I didn’t expect Wonder Woman to make me cry.
I have mixed feelings about the movie in general, because (tl;dr for the rest of this entry) I recognize that though specific parts gave me something really important, there are other marginalized folks it doesn’t do right by. I don’t think I can enjoy Wonder Woman fully and with all my heart until it’s normal to have this kind of movie with heroes and heroines of all sorts of races, genders, sexualities, body shapes, and ethnicities, directed and performed by real-life artists of the same.*
That said, I’m a white cisgender Jewish woman. Seeing someone who could be me as the unapologetic protagonist of a superhero power fantasy is, well, powerful, and I can acknowledge that without losing sight of the movie’s ethical shortcomings.
You kind of can’t ignore what makes you cry.
(minor spoilers follow)
The part of the movie that brought me tears was a specific sequence. Wonder Woman and her band of merry male allies are in the trenches at the front. Wonder Woman ignores all the people telling her what she can’t do and just does it: leads the soldiers in a rush to free the small town behind enemy lines. In this sequence, she destroys rooms full of enemies in beautifully shot slow-mo fight scenes.
That’s what made me cry.
Because watching it, I realized that I am thirty-two, and though I’ve seen plenty of superhero blockbuster movies, this is the first time I’ve seen a woman in a fight scene like this. Shot to make you feel how powerful you are instead of to show you how awesome she looks.
This is the first time I have seen a powerful woman who could be me, the way I could see myself, not the way I’m supposed to hope the male gaze sees me. Sure, Wonder Woman looks beautiful, and she’s obviously attractive, but that isn’t the focus of the camera. The focus is on being her, feeling her strength and skill and determination. Even in male-directed films that feature women taking down men, I haven’t felt a scene like this — where I was encouraged to be the protagonist instead of just admiring her.
Similarly, this feels like the first time I’ve seen a powerful female character who is powerful and strong because… she wants to be. Don’t misunderstand: it’s important for badass female survivors of trauma (sexual and otherwise) to see themselves represented as badass women like Furiosa or Black Widow. It’s also important to see “ordinary” women who get thrown into trials emerge with newly earned strength. But unlike other women I’ve seen on screen, Diana builds her strength not from pain or anger but joy and ambition. She gets to want to be strong because that’s who she is.
And this feels like the first time I’ve seen a female character who’s allowed to love getting good and then being good at fighting. Diana never has to go through the rigmarole of questioning whether this is the right path for her — whether she can “have everything” if she does this. This, fighting for what she believes is right, is her everything, and you can see that satisfaction in every choreographed movement of the fight.
And she’s not that other “powerful female” staple either — the woman who is just discovering the strength she didn’t know she had, like Rey or any number of adapted-YA heroines. Again, these stories are important, but it’s also refreshing to see a woman who’s allowed to know she’s powerful from the beginning and love it. It’s nice to have a heroine who naturally performs the minor act of defiance of seeing nothing wrong with accepting compliments or knowing her own worth.
There’s so much more established about Diana’s character that feeds into how I read this scene: she’s forthright, kind, knowledgeable, and calls out the artificial barriers others try to impose on her as the bullshit they are. She’s naïve, maybe, and idealistic, but she’s smart. She’s down for heterosexual romance, but she’s not desperate for it — she shows significantly more delight at tasting her first ice cream and seeing her first snowfall than she does at seeing her first man (her first naked man, no less). She’s comfortable in her own body and confident about her choices. She is not an anomaly but a representative of a community of strong women, and she takes their support for each other for granted.
Most noticeable of all for me — and here’s where I think a female director was super important — Wonder Woman is free from the text comparing her to men. Plenty of narratives that try to showcase strong women do so by stressing how they compare to men — lingering on the “holy cow, she really did it! A LADY!” men’s reactions instead of the woman’s triumph. Or building up men’s derisive scorn at the end so the big payoff becomes not “Wow, she’s so great!” but “Haha, those loser men got what they deserved for being wrong!”
In this one scene, Wonder Woman assumes that of course women are powerful and can do great things. And it’s that assumption that, for me, gives the rest of the scene its power.
And, yes, it’s this specific scene: as a whole, the movie is better than lots of superhero films but still falls a little flat in the climax. In fact, as a work of fiction, it could be much, much better about a lot of things:
– the way it treats women of colour, including Black women , for example.
– … and men of colour.
– … and Indigenous people, though as always the rest of us should listen to actual Indigenous people on this point and respect their diversity of opinions.
– The way it toes the heteronormative line despite canonical same-sex attractions that would have been easy to include
– The way it perpetuates body standards of patriarchal femininity (are there no fat, strong Amazons? Are there no fat women anywhere who aren’t comic relief? What about Amazons who don’t wear make-up that is visible in a way Chris Pine’s isn’t? Sure, Wonder Woman is made of clay, but, like, does she have no body hair whatsoever?)
So, no, I don’t see Wonder Woman as the Film That Fixes Hollywood or even as an objectively feminist film (feminist in comparison to most of the rest of Hollywood, sure, but that’s a low, low bar) — it’s not feminist if it’s only for one demographic of women.
But I can’t deny how very powerful I found that fight scene from a female subject’s gaze. I would like to see more like it. And next time(s), not just for women like me but for everybody else who wants to see themselves from their own gaze but doesn’t get it in what Hollywood’s done so far.
Everybody deserves to feel like a hero.
** I’m not getting into the details of (or any not-informed-enough opinions I might have on) Gal Gadot’s life/Israeli military crimes against civilian Palestinians/the status of Hamas here. Just saying that even when — especially when — a creative work means a lot to us, it’s important to make room to listen to people whom it hurts. We can disagree, if that’s where we wind up, but we still have to listen and respect. And we can agree and still have our positive feelings about it, because feelings are feelings, and we are who we are. We just can’t insist on hurting people more through our actions/deny them their feelings/act like our own feelings are per se more important than anyone else’s.