Susan Cooper, Not Diana Prince, Is My Breakout Feminist Superhero

Susan Cooper, breakout hero.
Susan Cooper, breakout hero.
Wonder Woman, fighting evil in wedge heels.
Wonder Woman, fighting evil in wedge heels.

Facebook and Twitter told me to go see Wonder Woman. I’m not one for superhero movies, but it was an immense treat to read a message not aimed at making powerful women shut up (not gonna hyperlink Chris Cillizza, but….). WW was billed not only as a great action movie, but a leap forward for female representation.

There’s a lot to like about the movie—including as a nod to female power—but it’s not a leap forward. The breakout woman’s action hero movie that should have gotten this kind of buzz came out in 2015. It’s called Spy, and it’s the story of a woman who was at the top of her CIA training class but who works the equivalent of a pink-collar job supporting a glamorous, magnetic James Bond type. When she seizes the opportunity to get into the field, this woman saves the world from a rogue villain with a portable nuke, and she does it all while not slender.

Wonder Woman, on the other hand, inspires us by saying that if you are a physically flawless superhuman member of a mythical race of warriors, and you try hard enough, you can (eventually) persuade a slightly-above-average man to believe your backstory and may also surreptitiously save the world while the men in power aren’t looking. If you change clothes.

By comparison to Spy, Wonder Woman is about as gender-equalizing as Remington Steele - the 1980s series in which a talented female private investigator can’t get any clients until she finds a male poseur who looks the part to pretend to be her boss. If the dynamic between Diana, warrior goddess, and a dude named Steve, represents three decades worth of progress since Remington Steele, it’ll be a century before we elect a woman president.

I don’t mean to be a complete naysayer. I found Wonder Woman inspiring at times. It’s not a perfect movie. My husband, who I can legitimately say is a feminist,[1] declared it “slow.” That disappointed me at first, but then I realized that of course he wouldn’t be mesmerized watching a little girl’s ambition (and somewhat off-putting bloodlust) win out over her mother’s expectations, or sit dumbstruck watching an all-woman army on their training field, unabashedly brutal and effective. As a part of a narrative arc for an ordinary superhero story, it’s sluggish. But if you’re 45 years into your XX chromosome American story, it feels like the climax. For me, the movie could have stopped when Diana found her power on Themyscira, and I’d feel something revolutionary had happened. I mean, on that island even the Princess Bride is actualized AF. I’d pay $12.50 just to watch Robin Wright beat the crap out of a Rodent of Unusual Size while Westley cringed and wet his black pants. I thought Gal Gadot did a beautiful job with the role. She’s vulnerable, martial, subtly witty, and clever.

Nonetheless, it’s astonishing to me that Wonder Woman passes for a feminist tale today, because the story has no room for a human woman to be a hero, much less a realistic woman. Calling Wonder Woman a feminist story is the cinematic equivalent of saying “I’m not sexist; I would vote for Elizabeth Warren.”

Wonder Woman 2017 Gal Gadot is indeed a wonder to behold. It’s a good thing the DC character is not even supposed to be human, because I can’t suspend disbelief to the point of accepting she could be the same species as me― this Goddess Who Does Not Know from Spanx. Nonetheless, apparently even she needs improvement in the form of flawlessly-applied eyeliner (maybe she’s born with it?). I tried to wear eyeliner to a bar mitzvah last week and it had dripped to my cheekbones by the time salad was served. Wonder Woman’s eye makeup stays put while she’s blowing up a fucking bell tower. #Respect.

I’ll just pause here to acknowledge that this is where Bros would tweet that I’m a disgruntled ugly feminist who’s hostile to attractive women. Not at all. I’m happy, in a world full of strip mines, strip malls, and Mitch McConnell, to look at the likes of Gal Gadot for a couple of hours (I’ll also preempt you with the words of Allison Janney’s deputy FBI director in Spy, “please refrain from using the word ‘thunderc*nt.’”).

Women are used to double standards, and Wonder Woman is no exception. The movie pairs a physically flawless woman with a male actor who is indisputably a step up from William Shatner but not among the top three hottest Chrisses working today. So there’s that.

A warrior from a female warrior race, Diana gets treated to a Pretty Woman shopping sequence on arrival in 20th-century London. We’re supposed to rejoice watching Dian a reject clothes in which it would be difficult to fight, but (a) she ends up dressed as Suffragette Annie Hall; and (b) her actual battle gear is a metallic skort and wedge-heeled sandals—which is exactly what any sensible person would wear on horseback.

Spy’s Susan Cooper’s relationship to clothes is refreshingly different. When she finally gets her shot at a field assignment, Cooper’s male colleagues give her a series of aliases apparently designed to degrade her because they are average women: a woman with multiple cats. A single mother. Women with boring women’s hobbies and elastic-waist pants. Women with names like Carol and Penny. And what does she do dressed in frumpy clothes and wigs, armed only with weaponized antifungal spray, stool softener, and hemorrhoid wipes? She kicks ass. She repeatedly rescues a (stupid) male agent. She saves New York from being nuked.

While Susan Cooper manages to make the naysayer men in her life seem absurd, ineffectual, and a little sad, Wonder Woman takes shit from a mere mortal—a mere mortal named Steve, no less—and falls for him to boot. When they arrive in London, slightly-above-average Steve silences Diana when she makes her way into a meeting of Important Men discussing a potential armistice. He calls her his secretary and apologizes for her unseemly (or adorably naive?) attempt to behave as their equal.

In Wonder Woman, we see that no woman can be so wondrous that she overcomes the presumption of male disbelief. Above-average Steve doesn’t entirely believe Diana’s story after she pulled him out of his sinking plane; even after he saw her magical island; even after the battle on the beach in which Claire Underwood leads a battalion of woman warriors in bronze-age skorts to defeat Germans with guns; even after he’s seen her stop a bullet with her forearm and kick the crap out of a bunch of guys in the alley. Even after that, fourth-hottest Chris working in Hollywood today does not fully believe Diana, who also speaks 200 languages (go on Twitter and say maybe sexism influenced some people’s votes, and you’ll get a taste of the Steve Treatment).

Flawless, immortal Diana falls for Above-average Steve even after he unsuccessfully tries to prevent her from saving civilian lives. I’m reminded that in Spy, Susan Cooper tells us her mother used to say “give up on your dreams, Susan. She used to write that on my lunchbox.” Steve Trevor repeatedly tells Diana to dream a little smaller, but she still finds him inspiring. It’s not about what you deserve, he tells her. It’s about what you believe. But for a long time, he doesn’t believe in her. Susan Cooper has no time for the naysayers.

Far into the story, Steve talks down to Diana about how the world works in spite of the fact that she’s read all twelve volumes of classical sexy time, translated a Sumerian chemistry formula in front of him, and told him that she was put on Earth to protect humans like him. It’s a feat of mansplaining unmatched by the most fervent bro on Twitter.

Who wouldn’t fall in love with Steve? I can barely keep my shirt on just relating this story.

The Diana/ Steve love story is possible because Diana accepts 20th-century gender norms more seamlessly and willingly than her costume change. Diana falls into early 20th century (let’s be honest—21st century) gender expectations without explanation or wonder. Just days off of the Island of Claire Underwood’s Badass Estrogen Army, she shows horror that women in particular are being victimized by war—apparently accepting without question that women in the world of humankind are nothing like the Amazons, nor should be. Fresh off an island where she has been the only child, and neither biologically nor culturally a human female, she makes a beeline for the first baby she sees.

Could 2017 Wonder Woman ignore the baby because she’s not the type to sit at home and bake cookies? Or would that make her unappealing?

Spy does it better. Once out of the basement, Susan Cooper doesn’t embrace—physically or emotionally—male terms of engagement. Perhaps because she has a female boss (imagine), or perhaps because she’s an actual #Womanwhoworks, no one can prevent Susan Cooper from doing her job regardless of whether the men in the room are happy about it. Once in the field, Susan gradually sheds her crush on a male colleague, deepens her friendship with a woman, and eventually foregoes dinner with her glamorous erstwhile crush to have a girls’ night in. By contrast, Diana’s process of actualizing happens when she embraces love as a motivator.

Susan Cooper’s colleague Nancy believes in her from the get-go.
Susan Cooper’s colleague Nancy believes in her from the get-go.

Not only does Melissa McCarthy’s Susan Cooper save the world just like Wonder Woman, she shatters a glass ceiling that Diana does not. Spy’s Agent Karen Walker (Morena Baccarin) is a classically beautiful, thin woman who is already a field agent—a woman occupying the male James Bond space—before Susan Cooper makes her way out into the field (and before Gal Gadot tried on her first Power-Skort). Melissa McCarthy takes it a step further, daring to insert her unglamorous life and unremarkable body into a space currently reserved for only perfect women (note that Spy is not a model of intersectional representation; its cast not diverse).

Wonder Woman provides space only for a woman deemed flawless and sexually desirable by Hollywood standards. That does not represent equality. Male superheroes are allowed not only to be human, but flawed. Batman is a cranky rich guy with cool toys (could he save Gotham with only stool softener and hemorrhoid wipes?). Iron Man engineers his way past a life-threatening injury. Spider Man is Tobey Maguire, ferfucksake. A female superhero must be more than an engineer. More than clever. More than changed by a radioactive spider. In fact, she may not be a real woman at all.

I understand that Wonder Woman is supposed to be groundbreaking because it’s the first women-led comic book reboot. This says more about how we value stereotypically male and female genres than about Wonder Woman’s intrinsic value. Comic books and the movies about them are typically more misogynous or at least exclusionary, so a movie that tiptoes slightly forward in that space passes for feminist.

It’s strange, too, that Wonder Woman’s warrior identity is being treated as so novel. Gal Gadot’s real identity - a former IDF combat trainer and Miss Israel 2004-- is as compelling and contradictory as Diana Prince herself. The fact that she is a woman warrior (others have written better about the complexity of her Israeli identity than I can do here) burnishes her credentials as a groundbreaking hero—she really is brave.

But there are women serving in the military worldwide, including over 200,000 in the US military. That they are relatively invisible in our culture does not make them less real. If we wanted to celebrate actual martial bravery, we’ve got countless models, such as Lt. Emily Perez, the first black woman and first Latina to serve as Cadet Command Sergeant Major at West Point and who died in combat in Iraq.

Gal Gadot is not the only woman soldier in the world; she’s perhaps the most marketably beautiful one. Melissa McCarthy shows a different kind of bravery—seeking, winning, and nailing leading roles while Decidedly Not Thin (note—I personally find Melissa McCarthy beautiful, and would say she’s more appealing than most of the Chrisses working today).

Long before my 46th spin around the sun, I was aware that the world is not fond of women deemed imperfect by men, or that the world would be less mesmerized by a female hero with cankles than one whom Zeus himself bestowed with gravity-defying boobs and a 40-foot vertical leap. What surprises me, though, is that the latter has gotten so much airplay as a feminist milestone. In 2017, I can think of no more subversive act, for a woman, than unapologetically doing hero shit in a mortal woman’s body, not giving a fuck whether the men at your job have literally dressed you down.

I have to wonder whether Wonder Woman Fever means that even the most fervent feminists among us, the most heartbroken of the #StillWithHer set, have made a silent, resigned accommodation to the rule that no mortal woman could be good enough to play with the big boys.

I hope not. In the meantime, I have my breakout feminist action hero. Her name is Susan Cooper, and she doesn’t have to be perfect—she’s that good.

[1] Ladies: please understand the difference between having a pro-choice boyfriend and a feminist boyfriend and act accordingly).