I’ve been waiting a long time to write this post, because I wanted to make sure that I was writing it for the right reasons. Reading this article by Tabby Biddle at Huffington Post helped me clarify that I was not just being a random crazy person, and that my feelings were shared by at least some women. I don’t agree with everything in the article, but I agree with the sense of confusion and anger the writer felt at this iconic movie.
It’s funny, how a movie about women’s empowerment made me feel like that.
As the Huffington Post article describes, if you’ve seen Wonder Woman, you know the beginning is full of badass women. However, the main plot of the movie actually starts when Steve Trevor crash-lands his plane into the island of Themyscira. The pace really picks up here. Diana makes the somewhat strange decision to leave the island that is her home. Her mother makes the decision to not send anyone with her, which is curious since she is constantly worrying about Diana’s safety. The world of women, the world of sense in this case, since the character’s decisions do not jive here, begins to fall apart.
Diana leaves Themyscira, and journeys to the land of the patriarchy. And this is where I get annoyed.
There were so many opportunities to do a movie about World War I, one of the greatest conflicts of our history and one that is often overshadowed by the more recent World War II, in a way that would really shed light onto the politics and issues of the times, onto the broad way that the “war to end all wars” affected so many people. Not just the men who went to the fronts, but the women.
Oh, you didn’t know there were women at the fronts in World War I? Spoiler warning: women are everywhere.
Now I will say that Wonder Woman did a decent job of showing more than the pressed, American white male hero for this movie. Steve was definitely a focus, but there was an attempt to express nuance. The reference to the genocide carried out against the Native Americans, while a bit pat, was at least a step in the right direction. But somewhere, Wonder Woman decided to embrace the “exceptional woman” trope. Diana is able to hack it in the trenches, but Diana is an exception. She has super powers. Her hair is always perfect. She’s not even human, actually, so why should she be held to human norms? This echoes pretty strongly as well with the “just one of the guys” trope we see in a lot of media. The only woman Diana encounters is Etta Candy, a secretary. When she is introduced, Diana immediately denigrates her and her career. “Where I come from, we call that slavery.”
By itself, Diana’s relationship with Etta would not be problematic. Put in the context of all of her other relationships with human women, it becomes so. We get, in order: the refugee who has somehow crossed no-man’s-land to be hysterical in the trenches; the elite ‘German’ woman whom Diana presumably beats up and leaves naked in the woods; and the evil scientist who, in the end, has simply been the pawn of a man and a male god masquerading as a man for the whole movie, despite her genius. (I could go on about how the only physically disabled or disfigured person with speaking lines is said same female scientist, but that’s a whole other post.)
Even in Themyscira, Diana was held apart. In that case, it was because she was a god (unknowing, but still a god). When she comes to the human world, it is made clear that, though she is treated like a woman at points, she is in fact included as one of the guys because of her godhood. That would be a sticky thing to deal with no matter who else was on screen with Diana. The fact that only men are onscreen for ninety percent of the time skews this equation from sticky to downright uncomfortable.
So, back to those women of World War I.
A good place to start is talking about how much the economic landscape changed in places like London during World War I. All the men were at war, for the most part, which meant, as in the US in World War II, that women stepped up to fill their jobs. Women weren’t just secretaries or spending their time shopping – they were working in factories, featured in propaganda posters, and probably doing other jobs besides. Women were everywhere. Half of a given population is women, on average, and half of the men were at war. For every one man on the average street, it would be fair to say you should see at least two women.
And women were on the front, too, mostly in noncombative capacities. Women were ambulance drivers, nurses, doctors, and reporters. Notably, Flora Sandes even served as active military. She received seven medals. Many of these women were British citizens, but women from other countries – France, notably, and others involved in this sprawling war – played similar rolls. Not one of these women, or one woman like them, appeared in this film.
Wonder Woman has been praised as a feminist movie. Perhaps the first half of this movie was in fact feminist. There were several named female characters, and some really interesting backstory and character dynamics (that unfortunately did not get developed to my satisfaction). But feminist writing does not only include women who are exceptional or outside of the patriarchy. It must engage with the patriarchy not just by sending a character in to yell at some old white dudes, but also by refusing to embrace the narratives accepted as history.
There are other things worth discussing with this movie. Steve Trevor’s almost-fridging is notable, as is the question of virtue and womanhood. Why the decision was made to base the movie in World War I and whether it actually furthered the thematic content of the movie as argued is worth exploring. Also, I could write a whole post on how I almost convinced myself that I liked this movie after reading Joss Whedon’s rejected trashfire of a script and the way that women are constantly gaslit for wanting fair and equal representation in media. But just paying attention to historical context and opportunity would have made this the movie we deserved, so I’ll stop here.
Further reading regarding some badass broads who were on the frontlines, mostly in World War II: