Good fun? Or feminist food for thought?
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman - inspired casting
Is Wonder Woman meant to be good, clean fun or an embodiment of feminism that we must take seriously?
James Cameron became a bit of a whipping boy when he hinted that in spite of boasting a female director-producer duo Wonder Woman 2017 offered no bold or new treatment of an otherwise exciting female character. In a Guardian interview published on 24 August 2017 he called all the gushing “misguided” and the movie a “step backwards”.
Wonder Woman 2017 Director Patty Jenkins hit back oddly tweeting: “Cameron’s inability to understand what Wonder Woman is, or stands for, to women all over the world is unsurprising as, though he is a great filmmaker, he is not a woman.” She defended her right “to celebrate an icon of women everywhere”.
Over half the world’s women haven’t a clue who WW is, let alone what she stands for.
What of the hordes of men who enjoyed her movie? Was that too “inability to understand” WW because they’re men?
Curiously Jenkins didn’t bother clarifying that the WW2017 screen character was written by men - story by three men and screenplay by one of those men. Of the four producers, three were men.
Jenkins was a one-movie wonder until then, having won movie-acclaim primarily for her incredible work on Monster (2003). Why share the manic WW2017 applause with any man? If she was taking credit she’d deal with critique too? Fair enough.
WW1984 is no different. Some may argue that she's now a two-movie wonder who, this time, shares screenplay credit - but the other two writers are men. She shares story credit but the other writer is a man. Half the production team is male.
Cameron and Jenkins ended up talking past each other, but only a little.
Cameron seemed to be hinting at the way the character was written: “she’s an objectified icon and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same!” Women characters need to inspire modern female audiences more meaningfully “I mean, half the audience is female!” 21st century women deserved a more layered character. At least more layered than the beauty with superpowers that their mothers and grandmothers saw in Lynda Carter, who played WW on TV for ages in the 20th century. Contemporary filmmakers were in this sense doing WW a disservice. Jenkins had missed an opportunity as the first woman director of a typical Hollywood superhero movie, by covering tired ground.
In an interview to The Hollywood Reporter published on 27 September 2017 Cameron clarified that he had no issues with “gorgeous” but that the movie was being hyped as path-breaking feminism when it wasn’t. On Gal Gadot he said “She’s drop-dead gorgeous. To me, that’s not breaking ground. They had Raquel Welch doing stuff like that in the ‘60s.”
Cameron was crucified probably because he hadn’t critiqued men - who’ve done precious little to create and portray central female characters who are interesting and complex in themselves. And they've had far more influence and opportunity than women filmmakers.
Audiences have been subjected to dozens of male-superhero films - why didn't Cameron bother to hammer those male filmmakers for so many inexcusable portrayals. Forget about central female characters, what have they done with central male characters? Think Superman IV (1987), Spiderman 3 (2007), The Incredible Hulk (2008). Think Batman & Robin (1997). No, don't.
Actually, Cameron had critiqued them, through his films. He’d also clarified, “Hollywood doesn’t get it about women in commercial franchises. Drama, they’ve got that cracked, but the second they start to make a big commercial action film, they think they have to appeal to 18-year-old males.” Cameron overlooked the fact that young girls found WW cool too. Somehow he seemed frustrated that when a woman finally steered a female superhero character in a live-action feature film she was being feted in spite of offering more of the same 20th century screen character, with undoubtedly more spectacular special effects.
Jenkins hit back, but again oddly. Cameron shouldn’t use his male privilege to silence women’s voices, aspirations about whom they find inspiring in the first place. Women characters don’t – like Cameron’s - always have to be hard, tough, troubled, wear pants, wield guns to be strong. She said “If we aren’t free…..to celebrate an icon...because she is attractive and loving, then we haven’t come very far.”
Sure, Ellen Ripley was tough and wore pants but she was also stunning. And she showed a maternal tenderness for little Newt in Aliens (1986).
Yes, Sarah Connor didn’t suffer fools in The Terminator (1984) and Judgement Day (1991) but she cared enough for her child and all of mankind, to hone her single-mindedness.
Frankly, over the years Cameron has served different kinds of strong - uber-feminine and graceful Rose in Titanic (1997), beautiful and brainy Dr. Lindsey Brigman in The Abyss (1989), comically brittle but ballsy Helen Tasker in True Lies (1994), comely and courageous Neytiri in Avatar (2009).
Oddly Jenkins had added: “if we aren’t free to be multidimensional.......then we haven’t come very far......the massive female audience who made the film a hit it is, can surely choose and judge their own icons of progress”.
The thing is, male and female audiences made it a hit.
Besides, Jenkins didn’t explain precisely how WW2017 was “multidimensional”. Or how it wasn’t much more than a market-driven revival of a wearily familiar character. Or how her 21st century portrayal (of a long-established 20th century character) was an “icon of progress”.
Sadly, many women bought Jenkins’s take. And took Cameron to the cleaners. Not all.
“I didn’t...dislike WW in this iteration but I was….confused….why so many women.....adored her….perhaps......because she wasn’t multidimensional – or, well real at all....I suppose if women want this kind of female icon, they can have her. But she’s not really for me. I prefer something grittier......Jenkins blew off Cameron’s response because ‘he’s not a woman’. Since I agree with him, what would she say to me?......This is what you see in Wonder Woman, we all know that’s not really feminism. That’s patriarchy’s feminist icon, trussed up in feminist-themed marketing.” – What James Cameron gets right about the Wonder Woman feminism debate, Susannah Breslin, 26 August 2017, Forbes
Both prosecution and defence confuse superheroes with real people.
Superheroes (superheroines?) aren’t real. They’re not meant to be. Filmmakers humanize them a little to make them feel more real to us. They’re not meant to be unreal - they are! That’s why we ‘adore’ them.
WW’s alter-ego, Diana, can’t be humanized to a degree that Ripley or Connor can. It’s unfair to demand that of her. She doesn’t have enough of a human alter-ego to be humanized enough. Certainly not the way some male characters can – Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Bruce Banner, Peter Parker. Thor perhaps? But even he, when he’s not a god (!), is more caricature than character. In this sense, WW is much much harder to write.
Gal Gadot played WW superbly. She brought a perfect blend of beauty and sexual charisma to the character. And she showed moral courage and compassion with conviction.
To be fair, WW did speak to women maddened by centuries of exclusion: striding into a men-only conference or leaping into battle while men cowered in trenches. Beyond such gestures it’s as ridiculous to put on her the burden of empowering women as it is to charge Superman with empowering men. Or Black Panther with empowering blacks. Their power is superficial, not lived. They provoke nice, fleeting, fantasies: I wish I had Hulk’s strength. I wish I had Superman’s speed.
Superhero movies are meant to be good, clean fun. No harm in the odd message, moral and model (masculine or feminine). As long as it’s not overdone.
Here Cameron and Breslin have a point that Jenkins doesn’t.
Superman is almost incidental to male empowerment because he’s so far removed from real-life. In this sense Cameron’s female leads can be more of an inspiration for women and girls. Up to a point!
Wonder Woman? She can be a role model for girls and women a tad more than Superman for boys and men. Only because there are so few women superheroes. Again, as long as girls don’t take her as a role model too seriously.
All movie characters, real or imagined, when layered enough, can offer life-lessons about values, choices. Cameron’s call to Jenkins was to plough that creative cinematic furrow more deeply instead of flying a flag: feminist or not.
Imagine Cameron having a go at screenwriting a comic-book character or superhero - what fun. Will he be found as wanting as he felt Jenkins was?
WW2017’s women-only screenings pretended to be seriously and uniquely empowering when they were closer to typical “experiential” or “exclusive” marketing. The kind that promotional campaigns have used for decades to target men, or children. Not right or wrong. Not exclusionist. Or feminist. Just good marketing.
Like over-the-top action-men (John Rambo, John McClane, Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt) and superheroes (Iron Man, Captain America), characters such as WW don’t do much more than make audiences feel good about themselves, for a while. For some this lasts longer than 5400 seconds in a dark, air-conditioned hall.
Jenkins & Co. were cashing in on “empowerment” while peddling “entertainment”. Small wonder that in the frenzy, WW was fleetingly made the UN’s Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls and equally fleetingly stripped of the title when some woke up to the absurdity of it all - especially Jenkins and Gadot appearing at the UN.
It’s impossible to rule out such excess in future. But it helps to see it for what it is.
The battle for empowerment through film is more likely to be won or lost when taking more life-like, more human characters to the screen, even when they’re not real-life or historical figures. Here, several women filmmakers have been more creative, courageous and consistent than Jenkins has. They’ve created or at least promoted more original, more nuanced characters. Female and male. Not just as scriptwriters or actresses but as producers and directors. Kelly Reichardt, Ava DuVernay, Mira Nair, Mimi Leder, Debra Granik, Kathryn Bigelow, Reese Witherspoon, Charlize Theron and many others. They are enriching the world of movies that men have dominated for decades.
Cameron’s critique, however poorly articulated, wasn’t - as Jenkins crudely put it - as a man. His critique was as a filmmaker who’s championed frontline roles for women in his biggest movies for nearly forty years. Through his filmmaking he’s been challenging women to come up with women-centric portrayals that are gritty and entertaining in equal measure.
Instead of challenging him as a man, Jenkins could have responded not as a woman but as a filmmaker.
Before WW2017 was released - suitably alive to the power of male audiences at the box office and still unsure of whether female audiences would flock to see WW - Jenkins had tried hard to distance WW from womanhood or any discussion about gender. She'd argued that WW is in fact above the petty labels of feminism and gender. She went as far as to say that WW is "not a feminist".
When challenged on creative ground by Cameron? All that changed.
Jenkins defaulted to woman and womanhood - no truth lasso to call her out. Why? She'd seen women and girls crowd the theatres. Reassured that she didn't any longer need male audiences as much, her battle-cry tweet provoked women - feminists or not - to rise up as one, to defend her and her movie. In critiquing WW's characterisation she seemed to say, Cameron was attacking all women.
So Jenkins hurriedly donned the cape and crown of global ambassador for woman power - without anywhere near the movie-making record of other women (let alone Cameron’s) or anything close to the scale of creative movie-risks other women have taken (let alone Cameron’s).
Yet Jenkins became Hollywood's new darling and "cranky" Cameron was hung out to dry.
John F Kennedy is reported to have once written to Arthur Hays Sulzberger “You will recall what Senator Dirksen said about the rocking chair – it gives you a sense of motion without any sense of danger.”
Jenkins’s own portrait of a troubled woman in Monster (2003) was outstanding – a character she wrote for the screen. Should she be fretting about whether WW is empowering enough? Should she be struggling to secure still tenuous claims to women’s empowerment through WW?
Instead can Jenkins ask herself why she hasn’t driven more women-centric movies in the nearly 20 years she’s had since Monster? Not TV shows or shorts. Movies! Can she come up with more original female characters? Not Cleopatra for heaven’s sake! Can she come up with more layered portrayals? That’s not putting Cameron in his place as a man. That’s responding to his creative critique as a filmmaker. But if her idea of a riposte is Wonder Woman 1984, Cameron may have to wait for someone else to take up his challenge.
Can Jenkins converse with Cameron on creative, on cinematic - not feminist - ground?
As Breslin wrote: “I get it. I’m not supposed to expect that from a superhero movie. WW is a cartoon...a caricature….by her very nature not complex…..flat, two-dimensional, nothing more than a symbol. But if WW and its massive financial success is supposed to be symbolic of women’s power, I want something more from it than this."
Jenkins's response was to reach for a feminist’s rather than a filmmaker’s ammunition to fire back - as misplaced as Diana reaching for an M41A pulse rifle or Ripley reaching for a truth lasso.
Nearly everyone who watched it - not just women - thoroughly enjoyed WW2017.
Everyone’s looking forward to enjoying WW1984.
No harm throwing in the odd feminist cue.
But audiences throng superhero movies for good, clean fun.
Jenkins? She may yet deliver on her implicit threat that her sequel may “empower” even more women than before. And we must leave her to it.
Wonder Woman? She’d better hit us with all she’s got.
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.