Is she a feminist? Is she just a pin-up? This perceived dichotomy has been a topic of debate ever since Wonder Woman was incepted in 1941. She arose out of the need to counter the supra-masculinity of wartime favourites, Batman and Superman. Her creator, Psychologist William Moulton Marston, fed his own progressive and equally antiquated views along with what he gleaned from his polyamorous relationship with two formidable women (lawyer Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne, a former college student of his and niece of ‘birth control’ activist Margaret Sanger) into this Amazon. He bestowed upon her his life’s work - the lie detector test - by outfitting her with the Golden Lasso of Truth. But he also slapped on cuffs albeit stylised ones (inspired by the bracelets Byrne wore) that are justified in the comic prose as reminders that “we must always keep aloof from men.” What’s more, Marston insisted that she be chained or bound in every issue. He reportedly said that “women enjoy submission - being bound.” So to see this Wonder Woman clap-back at the very men and patriarchy that created and shaped her over seven decades in this 2017 feature film is marvellous!
At the very outset, Wonder Woman topples all the connotations heaped on her by her male creators. The film is directed by Patty Jenkins. Finally, a woman gets to reshape the story of Diana Prince. The core of the film aims at banishing the notion that virtues associated with femininity are weak. Queen Hippolyta (played by Connie Nielsen) reads a bedtime story to the young Diana. She narrates a tale of how the Amazons came to be - created by Zeus to soften the hearts of mankind that was ravaged by war incited by the rogue God Ares. She emphasises that man misconstrues love and peace as lacking mettle when she goes on to say how instead of appreciating the gifts of the Amazons, man enslaved them. Then we see these Amazons who broke out of those shackles and stay hidden on an island, resolute in battle practice (sparring montages of Robin Wright as General Antiope is fabulous!), steeped in knowledge, their inspiring moral fibre as they wait to face-off with Ares when the time comes. And it helps you see the folly of the world, the folly of men to foist upon women the responsibility of being a chalice for the ‘good’ virtues. And in turn, our biological makeup is considered weak because these characteristics are considered pacifist and submissive and therefore feminine. A vicious and stupid association if ever there was one. But the greater tragedy lies in that such an imposition has left humankind bereft of the potential of these qualities that ought to be instilled in everyone.
Enter Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince is proof that to aspire for a compassionate world is no mean task. It is not to be won by ‘submission’. And it takes more than men lined up on the battlefield to win the war and more importantly, a world without war. It’s interesting to see her champion these supposedly feminine traits in her camaraderie with the motley crew that accompanies her on her mission to eliminate Ares. Her grace and kindness when she deals with a sharpshooter suffering from PTSD are free of pity, condescension, and fuss, the very thing he wrongly accuses her of. The way she charges into the battlefield on the back of her conviction that one must fight for those who cannot fight for themselves turns the tide of the war. Her driving force is ‘love’ and never before has it been displayed with such badassery on the big screen complete with a mind-blowing, goosebumps-inducing background score.
Her battle plan in the world of WWII may seem naive but her beliefs have none of that idealistic ring. Her resolve is what makes the war-weary soldiers around her root for her and rally behind her even though they initially doubt her fantastic ‘story’ of Amazons and Gods. There is no runway walk in her slo-mo close-ups. There is no romanticising. There is no fluff. Wonder Woman is feminine and a feminist. And yes, you can be both.
Furthermore, Wonder Woman is a lesson in how a woman’s honour has nothing to do with her interactions with men. She laughs off Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) chivalry in desisting from lying next to her as they make their getaway on a boat. He’s all red-faced and mumbling something about it being taboo “outsides the confines of marriage”. Diana candidly asks, “So does the average man not sleep?” She's got a healthy disregard for gender laws. But there’s nothing flirty or ‘loose’ about it. It’s a matter-of-fact, practical, person to person kinda approach that she has to men. Which is why their romance seems organic and led on her terms. Also, it looks so good to have a heroine as tall as the quintessential hero! Especially when she doesn't have to look up and lean out for a kiss.
But the film isn’t about just one kind of woman. There’s chemical scientist Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), infamously known as Dr. Poison. In the climax, Ares uses Maru to taunt Diana into turning against mankind. This is a key moment because Diana comes to realise that Ares is right. Humans are vicious and vile but also “so much more”. And by doing so, she includes Maru in the grand label of mankind and not as an aberration in womankind as films are won’t to do when there’s a female villain.
Then there’s Etta (Lucy Davis), Steve Trevor’s secretary. She’s effervescent and super sassy. You’d think she’d be the bumbling kind when you see her being all jolly and bustling about. But she means business and is in no way intimidated by Diana’s striking presence next to her diminutive self. We love how she hits it off with this woman from another world. At one point she’s helping Diana choose clothes, and they come across a corset. “To keep our tummies in,” explains Etta. To which an incredulous Diana responds with a ‘why?’ Pat comes the reply: “says the woman without a tummy.” There is no one-upmanship. Just good vibes. Gadot’s Diana isn’t sexed-up in her functional yet outdated armour. Neither is Etta made to play the attributes associated with her attire or physicality.
Also, the two uplift each other. They both diss fashion that’s unwearable. Later, Diana entrusts Etta with her sword. And at a crucial juncture, it is Etta who points the sharp end at the bad guy and wraps up a fight. This respect and mutual admiration they have for each other is probably a hat tip to Wonder Woman’s own stint as Secretary when she joined the Justice Society of America comics. Much to her creator Marston’s chagrin, Diana Prince was posted on the desk. The gall! But Etta is not about RSVPing mails. She runs an entire mission and sources intel for her team on the ground. She's a kind of 'Wonder Woman'.
Wonder Woman the movie is currently tied with a 94 percent rating alongside The Dark Knight on Rotten Tomatoes. This being a ‘female’ superhero flick, it says a lot. It’s an affirmation that this version of Wonder Woman is the way to go. There’s hope still that this gender-crunching momentum will seep into our world as well as films and their leading ladies.
Gloria Steinem briefly revived Wonder Woman as a feminist icon in the 1970s by sporting the lasso-wielding high-jumper on the cover of her feminist magazine. And it’s taken till 2017 for a renaissance in the life of Wonder Woman. A defining moment in the film is when Diana realises she’s a God when she intuitively sources her power from the very cuffs that were meant to keep her in check. She is the ‘Godkiller’. We’d like to think she’d bring down the patriarchal gods of our world. Now that she has resurfaced as this complex feminist icon embodying various traits - some admirable, some that leave us on the fence - she just might. By dint of this complexity, she's the one for every kind of feminist out there.
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