Why I Didn’t Feel Empowered By ‘Wonder Woman’

If women in the film see themselves through a male lens, can we call this progress?
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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

I’ll just get this out front: I’m not your typical big box-office superhero moviegoer. Why? Because I don’t like the glorified violence, nor the gender stereotypes that one typically finds in these movies: man as hero; woman as love interest.

So, when I first learned that Wonder Woman was coming out, I didn’t jump with excitement about seeing it. I was wary about the superhero formula. I knew, however, that I “should” be excited about the film, because it was the first female-directed superhero film with a female hero as the lead. This was clearly progress for the film industry and something for women in Hollywood to celebrate.

A week before the release of “Wonder Woman,” I received multiple emails in my inbox from female filmmaker and feminist lists that I subscribe to, each encouraging me to see it on opening weekend to show Hollywood that a woman-led film can be a big box-office hit.

I was in. I wanted to support the sisterhood.

Although I couldn’t go opening weekend, I went this past weekend with a group of five girlfriends. While none of us were decked out in a Wonder Woman costume, or even a tiara, we were enthusiastic about seeing the “ultimate female empowerment film.”

When the lights went down, the film opened to a scene on a gorgeous Mediterranean island with women warriors training in the skills of horseback riding, spear throwing and sword fighting. The women were strong, focused and mighty. Their strength, both inner and outer, was palpable. These were women in their power.

This island, known as Themyscira, was home to Diana (aka Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot) and her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), along with hundreds of other women warriors known as Amazons. There was not a man in sight. It was a women-only island; an all-female society – a protective nation of sisterhood. As I watched this opening segment, I was feeling happy, invigorated and inspired.

But then something changed. An American pilot, named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crash lands near the island, and the island gets exposed to the outside world. Soon after, it is penetrated by the German navy. A violent battle scene takes place. In this process, Diana is awakened to the “war to end all wars” that is happening in the outside world. She cannot fathom this carnage and destruction to humanity and feels called to end it. She is on a mission for peace. So, she leaves the island with Steve.

Goodbye, sisterhood.

Upon reaching London, Diana enters “Man’s World,” which she calls “horrendous” upon first sight. This is where the film takes a huge turn. We are no longer watching a sisterhood collective of powerful women. We are watching a female protagonist amongst hundreds of men, with no sisterhood collective in sight.

As I watched the film, I not only felt that I had entered the film’s fictional “Man’s World,” I felt I had officially entered man’s world of Hollywood, where the story of the female protagonist is told through the masculine lens.

For the next two hours of the film, we see only three noted women ― Wonder Woman, a mad female scientist, and a secretary – amongst throngs of men, including politicians, commanders, lieutenants, generals, captains, soldiers, spies and pilots. I felt like any empowerment that I may have received in the opening island scene had just been deflated, or maybe taken away for good.

“I felt like any empowerment that I may have received in the opening island scene had just been deflated, or maybe taken away for good.”

While the film started out inspirational and promising for women, it then morphed into a typical male hero’s journey.

According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the underrepresentation of women and girls in films and television has a lasting effect on women and girls’ psyche. It gives women and girls a narrow view of what’s possible for them, and exerts a powerful influence in creating and perpetuating unconscious biases, among both men and women.

Further damage can happen when the women who are represented are portrayed in hurtful gender stereotypes, such as over-sexualized, one-dimensional or “unlikeable.” For example, the female scientist was portrayed as an evil scientist and referred to at one point as a “witch.” I found this to be perpetuating the hurtful stereotype that smart women use their power for evil, and that women scientists aren’t to be trusted. How do you think this portrayal translates to girls and young women in STEM?

I am not suggesting that every portrayal of a female be inspirational and wrapped in a glow of rainbows, but I am suggesting that when there are so few female characters more thought should be put into creating those characters with some redeeming qualities.

Back to Wonder Woman herself, much to my surprise, Wonder Woman was a female warrior trapped in a male warrior paradigm. The solo hero, battling against injustice, relying on her special powers.

It turns out that it was the Greek god Zeus that gave Diana, aka Wonder Woman, her powers. This piece of information was not empowering at all. It perpetuates a system of men as the ultimate authorities who have the power to bestow special gifts on some of us (whether that be in the form of a promotion, a raise, etc.).

In fact, Diana was referred to as a “god” and never once as a “goddess.” This was mind-blowing to me. How could this simple acknowledgement of the feminine be neglected in this supposed female empowerment film?

Diana’s journey to discover her “full powers” ultimately had to do with strength and fighting off “man’s world.” (Granted the fuel came from love – romantic love and love for humanity.) But is this really a woman’s final destination?

I don’t think so.

I believe the heroine’s journey is different than the hero’s journey. While there is much that overlaps, I believe that a critical element to a woman’s journey of awakening to her power is the element of sisterhood.

Put simply, the feminine path to power is not a loner formula. It’s about the collective.

All too many women have tried to go it alone in the male-oriented world, in their pursuit of academic, professional and financial success. By going at it alone, they’ve ended up overscheduled, exhausted and suffering from stress-related ailments, such as adrenal fatigue and depression.

There is clearly a problem with this model for women. If women see themselves through a male lens and continuously measure themselves by standards of a male-defined culture, can we call this progress?

While I want to honor and applaud Patty Jenkins for her outstanding directorial work, and Gal Gadot for her fabulous job in her role as Wonder Woman, I want to put forth the question: How can we move to the next level and create stories and films that offer the heroine’s journey, rather than a female protagonist in a male paradigm?

I’ve talked to many women since seeing Wonder Woman and every one of them has spoken about how they loved the island scene and how they would have been happy to spend much of the movie there. That’s where they felt the most alive, invigorated and empowered. Like me, they credit those feelings to the presence of the strong sisterhood.

To make Wonder Woman a true female empowerment film, it would be advantageous for the audience to know more about the culture of that island. Aside from the physical warrior training, what were the inner lessons one was taught? How were decisions made? How did the political system operate? I heard one of the Amazon women referred to as “Senator.” I wanted to know about that.

I also would have wanted more empowered female characters in the script. Perhaps a female pilot, or female storeowner, and especially more female characters who were supportive of Wonder Woman. To be fair, I’m aware that the time period that this film takes place in was not easy for that.

Most importantly, I would have wanted more evidence of what life was like after ending war in “Man’s World.” What does life look like then? And what of those Amazon women? What does life look like with them integrated in society? In other words, what does life look like with more circles of women supporting each other?

After all of Wonder Woman’s hard work, what was gained? How was she transformed? And how was the world transformed?

Perhaps this is for the sequel.

The original Wonder Woman comic was created by and written by a man, William Moulton Marston. While it clearly shows an appreciation of and celebration of women, the story is limited to a masculine lens and masculine ideal of women. This 2017 version of Wonder Woman was also created by men. Three of them: Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and Jason Fuchs ― with the screenplay by Allan Heinberg.

While I am proud of the directorial achievement of Patty Jenkins, for real, long-lasting change to occur for women, we need more women in both studio executive roles and along the entire creative process where key development of the story occurs.

It’s time for a new generation of stories that will be truly inspiring to women and girls from the feminine perspective. I want screenwriters and filmmakers who would be in position to tell those stories to a mass audience. Also, more women are needed to join the ranks as casting directors, cinematographers and show runners so that gender sensitive decisions can be made in the hiring and presentation of the female actors in film.

The enthusiasm for this film is understandable. We women are desperate for female-driven films. We long to see ourselves as the heroes, instead of the victims. We long to have a voice in our lives, and how the culture sees us.

Wonder Woman grossed an estimated 103.1 million dollars in the U.S. and Canada on its opening weekend, the best opening ever for a female director.

While this is cause to celebrate, my concern alongside of that is that Hollywood is going to have the attitude of “shut up and be grateful.” In other words, you got your female directed film with a female star. Now let’s go back to business as usual.

The first comic book superhero to make it into the movies was Superman in 1951. It’s taken 66 years to get a woman into that role. Let’s not wait another 66 years to create a truly inspiring feminine heroine born out of a feminine perspective.

Female empowerment isn’t just about kicking ass, nor is it about having power over others. It’s about accessing one’s self-power, joining with the sisterhood, and seeing what we can create together.

At the end of Wonder Woman, unfortunately I did not feel empowered. I felt disoriented, disappointed and frankly, angry. Why is everyone calling this an empowering film for women and girls? I asked my friend sitting next to me. “I was wondering the same thing,” she said.

Yes, my testosterone level was raised. But that didn’t make me feel empowered, it just made me feel aggressive.

Tabby Biddle, M.S. Ed., is a women’s leadership coach and Leadership Ambassador with Take The Lead, a non-profit organization committed to creating gender parity in leadership across all sectors by 2025. She is currently working on the launch of ‘50 Women Can Change the World,’ a Take The Lead California leadership initiative for women leaders and emerging leaders in the media and entertainment industries. Learn more at tabbybiddle.com.

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