How Wonder Woman Subverts Superhero Movie Gender Tropes

Wonder Woman doesn't just subvert superhero movie gender tropes, it does it in clever ways.
Delia Harrington
June 3, 2017
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This article contains Wonder Woman spoilers.
 
From start to finish, Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman thoroughly subverts the gender-based tropes of the superhero genre by ensuring it is thoroughly Diana's story. All other storytelling decisions stem from that, in the same way that so many other movies sideline women by forcing them to function only as support or inspiration to the men in the story, or as walking, talking set dressing. Instead, Steve Trevor and the other men serve in the supporting role to Diana and the other women in the film. For a movie like Wonder Woman, something like the Bechdel Test seems laughable - as it should. The Bechdel Test is an intentionally low bar, meant to show how few movies can pass even its most basic requirements. At a time when superhero movies starring men named Chris or even Steve still outnumber those starring women, it feels like the collective real world hopes of so many were on Diana Prince's shoulders, just like those of everyone in her fictional world.
 
The movie's first act is a rare occurrence in film: a whole section that is almost entirely devoid of men. Which means that not only do women dominate the screen for once, they actually get to have the speaking roles too. Themyscira, Diana’s homeland, is an island populated solely by the Amazons, strong women of all shapes, sizes, and races. They wear the most functional clothing I've ever seen in a superhero movie, because it was designed without considering the male gaze, but rather what women warriors would need and appreciate. Their bodies are powerful, rather than merely tiny. Their training is anything but dainty and they do not hold back. To reinforce the point that the bodies of women in this movie will be treated differently, we see Steve in the standard fan service bathtub scene instead of Diana, complete with a degree of nudity that is usually reserved for women, while she remains largely covered throughout the film.
 
From their first meeting, the tone for Diana and Steve's relationship is set when she rescues him. Or, in her words, "plucks him from the sea." As a friend pointed out and this fan video suggests, this was almost shot-for-shot the Little Mermaid rescue. Steve spends almost the entire movie back on his heels, in awe of Diana and unsure of himself. At one point, Steve is literally at Diana's feet, looking up at her, impressed. As they explore Europe, Diana is curious about Steve's world, but there are no shots of her wistfully pining for this mystery man - she's too busy trying to find the war so she can stop it.
 
Unlike Ariel, our Diana never gives up her voice. Diana is always an active agent of change within the movie, contrary to the perception of women in pop culture. She directs the course of events, whether it's getting on a boat to England, heading to the front, crossing No Man's Land, going to the gala, or fighting Ares. When others attempt to contain or quiet her, she listens and makes an informed choice in line with her principles.
 
When a marginalized group is working towards true equity, there are many steps and stumbles along the way. For example, tokenization, which with women is known as Smurfette Syndrome, is commonplace. One inclination is to only portray members of the group in a positive light, in a misguided attempt to overcorrect past or current injustices, which may include demonization of the group. While this goal is noble in intent, it doesn’t really do anyone any good, and that’s why I was happy to see that in Wonder Woman, the villains, too, break gender barriers, with a woman as Dr. Poison, one of the three evil-doers. Real inclusion means nuanced characters throughout stories, not just positive representation. More parts for women across the board means more jobs for women actresses, which is always a good thing. Moreover, women villains, in particular, have often been allowed to transgress the norms of our gender in a way that roles for heroines have not been. This means that the meatier roles that push forward on what is permissible for women on screen have often been villains, making villains vital to our progress for our on-screen representation.
 
Steve is capable, but he is nowhere near as strong as Diana - and that's as it should be. After all, as we eventually learn, she is a demigod. Every time Steve warns her to stay put or stay back, she ignores him, and it always turns out for the best, similar to Rey and Finn in The Force Awakens. In an alley in London, Steve lands one head butt and one punch while Diana takes out nearly everyone else, and Etta with Diana's sword and shield comes in for back up. Perhaps the strongest demonstration was Steve actually learning a technique from the Amazons. In the battle to liberate the village, Steve gets the gang to use the "shield" technique he saw the Amazons use on the beach of Themyscira, to literally and figuratively assist Diana in her triumph. Meanwhile Etta is running point back in the office, a position usually reserved for a man. While this suggestion was likely made by Ares so he could keep tabs on her, she is clearly trusted and capable, and I hope we see more of her in future films.
 
In the movie's third act, Steve carries on the time-honored tradition of comic book love interests: he is fridged. It looks like all is lost and our hero is giving up hope, but Diana sees Steve's plane flying off into the distance, and she knows he is trying to spare innocent civilians, so she can live to save humanity another day. Steve's sacrifice, and his final words to her, propel her into the final phase of the battle. In this sense, Steve's death is a classic fridging: he dies to inspire her to action. His gender, however, makes it an excellent subversion of the trope, something we rarely see. Finn on The 100 is one of the few examples that comes to mind, since most men who seem to be fridged are really dead men defrosting, which Steve might still prove to be.
 
Why does this matter? The business case is clear: women aren't interested in stereotypes, and we won't put up with them anymore; we're voting with our dollars. But more importantly, what we're shown in movies and television has real world consequences, starting from a young age. Research shows positive women characters can actually help motivate women to be more ambitious in the real world, or even to break free from abusive relationships. However, the same study showed there aren't enough of those role models out there yet. If that's not a call to action, I don't know what is.
 
At a time when we still have to fight tooth and nail for every story featuring women and every woman behind the scenes, it's incredibly important to recognize when these stories are well crafted and successful. Wonder Woman puts Diana in the driver's seat like so many other male heroes have done before, and it shouldn't be news, but it is. We’ve seen this happen most successfully on television - Buffy, Veronica Mars, some of the women on Mad Men, Agent Carter, Supergirl, Sweet/Vicious - but they’re not without their problems. All of these stories have been less successful with race and queerness than I and many others would like. Sexual violence has also been a stumbling block for Buffy and Veronica Mars, and recently even Supergirl has faced criticism for sidelining it’s women, including queer women, for a man. Too often, even when these stories make it to the big screen, the character is gutted, or it's all men behind the scenes, or the movie's no fun. Just like in real life, what men simply expect, women have to celebrate as finally having it all.
June 13, 2017