several times during The Avengers campaign, from the insult of being asked about her diet vs. her character development, to dismissing that a “hooker” superhero is not the way to go. And, speaking of diet, it is a more pervasive talking point about women, with Jennifer Lawrence being too fat for Katniss, and Anne Hathaway having some fun mocking for her preparation as Catwoman. It’s not hard enough women can’t get a good story, but we also have to deal with how fat, thin or fit we are.
Then there is the issue of over-sexualization, examples including Barbarella and Sucker Punch. I somewhat enjoyed Sucker Punch, but my tempered enjoyment is because there aren’t any of these strong female-centric films for me to look at for inspiration, so I’ll try to support what I’m given. And my problem isn’t about the sexiness of the superheroine; a woman using her strengths (wiles) can absolutely be an advantage; it just shouldn’t overshadow all else. It’s one of the more harrowing fine line tightrope walking.
Picture it: Halloween, NYC, about 7 years ago. I was dressed as Wonder Woman, walking through the streets of Manhattan to meet friends at the famous Village Halloween Parade. As I walked confidently in my armor-like bustier and red knee-high boots, a guy nodded in my direction and called out, “Hey, Super Woman!” I was highly insulted and then, disappointed. He did not know who I was. My despondence inspired me to write my own superhero film^.
The truth is there is a want for a Wonder Woman movie, or any superheroine driven film, at least in theory. This past year has seen the release of two solid trailers and a mini-teaser, but all these show are the microcosm possibilities; a full-length film is an entirely different – and riskier – creature. The green-lighting of WW or any female superhero film won’t guarantee success in execution or profit; in fact, there’s more pressure because of the female factor.
And still, I’ll argue that the superheroine should be allowed to fail, because through failure we can ultimately succeed. I mean, supermen have been allowed to fail often in the recent past, and it hasn’t stymied the genre; why can’t superwomen?
* This does not link to the movie, no worries
** Arguably a bad film, Angelina Jolie does do the character justice
^ I acknowledge my shameless plug