All you need is … love superpowers: Wonder Woman may not need a lover, but Hollywood does
Why does Wonder Woman need Capt. Steve Trevor? F Newsmagazine editor Sophie Lucido Johnson argues that the movie’s women filmmakers missed an opportunity to modernize the feminist icon:
“There have to be more movies where friendship, nontraditional family, and non-romantic love are highlighted. Our world is ready for love stories that are bigger than that whole he-looks-good-she-looks-good-so-they’re-together-forever archetype. Wonder Woman is a unique hero because she is earnest, and she is driven by love and compassion. It cheapens her worth when enormous chunks of her story are wasted on an impossible-to-believe romance. Plus, wouldn’t Chris Pine make a great plucky platonic sidekick? Or better yet: How about his secretary?”
Sophie’s argument has some cool links to statistics on “Wonder Woman”‘s record second-weekend box office sales — and the failing box office for rom-coms, compared to superhero movies. (But I was surprised to see that the top grossing movie is still Titanic, that trite romance between a ship and and iceberg. Though maybe that was the meet cute of all time.) “Wonder Woman has already surpassed Luke Cage and Black Panther in popularity,” John Hagedorn told me. “Score one for women in the race vs gender wars.”
But as Sophie pointed out, the romance was a well-known part of the comic book narrative. It was cute, but certainly not radical or even new to have Diana outperforming Trevor, taking the lead, and serenely oblivious to the gender conventions of stodgy England.
I came across a more radical modernization of the comic book heroine when I followed up a reference to the 1972 “women’s lib” Wonder Woman. It was written by black, gay and feminist science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, hired to write a six-part series that was canceled after the first two. This Wonder Woman had no superpowers, wore pants, was poor and nearly homeless on New York’s lower East Side. She was one more woman facing sexual threats in the street and exploitation in low-wage jobs. She is shown figuring out how to fight not as a lone super-hero, but with other women, especially women of color, as they learn to organize. This is real-life heroics, fighting exploitive employers and, in the year before before Roe v Wade, defending surgeons in a women’s clinic against violent thugs.
This radical feminist Wonder Woman project, ironically, was upended by the real radical feminist icon, Gloria Steinem. She launched Ms. magazine with the traditional superhero in superpower underwear. She saw the art for Delany’s comic in the DC offices and told the publishers that women needed the old superhero, with the superpowers and superhero costume. The publishers, perhaps just using the excuse, canceled the new series and reverted to the ’50s version in a symbolic win for white feminism over intersectionality.
The new movie ends with a Wonder Woman without the costume, seated at a desk in appropriate office wear.
Sophie liked the movie, as I did … and it’s always interesting and puzzling to me how we can like movies with problems.
Though maybe no more surprising than that we can love people with problems.
A more troubling irony than the obligatory movie romance was that Wonder Woman, the iconic warrior against injustice and defender of the oppressed, the Wonder Woman of the movie who leaves her Amazon island to put an end to war by fighting war with love, was played in the movie by an ardent supporter of the Israeli invasion which killed over 1500 civilians in the 2014 Gaza War. The actor herself served in the Israeli Defense Force when it invaded Lebanon in 2006, killing more than 1000 (mostly civilians), leaving more than a million homeless and the country’s infrastructure devastated.
The movie can mean something different for supporters of Israel and its critics, many of whom are boycotting it.
At one time a critical orthodoxy taught us that anything outside the text was irrelevant to its meaning. Now it’s widely accepted that we bring meaning to what we see and read. Does it change the meaning of the “Wonder Woman” movie if you know about the feminist prehistory of superhero, created by a feminist and gender-bending psychologist who thought women so superior to men that he lived with two of them? Or if you hate the subordinate role of women in superhero comics and movies and see this movie as a spectacular break from genre conventions? Or if you know that Gadot supported the Israeli invasion or that she posed nearly nude in a promotion for the Israeli military?
“That WW is played by an IDF soldier is irrelevant to some, for whom gender drowns out any other identity or issue,” commented Hagedorn.
Another Fearless Girl, more slippery meanings
Advertising has known for a long time that people are ready for defiant heroines standing their ground. So one day Fearless Girl appeared on Wall Street to face down the Wall Street Charging Bull; the iconic site-specific celebration of banker testosterone had its meaning transformed when it was confronted by the site-specific celebration of that other hormone. Arturo Di Monica, the sculptor of the Bull, was outraged. His 1989 sculpture symbolized “freedom, world peace, strength, power and love.” He says Fearless Girl’s appearance “transformed” the “positive, optimistic message” into a “negative force and a threat.”
Yet Fearless Girl was not put there by Occupy Wall Street, but by State Street Global Advisers. It was a commercial, advertising a mutual fund that trades in gender-diverse companies.
That’s not why the image went viral. Seeing its popularity, Mayor de Blasio, with a politician’s instinct to lead by following, called it a symbol of “standing up to fear, standing up to power” and extended its permit for a year. It probably did mean something like that to the crowds taking selfies in front of its joyful dismissal of the values the Bull stands for.
And maybe also they were just happy and surprised to see a statue of a woman in a public place. “In the US, fewer than 8 per cent of the 5,193 outdoor public sculptures of individuals are of females,” writes Nilanjana Roy.
The courts will decide what the sculpture means, if Di Monica pursues his copyright violation claim. For me, it means, “Have a laugh at the bull, it’s the ruling class so full of itself it can’t recognize self-parody.”
Will our grandchildren be able to enjoy “Wonder Woman” or the Charging Bull or Fearless Girl without any of these troubling disruptions of the creators’ intended meanings?
W. H. Auden thought so:
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives,
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honors at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardon him for writing well.
Or maybe that’s just the self-serving justification of a guilty poet.
He does not say the poet can be forgiven in his, or our, lifetime.[Note: Delany’s comic is available on Kindle and iBook — it’s a fun but puzzling narrative with a cliffhanger, and I wish I knew how he had planned to continue it.]