James Cameron’s criticism of the recent Wonder Woman film as objectifying an icon, rather than celebrating feminism, is perfectly valid. For anyone who wants to dismiss his statements as the sexist ramblings of a misogynist — I’m a minority woman here to defend his position.
I completely agree that the latest iteration of Wonder Woman is a pseudo-feminist puff piece tailored to please Hollywood and mainstream moviegoers, both male and female, who are fixated on political correctness. As Cameron notes, it is a significant “step back” for women in film, marking a return to the notion that strong female characters can only be so if they are also physically attractive and morally incorruptible. Instead of depicting a more complex character who struggles and fights her way to a position of power and earns her hero status, Wonder Woman’s aspirational female hero is not a real woman at all, but an Amazonian princess who can jump tall buildings and flick off bullets with her bracelets, all the while captivating any man she comes in contact with.
Frankly, I found the bulk of the plot and the characterization of Wonder Woman herself to be inherently sexist. For God’s sake, it’s not as though we can argue against the fact that part of the film’s draw and the appeal of Gal Gadot as its star is her exceptional good looks. Furthermore, despite being touted as a feminist milestone and a narrative that does not cater to the male gaze, the film still plays up Wonder Woman’s sexualized, childlike naiveté and her overtly feminine emotional reactions to a disturbing degree. When stripped of her inhumane Amazonian physical powers, she’s nothing but a bustier-wearing, one-dimensional, cardboard cut-out of what society wants a woman to be: a virginal sweetheart, a damsel in distress, and an innocently angelic crusader for the oppressed, all in one package.
I acknowledge with trepidation director Patty Jenkins’ response to Cameron’s call for a “stronger” female hero, suggesting that Wonder Woman deserves feminist creds for being both “attractive and loving.” It may well be empowering for some women to see a female character who is paradoxically stunning and kind, as well as brilliant, physically buff, or any other superlative combination of qualities depicted on screen. But, I cannot agree that all women who wish to self-identify as feminists should be force fed the misleading notion that objective sexiness or beauty is a prerequisite quality for being a hero: that to be a hero, you have to be superhuman. As a feminist, I certainly don’t.
When first watching the film, I wondered — no pun intended — would Wonder Woman be the same if she were not a six-foot goddess, or if she couldn’t command a room full of men with her spunk and charm? I simply cannot identify with Gal Gadot or Jenkins' vision of a hero. I question, what if I, with no makeup two weeks before finals, played Wonder Woman? What if Melissa McCarthy in her Sean Spicer get-up or Caitlin Jenner played Wonder Woman? What if a suburban soccer mom in flats and a baby food-splattered blouse or a crippled grandmother with a cane played Wonder Woman? Would the film still be a hit?
Perhaps Cameron’s biggest criticism of the film that I see as vitally true is that it sends an unrealistic message to women given the grim truth of what our sex faces in reality. Unfortunately, we have not yet evolved into a post-feminist society. Instead, today, we women still face the dangers of sexual assault, the threats of government policies seeking to control our bodies, and inherent sexism at school and work that impedes our abilities to achieve equality every single day. We struggle to reconcile our sense of femininity with our knowledge that appearing more conventionally masculine will help us survive and thrive at the top ranks of male-dominated fields. I myself can tell the difference in reaction at Princeton that I get in a floral dress verses a black tee shirt and jeans. This discrepancy is no mystery to women past a certain age, and thus we shouldn’t allow the next generation to be deluded by fictitious, idealized films such as Wonder Woman.
If there truly is no “right and wrong powerful woman” as Jenkins says, then we shouldn’t discredit all the women who came before us and the women today who struggle to feel pretty and yet intellectually accomplished, strong and yet soft, loving and yet emotionally flawed. As Cameron’s words suggest, the takeaway of a feminist film should be to unlearn the association between physical beauty and one’s sense of self-worth and to recognize that it’s okay to be a feminist icon who shows a little less perfection and a little more grit.
Hayley Siegel is a sophomore from Princeton, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.