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WONDER WOMAN and How We Talk About Female Superheroes

WONDER WOMAN and How We Talk About Female Superheroes

Women aren’t looking for special treatment when it comes to our stories. We’re not looking for a safe space, or all-lady iterations of classically male stories—though they’re certainly welcome for the conversations they present. We simply want our characters to exist in the same, varied, multitudinous world and to be respected as equally valid and interesting. We do not want to have to categorize female identity as an alien thing that must be explained and rationalized to those who don’t identify as such. We don’t want to have to rationalize anything as a “universal” story in spite of its femininity. We just want to be and have that be enough. Director Patty Jenkins hopes Wonder Woman will represent a big step toward that—and it starts with how we talk about these things.

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Speaking to a number of journalists in the Warner Brothers edit bays in London on Monday, February 27, Jenkins figured reception to Wonder Woman would be scrutinized beyond its merits—to her surprise and frustration. “I was raised by a very feminist single mother but, for whatever reason, I was totally shielded from the reality that [this sexism] wasn’t over a long time ago. So coming into my career I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’ but coming into this, [it’s a] very interesting time, because actually not that much has changed for all of us … It’s a hotbed topic regardless [of the political climate].”

“I went into it not making a movie about a woman at all;
I was just making a movie about Wonder Woman,
who is one of the greatest superheroes.”
– Patty Jenkins

This conversation about heroines and, perhaps more importantly, regular women in film has roots in insecurity. Perhaps there is a fear of empathy: what does it mean to be a man who relates to a woman and finds common ground in a shared struggle? But consider how female viewers are expected, without any hand-holding, to empathize with characters outside their gender, and the heightened scrutiny becomes absurd and often hilarious. To that end, the audacity of the sexism that’s long infiltrated (overtly or otherwise) how women not only existed in the past, but how they are perceived now, brought a lot of humor to Jenkins’ story.

After all, Wonder Woman isn’t exactly going to wilt and adhere to societal expectations in man’s world.

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“It ends up being funny; the sexism comes to the fore because she’s walking into 1918 and she’s completely oblivious.’ … [and] she just keeps being completely confused [because] she would never know about [sexism], so there ends up being accidental comments about it.”

Because that’s how sexism should feel to anyone watching: pathetically, hilariously absurd—especially in 2017.

To emphasize this, Jenkins didn’t belabor her point. “I went into it not making a movie about a woman at all,” Jenkins says. “I was making a movie about Wonder Woman who, to me, is one of the greatest superheroes, so I just treated her like her character and that, I think, is the next step.”

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Ah yes, the next step. But while women have been climbing that ladder forever, we’ve had to drag some members of the male audience (or those that believe they know best what the male audience wants and is comfortable with) to put even one foot on the next rung. Maybe Wonder Woman is the opportunity we needed to get them to take the leap. After all, you have to suspend disbelief that superhumans and gods are able to save the world with magical powers, so why not take a minor leap of imagination to see that a woman can front a successful, profitable, good superhero film?

Of course it’s a bummer that
we’re going to be a ‘woman’s film made by a woman,’
but it’s important to talk about.”

Many of the complaints lofted against female superheroes relate to their believability in these scenarios given our heteronormative ideas about gender roles. Could showing a woman as this sort of hero be the opportunity we’ve be looking for to move on from that conversation? And if so, where do we go from here? On this, Jenkins has hope for what’s next: “What I want to be a part of is the next wave where … we can make universal movies about other kinds of people and not have it be an issue. Where we can say like, ‘Yeah, this is a universal movie about a person wanting to be a hero—this one happens to be a woman.’ That, I think is the real challenge.”

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And she’s right: fighting for parity means demanding the same right to space previously (and exclusively) afforded to others.

Regardless of Jenkins’ progressive attitude on the matter, one that is necessary for a creator in this scenario to have in order to bridge that divide, the discussion lingers still. On set last year, Gadot discussed the universality of Diana Prince’s story regardless of gender, which is a natural talking point. But at this point, it’s also fucking exhausting. Of course this story is relatable to everyone; that is what hero stories are by design.

“I just want to be a part of never thinking about the fact it’s a woman.”

But at the same time, you have to ask the converse question: do you ever see anyone asking, say, Robert Downey Jr. about the universality of Iron Man’s story? Does it even matter? And, frankly, should it? And if it shouldn’t, why is universality even questioned when a female gets top billing?

The double-edge sword is real for Jenkins. “Of course it’s a bummer that we’re going to be a ‘woman’s film made by a woman,’ but on the other hand, it’s important to talk about because often it hasn’t been. It’s important to acknowledge, yet in making the film it’s important to tune out.”

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These things should matter when the playing field is so grossly imbalanced. They should matter until they don’t have to anymore. “I just want to be a part of never thinking about the fact it’s a woman,” Jenkins explained. “When I made Monster I didn’t think about that it was a woman; I didn’t think about that she was a lesbian. I was telling a story about a specific person that was tragic and looking for love in the world. And the more I could make her you, the more [it’s] a victory.”

Ask any young girl who her heroes are, and she’s likely to list women AND men she’s looked up to—because heroes needn’t exist along a gender line. There’s great strength to be gained from seeing yourself and your story in those that do and do not look like you. Surely little boys do that too. Isn’t it equally as harmful to shame little boys for seeing themselves in Wonder Woman as it is to not afford little girls a chance to see themselves, for once, on screen?

Jenkins gets that: “Listen, I’m here because I saw Superman I as a kid it rocked my world and I was Superman. I was that little boy and I took that ride and that journey. I believed in myself as Superman, and that’s the beauty of film. It’s so old-school to think it matters. Like listen, man, I don’t relate at all about people in Greek times but we’re still telling stories about them. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dog or an elf—just pick your story and tell one that rings everybody’s bell.”

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Wonder Woman hits theaters June 2, 2017. Are you looking forward to it? Let us know in the comments below!

Images: Warner Brothers


Alicia Lutes is the managing editor of Nerdist & creator/host of Fangirling. Find her on Twitter if you’re into that sorta thing!


And if you’re looking for more Wonder Woman scoopage from our time talking to Patty, watch this!

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