Divulging the Feminist Facade of Wonder Woman

1862 words (7 pages) Essay in Film Studies

08/02/20 Film Studies Reference this

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Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, is a film that undoubtedly transformed the female perception in the superhero cinematic industry. Although the movie is promoted as a feminist film, the oblivious truth is that Wonder Woman was still sexualized through male gaze, presented as the innocent female stereotype, and showcased the need for women to be under control. So are we really moving towards a feminist cinema or disguising the sexism present by using a female lead? Through genre theory, mise-en-scene, and performance this paper will explain why superhero movies are failing to integrate feminism in their films.

The feminist film theory critiques the constant sexual representation of women and their relation to the dominance of male power in movies. Superhero movies evidently try to follow the narrative in the comic books, and as a result, they also adopt and implement the objectification of female superheroes. Dr. William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, stated that “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power… they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are”. [1]This exemplifies how the sole purpose of wonder women is to be deviant against that misogynistic female ideal that society wants women to be.

Killing the woman’s loved one is a common trope that allows film to portray women as tender and submissive. In this case, Wonder Woman faces the loss of her romantic partner Steve Trevor. On the contrary, male superheroes get to save their loved one from the villain, perpetuating the idea that women are fragile and must be fought for by men. Patty Jenkins tries to rework superhero conventions in order to challenge the Hollywood iconography gendered stereotype of a superheroine. What this movie fails to achieve is abolishing the objectification of women, a root cause of their negative position in Western culture.[2] Presenting feminist approaches to female desires and ambitions, diverts from the patriarchal portrayals of today’s films, potentially harming the financial success of the movie. For this reason, films evade integrating feminist ideals.   

In order to delve deeper into the female stereotype presented in superhero movies, we must first understand the theory behind film genres. Genre is an abstract concept of a particular mode of film that provides audiences with a kind of expected pleasure. This occurs as a result of genre taxonomy which refers to the classification of films according to the common themes, styles, and iconographies related to a certain topic. In other words, a person watches a certain movie because it has been previously classified according to its genre, allowing the individual to decide whether it appeals to his/her interests. Steve Neale states that “genres contain instances of repetition and difference, and that difference is vital to the economy of the genre”. [3] This means that a film must match a genre’s conventions to be classified as that genre while simultaneously differentiating itself in the industry. 

The taxonomy for superhero movies is usually action, fantasy, and science fiction. The narrative involves an individual with a superpower who must fight an evil force whose powers possess a threat to humanity. As for female superheroes, they are always hypersexualized by a revealing attire, exemplifying the self-objectification and sexism that exists today. The female stereotype in this genre exhibits naivité which leads them to make the wrong choices hence needing the control of a hegemonic masculine figure. This stereotype is conveyed in Wonder Woman and in X-Men. In Wonder Woman, Diana goes to the world of men because she feels the need to save the world from war, as a result she tries to kill General Ludendorff at the ball when she wasn’t allowed too, and Steve has to restrain her from doing this. In X-Men, Mystique wants to assassin the anti-mutant senator and is stopped by the X-Men in order to prevent a dystopian future. In other words, the common trope of a female character is that women either need to be saved and are the prize for the male figure or they are the superheroine that makes wrong decisions and needs the presence of a man to prevent an awful outcome.

The mise-en-scene are all those elements of the shot that are staged in front of the camera at the time of filming. In super hero movies, the mise-en-scene plays an important role in developing the personality of the superhero while also giving meaning to the movie. The use of color, setting, costumes, body language, and props all enable the depiction of the main character as a hero. In Wonder Woman, the setting in Themyscira is presented with rich greens and blues while the world of men is presented in washed out greys[4]. This shift from resplendent hues to a dark landscape conveys a masculinized aesthetic since Themyscira, “the land of women” is ignorant to the atrocious reality of the world of men. The costume and props also play an important role in emphasizing how women are sexualized in the film industry. Wonder Woman is presented in a short revealing attire that highlights her curves, compromising her action since the low angle shots show fractions of her body as she spins through the air.

Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist, emphasizes the relationship of cinematic pleasures and women through scopophilia. This concept enables cinema to build the way a woman is to be looked at which creates codes such as male gaze that foment desire in men: “Male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly”. [5] In Wonder Woman, male gaze is presented in the scene where she decides to cross into No Man’s Land. The scene is in slow motion, composed of 6 different close ups on her shield and armor that display her thighs while the men’s facial expressions in the background convey incredulity. This is followed by a long shot that shows her revealing attire while walking towards the camera. Being ‘sexy’ while saving the world is a misogynistic trope that interconnects power and sexuality, subverting other valuable female qualities. These cinematic codes must be broken down in order to create a feminist film that enables a woman to save the world without having to be hypersexualized nor depicted as ignorant.

Another element that exemplifies the lack of feminism in this genre is performance. Most female super heroes such as Black Widow, Wonder Woman, and Gamora fight by wrapping their bodies on the villain, demonstrating flexibility rather than strength. In contrast, their male counterparts such as Hulk or Thor use extreme force to highlight masculinity. Wonder Woman’s iconic stance exemplifies this issue by crossing her arms in front of her face as a way to defend herself, conveying her reluctance to fight. Male super heroes on the other hand use their fists to demonstrate embodiments of aggressive masculinity that depict them as powerful. The integration of superheroines is part of the post-feminist era, however, intertwining power and sexuality as patriarchal conventions inhibit feminist ideas from changing a sexually accustomed culture.

Laura Mulvey and Steve Neale aim to explain identification and the reason why today’s patriarchal conventions limit feminism on screen. Mulvey states that “A male movie star’s glamourous characteristics are not those of the erotic object…but those of …more powerful ideal ego”. [6] In other words, she sees the male figure as an object of the look due to his omnipotence and denies them to be seen as an erotic object. A woman would never acquire this admirable omnipotence because she provides the erotic element to the film while the man provides the spectatorial look. On the contrary, Neale expresses that male heroes can at times be marked as the object of an erotic gaze and that males are subject to voyeuristic looking on the part of the spectator. [7] This is often done by freezing the narrative in order to recognize the pleasure of display. In Wonder Woman, this is presented through mid and long shots on Steve’s exposed body which emphasize his masculinity. In contrast, when Diana is about to try on an outfit and begins to undress, Steve’s secretary covers her up and demands that she shouldn’t do that. Mulvey omits that men are also objectified and in contrast to women, hypersexualizing them enhances their image of omnipotence. In simpler terms, superhero movies have adopted this spectatorial look where male superheroes will be presented as the “ideal” power while female superheroes serve to satisfy the erotic “desire”.

 Although Wonder Woman brings a notion of feminism to the superhero world, this genre still implements patriarchal conventions and stereotypical female tropes. Transforming the male gaze from a hypersexualized scene to a more voyeuristic look where female strength and intellectual is emphasized, would allow this genre to move towards a successful engagement of feminism. Cinema, a primary medium to advocate feminism, leaves directors the responsibility to promote female power in the superhero world without exploiting their feminine physique.

Bibliography

  • Chandler, Daniel “An Introduction to Genre Theory” (1997) pp. 2
  • URL http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/intgenre/intgenre.htm
  • Kaplan, E. Ann ‘Beyond the Gaze: Recent Approaches to Film Feminism Special Issue’ Vol. 30, No. 1 (The University of Chicago Press 2004) pp.1236-1248
  • Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. (New York: Oxford UP 1999) pp. 833-44.
  • Neale, Steve “Masculinity as Spectacle” Vol. 24. No. 6 1983, pp 13-16
  • Tate, Chuck “The Psychology of Superheroes” Edited by Robin S. Rosenberg (2008) pp.148
  • Taylor, James C “Reconfiguring Gender and Genre in Wonder Woman” (The University of Warwick, 2017) pp.5

[1] Tate, Chuck “The Psychology of Superheroes” Edited by Robin S. Rosenberg (2008) pp.148

[2] Global Feminisms and the State of Feminist Film Theory Author(s): E. Ann Kaplan Source: Signs , Vol. 30, No. 1, Beyond the Gaze: Recent Approaches to Film FeminismsSpecial Issue EditorsKathleen McHugh and Vivian Sobchack (Autumn 2004), pp. 1236-1248 Published by: The University of Chicago Press

[3] Chandler, Daniel “An Introduction to Genre Theory” (1997) pp. 2

[4] Taylor, James C “Reconnnfiguring Gender and Genre in Wonder Woman” (The University of Warwick, 2017) pp.5

[5] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.

[6] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.

[7] Neale, Steve “Masculinity as Spectacle” Volume 24. Issue 6 1983, pp 13-16

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