Fanboys, Feminism, and Frank Talk About Wonder Woman

I’ve blogged previously about Wonder Woman, and the struggles of the entertainment industry in its current state to get her back on the screen, whether small or silver. So I was intrigued yesterday to see this tweet from Geoff Boucher of the Los Angeles Times Hero Complex:

Finish the sentence: “There have been 16 feature films with Superman or Batman but zero Wonder Woman movies and the main reason is…”

I tweeted back:

they haven’t hired the right woman for the job.

Boucher was obviously preparing for his article today discussing the 70-year anniversary of Wonder Woman with the authors of DC’s latest revisit to the superheroine’s story. Boucher talks to writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang about changing her origin story, what people do and don’t know about her past, and her prospects for the big screen.  Addressing Wonder Woman’s femininity, Chiang commented:

I agree and it goes to what you mentioned before about classic femininity versus Amazonian femininity and that crosses some people up. A lot of people have these ideas about Wonder Woman and that she would act in a certain way– very prim and proper, almost Victorian notion of femininity – and we’re trying to bring to something that brings it closer to an older warrior culture. Wonder Woman is extremely self-confidant.  When we introduce her in the first issue and she’s in her bedroom and she’s sleeping in the nude, that’s not a sex appeal thing, it’s a character thing. She’s so confidant in herself of course she’s going to sleep in the nude and the wardrobe she has across the room isn’t going to be full of clothes, it’s going to be full of weapons.

Honestly, I don’t have personal qualms about using sex appeal in storytelling, provided it moves the story and the characters forward and isn’t overly gratuitous, but I prefer to call a spade a spade.  There are quite a few better ways to show a woman’s self-confidence than titillating men with the image of her sleeping in the nude.

What really struck me, though, was Azzarello’s lack of confidence in Wonder Woman as a leading lady on the big screen.

I don’t know, they like her on TV. At the theater? I don’t know the answer. I think when people go to comic-book movies they’re going with a preconceived notion of the characters, although I guess “Iron Man” broke that mold. But you go to a Superman movie or a Batman movie and you know who they are. What sold the first Superman movie was the fact that he could fly and the special effects were so great — ‘You’ll believe a man can fly,’ that was the tagline. They are kind of these clear niches where they work, Batman inGothamCity and has seriously creepy villains, Superman is in Metropolis and he fights with the smartest man on Earth. With Wonder Woman, I don’t think people know what they would get out of that right now. Lyle Waggoner as Steve Trevor?

If he doesn’t believe Wonder Woman is that grand, that epic, is he really the right man to have behind the superheroine in the comics, either?  Even though Wonder Woman was the brainchild of a man (for more on her creation and backstory, I suggest reading Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors by Jennifer Stuller), it is my feeling that it will take a skilled female screenwriter and a talented actress who’s well suited to the role to bring Wonder Woman to life outside of the comics.  But more importantly, they have to believe in her and what she stands for. I don’t have much more to say about the current comic team, except that they didn’t convince this woman with that interview to go out and purchase their version.

The responses of others to Boucher’s original tweet have been interesting, too. Some attribute the lack of a Wonder Woman movie to pervasive sexism by Hollywood decision-makers, who seem disinterested in pursuing female-centric projects. I have to think that dynamic is certainly part of the problem. Others noted related deflection of citing to the supposed preferences of target demographics to claim that a movie or series with a female lead just won’t succeed. While over-reliance by the studios on that claim is a dodge, there’s also some truth to it. Among the tweets, for example, was a man who said “Wonder Woman would not translate well to screen. Origins too fantastical, costume too ridiculous.” That type of logic completely fails, though, when held up against the recent movie Thor, a box-office success with an equally divine-origin character in an equally brightly colored costume, complete with goofy hat and magical weapon. As long as that kind of double-standard is given any sort of credence in Hollywood – and there’s little doubt of that – we have a long way to go before someone green-lights Wonder Woman.

As another tweeter pointed out, Wonder Woman has even more baggage to overcome than other potential female leads. Wonder Woman (and her alter ego, Diana Prince) has always been a feminist icon. I’ve mentioned before my own personal difficulties with the label “feminist,” but when it’s used in its definitional sense – promoting equality for women compared to men – I have no hesitation saying that the term fits many of my goals for FANgirl blog as well as Wonder Woman’s character. The irony is that my efforts on behalf of female fans have actually made me the target of certain feminists simply because I don’t fit the pre-determined mold they’ve decided is appropriate for women.  And it’s not that they don’t like me; they hate me. So when it comes to people wanting to avoid that type of wrath, well, I get it.

Vader: If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.

Obi-Wan: Only a Sith deal in absolutes.

~Revenge of the Sith

When talking about this subset of feminists, I can’t help going back to the start of the climactic duel in Episode III of the Star Wars saga. Anakin is beyond reason, and the simple fact that they don’t agree with him is enough for him to declare his figurative brother and his wife to be his enemies. Absolutism is a dangerous and counterproductive mindset. In fact, I think it runs counter to the true tenets of modern feminism, which has been about opening up more opportunities for women to freely choose their own paths in life, as opposed to forcing women to conform to a single standard of acceptable actions and beliefs.  To be fair, there are extremists across all dimensions of the political spectrum who act out in this kind of militant way; there are just as many reasonable, moderate women who raise concerns about sexism in our society or our entertainment as there are fair-minded libertarians, environmentalists, or anti-war protestors who advocate for the causes they believe in. When it comes to movies with female leads, though, Hollywood is notoriously risk-averse, and the risk of negative publicity for a “militant feminist” version of Wonder Woman – no matter how disingenuous such a label might be in relation to the actual project – is just another excuse the studio bigwigs can give themselves for refusing to tell her story.

The irony, at least as I see it, is that Wonder Woman at her core represents the values of inclusion and cooperation. She wants people to work together, and only kicks ass when the particular situation demands it. Her greatest asset is her ability to love, not hate. Given the players on the world stage and the difficulties that exist when religious and political ideologies butt heads, I think Wonder Woman on the big screen is exactly what we need right now to remind the world that cooperation is the path to world harmony.

Really, though, the plight of Wonder Woman in the world of television and movies is symbolic of the lack of well-written female leads in any medium. Quite often, even the female supporting characters in male-centric stories are just as poorly written. One commonly discussed method for making this point is the Bechdel test:

The Bechdel Test:

Does the story have 1) at least two named female characters

2) who talk to each other

3) about something other than a man?

The sad reality is that many mainstream movies released in recent years fail this test, as do a surprising number of television shows and books. Part of the problem, as Jennifer Kesler explains to devastating effect in a 2008 post at The Hathor Legacy, is that the entrenched perspective of too many entertainment industry insiders is that the movie will “lose the audience” – meaning, naturally, the male members of the audience – if it shifts focus from the male characters. The solution doesn’t come, however, simply from contriving a scene or two that passes the test. In a 2010 post, Kesler elaborates on the real utility of the Bechdel Test:

Female characters are traditionally peripheral to male ones. That’s why we don’t want to hear them chatting about anything other than the male characters: because in making them peripheral, the writer has assured the women can’t possibly contribute to the story unless they’re telling us something about the men who drive the plot. That is the problem the test is highlighting. And that’s why shoehorning an awkward scene in which two named female characters discuss the price of tea in South Africa while the male characters are off saving the world will only hang a lantern on how powerfully you’ve sidelined your female characters for no reason other than sexism, conscious or otherwise. … Whether or not your story includes the Bechdel scene says absolutely nothing about whether it’s sexist or not. The measure of sexism is whether your story denies women the opportunity to participate in it.

I’ve commented quite a bit about the problems with the portrayals of female characters in the recent Star Wars Expanded Universe novels. I believe Star Wars is relevant in discussing Wonder Woman, comics, and movies because A New Hope was essentially a comic book played out on screen.  Its success isn’t due only to an affinity from a core male audience, though, and for a time the additions in the EU literature cultivated an even larger female audience.  I’ve discussed at length why the decline in Star Wars books can be attributed primarily to a lack of faith in the female audience, and yet I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the ability of The Clone Wars conversely to convince men that they can enjoy a female heroine’s story by showing faith as storytellers in the female characters.

It’s little surprise, then, that when I posed the question to my fangirl community to identify Star Wars novels that passed the Bechdel Test, we were hard pressed to find even one in the recent offerings. It’s true, of course, that all six Star Wars films also fail the Bechdel Test, and that it’s basically inherent in their story design. The two trilogies are undeniably centered on the tales of two Skywalkers, Luke and Anakin. Everything in the trilogies revolves around them; most of the storylines for Han and Obi-Wan are just as much Skywalker-centered as the storylines for Leia and Padmé. More recently, though, George Lucas has expanded his own role in Star Wars storytelling beyond that father-son saga – into The Clone Wars television series, which is told through the eyes of a female protagonist, Ahsoka Tano, and has enough episodes passing the Bechdel Test that I could quickly think of a half-dozen just off the top of my head.

Remarkably enough, Lucas gained his education in film-making from the same film school establishment Kesler criticizes.  While some feminists prefer to take one or two scenes – such as Slave Leia or Gladiator Padmé – as grounds to place a sexist label on the Star Wars franchise, I believe that mindset completely discounts all the good the franchise and Lucas personally have done on behalf of women.  I’ll say more about that in a follow-up blog, but for now I’ll note that I don’t think it’s coincidental that the increased roles for women in the parts of Star Wars where Lucas is intimately involved in the storytelling decisions have occurred as he gained more real-life experience.  Now having worked with the many successful women who have led at Lucasfilm, and having raised daughters, his personal vision of the world has widened beyond a boyhood comic book fantasy about a young man and his father.

The brilliant result of Ahsoka Tano and the other great female characters in The Clone Wars is that boys and men are engaged in her adventure. After a playing a major role in the first few episodes of Season Four she’s been absent from the storyline, and in a recent Clone Wars Roundtable podcast three adult men asked for more Ahsoka because they truly like her character.  Unfortunately, these are the types of conversations that tend to get lost amid the clamoring of some male fans who don’t want things in Star Wars to change.

The goal isn’t that a book, television show, or movie should pass the Bechdel Test for the sake of checking a box and moving on. In the Star Wars EU, I’d like to see more of what The Clone Wars is doing: not only creating strong, relatable female heroines that fans want to see more of, but also giving those characters substantial storylines of their own, above and beyond playing a supporting role in advancing the storylines of the male leads. The truth is as simple as it is unfortunate: we only need the Bechdel Test because so many writers aren’t writing their female characters as central rather than peripheral, and so we need the test to call them out for it – or, more optimistically, to encourage them to do better.

Interestingly enough, after working on the draft of parts of this blog last night, I turned on The Big Bang Theory.  Despite the fact that the show revolves around the lives of four ubergeeks and the entirely ungeeky pretty girl next door, the episode passed the Bechdel Test. The episode was also laugh-out-loud funny, true to its premise, and still effective at showing women dealing with women as friends.

I don’t think backing a Wonder Woman movie is the huge risk that the big cheeses in Hollywood want to pretend that it is, any more than I think producing Star Wars novels with female heroines would be.   The real problem isn’t Wonder Woman’s backstory, or her costume, or her superheroine abilities, it’s that the men who’ve been given the chance to write her keep trying to reinvent the character into what they want her to be, instead of staying true to who she is – the very aspects that drove her popularity in the first place.  That dynamic is essentially the core struggle women face their entire lives: fighting to stay true to themselves against the pressures to become what others want us to be.  It’s no wonder, then, that so many women are, like me, waiting to see our Wonder Woman again.


A graduate of Duke University, Tricia is a registered Professional Engineer who designs transportation systems as a consultant. In her free time, she shows horses and maintains a website for Star Wars EU fans that creates a safe place for women and men to discuss literature and all things pertaining to geek culture. She is currently writing her first full-length original novel, a space opera based around the heroic journey of a young woman who finds herself in the middle of a deadly terrorist attack by an invading alien force.  For information on the book, please check out TriciaBarr.com.

14 comments to Fanboys, Feminism, and Frank Talk About Wonder Woman

  • Joanne

    “Who is Wonder Woman?” when we’ve got characters like Thor and Iron Man on screen? Not to knock either of them because I enjoyed those movies but boy that was a stupid thing to say.

  • It’s baffling they haven’t tried to make a Wonder Woman movie. They made money off of the “Underworld” and “Resident Evil” movies, which are kind of superchick movies anyway. The recent attempt to bring WW back to the small screen failed; the network didn’t pick up the pilot which likely means it stunk, and likely because it was yet another attempt to “reinvent” the character. I hate that. Just let the characters be.

  • Mary

    I found Brian Azzarello’s comment that “…she’s recognizable but not known…” interesting.

    If Wonder Woman is “not known”, then as you say, the question becomes, “Why?” My guess is that the original WW was before her time. Women in general were only beginning to work on their individuality and gender equality. While they might have locked onto WW as a symbol back then, more likely our male counterparts ignored her as a way of avoiding the rise of feminism. Her lack of identity was, IMHO, backlash for the social upheaval of the times.

    With regard to developing a higher identity factor for her now, I think you’re right. A woman would be the best “man” for that job. This leads to my last point:

    Regarding the “sleeping nude” issue, that is titillation. Let’s not be evasive. It boils down to a single question: Mr. Chiang, what has sleeping in the buff got to do with “confidence?” I can’t see any psychological correlation between the two. Plenty of people – both men and women – sleep nude. So what? Each of them has their own reasons to do so. Some are too hot with clothing under sheets and duvets; others, who move around a lot when they sleep or experience sleep disorders, find sleep clothing restrictive. Confidence doesn’t play a role. Chiang can rationalize as much as he wants, but seriously! What woman would justify that creative choice by saying it reflects a woman’s “confidence”?

    Sorry, Mr. Chiang. I’m not buying.

  • zellieh

    I believe Star Wars is relevant in discussing Wonder Woman, comics, and movies because A New Hope was essentially a comic book played out on screen. Its success isn’t due only to an affinity from a core male audience, though, and for a time the additions in the EU literature cultivated an even larger female audience.

    Reading that paragraph made me laugh. I am now imaging the European Union literature on Star Wars. I imagine it would be very dry and contain lots of statistics. *G*

  • I have been finding the recent relaunch of Wonder Woman dull and unengaging for the same reason. Not to mention the type of “ooh we’re actually feminist” misogyny that’s typical of comics and action stories today – brutally murdering innocent women in very gendered ways (that is to say, in ways very reminiscent of sexual assault) while holding up generic, flat “strong women” as heros.

    I really miss Greg Rucka and Gail Simone, who got Wonder Woman’s strength without losing that which made her a hero – and a woman – without that kind of sadism or pandering.

  • Whoops, forgot to mention that the unaired pilot for Wonder Woman falls into the same trap, despite having some really good actors in the lady cast as Diana, and Cary Elwes as her unfortunately creepy mentor/love interest/something. Things like this are why Wonder Woman fans can’t have nice things – they are bad, and fail, and then the producers say that “people don’t want it.” People do want it. But we want the good stuff. The Wonder Woman who is equal parts diplomat and ambassador as she is warrior. The Wonder Woman who bargained her own life and services for a child’s life, and not her own blindness. The Wonder Woman who offered her hand to the foe who had kept fighting despite her non-resistance. The Wonder Woman who, despite her entire world being stripped away, the gods abandonment, and humanity’s hatred, continued to save others because she loved them.

    Not some “confident” woman who sleeps naked for fanboys, and treats others like lesser beings.

    One of these things would make a great movie, and one of these would make a typical action flick.

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  • Well put, and spot-on analysis of the so-called “Wonder Woman Problem” in media… which is to say, Diana’s greatest enemy is the very real villainy of the sexism in Man’s World. More here:

    http://rhetoricsuperhero.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/wonder-woman-vs-hollywood-patriarchy/

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