It’s turning me into a shrew. All around me there are women going crazy for Wonder Woman and I don’t get it. I’m out of it, again, when I wish I could celebrate too.
I had my suspicions before I even saw the film on Sunday for Father’s Day. The word of mouth was so excited (“I heard it was so good!”), even though it seemed like just another action flick. And then it started breaking box office records and everyone was over the moon: “see! a woman director and a female superhero can make money too!” When the high-brow reviews were also enthusiastic I started wondering if the film were that rare cultural phenomenon that arrives in a moment when it can’t be touched…. The zeitgeist just gives some things a pass. This must be one of them.
Because it’s not that great. It looks okay. The acting is good, though Chris Pine is a baffling romantic lead. He’s got some comic timing and good looks, but he’s not charismatic. The story and screenplay are downright bad: predictable and heavy-handed, filled with stereotypical bad guys and side kicks. Admittedly, Gal Gadot is as good as she can be. She’s wonderful at fresh, wide-eyed puzzlement. I kept wondering where I’d seen that particular facial expression until I realized it was on Geena Davis’s Thelma. She too sold a certain naivete that was based on inexperience, not stupidity. But a little more worldliness might come in handy in a superhero.
Which is what makes me so cranky. Diana Prince/Wonder Woman is strong in battle, fierce in her defense of the helpless, and unyielding in her pursuit of peace even though she’s still burdened with all the traditional expectations of femininity: niceness, beauty, innocence, and a kind of blandness that is incapable of offending anyone. Even her mild forms of disobedience — sneaking off to train before her mother lets her or escaping with Chris Pine’s Captain Steve Trevor to end the war to end all wars — feel like a predetermined part of her “heroine’s journey,” not an assertion of any kind of will of her own. The heroine’s story, however, must include love so even Wonder Woman gets an understated hetero romance, which becomes the frame for her character’s growth.
Two particular scenes demonstrate the film’s ambivalent message about women. In one, we see the status of women in Edwardian England through Diana’s clear eyes as a foreign (almost alien) visitor. It’s not just the corsets that are and are not “armor” but her very presence in a governing chamber that is shown to be absurdly shocking and disruptive. That’s great visual storytelling — as is its opposite scene, when Wonder Woman bolts out of the trenches and crosses the barren No Man’s Land (ha!) to lead the Allies to an unexpected victory. Here again she’s fresh and energizing: where there was a stalemate, a settling into (literal) ruts, she brings change and vigor, swatting away bullets with a flick of her wrists and catapulting into the air.
Shouldn’t this be good enough? Maybe. A similarly ambiguous story played out recently on Wall Street in the Fearless Girl statue that now faces down the Charging Bull on lower Broadway. Sculpted in bronze by Kristen Visbal, the statue was installed on International Women’s Day in February by State Street Global Advisors as a publicity campaign to promote women in finance. Since then it has been an enormous success: tourists flock to take selfies with the spunky girl and one article estimated it had generated over $7 million dollars in social media and advertising for the firm. While many viewers read her as a diminutive symbol of female empowerment, others have balked at this young girl as the face of feminism. Yes, she stands her ground against a wild animal but she’s a child. While Charging Bull‘s artist Arturo DiModica protests that his bull was never meant to represent masculinity, a State Street Global representative insists coyly that the Fearless Girl “wasn’t intended to be confrontational.” This is exactly the kind of hedging one’s bets that happens in Wonder Woman too. Apparently we love girls and princesses who assert themselves, as long as they only do so in art. As one Salon writer argued about Fearless Girl, the real problem is “treating girl power as a suitable stand in for actual feminism.”
Why am I surprised? You can’t get more mainstream than Hollywood and Wall Street. But the popular response to both works has been so over the top that it’s an unsettling reminder of how low expectations have fallen. Is it too much to relate this to the crushing disappointment of Hillary Clinton’s loss at the polls? Why wouldn’t we rather celebrate these ambivalent fictional heroines than wrestle with the misogyny that real women face in our real world all the time? Wonder Woman begins and ends with a working woman in her office, but the setting has been idealized: no coworkers, no bosses, no partners to negotiate power with. Last week someone temporarily turned The Fearless Girl statue into a Wonder Woman — and all she needed was a tiara.