By Elana Levin
When I first heard that Chris Pine had been cast as Steve Trevor in the Wonder Woman movie I was disappointed but unsurprised. I figured it would mean Diana would be interpreted as heterosexual and that is, frankly, a depressing prospect.
But watching the really excellent Wonder Woman movie challenged my perception of Diana’s sexuality on screen and made me address the way that even I, a bisexual person, have internalized heterosexism (ie the belief that heterosexuality is the norm) even in interpreting movies I want to watch with a queer lens.
While the Wonder Woman movie (like many movies) would be greatly improved by more clearly depicting lesbian relationships, there is no reason to read Wonder Woman as straight and fans, especially fans who want a more inclusive superhero universes, should not describe her as “straight”. Director Patty Jenkins and writer Allan Heinberg give us even more ammunition to challenge heterosexual interpretations of the character.
While Military Intelligence Officer Steve Trevor is a classic part of Diana’s origin story — providing her first exposure to the outside world and becoming a romantic interest, I was worried that casting a high profile actor in the role would mean that he would take up a lot of oxygen on screen. I didn’t want the DCEU’s first woman-lead story to spend too much time on a man.
Diana comes from a utopian society of women that has existed without men since its formation. Diana doesn’t need men to become a hero and I didn’t want her story to be a romance. But mostly, I worried that the presence of Steve Trevor would mean Diana would be interpreted as heterosexual.
Two of Wonder Woman’s co-creators Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne themselves lived in a bisexual polyamorous relationship with lead creator William Moulton Marston. While decades of censorship and a culture that presumes heterosexuality is the norm have lead a lot of readers and watchers to read Diana as straight, the notion that women raised in an entirely female society would be heterosexual is frankly preposterous.
Contemporary Wonder Woman stories, like Marguerite Bennett and Laura Braga’s Bombshell series (above), as well as modern creators like Gail Simone, Phil Jimenez and Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott have all made space for queer readings of the Amazons and Diana in particular. When journalist Matt Santori asked Wonder Woman writer Greg Rucka himself in a recent interview if Diana was queer he said that “Diana has been in love and had relationships with other women? As Nicola [Nicola Scott, artist] and I approach it, the answer is obviously yes.”
The case for reading the Amazons as a lesbian society is clear in the movie. Most people have sexual desires and needs and therefore you can’t have a women’s utopia without partnered sex. There are no men on Themyscira, so clearly women having romantic and sexual relationships with each other is the norm.
When one of the main Amazons dies on screen another Amazon we hadn’t seen before runs over to her immediately grabbing her body and mourning. The camera lingers on the couple for a while and most people I’ve spoken with, unprovoked by me, have assumed that other woman is the slain character’s wife.
Diana is from a place where same-sex romance is the norm. We know she is interested in sex because in her frank conversation with Steve on the small boat she brags of having read 13 books of Themysciran erotic treatises. I didn’t catch the books’ name, but it sounded like a mash-up of the Kama Sutra, Aristotle and Sappho.
She goes on to say these erotic treatises concluded that “men aren’t necessary for pleasure.” Now a viewer could interpret that as a statement about how great masturbation is and in fact Warner Brothers may be counting on viewers to read the scene that way. The notion of a society with only masturbation for sex is a preposterous interpretation against a more likely queer interpretation.
And here’s the crux: if anyone argues that Diana is heterosexual they are denying that characters, just like people, can be attracted to more than one gender. So the fact that the only romance we see Diana having in the movie is with a man in no way precludes her having romances with women before or after the movie.
I’m a bisexual woman who is married to a man (Hey handsome! Thanks for spellchecking this). Even though I am married to a man I am still bisexual. I regularly have to explain this fact to both straight and gay people who seem to believe that the gender of a person’s romantic partner dictates their sexual orientation. It doesn’t. Here’s a handy cartoon that is a visual metaphor of a pull-out couch illustrating what I mean.
The fact that I, a married bisexual woman had to check myself on saying that the movie made Diana straight is a sign of how ingrained heterosexual readings of films are. I knew that no matter what Warner Bros did MY Diana was bisexual. But I wrongly presumed the movie’s Diana wouldn’t be queer because she was bound to kiss Steve. Diana kisses Steve but she’s still queer.
The movie should have shown LGBTQ relationships in a blindingly clear light so that even the most heterosexist society couldn’t look away. Only a glaringly heterosexist society — like the one that LGBTQ people and intersectional feminists are fighting to free us from, would make Themyscira straight.
I know why the Wonder Woman movie allowed for barely plausible deniability of same-sex love. But viewers shouldn’t step into the opening the movie left and say that Diana is straight just because she doesn’t kiss any women on screen.
Themysciran society and Diana’s conversation on the boat make her attraction to women a better conclusion. The fact that she kisses a man and no women on screen doesn’t make her straight. The fact that I’ve been with my husband for 11 years doesn’t make me straight either.
I won’t celebrate the Wonder Woman movie as a paragon of LGBTQ represenatation because it’s not. But calling Wonder Woman straight is actively harming our chances of having a more obviously bisexual Diana in future movies. And calling Wonder Woman straight is erasing the bisexuality of women who are in relationships with men.
Wonder Woman is a fictional character with no agency of her own, so it was definitely the studio’s choice to only show her kissing a man. But there are decades of momentum behind our shared interpretation of Wonder Woman as queer. To quote writer Emma Houxbois, “reliance on canon creates an orthodoxy which harms and marginalizes perfectly valid queer readings.”
This means I don’t need the current writer of Wonder Woman comics, Greg Rucka to retweet my tweet about Diana not being straight — but I appreciate that he did. Similarly I don’t need Gal Gadot to say that Diana can be bi. But she did.
We do need the next movie to handle Themyscira’s lesbian society with greater specificity because people deserve to see same-gender relationships in the center of popular stories. But viewers shouldn’t erase queer readings of the film just because we haven’t yet seen Diana with a girlfriend.
This movie could have done what lesser Wonder Woman stories have done before and outright denied the possibility of woman/woman sexuality. But it didn’t. That’s a cautious step in the right direction.
I’m still struck by how I, a bisexual woman married to a man, assumed that Diana would be straight because Steve Trevor was around. She isn’t straight and I’m not either.
Elana Levin co-hosts Graphic Policy Radio, a podcast about geekdom, politics and society. She tweets about superhero comics, left-wing politics at @Elana_Brooklyn. She hosts #PopPoliticsChat connecting fan communities to nonprofit organizations and resistance movements.