Zoë Heller

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Won­der Woman a film di­rected by Patty Jenkins Zoë Heller

The United Na­tions has ended a cam­paign fea­tur­ing Won­der Woman as an am­bas­sador for women and girls, two months af­ter the an­nounce­ment was met with protests and a pe­ti­tion com­plain­ing that the fic­tional su­per­hero was an in­ap­pro­pri­ate choice to rep­re­sent fe­male em­pow­er­ment.... “A large-breasted white woman of im­pos­si­ble pro­por­tions, scant­ily clad in a shim­mery, thigh-bar­ing body suit with an Amer­i­can flag mo­tif and knee-high boots” is not an ap­pro­pri­ate spokes­woman for gen­der eq­uity at the United Na­tions, the pe­ti­tion said.

—The New York Times, De­cem­ber 13, 2016

Per­haps the great­est ser­vice that the di­rec­tor Patty Jenkins does her pro­tag­o­nist in Won­der Woman, the Warner Broth­ers block­buster re­leased this June, is to give her a new set of clothes. The fe­male su­per­hero has been charged with var­i­ous ide­o­log­i­cal im­pu­ri­ties over the years—jin­go­ism, a too-cozy re­la­tion­ship with Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial com­plex, an ex­ces­sively het­eronor­ma­tive life­style—but by far the most fre­quent com­plaints have been about her man-pleas­ing, bondage-in­flected get-up. Those go-go boots! Those bracelets of sub­mis­sion! That quiv­er­ing em­bon­point! It’s hard to be taken se­ri­ously as a fem­i­nist icon when the only thing you’ve got to wear to work is a star-span­gled corset.

The cos­tume worn by Won­der Woman’s star, the Is­raeli ac­tress and for­mer beauty queen Gal Gadot, is al­to­gether more stern. The kinky boots have been re­placed by a pair of glad­i­a­to­rial thigh­highs; the body suit, con­structed out of some cun­ning al­loy of span­dex and bronze, is, if not quite ar­mor, at least ar­mor-themed. The out­fit isn’t much less re­veal­ing, and only marginally more prac­ti­cal, than the old one. (It’s still strap­less and her legs must still get rather chilly when she’s stalk­ing vil­lains in cold cli­mates.) But it does at least com­mu­ni­cate some mar­tial fe­roc­ity and men­ace. Thus at­tired, Won­der Woman might plau­si­bly in­tim­i­date even her haters at the UN.

Sadly, what­ever fresh po­tency she has ac­quired from the wardrobe depart­ment is off­set by the film’s anx­ious in­sis­tence on demon­strat­ing the fem­i­nin­ity that lies be­neath her breast­plate. (Both Jenkins and Gadot have ac­knowl­edged that their great goal was to avoid mak­ing Won­der Woman look like “a ball­buster.”) Au fond, we are re­peat­edly as­sured, Won­der Woman is a very sim­ple, soft, “re­lat­able” lady. She adores ba­bies and ice cream and snowflakes. She is sweetly obliv­i­ous to her own beauty and its dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects on those around her. She has ab­so­lutely no prob­lem with men. She loves men! In fact, once she’s left her Ama­zon fam­ily be­hind, she barely both­ers talk­ing to another woman for the rest of the movie. Gadot has real pres­ence and charm as an ac­tress—one longs to see her in some­thing wor­thier of her tal­ent. But the im­per­a­tive to erad­i­cate any hint of bossi­ness or anger from her char­ac­ter weighs heav­ily on the film, threat­en­ing to turn it into one long, dispir­it­ing ex­er­cise in al­lay­ing male fears about pow­er­ful women.

There are some plea­sures to be found in its 141 min­utes—most notably, in the open­ing de­pic­tion of Won­der Woman’s Ama­zon child­hood. The scenes set on the Ama­zons’ is­land home of The­myscira—en­vi­sioned here as a sort of sec­ond-cen­tury Canyon Ranch for les­bian sep­a­ratists—have the en­joy­ably campy feel of a 1960s sword-and­san­dal epic. All of the Ama­zons are blessed with ex­cel­lent bone struc­ture and de­port­ment, and speak in the solemn, “for to­mor­row we rise at dawn” lo­cu­tions of Hol­ly­wood-style an­tiq­uity. They have been en­trusted by Zeus with the task of de­fend­ing the world against his re­bel­lious son, Ares, and they spend their days hon­ing their mil­i­tary skills for this pur­pose. (Their proud and el­e­gant form of fe­male ag­gres­sion re­quires a lot of leap­ing through the air in the pos­tures of aveng­ing an­gels and hang­ing at half-mast from gal­lop­ing steeds.) Won­der Woman—or Princess Di­ana, as she is known to her peo­ple—is the only child in this happy is­land gy­noc­racy, and her pro­tec­tive mother, Queen Hip­polyta (Con­nie Nielsen), who claims to have cre­ated her by carv­ing her out of clay and get­ting Zeus to breathe life into her, does not want her to be­come a war­rior. Di­ana’s aunt, An­tiope, played by Robin Wright and her phe­nom­e­nal cheek­bones, is tougher­minded: she knows that it is Di­ana’s unavoidable des­tiny to one day save the no-good­nik pa­tri­archy from Ares. She has ap­pointed her­self Di­ana’s per­sonal trainer and life coach, and is al­ways ex­hort­ing her, in the man­ner of a Homeric-era Sh­eryl Sand­berg, to aim higher and work harder:

You have greater pow­ers than you know. . . . You ex­pect the bat­tle to be fair; the bat­tle will never be fair.... Be care­ful in the world of men, Di­ana. They do not de­serve you.

Alas, our so­journ with the fab­u­lous ladies of The­myscira ends all too soon. One day, a World War I Ger­man fighter plane comes zooming through the mag­i­cal force field that sur­rounds the is­land. The man in it, Steve Trevor (played by Chris Pine), isn’t re­ally a Ger­man but an Amer­i­can spy who has just stolen a chem­i­cal weapon for­mula from an evil Ger­man sci­en­tist, and is now be­ing pur­sued by a pla­toon of en­emy sol­diers. (Some­thing in­cor­ri­gi­bly twenty-first-cen­tury in Pine’s bear­ing keeps him from be­ing en­tirely per­sua­sive in this role; you can put this man in a fox­hole on the Western Front and he still looks like some­one on his way to the Cof­fee Bean and Tea Leaf for a mocha skim latte.) Af­ter a beachfront bat­tle be­tween the Ama­zons and the Ger­mans (dur­ing which no­ble An­tiope is fa­tally wounded), Di­ana uses her lasso of truth to find out Steve’s real iden­tity and mis­sion. On hear­ing his ac­count of “the war to end all wars,” she be­comes con­vinced that the time has come for her to go out and con­quer Ares and, with Steve, she sets sail for Eng­land.

Our depar­ture from The­myscira is sad for many rea­sons, not least be­cause it marks the last time we will see any sun. Dom­i­nated by pur­plish-gray light­ing, re­lent­lessly lour­ing skies, and lugubri­ous, CGI-en­hanced bat­tle scenes, the next two hours nicely sim­u­late the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing trapped in a win­dow­less video game ar­cade. “It’s hideous,” Di­ana says on first glimps­ing the smoke-wreathed cityscape of Lon­don—a com­ment that might safely be ap­plied to the rest of the movie. Ru­mors of the heat and wit of the Di­ana–Steve part­ner­ship have been some­what ex­ag­ger­ated. The com­edy of their re­la­tion­ship is gen­er­ated largely by her ig­no­rance of early-twen­ti­eth­cen­tury man­ners, par­tic­u­larly as they per­tain to re­la­tions be­tween the sexes. Un­like the Di­ana of the comic book, who ar­rived in Amer­ica al­ready au fait with the so­cial mores and pol­i­tics of the place, this Di­ana is a stranger in a strange land, per­pet­u­ally and adorably per­plexed by the ways of men. (The film’s screen­writer, Al­lan Hein­berg, ap­par­ently took his in­spi­ra­tion for her fish-out-of-water predica­ment from Dis­ney’s Lit­tle Mer­maid.) She doesn’t know that it is im­proper to ask a man ques­tions about his anatomy while gaz­ing coolly at his naked form in the bath; she is un­aware that an in­vi­ta­tion to sleep with some­one means some­thing more than sleep­ing next to them.

Di­ana is also obliv­i­ous to the fact that in the Lon­don of 1918, her sex rad­i­cally lim­its her free­doms. She can­not see why she would be barred from at­tend­ing an all-male par­lia­men­tary meet­ing, or why she would be ex­pected to con­strain her waist with a corset. (A bit rich, this, given that the Won­der Woman cos­tume per­forms much the same func­tion.) When Cap­tain Steve’s sec­re­tary, Etta Candy, ex­plains that her job in­volves do­ing what­ever her boss asks her to, Di­ana frowns and re­marks, “Where I come from, we would call that slav­ery.”

This—a sly ref­er­ence to the ig­no­min­ious mo­ment in comic book his­tory when Won­der Woman was rel­e­gated to be­ing sec­re­tary of the Jus­tice League— is a fem­i­nist joke of sorts. But it’s not a joke that Di­ana gets. Un­like the comic book Di­ana, who was al­ways dash­ing about giv­ing pep talks to abused wives (“Get strong! Earn your own liv­ing!”) and re­port­ing back to her mother on the progress of women’s rights, Di­ana re­mains bliss­fully ig­no­rant of the women’s cause. The male side­kicks who ac­com­pany her and Steve to the war in Europe teach her about racial prej­u­dice, the plight of Na­tive Amer­i­cans, and even the hor­rors of PTSD, but some­how the news that women don’t have the vote evades her.

Main­tain­ing her ig­no­rance is of course a quite de­lib­er­ate maneuver— part of the film’s scrupu­lous en­deavor to keep any hint of ball bust­ing at bay. (“It was im­por­tant to me,” Gadot told En­ter­tain­ment Weekly, “that my char­ac­ter would never come and preach about how men should treat women. Or how women should per­ceive them­selves.”) A sim­i­lar ef­fort to avoid hav­ing Di­ana be­come too dom­i­neer­ing is ev­i­dent in the care­ful way that she and Steve are pre­sented as equal part­ners in their mis­sion. One good man, ap­par­ently, is equal to an Ama­zon demigod­dess. (Gadot: “We didn’t want to make Steve the damsel in distress.”) If Di­ana has the mus­cle, it’s Steve who has the tac­ti­cal sense and the job of mansplain­ing the true na­ture of their mis­sion. (She’s un­der the im­pres­sion that if she man­ages to kill Ares, she will end war for­ever.)

Steve is also, it turns out, the per­son who gives her the cor­rect moral po­si­tion on man’s in­hu­man­ity to man. At the cli­max of her fi­nal, set-piece bat­tle with Ares (who is not the Ger­man gen­eral she had ini­tially fin­gered, but a Bri­tish politi­cian pos­ing as her and Steve’s friend), Ares tries to per­suade her that hu­man be­ings are too cor­rupt and nasty to de­serve her help—an idea ini­tially pro­posed by An­tiope. But Steve’s self­less ac­tions and the power of their newly blos­somed love have taught her to re­ject such cyn­i­cism. “It’s not about de­serve, it’s about what you be­lieve,” she says. “And I be­lieve in love.”

The ex­act mean­ing of this homily is some­what ob­scure. It has a Clin­to­nian “Love Trumps Hate” ring to it,

cer­tainly. But why it com­pels her to take mercy, at the last minute, on Dr. Poi­son, the crazed Ger­man sci­en­tist who has been plot­ting to kill thou­sands with a lethal poi­son gas, is a mys­tery. What is the moral equa­tion of ruth­lessly dis­patch­ing hun­dreds of Ger­man grunts, only to spare the ar­chi­tect of the war’s most das­tardly tac­tics? Never mind. The im­por­tant thing is that it is Steve and the light­ning strike of ro­man­tic love that has given her this wis­dom. An as­ton­ish­ing num­ber of women crit­ics have re­ported be­ing moved to tears by Gadot’s per­for­mance. They have hailed Won­der Woman as an in­spir­ing vi­sion of fe­male strength; a land­mark in pop-cul­tural de­pic­tions of woman; an ex­ul­tant portrait of pussy power in ex­cel­sis, per­fectly timed to rouse our spir­its in the dark era of Trump. But the film is far too cau­tious and fo­cus group–tested an en­ter­prise to be any of th­ese things. Like so many re­cent girl-power ex­trav­a­gan­zas that seek to cel­e­brate what a long way we’ve come, baby, it ends up il­lus­trat­ing pre­cisely the op­po­site.

Won­der Woman in the comics was fa­mously en­fee­bled dur­ing the 1950s when a set of new writ­ers took over and turned her into a fash­ion model, a babysit­ter, an agony aunt. Won­der Woman does noth­ing so crude. It al­lows its hero­ine all the trap­pings of free, coura­geous, in­de­pen­dent wom­an­hood. It even cheers her on when she bashes up men. It merely prop­a­gates the un­help­ful myth that if a woman is nice enough, pretty enough, fem­i­nine enough, she can do such things with­out ever caus­ing of­fense, or be­ing called a bitch. Re­ally, if you want fem­i­nist in­spi­ra­tion, you’re better off skip­ping Won­der Woman and go­ing back to watch the wiseacre hero­ines of the 1940s: the ones played by Bette Davis, Katharine Hep­burn, Ros­alind Rus­sell, and Bar­bara Stan­wyck. They were wit­tier and gut­sier and not half as wor­ried about bust­ing balls.

Gal Gadot in a scene from Patty Jenkins’s Won­der Woman, 2017

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