I’ve never really liked Wonder Woman. I know a lot about her, I was a child of the 80s and watched the Linda Carter show and somehow managed to get a hold of multitudes of Wonder Woman comics that I’d read when there was nothing else to read. But even so. I was a queer girl that couldn’t stand the already existing ways that parents, friends, strangers found to impose femininity on me (lipstick! hair! dresses!). Wonder Woman was just another imposition that I had to fight off. The Halloween costumes and play outfits and lunch boxes and dolls were all just another way that ‘they’ had found to tell me that my job was to be a ‘woman.’ Not whatever I was.
So unlike many others, I was not thrilled to find out that they were making a movie about Wonder Woman, and I certainly wasn’t writing angst filled essays demanding that Warner Bros not fucking fuck this up. I mostly didn’t care about any of it until the movie was released–and then it all began. The earnest declarations of ‘True Feminism’ and the tear filled essays about how the movie changed lives. When I read that Diana/Wonder Woman and love interest Steve, were the best comic couple ever, I knew I needed to see for myself what was going on. Maybe for all my cynicism and resistance after all these years, there was something worth knowing in this Goddess that has been following me around my whole life? I was curious, but expected nothing except hopefully a movie worthy of the $5 matinee ticket.
Which is exactly what I got. A solidly average movie that had it’s problems even as it moved me in ways I hadn’t expected. For the first time, I could see why people love Wonder Woman–but consequently, that’s why so much of the movie was so frustrating.
I didn’t cry during this movie. I wasn’t awe inspired by Wonder Woman’s ability to kick ass. I lived through the original airing of Xena. I’ve watched the entire Buffy and Fire Fly series and was mildly obsessed over Korra. I’m old enough that seeing powerful women who can kick ass is normal enough that I’ve had a critique of them for years (in short: ‘kick ass’ is not enough, we need complex and human too). I’m not sure why it was so moving to for so many to see amazons or Wonder Woman doing slow motion pause stunts, especially when slow motion pause stunts are such an old over played basically never used anymore action cliche. If athletic physical women are breaking boundaries, then how they are filmed should be as well.
I was also vastly underwhelmed by the race politics of Wonder Woman. People do keep pointing to the nod Wonder Woman gives to the Native character or to the few black amazons that were training on Wonder Woman’s hold island. But come on. We all know that’s not enough. We all know it. There are many of us that want it to be enough, that try to force it to be enough. But when it comes down to it, we all know. It’s not enough. I’m not going to waste my time explaining why. We all know the critique, we all know the analysis. It been around longer than my analysis of women being cast solely as ‘bad asses.’
And this laziness around casting, filming choices, and storytelling is at the crux of many of the problems I have with Wonder Woman. Despite what people and critics say about Wonder Woman being ‘cutting edge’ in it’s representation of women, it really was just the same old bland retread of already much better done shows, concepts and stories and this played out in little and big ways.
For example, I found myself randomly wishing halfway through the movie that Agent Carter was back on the air. It took till the end of the movie when (spoiler) Steve dies in the airplane, that I finally figured out how much of this movie plays on Captain America and his main squeeze, Peggy Carter (check out some of them here) The problem is that Agent Carter is far more interesting than Steve is, and frankly, for all the hoopla about Steve and Wonder Woman’s relationship, I think Peggy Carter’s relationship with Steve Rogers is actually far more nuanced and interesting. The Peggy/Steve relationship doesn’t act stupid about the very real issues of era specific sexism in the way that Steve/Diana do. Steve apparently isn’t being sexist when he uses Diana and shuts her up and rides over her concerns–he’s being a dedicated war hero that Diana is supposed to look up to. Indeed, he is the human that teaches Wonder Woman how to love, feel, show compassion and dedication to a cause. Captain American and Peggy, on the other hand, both come to the war with their own reasons for being there and their relationship is built on a mutual respect and a bonding over each of them being the underdog that has to fight in ways others simply don’t.
Still, Chris Pine is attractive and I would’ve enjoyed it immensely if he had embraced more of his softer naked side and made himself more available to non-clothed relationship with Diana. But in the context of the Wonder Woman story line–I didn’t find their relationship equal or that interesting. True equality comes when men set aside their own needs to support a woman that can actually get the job done, and I never saw that in Wonder Woman’s relationship with Steve. If he truly believed she would take care of the mess, he never would’ve sacrificed himself to begin with.
I did find many things I enjoyed about the movie–in particular Wonder Woman’s kindness. She is a likeable Goddess, one that is appalled by the brutality of starvation as much as she is by the violence of war. She is a Goddess that sees the suffering of women and children and gives it as much importance as she does the suffering of men. She takes seriously the responsibility given to her to protect those without power–not because she is a Goddess, but because she is compassionate and is willing to bear the burden of suffering with those who suffer.
Compassion is a beautiful thing to witness, and it’s in those scenes that I found myself unexpectedly filled with emotion. When Wonder Woman is on the Western Front with Steve, she is stopped by women that are caught in the middle of the battle between men, and it’s Wonder Woman that sees the woman’s suffering and wants to help. And when Wonder Woman refuses to kill Dr. Poison, because even in her anger, she can see and feel compassion for Dr. Poison, a few tears did flow.
The willingness to see the suffering of others is what we see so little of. It is what we’ve been told makes us weak, a pussy. Truth strength in the post-911 days of the US, is the murder a black man in front of his child and girlfriend. Beating a Muslim girl to death with a baseball bat. It is denying millions of people life saving health care. To see a superhero make the conscious choice not to kill even though she could and probably should, is exactly the moral decision making we need to see more on screen characters struggling with. In a post-911 era, we got enough Jack Bauer type characters to last a life time. We don’t need anymore ‘complicated’ Punishers. We need characters like Wonder Woman, Spider Man, Captain America (or the Flash or Super Girl), characters that wrestle with the reality that evil exists and we have to do something about it, but that we also can’t run around killing everything and everybody either.
But that brings me to the final, biggest problem I have with Wonder Woman. We need characters that wrestle with modern moral questions. But when the characters that wrestle with these questions are almost universally white–it reinforces the white supremacist ideology that people of color and black people in particular, are not complicated or human enough to have moral reasoning or struggles, which as the effect of making non-white people not fully human. Because what is being human, but struggling through the morality of the human condition?
It also means that a key purpose of fiction, to imagine ways to solve seemingly unsolvable problems, never gets examined through the eyes of people that actually have found ways to solve unimaginably difficult problems, or at least make it a little better. Characters of color, like Miles Morales or Luke Cage, bring with them history that says ending violence isn’t a wild impractical dream, ala Hillary Clinton, but a necessary requirement for survival. There is a special irony in the fact that these questions never go away for communities of color, that every time the latest killing happens, the latest worker injustice, the latest deportation, we struggle through what it means to be human and require human rights–while white people often need superheros to even know these questions exist. If anybody could figure out what to do about Dr Poison and the threat she poses along side the reality that she’s a human being, it’s going to be a person of color.
In the end, Wonder Woman’s whiteness is just another example of a tired retread of the same story being told in the same way. I wouldn’t have really cared, really, if all the amazons were black. Because Wonder Woman is not really an amazon. She’s a Goddess. It’s not just that she’s powerful, it’s that she’s a sacred being, a holy figure. Somebody that people worship. And it goes without saying that in this world, in the USA, Santa Claus and Jesus Christ are both white. There are multitudes of ways that we emphasize the sacred holy position of white people. They are the ones that have been created in God’s holy image. The one’s that can save the world. The rest of us are simply pale imitations of the real thing. It is not ground breaking or innovative to have yet another white God, even if she is compassionate and kind.
Can Wonder Woman ever be black? The inclination we have as a culture towards ‘well, yes but…’ is where those of us who are not black need to be resting our moral struggles. And we need to finally get to the point where we can wholeheartedly say yes, of COURSE Wonder Woman can be black.
Wonder Woman is a good enough movie. It means a lot to a lot of people already, and it will mean a lot to a lot of really important people–young girls. It’s a movie I’m glad exists. But it’s a movie that could’ve done so much more and been so much better–both on a structural level and within the context of media making and comics and cultural narratives as a whole. Our world needs more than good enough right now. We need stories big enough to save the world. Wonder Woman could be that. She’s not that yet.