Sunday, June 18, 2017

Blockbuster Feminisms

Lori Marso
Professor, Union College
Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, was one of this summer’s biggest surprise hits.  It was enormously successful at the box office with both critics and moviegoers in awe of its fabulous female superhero role model played by Gal Godot.  Many women said on blog posts and in reviews that they were moved to tears to see Diana and her sister warriors (including the glorious character Antiope, played by Robin Wright) on the Amazon island of Themyscira.  These women are powerful, confident, peace-loving, athletic, and in charge. Caroline Framke’s comment in Vox is typical: “After watching movie after movie where men saved the day with a well-timed punch while women cleaned up the mess around the edges, Wonder Woman is a goddamn revelation.”[i]
Wonder Woman was not without its detractors and controversies, however.  Israeli actress Gal Godot served two years of compulsory service in the Israeli Defense Forces during the 2006 war when the IDF fought against Hezbollah-allied forces in Lebanon.  The conflict killed more than one thousand Lebanese and one million were removed from their homes.[ii] This painful recent history was stirred by casting Gal Godot as the star of her own Wonder Woman movie, resulting in the film’s ban in Lebanon. Gadot’s vocal support of the IDF has garnered additional negative attention beyond Lebanon. Media outlets have seized on the fact that in 2014, Gadot posted to Facebook: "I am sending my love and prayers to my fellow Israeli citizens," "Especially to all the boys and girls who are risking their lives protecting my country against the horrific acts conducted by Hamas, who are hiding like cowards behind women and children...We shall overcome!!! Shabbat Shalom!”[iii] In a review published in Aljazeera, Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, provocatively writes: “Suppose you are a father or a mother living in Gaza, and like any other parent from Florida to Oregon you wish for your daughters to have a positive role model - then what? You hear there is this amazing Hollywood blockbuster championing the cause of a young female superhero. Could an Israeli soldier who learned her martial arts skills by helping drop bombs on your brothers and sisters, maiming and murdering them, be perceived as an Amazonian princess who is here to save the world?”[iv] Dabashi’s question upends any naïve wish that Wonder Woman could be a superhero for all young girls.
Jessica Bennett ignores the fact that Gal Godot can’t possibly be a superhero to girls in Gaza when in the New York Times she appreciatively cites Stacy L. Smith, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, whose research focuses on diversity in media: “Anytime we see women in powerful roles on-screen it challenges narrowly defined and antiquated views of leadership . . .” “Whether women are serving as C.E.O.s or, in the case of Wonder Woman, striding across ‘No Man’s Land’ and taking enemy fire, it broadens our notions of who a leader can be and the traits they exemplify.”[v]


But what kind of a leader is this? What kind of feminism does Wonder Woman signify?  I greatly enjoyed the movie, and in particular I loved watching Diana grow up on her all-woman, peaceful island paradise, learning to fight for justice and equality (only, though, when absolutely necessary) at the heels of Antiope. The first part of the film depicts a powerful group of woman warriors, working together, preserving their better world, and hoping to never fight again.  Other than situating her story in the midst of World War I rather than the aftermath of World War II, the film’s vision is true to the Wonder Woman origin story as historian Jill Lepore recounts:

“In Amazonia, women ruled and all was well.” Alas, that didn’t last: men conquered and made women slaves. The Amazons escaped, sailing across the ocean to an uncharted island where they lived in peace for centuries until, one day, Captain Steve Trevor, a U.S. Army officer, crashed his plane there. “A man!” Princess Diana cries when she finds him. “A man on Paradise Island!” After rescuing him, she flies him in her invisible plane to “America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women!”[vi]
The fact that in the movie the world is saved by an American soldier allied with an actress who was an IDF soldier should give us pause. But this is to read beyond the movie.  Taking the film on its narrative merits alone, we might still worry that Wonder Woman leaves her Amazonian sisters, experiences sex for the first time with the American soldier (might she not have had sex with other women on the island?  why do we end up in a heterosexual romance yet again?), naively believes that killing one bad man/god will bring world peace (she is subsequently schooled by two man-splainers, the American soldier and the god of war, that this is unfortunately not the case), and is not at all averse to killing lots of people.  Is this the path to bringing down patriarchy?  Can one woman-warrior save us all?  And save us from what?  And from whom?
Let’s consider another Hollywood fantasy from this past summer, Guardians of the Galaxy Part 2, and another from two summers ago, Mad Max: Fury Road.  In Guardians of the Galaxy Part 2, we get a ragtag group of weirdos who stumble, quite literally, into their roles as saviors of the galaxy.  Gathered together are Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) who has cheekily named himself Starlord, Rocket (a raccoon thief voiced by Bradley Cooper), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the one woman in the bunch and the only green-skinned one, Groot (a baby tree voiced by Vin Diesel), and Drax (Dave Bautista), a tough guy with a soft heart.  In some ways, their group is a cliché, but at the same time it’s the best kind of feminist fantasy possible, one that reminds me of the pleasures of watching Stranger Things on Netflix last year.  Like in Stranger Things where a bunch of bullied queer kids and the excluded, seemingly crazy, members of the community are all proved right and join together in solidarity, in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, women join with others, others like trees and animals and even men who fight against injustice, inequality, discrimination, and who all have good hearts.  And not only do the marginalized come together; they add another woman along the way (Gamora’s sister Nebula, played by Karen Gillen).   It turns out that the seemingly cruel Nebula all along just wanted her sister to welcome her to the fold.  In this film, sororal and queer solidarity wins over patriarchy.
Likewise in 2015’s summer blockbuster, Mad Max: Fury Road.  Here we get a combination of Wonder Woman and Guardians of the Galaxy, with stunning results for feminist politics.  Furiosa’s (Charlize Theron) superhero skills exceed Wonder Woman’s by a long shot. Like in Guardians of the Galaxy, Furiosa needs others (and in this case, other women) to rescue the world from an even more dark, foreboding, and explicit vision of patriarchal excess where women are reduced to their roles as child-bearers or for sex.  Like our queer friends depicted in Guardians of the Galaxy and Stranger Things, Furiosa is a heroine for the 21st century.  She joins with others to seek justice and restore peace for the disempowered, rather than garner power for superheroes or first world nation-states.  She, and they, are the kind of bad-ass feminist collective we need so badly today. 
In spite of its emphasis on female power and possibility, we might say Wonder Woman offers a realist, or at least very sobering, perspective.  The movie opens and ends with Diana receiving a photo from Bruce Wayne (Batman) as she works at her desk.  At this point Diana is not dressed as Wonder Woman nor as an Amazon, but as a high powered, expensively clad executive.  Importantly, she is alone.  She is isolated from her sisters, having left her home out of curiosity and responsibility.  Although she has friends in the superhero community, she has lost the love of her life.  In too many ways she fulfils the patriarchal demand that if a woman does have power or possibility, she must be isolated and remain unattached.  Where is Wonder Woman’s gang of weirdos?   To make Diana’s story more like Furiosa’s, she could return to Themyscira and gather her sister-forces, or lead her superhero friends into advancing feminist futures.  This is the task of a feminist superhero. 

[i] Caroline Framke, “Wonder Woman isn’t just the superhero Hollywood needs.  She’s the one exhausted feminists deserve.” https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/6/7/15740804/wonder-woman-amazons-feminist

[ii] Max Bearak, “Lebanon bans ‘Wonder Woman’ in protest against Israeli actress Gal Godot.” Washington Post, 1 June, 2017: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/06/01/lebanon-bans-wonder-woman-in-protest-against-israeli-actress-gal-gudot/?utm_term=.02aef6fbae04

[iii] Cited in Hamid Dabashi, “Watching Wonder Woman in Gaza.” Aljazeera. 10 June. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/06/watching-woman-gaza-170610082618366.html.

[iv] ibid.

[v] Jessica Bennett, “If Wonder Woman Can Do It, She Can Too.” New York Times, 5 June: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/05/opinion/wonder-woman-movie.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region

[vi] Jill Lepore, “The Last Amazon,” New Yorker, 22 September, 2014: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/22/last-amazon
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