by Andrea Ayres
Two panels. Two vastly different views of Wonder Woman, the movie.
It is one of the last panels of Comic-Con, a discussion of how to move beyond the strong female character. The audience skews mostly female, not surprising considering the topic. It only takes a few minutes for the film Wonder Woman to be mentioned and when it is, the audience erupts in applause.
It was a vastly different response to others I’d experienced elsewhere at Comic-Con. This group cheers while another sighs, disappointed for the representation of their bodies and voices that never quite seems to materialize. All of these women had seen the same film but had experienced it in distinctly different ways.
Released domestically on June 2, 2017, the DC Comics movie from Warner Bros. has quickly become the highest grossing domestic film of the summer, making over $750 million worldwide. Directed by Patty Jenkins (Monster) with writing from Allan Heinberg, Zach Snyder and Jason Fuchs, the film has also been received warmly by critics. It’s been a welcome success for the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) which has been marred by a string of lackluster box office performances.
Women led films are exceedingly rare in Hollywood, those given a budget of $150 Million places Jenkins in a league of her own. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Jenkins says she cannot take on the history of over 50% of the world’s population simply because she’s a woman. That, of course, hasn’t stopped people from trying to task her with exactly that.
Opportunities like the one Jenkins was given are so few and far between that when they do come along, there’s an almost inevitability to the kind of pressure Jenkins refers to. As fans, we want to see the movie do well. Hell, not just well, we want to see the movie blow past even the most hardened skeptics expectations. A preemptive strike against those who would write off the success as anomaly or use the film as an example for why diversity in popular culture just doesn’t sell (P.S. it does).
Shortly after Wonder Woman’s release, women began sharing their deeply emotional experiences with the film on social media. From Diana’s (Gal Gadot) childhood on an island of women, to exquisite battle sequences, to being hushed and trivialized by male characters, it was simply something we hadn’t seen depicted so well on film before. For many, the first thirty minutes of film showing women delighting in battle, in power, and competition were some of the most emotionally charged of the film.
The movie gave women’s bodies space to breathe during action scenes. It’s a visual audiences are not generally afforded. Not only does the camera not shy away from the full power of a bodies in motion, it slowed them down. It demanded the audience appreciate the relationship of grace, muscle, and power of the Amazonians. The film allows for physical strength to coexist with emotion. Indeed, it is only through Diana’s ownership of her emotional core that she is able to realize her true potential as a demigoddess. The film is a triumph some 75 years in the making. That triumph, however, does not come without tiresome and predictable caveats.
During the Sunday afternoon panel about moving beyond the strong female character, writer Alicia Lutes (Nerdist) talked about the internal conflict she experienced reviewing Wonder Woman. While she enjoyed the movie, she did not believe it was flawless. Lutes spoke of the pressure she felt as a woman to help lift this movie up precisely because these opportunities for women in film, in particular women warriors in film, are so rare. Ultimately, Lutes reviewed the movie faithfully and honestly to how she experienced it, but wanted to discuss this inner struggle at Comic-Con. That struggle is an important inflection point.
On the first day of Comic-Con, the Women in Comics Collective (WinC) hosted a panel to discuss race, gender, and diversity in comics. It was a panel comprised entirely of women of color, a rarity not only at Comic-Con but across nearly all forms of media. Mention of Wonder Woman solicited murmurs and sighs from the audience. Panelists shook their heads and exhaled a sigh for what might have been.
Speaking over email with Regine Sawyer (creator and organizer of WinC) I asked her to share her thoughts about Wonder Woman and the disconnect between how white women and women of color seemed to experience the film.
“I think there’s a disconnect in terms of how the film can be received as both barrier breaking and stifling. For white women, it breaks the barrier for their narrative, but not that of women of color due to how the WoC in the movie were portrayed. As Black Women, we are very much used to putting ourselves in another’s shoes, and resonating with them. That’s due to us being accustomed to not seeing ourselves reflected in the media and in history. With that said, I enjoyed Wonder Woman immensely, but would have liked to see the WoC characters have more pivotal and active roles on the island…yes they could fight, but where was the heart?”
Where was the heart? It was a sentiment that would be felt and expressed numerous times during Comic-Con, including at the Roxane Gay question and answer session Saturday morning. It was an opportunity not seized to expand the role and visibility of women of color in a major summer film.
When I asked Sawyer about the portrayal of Artemis (Ann J. Wolfe) and Philippus (Ann Ogbomo) in the movie she said: “What I find the most interesting about those characters, is that I don’t remember much about them. There were more than several women of color in those first scenes, and although it was wonderful to have visual representation, most of them had very few to no lines at all. For me, they faded out as quickly as they faded in. They were apart of the ambiance, but not the story.”
Over a year ago, writer Ira Hobbs (Blavity) talked about the important role black women have in the canon of Wonder Woman and expressed his fears about the upcoming film. In May, just before film’s release, writers Maya Rupert (The Atlantic) and Monique Jones (Slash Film) discussed their complicated relationship with DC Comic’s Wonder Woman as well as their hopes for the film. Each expressed a guarded, tentative optimism that the filmmakers might use use their unique position to update and highlight the roles of women of color within Themyscira.
In a piece published after Wonder Woman’s release, Cameron Glover (Harper’s Bazaar) examined the movie’s problematic depictions of black women. Glover delves into issues like the use of the black caretaker trope and erasure and diminishment of important characters, like Diana’s sister Nubia and leader of the Amazon military, Philippus. At the conclusion of Glover’s piece, she acknowledges the film as an immense step forward for women and women-led filmmaking. And there is little doubt that it is exactly that, but it was close to being so much more to so many more.
Sawyer is not under any misapprehension of who the film was meant to be about, “Wonder Woman was the main character, but if she is going to have supporting characters, let them be such. Let them have a leg and a voice to stand on. There were several high ranking officials on the island that were WoC, it would have been wonderful to hear more from them.”
It’s not about making the perfect film or even believing that any single work could fully address or correct the ills of society. It’s about propelling ourselves and the media we create to push beyond visibility. It’s about taking that leap to ensure that everyone has a voice, because too often white women expect other women to support and applaud their steps forward even as they themselves are held back, erased, or excluded.
We sat in theatres crying with pride, with joy, and in reflection of what it meant to see a place like Themyscira on film through the lens of a female director. We posted images of children dressed as Wonder Woman under the banner of “Representation matters!” And if this is true, then the representation of us all must matter to each of us always.
For more information about the Women in Comics Collective: WinC will be hosting events during NYCC 2017, both on and offsite. Check their website womenincomicsnyc and their Twitter Account @Womenincomicsny for updates.