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Superhero Movie Wonder Woman: A Wonderful Feminist Icon

Updated March 18, 2022
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Superhero Movie Wonder Woman: A Wonderful Feminist Icon essay

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The 21st century will always be remembered as the “superhero decade”. Dozens and of superhero films from Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse comics have been released for the big screen since the year 2000 alone (Gray 1). But what has been the commonality of all these diverse superhero movies? Men as the main subject/protagonist. Recently, the game changed with the release of the 2017 movie Wonder Woman. The movie was inspired by the original comics that were created in 1942. The comics were a breath of fresh air for the superhero genre.

Finally, there was a woman doing everything a man could do, and she was an inspiration. Girls were carrying Wonder Woman lunch boxes to school, and finally had a superhero of their own to look up to. Just like the comics changed the superhero world in 1942, the Wonder Woman movie shook up the superhero cinema world in 2017. Not only was the main protagonist a woman hero, but throughout the movie there are many times they tackled the tough topic of feminism and misogyny. Wonder Woman is an innovative movie that challenges the “role” of women, sexuality, and superheroes overall. The creator of the original comics, Dr. William Moulton Marston, had an unpopular opinion for the 1940’s, “‘Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world’” (Lepore).

In the early 1940s, DC Comics turned to the famous psychologist William Moulton Marston for help in coming up with a new superhero, unlike anything they had ever done before. Marston, who had been inspired growing up during the suffragist movement, wanted a feminine superhero who would fight not only for democracy, but also for equal rights for women. And stand up for women’s rights she did. There are quotes from the comic strips of Wonder Woman expressing her strong opinions of fighting a patriarchal society, “Oh, you stupid girls! When you let your men bind you – you let yourself be bound by war, hate, greed, and lust for power! Think! And free yourselves! Control those who would oppress others! You can do it!”, “We will show those evil men that women fight for peace harder than men can fight to satisfy their greed!” (Lepore).

Wonder Woman is so passionate about women’s rights because of her own background, which is very different from most superheroes. Diana Prince, the character’s actual name, aims to bring a message of peace to this world, becoming the hero we know as Wonder Woman. Ultimately, the story of this female superhero is about a woman who leaves everything she has ever known to help bring peace to a world that does not deserve it (Bastién). Being raised by only women is important in Wonder Woman’s understanding of feminism because she was not brought up in a world where men put her down. She was able to grow up confident and strong, and she just wanted to help others do the same because, “today’s active, aggressive, and independent female hero is clearly a child of feminism” (Schubart 6).

In the recent 2017 movie Wonder Woman we are subjected to a new and improved Wonder Woman. A new look, a new actress, but the same beliefs. She challenges the patriarchal society she found herself in during WWI, and also challenges what is happening in the 21st century. It made its way to a $100 million debut in its opening weekend, becoming the biggest blockbuster ever directed by a woman (Gibson). The world finally got the female superhero movie it desperately needed. It is a great example of female agency for the superhero genre, since she is one of the few women in the hero industry, especially in DC comics. June 2nd, 2017 was a particularly good time to release a movie starring a female superhero because that was the year of the largest single-day protest in United States history, The Women’s March (Fisher).

America was divided at the time due to the recent inauguration of the new president of the United States, Donald Trump. Women and men both felt the need to send the message of women’s rights to our new president and pave the way for a year of feminist movements. This inspired people in the public eye, including celebrities, to stand up against the Trump administration and fight for women everywhere. Also, in honor of International Women’s Day, a statue called Fearless Girl was installed on Wall Street in New York. It was a sculpture of a girl bravely facing adversity, and it is appropriately placed in front of the charging bull statue, signifying standing up to the patriarchy (Fisher). 2017 was a big year for feminism, and the new Wonder Woman really embraced that and released at a time when women needed it most.

A super hero is defined as “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself” (Gray 1). Wonder Woman perfectly exemplifies this definition. She is sacrificing herself every day for those who are not of her own people. So why did it take so long for Wonder Woman to have the spotlight? For so long, Hollywood only saw women through the men they were associated with. Women only existed to give the men motivation or to make them better in comparison. On the screen, “the image of woman becomes merely the trace of the exclusion and repression of Woman because within a sexist ideology and a male-dominated cinema, woman is presented as what she represents for man” (Todd 44).

The men are represented as the aggressive subject, while women are the submissive object in most cinema. For example, Lois Lane in “Superman” is never really her own character. She is always doing something pertaining to Superman. Whether it is writing articles about him at work, or being the victim he constantly needs to save. There is a test that was invented in 1985 by Alison Bechdel called the Bechdel-test. The criteria for the Bechdel-test is: The movie needs at least two women with names in it, who talk to each other, about something other than a man. Lois Lane never has any friends on screen, and if she is ever talking to someone, it is about Superman. Modern films have gotten a little better about creating movies with female protagonists, and not just in the superhero genre. But just because a movie has a strong female lead, does not mean it passes the Bechdel-test. Movies like “The Avengers”, “La La Land”, and “Tomb Raider” are very successful movies, each with powerful women in it that did not pass the Bechdel-test. 2017’s Wonder Woman however, does indeed pass the test.

Wonder Woman is not afraid to tell men, or anyone, how she really feels about a subject. Some of the best parts of the movie are when she speaks her mind about feminist issues. For example, when Diana first meets Steve’s secretary, she is confused by the foreign concept. Once the secretary explains that she caters to Steve’s every need, Diana claps back with, “Where I come from, that’s called slavery” (Wonder Woman). Diana is also unimpressed with women’s modern-day fashion. She tries on many weird and constricting dresses, trying to blend in with society. “It’s itchy”, “It’s choking me”, and “I can’t fight in this,” (Wonder Woman) are just a few of the problems she raises when trying on “proper clothing” for the time. One of the best times when Diana gives Steve a piece of her mind is when he tries to stop her from killing who she believes to be Ares, and she tells him, “What I do is not up to you” (Wonder Woman).

This becomes one of the famous lines from the movie, making it into the trailer to help show Diana’s personality. A more controversial line in the film would be when Diana grabs the arm of an attacker and hurls him across a room, saving one of Steve’s friends from getting killed, a man comments that he is “both frightened, and aroused” (Wonder Woman). At first, this comment could be a bit frustrating in terms of empowering women. It sexualizes a woman being tough, and it also implies that strong women are intimidating and not attractive. But actually, it is a reference to the fact that most of the time, women being both strong and attractive is difficult for men to wrap their head around.

This acknowledges that this is a superhero who combines strength and beauty, not making them opposites of one another. Gal Gadot’s specific take on Wonder Woman clearly shows that she values her femininity and womanhood but is never intimidated by fighting alongside or against men in battle (Gibson). Wonder Woman is still a great feminist icon after so many years after Marston first created her because she stands for the idea that balance is the key to equality. She embraces both the masculinity and femininity inside of her which makes for a great superhero. Mastering both the “tenderness and the tenacity—is a sign of strength” (Gibson).

There is another thing that contributes to Wonder Woman’s success, the complete lack of the male gaze. The male gaze is when “films show women through a masculine viewpoint where woman are the object of male affection or pleasure” (Giambanco). The superhero genre uses the male gaze quite frequently in their films. There are three types of male gazes: the gaze of the male camera operator, the gaze of the “male” spectator, and the gaze of the male character. Nothing can be helped about the gaze of the spectators watching the movie, but at least in the movie the male gaze was eradicated. Diana was not in the film for male pleasure, there are no shots where it is just eye candy. There was not one scene where she used her looks to gain anything or to claim victory.

Diana knew her strength and skillset were enough to get to where she wanted to go and what she wanted to accomplish. By refusing to submit to the idea that she was only on screen for the attention of men, she breaks the infamous male gaze. Even though she isn’t letting her looks get in the way of her goals, Diana never compromises her femininity. Some female leads gain respect or credibility when they try to act like strong male figures, but not Wonder Woman. She knows she can be both feminine and strong without compromising anything. Having a female director on a superhero film set could be what really demolished the male gaze once and for all in this movie. The director, Patty Jenkins, used her feminine eye to allow Diana to tell her own story with her own point of view, and not let men overpower it (Giambanco).

What sets Wonder Woman apart from other characters in the movie as well as other superheroes, is the fact that she is not only a woman, but as it turns out, her secret weapon is not any of her powers or gadgets, it is her strong empathy. She is barely able to walk through a town without stopping to help anyone in need. She truly believes in “—peacefulness and esteem for human life; a diminishment of both ‘masculine’ aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts” (Berlatsky 14).

There is a point in the movie where Wonder Woman thinks she has finally slain Ares and saved the whole world from war and killing. But when nothing happens, and people continue to fight, Steve has to explain to her that war is not just one person’s fault. “Maybe people aren’t always good” (Wonder Woman). This concept is difficult for Diana to understand, she is used to people being good and only being corrupted from outside forces. She starts to doubt herself for coming to help the Man’s World because she realizes they do not deserve her help, and Steve agrees. “Maybe—maybe we don’t. But it’s not about that, it’s about what you believe. You don’t think I get it after what I’ve seen out there? You don’t think I wish I could tell you it was one bad guy to blame? It’s not. We’re all to blame” (Wonder Woman). This is a pivotal point in the movie for Wonder Woman. She believes in equality and justice and most of all, love. It could be possible that it is her femininity that allows her to have such empathy for others, because we have not seen anything quite like it in other superhero movies starring men.

This movie breaks not just the female superhero stereotype, but stereotypes on sexuality as well. Every superhero in history has had a heteronormative view on sexuality, or at least that is what the audience is presented with. This is the first time where boundaries were broken related to the controversial topic in a superhero movie. Diana and Steve were sailing to London on a boat from Diana’s home, Themyscira, when they start talking about controversial topics for back in the early 1900’s. Or for a superhero genre film at all. Diana pokes fun at Steve for not sleeping beside of her.

“So, you cannot sleep with me unless you marry me? —There’s plenty of room” (Wonder Woman). Then they dive in to more specific topics: reproductive biology and the pleasures of the flesh. It is during this conversation that sexuality becomes more fluid. “—men are essential for procreation, but when it comes to pleasure—unnecessary” (Wonder Woman). This line indicates that the Amazons on Themyscira, and possibly Diana, have participated in sexual activities with one another, challenging the heteronormative history of the superhero genre. This is a big step for the genre, especially because it is a woman who is breaking the boundaries first, instead of waiting for her other men counterparts to do it first.

Some would argue that the recent movie is not as feminist as they would have hoped. It has been said that, “The first step to qualify as female hero is a man’s world is to be young and beautiful” (Schubart 5). Seeing Gal Gadot on the movie poster wearing very revealing armor was a big trigger for many. Fighting a war in a very short skirt and high heels can be very impractical. In Hollywood, there is a “patriarchal studio system that codifies the status of star actresses as prize commodities who must be seen to be sold” (Todd 44). Hollywood feels the need to dress their women actresses a certain way in order to make more money.

This is the hyper sexualization of women, by Hollywood and by the average person. Hollywood always does what sells, and if sex sells, that’s on the audience as well. Another criticism of the movie is the fact that a whole island of Amazonian women looks like models. It seems like the fact they were all so good looking just contributes to the male fantasy of thousands of women warriors alone on an island. Apparently, there has also been feminist debates on Wonder Woman’s hairlessness. If she was on a woman only island her whole life with no modern technology or traditions, then why is she completely hairless? People are asking whether feminism is being traded for the ideal female aesthetic (Gibson). There is a minor detail relating to the island where Diana is from, “Themyscira”. Whenever she said the name of her home in the movie, it sounded like she was saying the word, “mascara”.

Mascara is one of the most commonly used makeup items, and it’s used primarily by women. This makes it seem like whoever came up with the name didn’t get very creative or think outside of the box when it comes to thinking of something for an island of women. Not only is Wonder Woman’s appearance up for debate, but so are some of the comments made in the movie. Characters constantly address Diana as “the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen” (Wonder Woman) and have a hard time getting past her looks. The men who accompany her on her mission to fight against Germany’s WWI forces are distracted by the fact that she is from an island of all women who look just as stunningly gorgeous as she does.

In conclusion, 2017’s Wonder Woman is a groundbreaking film that has broken age-old stereotypes. She is a superhero that stands for feminism and equality and believes in the overall goodness of man. But what she really did was set an example for when the world really needed her. In times of uncertainty, this strong, feminine, superhero gave people something to look up to. Women do not have to be objects of the male gaze, they can have their own stories and empowering lives. While the movie may not be the absolute perfect example of feminism, it was a big step in Hollywood towards the right direction.

Works Cited

  1. Bastién, Angelica Jade. “The Strange, Complicated, Feminist History of Wonder Woman’s Origin Story.” Vulture, Vulture, 8 June 2017, www.vulture.com/2017/06/wonder-woman-origin-story-the-strange-feminist-history.html.
  2. Berlatsky, Noah. Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948. Rutgers University Press. 2015. Print.
  3. Fisher, Lauren Alexis. “The 15 Best Moments for Women in 2017.” Harper’s BAZAAR, Harper’s BAZAAR, 20 Dec. 2017, www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/g14456966/best-moments-for-women-2017/.
  4. Giambanco, Gabriella. “How ‘Wonder Woman’ Destroyed The Male Gaze In Movies.” Thought Catalog, Thought Catalog, 3 Oct. 2017, thoughtcatalog.com/gabriella-giambanco/2017/10/how-wonder-woman-destroyed-the-male-gaze-in-movies/.
  5. Gibson, Sarah. “Here’s Why ‘Wonder Woman’ Is a Step Forward For Feminism.” Highsnobiety, Highsnobiety, 19 June 2017, www.highsnobiety.com/2017/06/14/wonder-woman-feminist/.
  6. Gray, Richard J. and Kaklamanidou, Betty. The 21st Century Superhero. McFarland & Company, Inc. Print.
  7. Lepore, Jill. “The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Oct. 2014, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/origin-story-wonder-woman-180952710/.
  8. Schubart, Rikke. Super Bitches and Action Babes. McFarland & Company, Inc. 2007. Print.
  9. Todd, Janet. Women and Film. Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc. 1988. Print.
  10. Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins, performances by Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, Warner Brothers, 2017.
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