Hollywood Doubles Down on Preserving Male Identification in Film
Written by Simone LeClaire
Wonder Woman correctly predicts the novel existence of female protagonist is beyond enough to satisfy female audiences.
Let me first say, I came out of this film laughing and rolling my eyes a little, having went in with little expectations and seen basically exactly what I would expect to see from Hollywood. I was much too unsurprised to be disappointed or mad. So I would not be writing this review if not for my dawning, incredulous realization of the outpouring of starry-eyed wonder at this flick.
People. Slow. Your. Roll.
If you enjoy the film, great. I’m not trying to take that away from you. If you appreciate the historic milestone of a female director in a blockbuster superhero movie breaking all financial success expectations--you’re right, great.
But to wildly herald Wonder Woman as some sort of catch all “answer to feminism” does such incredible violence to the filmmakers--women and men--who have actually striven to put powerful, authentic characterizations of femaleness on the screen and to build stories around them in unafraid ways. Wonder Woman is a textbook example of how far Hollywood will go to preserve male identification on screen. Everything “feminist” about this film is apparent in the most basic elements of the plot itself--a powerful woman exists and tries to save the world. Go any deeper, and the cinematic execution of the piece clearly & immediately reveals the familiar, deep maleness of the system that made it and how terrified they are to touch this kind of story.
Let me start by saying, this is not a film with a female voice. (Yes, I know the director is female. More on that below.) This entire film goes out of its way to make sure male viewers are comfortable with the presence of a female protagonist while understanding that a majority of female viewers will be utterly satisfied by the mere EXISTENCE of a female protagonist.
After all, we have a white woman with the movie named after her, so why should we notice that Diana herself is so, so boringly simple as a character. She is inhumanly strong and beyond naive, both of which immediately make her difficult to relate to for any human adult. But this could have been fine, because although she is a god, she is also a “fish out of water” for most of the film--one of the easiest narrative tropes to use to build relation to characters as we see people grow and learn in unfamiliar surroundings.
Every time Diana says something wrong, overly simple, or does a weird god thing, we cut to men deciding how to respond...
Instead, Diana takes unreasonably long to absorb new information, challenge her assumptions, and actually try to assimilate and understand her new environment. Her boring sense of morality remains absurdly black and white--even in the face of difficult information, like that white Steve’s people committed Native American genocide on the people of someone else she knows. Instead of ever exhibiting a shred of conflicting feels or doubt, Diana barely reacts to this revelation, appearing not to wrestle with it whatsoever. Her naivete long outlives its natural welcome--so we might enjoy watching her fight but we as an audience continue to know better than her.
All of this means that Diana continues to operate in her own untouchable bubble, while we watch all the human guys try to wrangle and mansplain to her at every step. And sure, if we cinematically identified with Diana, this mansplaining might have cinematically functioned as conscious commentary.
But we don’t, because moments of identification are all given to male characters. A debatable opinion, maybe--but also, there are specific cinematic strategies for creating identification with characters. A clear example: Every time Diana says something wrong, overly simple, or does a weird god thing, we cut to men deciding how to respond, as we the viewers would do if in their situation. This creates humor because we relate to the men. Compare this to our relationship with Diana. The problem is that none of us are as simplistic as Diana, so no matter how entertaining her fighting may be, her actions never function to create identification.
We don’t relate to her. We watch her, with some fascination, with some curiosity--just like they do. What will the female superhero do next? As an audience, although we’re watching Diana, we are naturally identifying with the imperfect, faceted men around her who are seeing shades of gray. Who are experiencing doubt and reevaluating their opinions.
This correct and familiar gendered identification having been solidly established, male viewers are repeatedly told that they can assuage any discomfort with a powerful, untouchable woman by remembering to enjoy her sexuality. The film actively ensures that male viewers are consistently encouraged to enjoy Diana by how the male characters manage to do so. Most obvious in the explicit line of dialogue “I am frightened and also aroused,” but this explicit assuagement of male viewing experience is also present in the constant, accepted commentary on Diana’s beauty and physicality by every male she meets.
Gadot said of Jenkins (paraphrased): “Very glad we chose to make Diana very charming and 'relatable' to everyone, as opposed to a ‘ball buster.'"
By the way, Diana doesn’t make this commentary “uncomfortable” by ever explicitly challenging it or even appearing to weary of it (which would be another easy way to create intimate relationship between her and female viewers). Even when a stranger approaches to physically grab her and put his mouth on her, she only puts him off with a silent little push away.
By the way again, funny that a warrior so unconcerned with social niceties would choose this moment to revert to a socially conditioned female response to unwanted advances: silent, minimal, unconfrontational. But we wouldn’t want her to escalate this particular situation and appear to make a punishing “statement” about male entitlement to female bodies. Like Gadot said of Jenkins (paraphrased): “Very glad we chose to make Diana very charming and 'relatable' to everyone, as opposed to a ‘ball buster.'" Sorry, but what’s actually more “relatable” than the character herself is the familiar way this film is treating its male and female characters AND viewers. Or did I mean comfortable. You know what else is comfortable? Making sure Steve also gets a chance to punch someone at the end of an alley fight. Making sure Steve gets to kill himself and be a hero on his own after Diana saved him earlier. Making sure that after that interesting conversation in the boat where Diana announces males are not needed for pleasure, we later imply a wholly unnecessary sexual intimacy between her and Steve that doesn’t have a plot function. Don’t worry everyone--sure she boasted its not “necessary” but come on, she wanted it in the end. We still got you, boys.
ACTUAL REVIEW TITLE: “Wonder Woman succeeds by being more than anyone could imagine”. Hahaha. In addition to the fact that statement does so much violence to the capacity of our collective imagination, it’s obviously inaccurate in that popular TV already gives us much, much more in the way of powerful female characters with agency and authenticity. And yet, even Hollywood itself has given us more in the way of ass-kicking, faceted women in related action/sci fi genres (Furiosa being the obvious, wonderful example).
I understand that everyone wants to name progress but let’s be very specific with what type of progress we are naming. Otherwise we risk containing ourselves to unnecessary and superficial boundaries.
Sure, George Miller (director of Mad Max) is a guy. It’s arguably precisely his malehood that gives him authority to push the badass authenticity envelope. In this case, the explicit nature of femaleness in the Wonder Woman story and in the director as they operate in a huge, aggressively male-dominated system is exactly what forces the film to overly pander to its male viewership and preserve that at all costs.
This is important to recognize. I understand that everyone wants to name progress but let’s be very specific with what type of progress we are naming. Otherwise we risk containing ourselves to unnecessary and superficial boundaries. Set aside the claustrophobic, racist and sexist paradigm of what Hollywood has always given us and there is a MINE of colorful female experience to explore and demonstrate on the screen. Stimulating, provoking, hilarious, heartbreaking, exciting, adventuresome, gritty experiences of being human. (You know, gritty and grimy like any person would be after coming through a bomb battle? Art department 101 for making people look badass? Instead we have perfect curls and lips suddenly glistening with lip gloss. Okay, but this is our shining example of being “beyond” sexualizing women on the screen? Lol.)
It blows my mind that women are so unfamiliar with how it feels to watch content that is unafraid to primarily identify with them that they would read this film as actually doing so. For the record, that’s not how it feels. (I would recommend Insecure, Fleabag, Jane the Virgin, Mad Max [a few examples] to develop a familiarity with how it actually feels to experience successful strategies for creating female identification on screen).
But how can I say all this when Wonder Woman has a FEMALE DIRECTOR? Well, I’ll save the debate on directorial authorship in the Hollywood studio system for another day. Instead, let’s just clarify that being female does not make you a feminist filmmaker--and so also does not inherently equip you to challenge and subvert patriarchal filmmaking. Yes, there are all kinds of ways to be woman and to express womanhood. But it would require an exceptionally strong and specifically female voice to make itself heard as a director in the vast power dynamics of Hollywood’s patriarchal studio system.
Is Patty Jenkins that voice? Not as demonstrated by Wonder Woman (I understand this is apparently up for debate), but also not by her own words. Interviews with Jenkins herself indicate this and indicate an unwillingness to actively identify with femaleness in general. Paraphrased: “My womanhood is nothing to do with this. I was chosen because my vision most closely aligned with theirs [of a post-feminist vision].” (You know, where feminism is no longer needed cause we obviously solved it.)
And it makes sense. What kind of woman does a patriarchal system select to empower? Obviously, one that preserves their values, that works within the system, that is not a threat to the system. Jenkins fit the bill and got the job.
So, on one hand we have whatever unintentional femaleness gets us when it comes in the form of a newish director and we have a woman superhero. On the other we have the vastness of the Hollywood studio system, hundreds of years of male producers, male writers, male voices, and a particular desperation that this film not alienate male viewership.
So yeah, that’s exactly the movie that got made.
Also, great choreography, graceful narrative flow. I like the run through the battlefield and the part when Steve remembers the springboard trick to help her jump up high.