Early this summer saw the release of a highly-anticipated film that marked a shift in the superhero film genre: Wonder Woman, featuring Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. In addition to being the first superhero film of recent years to star a female hero, Wonder Woman was the first major superhero film to be directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins. Jenkins was also only the second female director to direct a film with a budget of over $100 million—in fact, at $150 million, Wonder Woman is to date the most expensive film directed by a woman.
Expectations were high for Wonder Woman: many critics and audiences feared that if Wonder Woman failed, the chances for female directors and future superhero films centered around female characters would be drastically diminished. Though some reporters characterized Jenkins’s hire as a “gamble,” the risk seems to have paid off, with the opening weekend domestic box office for Wonder Woman coming in at $100.5 million (the biggest opening for a female director). In fact, Wonder Woman was not only a box office success, but a critical success as well.
Despite an overwhelming narrative of success, some critics have aptly noted the film’s significant issues with regard to race and sexuality; namely, that characters of color are represented in stereotypically damaging roles or are not given the opportunity to tell complete stories. Further, despite the fact that Wonder Woman comes from an island on which women have lived without men for thousands of years, sexual relationships between women are almost entirely ignored. As others have commented, although Wonder Woman was directed by a woman and stars a woman—firsts for any massive comic book film—it was still written by a team of men, and produced by nearly all men. At times, it feels as though male-centricity threatens to override the work of Jenkins and Gadot.
Before its filming and throughout its promotion, Wonder Woman wore its significance within the superhero film genre extremely self-consciously. From interviews with actors to its director to its critical anticipation, the fact of Wonder Woman’s womanhood—that it starred a woman, that it was directed by a woman, and that it included a woman battle scene—was never far from its coverage.
The film features Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), who teams up with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) after he crash lands on the island Themyscira, home of the Amazons. Diana and Steve fight side by side—and, predictably, fall in love—as they attempt to bring an end to the conflict raging across Europe during World War I. For Steve, this means stopping German General Ludendorff and scientist Doctor Maru from producing a deadly form of mustard gas, while for Diana, this means killing Ares, god of war, who has led humans into conflict.
Before its filming and throughout its promotion, Wonder Woman wore its significance within the superhero film genre extremely self-consciously. From interviews with actors to its director to its critical anticipation, the fact of Wonder Woman’s womanhood—that it starred a woman, that it was directed by a woman, and that it included a woman battle scene—was never far from its coverage. In this essay, I explore the “importance” of Wonder Woman’s gender dynamics. What made Wonder Woman important, and to whom? I focus on actors’ off-screen interpretations of the film’s importance with regard to gender roles. For some actors, the film offered an obvious rebuttal to gender stereotypes, while for others, its significance lay in its adherence to typical gender roles. Ultimately, I argue that the strength of Wonder Woman is in its ability to both subvert and fulfill gendered expectations through its depiction of Diana as a complex character capable of representing a range of emotions and motivations, and who is able to manage power dynamics in unique ways.
Consider the following post-premiere interview with Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, and Patty Jenkins on Good Morning America. Nearly every question asked revolved around the fact that the movie, at least in the first 20 minutes or so, features an army of strong women. Wright was first asked what it was like “being around all of this estrogen, this amazing set, these amazing women,” to which she responded: “Empowering. Really empowering, and we were strong.” She reiterated, “We didn’t just feel strong, we were strong.” She further explained that the female actors playing the Amazons participated in a workout regimen that included weight-lifting, martial arts, and horseback riding. In this comment, Wright maps the characteristics of the Amazons directly onto the actors themselves; it was not simply that they played strong female characters, but that the actors were themselves strong women.
Although gender norms define our position in the world, and indeed, define our personhood, we essentially have no control over the mechanisms by which we ourselves are defined. Wonder Woman is a fascinating site for considering gender norms …
Immediately following Wright’s response, host Michael Strahan asked Connie Nielsen, “Connie, you played the queen of the Amazons, and I was telling Gal [Gadot] earlier that I’ve never seen such a powerful group of women—it was amazing to watch the film. So how was it on set to have all of these powerful women around?” Again, Strahan directly transferred the strength of the women’s characters to the strength of the women themselves. Nielsen’s response focused on her son’s exposure to “strong” women while on the set, including professional boxing champion Ann Wolfe as Artemis, teaching her son to box, again eliding the strength of characters onto the strength of the female actors.
But while Nielsen, Wright, and Strahan stress the demonstration of physical strength as being the most unique feature of the film in comparison with films more broadly, Chris Pine highlighted Diana’s capacity to love as the distinguishing feature between Wonder Woman and other superhero films. In an interview with Jimmy Kimmel more than one year before the film’s release, Pine suggested that what makes Wonder Woman different is an inherent difference between men and woman. The simple decision to place a woman—any woman—at the center of a film will change its meaning:
“I feel like with men at the helm it’s always this revenge cycle thing. It’s like, someone-an eye for an eye—“We’re gonna go get the bad guys!” and the bad guys are defeated. What I think is really lovely having a woman at the helm of something like this is just that by virtue of her being a woman, there’s a great deal more compassion and love at the center of the story …”
Ultimately, for Pine, at least in this interview, the importance of Wonder Woman as a film and of Diana Prince as a character is the “natural” infusion of love that seems to intuitively stem from a female-centric film.
Both Pine and Nielsen and Wright’s interpretations of the film respond to broader societal understandings of men and women—understandings that ultimately essentialize each gender to a narrow set of traits. Such understandings are often referred to as gender norms. A gender norm is a stereotypical convention that both constructs and perpetuates definitions of masculinity and femininity as gender binaries. Norms can be explicit or implicit, and they dictate acceptable social behaviors and characteristics. For example, typical feminine norms with regard to personality include being shy, passive, and submissive, whereas norms regarding masculine personality traits include being tough, aggressive, and self-confident. While gender norms are not immutable—as social constructs, they change as society changes. Feminist theorist Judith Butler explains that they predate individuals in a society: “We come into the world on the condition that the social world is already there, laying the groundwork for us … I cannot be who I am without drawing upon the sociality of norms that precede and exceed me.” In other words, although gender norms define our position in the world, and indeed, define our personhood, we essentially have no control over the mechanisms by which we ourselves are defined.
Wonder Woman is a fascinating site for considering gender norms—particularly when considering the types of norms Diana, having been raised on a remote island of only women, suddenly confronts in the western world at the beginning of the 20th century, as well as the norms Diana herself challenges in the eyes of her male companions throughout the majority of the film. However, I would like to return for a moment to the actors’ interpretations of the film. Simply put, Chris Pine’s comment fits Diana within typical gender normative character traits in which female characters demonstrate love and are naturally more nurturing. However, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, and host Michael Strahan offer an interpretation of the film and its actors that works against gender norms that would presume women’s weakness, as opposed to men’s strength.
… media attention surrounding the film suggests that the film subverts gender stereotypes, but the actors’ comments about the characters show just how strongly gender norms remain in play.
But even as Nielsen, Wright, and Strahan seek to assert the strength of women as a new trait the audience might one day consider as a gender norm, particularly in their mapping of strength from character to actor, their comments simultaneously position the Amazonian actors’ bodies as exceptional—as outside the norm. As Butler argues, “being outside the norm is in some sense being defined still in relation to it.” In other words, the media attention surrounding the film suggests that the film subverts gender stereotypes, but the actors’ comments about the characters show just how strongly gender norms remain in play.
Whereas Nielsen, Wright, and Pine’s interpretations tend to rely in varying ways on the same gender norms that might suggest that women would make a poor choice as lead actors in action-heavy films or that continue the notion that men are more successful film directors, director Patty Jenkins rejects such binaristic approaches to the roles and norms of women in Wonder Woman. In the Good Morning America interview cited above, Jenkins highlights other important themes in her response to the question, “What do you hope that little girls—and little boys, and everybody!—take away from this film?” Jenkins responds, saying, “… I hope that they have a great time, and I hope they laugh, but I also hope that they feel inspired to be a hero in their own life and learn love and thoughtfulness, as well as strength.” Jenkins’s answer prioritizes love and thoughtfulness, while also validating the strength immediately made visible in the film, her actors’ responses, and audience interpretations.
For Jenkins, Diana was a complicated character encompassing a wide range of potential emotions, reactions, and abilities. As Gadot explained in an interview, “Credit Patty for not turning [Wonder Woman] into a ballbuster. Wonder Woman can be very charming and warm and have so much compassion and love for the world. She can be soft and naive. At the same time, she just happens to be this demigoddess who can beat the shit out of you and can be a super badass and smart and confident.” In the same article Charlize Theron, who starred in Jenkins’s last film, the critically acclaimed Monster (2003), explains Jenkins’s long-held dedication to multi-faceted female characters: “Patty loves conflicted women. She believes women are more conflicted than men, and she tells her stories very much through that eye. That’s why you can’t take your eyes off her girls because they’re showing you something maybe you haven’t seen before.” Indeed, in an interview with Charlie Rose following Monster’s release, Jenkins described her approach to casting Theron similarly, prioritizing complexity and multiplicity: “When it came to finding someone who I thought had the strength to … not shy away from the fact that she [Aileen Wuornos] was this incredibly volatile person who crossed the line and did these incredibly horrible things … yet could also sell the vulnerability and the humanity of this person—that’s a very wide area to cover.”
Diana clearly fulfills Jenkins’s ideal notion of a character who can slip in and out of gender norms as needed. Throughout the film, the audience sees Diana struggle with developing her own guiding principle—her purpose as a superhero/demigoddess. This comes at last in the final battle scene versus Ares, in which Diana makes the decision to ignore vengeance in favor of love—love for all humankind, even the ugliness from which her mother, Queen Hippolyta, protected her for years. She does so explicitly, telling Ares, “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.” In that moment, Diana appears to fall into a typical gender norm, conforming with notions about women’s emotional tendencies and nurturing capabilities, as opposed to men’s reason and control. However, even as Diana’s words place her within a gender-normative role, it is difficult to ignore the fact that she says these words while hoisting a tank above her head. Immediately after this line, she bests Ares in battle by mastering his own skill with lightning, an attack that took as much mental fortitude as physical.
As star Gal Gadot hoped, Wonder Woman portrays a positive image of female empowerment. It is Diana who saves Steve Trevor from her fellow Amazonians who seem to instinctively fear this outsider, and it is Diana who takes the lead in battle sequences. However, the film also demonstrates a complicated give and take in the power dynamics between Diana and Steve that is not present between superheroes and their love interests in most superhero films. Though Diana leads Steve to the boat to leave Themyscira, Steve navigates the boat to London while Diana sleeps. Steve arranges for Diana’s transition from idyllic island life to 20th-century London, and also to the battlefields of WWI. From the time Steve and Diana leave Themyscira through their London scenes and their travels to the war front, Steve takes the intellectual and social lead, clothing Diana, and enculturating Diana to the ways of masculine leadership. While this role is necessary for Diana’s origin story—it absolutely makes sense that someone unfamiliar with the world and with war to need a guide—its strong presence after a female-driven beach battle sequence left a jarring hole for some viewers, such as myself, who expected perhaps a more constant stream of female empowerment. Diana, momentarily lost in the transition, is, if not content, then willing to follow Steve’s lead, learning about acceptable and expected behaviors in a strongly patriarchal society along the way.
That the main character in this film is a woman, and that the sidekick is a man, suggests both a discomfort with writing a male part as fully subordinate to the female role, as well as an empathetic treatment of seemingly secondary characters. This is a power dynamic that simultaneously frustrates and satisfies.
Diana continues to follow Steve’s lead, even as she begins to silently question all she has grown up learning about mankind’s goodness—until her first sight of war in Belgium. While Steve demands Diana stay in the trenches and not attempt to cross the “No Man’s Land,” Diana refuses, and, alone, pushes through German lines. As Steve begins to learn Diana’s capabilities, he steps aside, which sets the stage for Diana to lead. Such transferrals of power continue throughout the film, and represent a rarity in superhero films: that main character and (romantic) sidekick can coexist in roles that allow each an important part to play. That the main character in this film is a woman, and that the sidekick is a man, suggests both a discomfort with writing a male part as fully subordinate to the female role, as well as an empathetic treatment of seemingly secondary characters.
This is a power dynamic that simultaneously frustrates and satisfies. Why did it need to be the “female” superhero movie that first showed the potential of a shared power dynamic? Could this shared power dynamic offer a model for future films that may benefit female “sidekick” roles? As writer Robert Jones, Jr. describes, “In regard to Steve Trevor, I felt like the film was trying to assure those in the audience with fragile masculinity that no matter how powerful Wonder Woman is, Trevor can ‘take care of himself and be heroic too!’” In film depictions of female comic book characters such as Lois Lane (Superman), Jane Foster (Thor), Rachel Dawes (Batman), Cassie Lang (Ant Man) and Pepper Potts (Iron Man) each have a role to play in the development of their male counterpart’s story, as Steve Trevor does in Diana’s; however, these women also at some point play into a “damsel in distress” narrative in which the woman is saved in a masculine feat of strength and/or brilliance by their respective male superhero (with the exception of Peggy Carter, who partners with Captain America and eventually forms SHIELD, and Dr. Christine Palmer, who at times acts more as a savior figure to Dr. Strange).
That Wonder Woman was “important” seems to be taken as fact by many. However, although Wonder Woman was heavily marketed and promoted as some kind of “feminist” superhero film, the story remains heteronormative and gender-normative. For some, the film’s importance stemmed from its adherence to gendered norms that ascribed female stories to stories of love and softness. For others, the film threw off gendered constructs by emphasizing masculine qualities such as strength and power in feminine forms. However, Diana is a character who defies the rigidity of gendered norms. But despite the easy, pseudo-feminist promotion of Diana as “strong,” Jenkins ultimately created a character who can contain a multitude of expressions that can simultaneously reinforce and disrupt typical gender norms. Through Jenkins’s interpretation of Diana, Wonder Woman offers a model for future superhero films—featuring male or female characters—that can offer diverse stories of complex relationships in and around the explosions and CGI effects.