Why 'Wonder Woman' wins the Internet

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It is very rare for a movie featuring a female lead to refrain from hypersexualising her to satisfy the male gaze of the audience. Gal Gadot's portrayal of Wonder Woman, under Patty Jenkins' direction, tells a story in which women can be appealing simply by being themselves.

Gal Gadot's portrayal of Wonder Woman shields the 'heroine' from the male gaze. | The Hindu

There’s a moment in Wonder Woman, right at the beginning of the film, when Robin Wright’s character Antiope hacks her way through three men, jumps off a shield and fires three arrows at the villains in mid-air. The theatre erupted with claps at the scene. There were whistles too. I had walked into the film with some trepidation. I hadn't grown up with Wonder Woman, I didn't identify with her and she was never on my list of ‘feminist icons you should be looking up to’ (sorry Lynda Carter). Even after the debacle that was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the character of Diana Prince just didn't register in the middle of all the mummy issues the two male superheroes had to work out.

So imagine my surprise when I walked out of the theatre marvelling at just how satisfying the film felt. It was glorious to see Wonder Woman rip through people with her sword like they were paper. She slides across floors, dodges bullets, decimates entire buildings and — at one point — executes a fantastic move from atop a horse that lands her on the other side of a tall fence. The masala-fan in me couldn't keep quiet and I hooted and whistled at all her moves. I had to remind myself that if this were a thalaivar movie and the audience burst out in awed screams when Rajinikanth did a ridiculous stunt, I’d usually be the one sitting in the corner shushing disapprovingly.

 

Wonder Woman is that rare film — it is the first female superhero film helmed by a woman — that has gotten people excited. It has a 93% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 76 on Metacritic. It’s not hard to see why. Aside from the fact that, at the bottom of it all, WW is a very well-made film, there are several factors to why it seems like this is the film we women have been waiting for all this time.

 

Every time you get to the movie theatre, you’re conditioned to see the woman through the male gaze — the cleavage shots, the absurd camera angles and all the hypersexualisation. Scarlett Johansson plays the most bad-ass superhero of all time in the Marvel movies and yet, even she isn't spared from the male treatment. Her Black Widow is an honest-to-god Russian spy with skill-sets that would frighten anyone but her big reveal in Iron Man 2, as it were, comes after the camera tracks her butt for several seconds before switching to her face.

The Captain America: Winter Soldier poster is a lesson in the male gaze. | Flickr / Global Panorama

 

The Captain America: Winter Soldier poster is a lesson in the male gaze. Nick Fury and Captain America are doing their own macho thing and the Black Widow is all flying hair and exaggerated curves. Similar treatment has been meted out to countless women superheroes — or super-villains, in the case of Harley Quinn. Margot Robbie was just given a t-shirt and pair of bikini briefs to work with in Suicide Squad. Just look up The Hawkeye Initiative and you will have an idea of how deep this insanity runs.

That’s not to say there’s no hypersexualisation when it comes to Wonder Woman. The film has faithfully stuck to the comic original of a bustier-slash-armour and short leather skirt. But here’s the thing. There’s not a single moment in the film that makes you feel like that short leather skirt is around for anything other than practicality. And in one of the most subversive moments in the film, Steve Trevor tells Diana he can’t take her to the Army headquarters because she isn't fully dressed. What ensues is more subversive hilarity about fighting in dresses.

 

The women in the film are real people and the film isn't afraid of portraying them as such. As one tumblr user put it, “When Diana did the superhero landing, her thigh jiggled on-screen. Wonder Woman’s thigh jiggled on a 20-foot tall screen in front of everyone. Because she wasn't there to make men drool. She wasn't there to be sexy and alluring and flirt her way to victory, and that means she has big, muscular thighs, and when they absorb the impact of a superhero landing, they jiggle, and.that’s.WONDERFUL.”

WW not only gets the physical cues down pat, but it also refrains from dictating what women in roles should or shouldn't be. Diana can throw a tank at the villain, but at the same time — literally — she can also mourn the loss of her loved one. There is no either/or scenarios here. Strong women can also be vulnerable. You can be a sword-fighter but you can also like babies and ice cream. Wonder Woman simply lets Diana be, something other films have sorely lacked.

The female gaze

When it comes to similar realistic portrayals of women on-screen, there is a problem. It is a job that logic dictates would be done better by women directors themselves. But studios don’t want to fund women directors because they’re not ‘bankable’ enough. Male directors make flop films all the time and yet, no one seems to be pulling down their funding.

And second, women-centric films don’t get bankrolled on the assumption that no one would want to watch it unless the movie has something in it for men (cough-made-for-the-male-gaze-cough). According to a study on 2015’s Hollywood movies by University of Southern California, “Female directors reported that the subject matter, cast, or crew of their films created a barrier as they were deemed less commercial or of less interest to industry members.” And since enough such movies aren't being made, it's just easier to assume that no one does want to watch them.

And if, on the off chance, movies with female superheroes do get made, they’re not very good. Case in point, Catwoman and Elektra.

Women directors and films with women in the lead have to make do with smaller budgets too. Another study by San Diego University’s Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film also found that, “Women are more likely to be given opportunities when budgets are low and less money is at risk.” Wonder Woman’s budget was just about $160 million, whereas the Superman reboot Man of Steel had a cool $225 million going for it — even though the previous Superman film was a failure. Patty Jenkins’ previous directorial venture Monster only cost about $8 million, a fact that was helpfully pointed out by Hollywood Reporter...

 

... perhaps worried whether or not Jenkins would be able to handle the responsibility she’d been given.

Twitter wasn't very kind. And the $8 million ‘indie’ film eventually went on earn a cool $60 million worldwide, including an Oscar win for the film’s leading lady. So yes, the fact that the folks at DC took a ‘chance’ on Jenkins is as rare as they come.

And it seems to have paid off, proving time and again that films with women in the lead don’t just appeal to women. According to Box Office Mojo, Wonder Woman crossed the $100-million mark in earnings in the opening weekend. “In fact Wonder Woman delivered the 16th-largest opening weekend for a comic book adaptation all-time,” says the website, although that has now been revised to 15 after the figures were updated.

In the midst of all this praise, the film has also been panned for racism. The ‘whiteness’ of the female leads — Wonder Woman, Hippolyta and Antiope — has been called into question. The fact that women of colour have been relegated to background set pieces in the Amazon world has not gone down well with viewers. Phillippus, a major black character in the Wonder Woman comics is missing in the film. She was Queen Hippolyta’s most trusted advisor and the person who trained Diana in the first place. There’s also a raging debate about the ethnicity of Gal Gadot herself. She is Jewish, but she is also white? Does ‘looking white’ mean the film panders to white women?

 

I bring all this up to show that, yes, the film is not perfect. However, and it is a big however, it is also a huge step in the right direction for representation of women, both on-screen and behind the microphone. In Wonder Woman, there is no holding back of what Diana can do. “When she walks into a room full of men, she doesn't even realise that she's not supposed to be there because she comes from a culture that assumes that she has every right to be there,” Connie Nielson, who played Queen Hippolyta, said in an interview.

The battle scene where she advances from the front lines, standing up to a spray of bullets, might as well turn out to be as iconic for the woman as the image of a bulletproof Luke Cage was for the black man.

Wonder Woman is as shameless as any male superhero movie and we say it's about damn time.

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