Wonder Woman: Patty Jenkins’ Stereotype-stomping Superhero Film

Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is this summer’s smash-hit movie. Not only is it the largest opening for a female director, but it’s quite likely to be the highest-grossing movie of the season.

Before Jenkins, Hollywood had never produced a truly successful female superhero movie — and the Wonder Woman story, in particular, has proven particularly difficult to tell well.

But a funny thing happens when a woman is in control of telling the story of a female superhero: she can do so with respect and insight, not falling prey to the usual female stereotypes, tropes, and objectification … while still producing a quality action film.

Hollywood loves telling slight variations on the same general characterizations and tropes. Think about how many movies feature a gorgeous, impossibly fit white star and his gorgeous and incredibly slender love interest. Women in media are often objectified, and, particularly in superhero films, they tend to be used to move the plot along (by being kidnapped, used primarily to motivate the hero, or to help develop other characters) — but are not equal members of the team or active participants in the action.

The film industry knows what makes money, and to not lose money at the box office, it tends to tell stories in a specific, limited way. Jenkins’ storytelling offered an alternative. She either ignored, or intentionally subverted, the typical Hollywood lenses and tropes, and she still came away with an excellent film that crushed all it’s competition.

Between Women Woman and Katniss Everdeen, we seem to now have evidence that a strong woman can rake in as much money at the box office as any of Hollywood’s four famous Chris’ who all look alike — Hemsworth, Pratt, Pine, and Evans, obviously — and are starring in, like, everything these days.

In a variety of ways, large and small, Women Woman paints a picture of women that is more nuanced, empowering, and respectful than is groundbreaking for almost any Hollywood movie (but particularly in the superhero genre).

Here are some of the subtle-but-important ways Jenkins’ film turned Hollywood’s usual tropes on their head.

8. When I grow up…

Wonder Woman opens with young Diana, a little girl who wants nothing more than to be a warrior when she grows up. While strong, skilled woman warriors aren’t absent from film — they’re usually not the movie’s lead. You don’t get to know them the way you get to know a main character: exploring their childhood, their families, and watching them grown from youth to adulthood in a series of inspiring montages.

Young Diana adorable, earnest, determined, and pure-hearted. Her desire to be a warrior is the core of who she is. It’s something she can’t not do.

7. Athletes form all-women army

For the Amazon warriors on the all-woman island of Themyscira, Wonder Woman cast athletes from around the globe. Olympic athletes, professional fighters, heptathletes, and more trained in combat and swordsmanship — in what the trainers described as “the female version of 300.” And, as Diana mentions later in the film, the Amazons are all fluent in many languages (from modern day to ancient tongues). They have brains and brawn. How often is that combination shown in women?

6. Buttercup is not just a princess

At age 21, Robin Wright played the title role in beloved fairytale film The Princess Bride. She was the gorgeous blonde princess: kidnapped and later rescued by a gorgeous blonde pirate. It’s a great story, but falls into many familiar Western storytelling tropes.

As a woman, there is something incredibly satisfying about seeing one of the princesses of your childhood grow up to be the greatest Amazon warrior. It’s powerful to see Princess Buttercup’s face as Antiope, Diana’s mentor, trainer, and a hugely influential figure in her life. To be clear, I loved The Princess Bride. There’s nothing inherently wrong with princesses. But girls have so many princesses to look up to, and few other leading women to see and identify with.

Wright as Antiope is a beautiful illustration of the fact that women don’t have to look like, appreciate, or identify with just one type character. Princesses and warriors can both be wonderful, caring, and inspiring characters for young girls to admire and respect. Princesses aren’t bad. But it is nice for girls to see that not every film character presented as someone they could easily admire has to be a princess.

5. The woman rescues her male love interest
It’s one of the superhero film’s most recognizable tropes: The dashing, fearless superhero saves his beautiful love interest from a terrible fate. Wonder Woman includes this pivotal scene, but this time, it’s Diana who is saving Steve Trevor. When a woman is the superhero, this is a pretty logical outcome — but it’s still a fairly rare scene to see on film, particularly in this genre.

4. The man is the one being objectified
Another common scene in any action movie involves the camera’s very gratuitous panning over the almost too-perfect-to-be-real body of a gorgeous female character. Often, she’s in a swimsuit — possibly wet — or in an incredibly revealing outfit. She moves in slow motion, likely in a way that shows off both her tiny waists and her dis-proportionally large curves, as the movie gratuitously panders to it’s male viewers.

In Wonder Woman, it’s Steve who is objectified. He’s unclothed and wet as Diana walks in on him stepping out of a pool. But while Wonder Woman does show off actor Chris Pine almost completely nude for a few quick seconds, the moment of Steve sans-underwear is still pretty (pardon the pun) brief.

Look, if Wonder Woman went through the trouble of hiring one the four superhot, nearly identical Chris’ who are starring in everything in Hollywood right now — aren’t they kind of obligated to give the people what they want?

That said, I dislike male objectification just as much as I dislike female objectification, and I have great respect for Wonder Woman‘s decision not to slowly pan over every inch of Pine’s perfectly-muscled figure. Once clothed, Steve doesn’t wear anything that would objectify him or visually signal that his body is one of the defining valuable things about his character. Wonder Woman‘s brief objectification of Pine was enough to remind audiences that this is what’s usually done with the love interest in most movies, but quick enough to not make it something the audience is meant to dwell on. It’s a one-time event, and a few seconds of the movie. Most female love interests in other films see their objectification much more prolonged, and much more integral to their character’s visual identity.

3. Marginalized characters acknowledge their marginalization
Hollywood is notorious for casting white actors in most roles. Main characters are almost exclusively played by white actors, even if the characters are written as, or based off of source material that describes them as people or color.

Wonder Woman still casts non-people of color in most leading roles, though star Gal Gadot is Israeli, and Steve Trevor’s team is predominantly POC. But even as Hollywood has shifted to diversifying it’s casts in a way that more accurately represents the ethnic demographics of our nation, POC characters still rarely acknowledge some of the basic, daily realities that come with being a person of color in America.

One of Steve’s crew, Sameer, is Arabic. He’s an actor, but has been unable to find work in that profession — presumably because of a lack of roles for Arabic actors. Even today, many roles for Arabic actors require them to inhabit stereotypes that are often degrading. Sameer is an incredibly intelligent character, fluent in many languages, but also flawed and complex. He’s not just a stereotype of an Middle Eastern trope.

2. The Chief calls out American colonialism

Another point of refreshing authenticity came with the other POC member of Steve Trevor’s team, “The Chief.” As Diana is seeking to learn more about earth, she asks her indigenous teammate about the history of his people, wondering which people group subjugated and mistreated them. The Chief motions to Steve and says, “His people.”

To me, what’s particularly interesting about this moment is how clear it is that nobody would think Steve Trevor is a bad guy. Over the course of the movie, Steve proves himself again and again to be a brave, noble, and honorable man — willing to do whatever it takes to help bring an end to the Great War.

But Steve is still a white man. For as good of a person as he is, his ancestors were still powerful colonialists. White America did terrible things to the indigenous populations of our nation, in the name of Manifest Destiny. Mentioning that is not calling Steve Trevor a bad person. It’s simply stating historical fact. With how hyper-polarized our nation is right now, being able to acknowledge facts, and to show that this is not meant to demonize people, is a powerful — and deeply important — message.

1. Intelligent female scientist
Having a female villain in a movie is nothing new. But having a female villain who speaks multiple languages, and is one of the greatest scientists in the world — that is. As someone who is fairly unfamiliar with DC characters and mythology, when I saw the name Dr. Poison, I would not have expected her to be a woman. Yes, it’s 2017, but my brain is still not conditioned to implicitly associate doctors with female characters.

For me, some of the most important messages in Wonder Woman are the ones so subtle or small, they don’t initially even seem like that big of a deal. The film expands movie tropes and implicit assumptions in a way that is much more empowering of underrepresented people than I’ve seen in film before.

There are a few more areas I wish it could have explored, like having a POC love interest in a film. There’s nothing wrong with casting Chris Pine as Diana’s love interest. Chris Pine is a great actor — and given that Gal Gadot hasn’t yet had the lead role in a film before, it makes sense for the studio to hire an actor like Pine, who has a proven record of pulling in big numbers at the box office.

But I love how TV’s The Flash has intentionally chosen to cast Barry’s love interest, Iris West, with an African American actor, and I hope this can be a trend that more in film and TV decide to try. It’s hard to make casting decisions that haven’t proven to be successful at the box office, but with movies like The Big Sick, hopefully the numbers will start bringing more and more evidence that POC lead characters can be just as bankable at the box office as white stars.

I also wish Wonder Woman could have done more to represent body diversity. For all the incredible strides Hollywood has been making in representation, it’s version of reality still seems to be more-or-less populated only by women who are incredibly slender. I’m not saying it’s impossible for a woman to naturally be as thin as Hollywood’s women are — but proportionally, naturally slender women make a much small percentage of the population than they’re shown to be on TV.

It’s awesome that Wonder Woman chose to keep Etta Candy as a plus size woman. But as someone who spent junior high as a size 8-12, I wish Hollywood would acknowledge that not every woman in America is either a size 2 or plus size. We need more representation of plus size women as beautiful, intelligent, and not just there to be a punchline. But we also need to see that a woman who is size 8 can be viewed by society as just as beautiful as a woman who is size 2.

I recently saw a TV movie where the popular, blonde, “perfect” character was played by a woman who appears to be closer to the size I was in junior high than to a size 2. This actress is about the same size as Mindy Kaling, another woman who I wish would have been around in media when I was in the midst of my teenage body image crisis.

So many companies are making tons of money selling women products to help them get closer to that coveted size 2. It took me a while to get to a point where I was okay with never being a size 2, and genuinely happy at a weight better suited for me. Better representation of body diversity wouldn’t have kept me from needed to go through that process, but it could certainly have helped me develop a more positive body image earlier.

Overall, Wonder Woman offers one of the most exciting and encouraging portrayals of humans — of any sex or ethnicity (and possibly sexuality, though it depends on your interpretation) — that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s exciting to watch Hollywood begin to move in this direction, and I hope that the smash-hit success of Wonder Woman can inspire other films to take similar important steps.

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