What Wonder Woman Taught us about Portraying Strong Women

Written by Simone le Roux

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Before you say a word, I know that there is a hype train a mile long for the most recent Wonder Woman movie. I know that everyone is singing its praises and frankly it’s getting a little old. Can’t I just be a bit edgier by saying I didn’t enjoy it?

Nope.

Friends, I am on that mile-long hype train. I’m at the very front, sitting with the conductor and screaming “YESYESYES” in place of a train whistle. It’s not because this is a female-led movie, and it’s not because the director is a woman. It’s not even because the fight scenes are goddamn breath-taking. I loved Wonder Woman to death because it was a masterclass in portraying strong women – and women in general – in cinema. Let me explain.

It should go without saying that this contains spoilers, but here I am, saying it anyway before you read on.

The Backstory

Wonder Woman is tough. No one can deny that. She storms across German-occupied Belgium without blinking an eye while wearing a leotard. Her background, however, is anything but tough. She grew up in the most beautiful place imaginable, surrounded by art, classic architecture, books and an array of tutors. She is adored by her mother and all the other Amazons, who are the epitome of cool aunts. If anything, her childhood is almost too delightful.

And this matters. You see, strong women in cinema generally have to have a horrible backstory or awful childhood in order to become tough. Sarah Connor gets attacked by the Terminator and knocked up in the same day, Black Widow has the Red Room, Lara Croft suffers the tragic death of her father, Elsa and Anna from Frozen suffer years of isolation after the death of their parents. It’s almost as though women can’t just be brave and tough with a strong sense of right and wrong. They can only become that way if something truly awful happens to them.

This isn’t the same treatment that male action heroes get in cinema. John Wick was a badass long before the untimely demise of his wife (and puppy), John McClane messes up his marriage (by being kind of an asshole) but he was always a decent cop before that. Dominic Torretto grew up in a rough neighbourhood but mainly got to pursue his car obsession with enough relatively stable relationships to support him. My point is, most badass male protagonists don’t have to go to hell and back before they become protagonists. They just naturally have a strong sense of justice and an uncanny ability to evade death.

Don’t get me wrong, I think telling the stories of victims and survivors is important and should keep happening – I will sing the praises of Jessica Jones all damn day – but it’s just incredibly refreshing to see a woman who is incredible because that’s who she is. Women can be born that way too.

Wonder Woman’s Grace

Wonder Woman (aka Diana) does not wear pants once throughout the film. She is either in her cool Themyscuran robes, her Wonder Woman battle outfit, or her several disguises as a normal human woman (which are all dresses or skirts). When we see her in present day, her outfits are all tasteful, functional, simple and feminine. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel outfit envy several times. The noteworthy thing about it is that she clearly doesn’t feel like she has to dress like a man or be like a man at all to be taken seriously. She is a woman, she wears dresses and she kicks ass. She isn’t afraid of expressing her femininity. She doesn’t see a reason to be ashamed of it or to dress in a more masculine manner.

This is reflected again and again throughout the movie. She never uses her sexuality to get what she wants, but she does use her innate softness and femininity. She loves babies unashamedly, she is kind to everyone she meets, she takes the suggestions of her team mates seriously and she is diplomatic and courteous with her fellow Amazons when she is trying to get her way.

Many other movies with strong female protagonists have a tough time striking this balance. Black Widow consistently uses her sexuality and the fact that men don’t take her seriously to her advantage. Tomb Raider is basically kind of rude to everyone, Lettie from Fast and the Furious is a straight-up Tomboy. There is nothing wrong with being any of these things, but what Wonder Woman makes clear is that you do not have to emulate ‘strong’ men to be a strong woman. You can like dresses and babies, as well as be kind. Those are strengths. Being feminine is not seen as a weakness in this movie.

The scene that probably touched my heart the most is the one where Diana and her team are moving out from the village they just saved to infiltrate a gala being held by the Germans. Charlie, the quintessential Scottish character, is feeling ashamed that he couldn’t be of much help in the previous day’s battle because of his crippling PTSD (more on that later). He says he shouldn’t carry on with the team anymore because he isn’t useful. Diana then smiles this really beautiful, genuine smile and says something along the lines of “But you have to come. Who else will sing for us?” It’s this incredibly graceful move on her part, where she is gently showing Charlie that she can see his worth past his PTSD and that she truly cares for him regardless of how useful he can or can’t be. It is kind without being pitying. It’s truly an example of her using her softness as a strength and being a leader.

Girls need a rolemodel who shows them that they can be heroes regardless of their sexuality, of how they dress and of how they feel. Wonderwoman does a beautiful job of showing us that this is possible.

The Men

Although the movie is clearly female-led, the men are so important in the portrayal of both the women in the film and how women in film ought to be treated.

One of the things that made Wonder Woman exceptional was that all the men, heroes and villains, were brilliant characters individually. Each one clearly had an interesting personality, skill and background that made them genuinely interesting to watch. There is often the temptation when portraying a strong female lead to write male characters as hopeless idiots, emphasising how capable the woman is. For every Hermoine, there is an accompanying Ron. Even The Force Awakens, which had a brilliant and loveable female lead in Rey, fell in to this trap by writing Finn as slightly clueless and panicky under pressure in spite of his strict military background. This is not only lazy character development, but it creates the idea that for women to be strong and smart, men must be less so.

The men in Wonder Woman are certainly in awe of Diana – who could blame them? – but they aren’t overwhelmed by her. Steve argues with her more than once and tells her when she is wrong. He chooses a different team member to infiltrate the gala with him because Dianna’s skills aren’t suited to espionage. The movie even shows Diana messing up the mission a bit because of her stubbornness in attending the gala anyway. Diana only finds it necessary to best a man intellectually once, in a battle of languages with Sameer. She knows more languages than him because she literally grew up in a culture where languages are important, and once they both realise he’s beaten, she doesn’t lord it over him and he doesn’t get all sulky about it. There is still a mutual respect of their different skill sets.

The mutual respect among Diana and her team mates is a joy to watch. While Sameer comments on her looks and flirts with her a bit upon their first meeting, it becomes clear that this is more light banter than a reflection of intention. He does not spend the movie doggedly trying to charm her. In fact, after the initial meeting of the team, very few references to her looks are made at all. It is understood that she has skills and worth beyond her beauty, so it becomes inconsequential. When she takes off her coat to kick ass in her tiny Wonderwoman outfit, not a single wolf whistle or catcall is heard because actually the outfit means shit’s about to get real and not that a show is about to start. During fights, Steve backs her up rather than trying to save her and each one helps the other play to their strengths. Likewise Diana realises that she can’t know everything and defers to her teammates for advice or information.

The same can be seen in the relationship between Dr Maru and her superior Ludendorff. Their roles are clearly defined and respected. He doesn’t tell her how to create formulas for new poisons, choosing instead to encourage her and push her when she is frustrated. Likewise, she does not try to tell him how she thinks he should lead and instead uses her talents to find a way to empower him (so to speak). Even for truly evil people, they have a commendable relationship. Furthermore, in an intensely male-dominated environment, there is never a single reference to Dr Maru’s obvious facial injury. No one implies that she is broken or even ugly. It is clear that she was probably evil before the injury and continued to be evil after, just looking mildly more sinister. Her injury is in fact only referenced at the very end of the movie when Aries removes her face mask in an attempt to horrify Diana. It doesn’t work very well.

The male characters were also crafted to be both realistic and vulnerable. Perhaps Diana’s own unabashed kindness and softness supports this, but no one on her team is overtly macho. The writing decision to include Charlie, a Scottish sharpshooter with PTSD, was a stroke of brilliance. It dulls the often romanticised edge of a war movie with a reminder of all of the broken souls that stepped out of the trenches once the fighting was done. He has horrible nightmares that make him aggressive and haunting anxiety that often robs him of his shooting talent. His teammates don’t deride him or cut him loose, but choose to see his value and even teach Diana an important lesson about the trauma of war on others.

It would be remiss to leave out Diana’s relationship with Steve. Deviating slightly from the comics, Steve was not portrayed as a swaggering, arrogant, womanising man’s man. Rather, he was given a Captain America-esque, all-American charm with the haunted gaze that comes from seeing the most horrific war in human history unfold. His interest in women is sent right to the back of his mind by his sense of duty, and that makes him both more realistic and likeable. He is not willing to cut his plans short to help Diana, instead standing his ground and insisting on finishing his mission before helping her. He explains his decision to her as politely as possible without being patronising. As mentioned previously, he is unafraid of arguing with her but he also does not act sulky or emasculated when she later saves his life from assassins. He truly respects that she is stronger than him, and smarter in some respects, while being comfortable and happy with his unique and valuable skill set.

When the two of them do sleep together, I must admit that I held my breath for a second, genuinely concerned that this would be the part that messed up the movie. I was pleasantly surprised. It is subtly made clear that Steve is ready to just drop Diana off in her hotel room and go to bed, ignoring the sexual tension between them. It’s only when Diana gives him a dead obvious come hither look that he even goes in to her room. Even then, he is slow and clearly trying to be respectful. It ends up being a genuinely sweet scene. The best part about this is the next day, as the two continue on their mission with the rest of the team. If you hadn’t seen the previous scene showing them hooking up, you wouldn’t even know it happened because Steve doesn’t treat her any differently. He doesn’t start calling her pet names, he doesn’t get weird or over protective, he doesn’t get awkward. He just keeps on treating her like a respected team member because that’s exactly what she is to him first and foremost. They both know that affection has no place on this mission and they’re both secure enough not to need constant validation, which is how it should be.

Hollywood, world, take note. To have a strong female character, you don’t have to take away everything feminine about her, you don’t have to make her a tragedy and you don’t have to put men down. Much like in real life, women can be tough and kind, respectful and respected, teachers and learners. Basically, women are human beings and maybe if we started treating them like that in movies, it would happen more in real life.


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