By Jess Devonport.
For years, Joss Whedon’s uncommissioned Wonder Woman script was a parable of the internet, proof that Hollywood was trying marginalise female superheroes. As it turns out, it was just really bad, and incredibly sexist.
With Wonder Woman,written by Allan Heinberg and directed by Patty Jenkins, audiences were finally given a female-led superhero movie that works. I left the cinema asking myself, “Is this how every white guy feels when they see an action movie?”
Wonder Woman is not without its shortcomings, of course. Her costume firmly adheres to the sexy superhero trope, that while men get practical outfits, their female counterparts must fight in heels and short skirts. Women of colour and different body images have only minor and non-speaking parts, and the roles for older women are confined to the first act of the film in Themyscira.
Despite this, Wonder Woman does more to escape the male gaze than any other female action hero before her.
While her costume is typically revealing and woefully impractical her objectification is presented as a subversive feminist statement. She is unaware of the male attention she attracts yet her discussion with Steve Taylor about the redundant role of men in sexual pleasure shows that she isn’t naive.
The male gaze is a product of media that is made by men for men, placing the viewer in a position of power while the woman on screen becomes the object. Under the male gaze, the female character’s thoughts, actions, and appearance are framed within the heterosexual male desire. We are presented with an idealised, sexualised version of women who is unable to act for herself and instead must react to the male characters around her.
When Black Widow (also known as Natasha Romanov) is introduced in Iron Man 2, it is through the eyes of Tony Stark and Hogan. Throughout the establishing scene, the camera cuts back to the two men in the boxing ring, who have stopped their match to watch her, reminding the audience which viewpoint we are seeing Black Widow from. As the scene progresses, Stark calls up modelling shots of Romanov before stating that he wants her as his assistant, further cementing his objectification of her. Romanov’s signature move in a fight – bringing a man to the floor with her thighs – is also established here. Despite being an accomplished spy and assassin, her skills are hypersexualised.
Contrast the introduction of Black Widow with the first act of Wonder Woman, then. Here, Diana is introduced through the eyes of her mother and aunt, we see her first as a daughter and niece and then as a peer.
Of course, a male character isn’t the only way to establish the male gaze, but the absence of men from these scenes makes it all the harder to insert. When a male character is introduced, it’s through the eyes of Diana.
Later, Diana is speaking to Steve as he gets out of the pool, he is naked while she is fully clothed. This could have been similar to many other scenes in Marvel movies that have come before it: another one of The Chrises shirtless for no real reason, conforming to a very one-dimensional view of heterosexual female desire. However, the scene is shot with Diana as the onlooker, but this Chris (Pine) is not the object: he mistakenly assumes she is observing him when her attention is actually diverted to his watch. Here, we don’t have the male gaze simply flipped to the female, but it is actually subverted by its refusal to objectify naked Steve.
The superhero genre has a long and troubled history with its representation of women. Throughout their comic book origins, female superheroes have been drawn bent over or with arched backs, contorted to present their bodies to the viewer. These provocative poses, frequently framed as being empowering, become ridiculous when male characters are drawn in the same way, as exemplified by the Hawkeye Initiative. In comics, even bath robes cling to every feature of a woman’s body, and they walk like they’re in heels when barefoot.
There’s no doubt that the persistent sexualisation of female characters stems from the lack of female creators. With Wonder Woman, Petty Jenkins shows that audiences don’t need to see an idealised and sexualised female lead. We’re ok seeing a woman’s thighs jiggle as she lands, because that’s how bodies move, and we don’t need a “sexy suiting up scene” to understand that they have become the hero. Importantly, we also get a female baddie, because not all women are kind and caring Earth mothers. In moving beyond these sexist tropes, Wonder Woman is not timely, it’s long overdue.
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