I finally got to watch Wonder Woman. (Yes, my thinkpiece is tardy.) Let’s climb into our invisible jets to revisit the long-distant world of 2017.
You may recall that Wonder Woman was touted as being, like, only the most empowering movie in totally ever! It was like, super duperly feminist or something? I was massively excited to see it, imagining that finally women were going to get the superhero movie we deserved. I expected to be moved, deeply moved, possibly moved to tears. Because I had heard that WW was so awesomely empowering that women were, like, crying over it and stuff.
I didn’t like it. Sad trombone.
Why didn’t I like it? Why didn’t Feminist Kristin, who liked superhero stuff long before superhero stuff was cool, and who is, herself, atomic, enjoy this allegedly feminist superhero movie?
Wonder Woman left me cold for the very reason other women claimed to find it empowering. The fighting. Apparently the wellspring from which the feelz of empowerment burbled was women fighting. The Amazonians were warriors, or something, I guess, and thus they were hurting and killing and beating on people and according to some, this was so beautiful it was making women cry. As one writer put it (in a piece I probably should have read before I saw the movie), “women safeguarding the world from male violence not with nurture but with better violence is a feminist act.”
Aside from the nonsensical plot, historical inaccuracy, cookie cutter characters, terrible dialogue, super obvious bad guy, gross sexism (Diana only manages to find the strength to defeat Ares because of her love for Steve?? Are you freaking KIDDING ME?) and horribly, horribly overused CGI, I guess it’s just difficult for me as a woman to wrap my head around the idea that a legitimate way for women to feel empowered is through embracing violence.
All the way back to Lysistrata women have been peace activists. Men want war, women want peace. It’s a thing. The theme stretches back across time and space – the concept that women are more peaceful than men. “If women ran the world, there would be no wars”…remember when people said stuff like this?
And statistics back it up – females really are significantly less violent than males are. Personally, I believe it’s a positive quality, that women are less violent, more willing to negotiate, gentler. We know how to use our words, and stuff? It’s not a stereotype to be torn down, it’s a strength to be celebrated.
Roundabout the same time that Wonder Woman is supposed to take place – during World War 1 – real live wonder women were combating the Spirit of War in non-violent, non-superhuman ways. In 1915, noted female activists including Grace Abbott, Jane Addams, Leonora O’Reilly, and Dr. Alice Hamilton (in a shocking turn of events, it has been discovered that there were bona fide female scientists living during that point in history and the character “Dr Poison” in Wonder Woman is neither subversive nor revolutionary as was claimed in one of the previous links), over the vigorous masculine objections of war-lovin’ Teddy Roosevelt, sailed through mine-infested waters to The Hague. There they held an International Congress of Women, drafting several resolutions calling for a just peace and disarmament, and establishing the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace. Two of the women in attendance, Emily Greene Balch and Jane Addams, went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Women. For Permanent Peace. Peace. Not “Better Violence”. Men wanted war. Women wanted peace. If women had had their way in 1915, there would be hundreds of millions of people who survived both World Wars – because without World War 1, it’s unlikely there would have been World War 2. Anne Frank and millions of girls just like her would have survived. Women would have saved more lives through peace and negotiation than men did by whaling on each other till one side shouted uncle. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel empowered just reading about those women who bravely met (mine-infested waters, people!) to call for peace in the face of war. When I watched Wonder Woman all I felt was the need to work out more.
Some other things women were non-violently fighting for during this time included suffrage, birth control, better treatment of the poor and mentally ill, fair labor laws, and equal pay. Women were building hospitals and flying airplanes and inventing dishwashers and computers. The first female member of Congress, Jeannette Rankin, was elected in 1916 and promptly voted against America entering World War 1. In her own words, “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to to war, she should say it.”
Women were doing things. Big things. Heroic things. Globally, historically important things. Many of the most respected, accomplished, well-known women of the day wanted peace adamantly. They were actively advocating for peace. Yet nary a one of these historic women’s movements or heroines were mentioned in Wonder Woman despite all of them having been prominent at the time. It was as if only two women even really existed off of the island of Themiscyra. One of them – the villainous Dr. Poison – is revealed as probably only bad because her face is scarred. What a freaking feminist message that is. If a woman isn’t good looking, she will likely become totally evil. Gee whillikers, if only Dr. Poison had been pretty none of this would have ever happened! (#feminism) The other non-Amazonian female is a dowdy comic-relief secretary who seems to primarily exist to show how much better Gal Gadot looks than the rest of us fat vagina-wearers, whilst demonstrating via montage how lame it is that women have historically dressed more conservatively than the male artists at DC might prefer.
In the words of the late, great Carrie Fisher, youth and beauty are not accomplishments. Nor is computer-generated athleticism. I find myself at a very great loss to explain how a movie that centers upon a woman who has a level of attractiveness that 99.99% of women could never attain doing feats of physicality that are impossible for a person of either gender is in any way empowering. Empowering, to me, implies something that bestows an inspiring feeling of powerfulness because you yourself can achieve a similar goal. I am a strong, tough woman but I am 5 ft 4 inches tall and I would probably be beaten up by my 10 year old son if’n he had a mind to. An unfortunate biological truth of the world is that men are bigger and stronger than women. Thus I don’t feel empowered by supernaturally divine comic book characters performing biologically impossible feats because those feats are a lie.
I prefer real women doing real feats.
Historically speaking, women DID STUFF. Women have always done stuff. Real stuff that really mattered, and very little of it involved fisticuffs. Barely more involved looking beautiful. Women have had to cross oceans to marry men they never met to secure treaties and business deals. Women have had to nurse the sick and dying knowing every moment they could fall ill. Women have had to stretch not-enough food over too many mouths knowing that someone would have to go without – usually them. Women have fought wild animals to protect men and wild men to protect animals. Women have sailed on clipper ships and ridden in conestogas to dangerous new lands they probably didn’t even want to go to. Women have waged (and won) real wars, both independently and en masse as a sisterhood, defeating men not with “better violence” but with reason and persuasion and charm and cleverness and endurance. Women have had to be unbelievably strong and brave and have fought battles that may not look quite as amazing when rendered in slo-mo CGI, but truly have changed the world. And they have done it while being women, not goddesses, and not men.
Yet in this movie of “female empowerment” there are NO WOMEN doing anything even remotely female. There are women doing men stuff, lots and lots of men stuff, and women parading about in skimpy clothing for the male gaze, and there are victims, plenty of those, but there are no relatable, fully actualized female characters doing any women stuff at all. There was a baby on screen for 3 seconds and that was it. “Ewww, a baby!” I can practically hear the squeals of protest now. “Women aren’t only good for being breeders!” Have we conveniently forgotten that childbirth itself is an act of supreme strength, courage, and endurance that historically killed women between 1 and 4% of the time? You want a woman warrior? I give you every woman that ever gave birth before about 1950 or so – and many women still giving birth today all around the world. It is galling that these women’s lives and sacrifices – without which none of us would be here today – can possibly be seen as less empowering than a phenomenally good looking, scantily-clad chick running around pretending to smite stuff with a rubber sword in the name of feminism.
So much of what passes for “feminism” of late seems to involve devaluing the strengths and struggles of the women who came before us. So much of it seems to involve belittling and even outright mocking traditionally female qualities and pursuits in favor of male ones. It’s a combination of a stunning ignorance of history and some sort of weird superior cattiness where we modern women roll our eyes and assume, despite all evidence to the contrary, that we’re stronger and better and wiser than previous generations. That somehow we know more than they knew about their own lives and their own worlds. And then we judge them for what think that we know about them. It is deeply, deeply concerning to me that so many young women seem to have bought into this fiction that they had no positive role models prior to the release of the movie Wonder Woman. Because they were everywhere.
And it is appalling that in a culture that seems hell bent on rushing headlong into fascism, that anyone could be making the claim that the way for women to best take on Ares, God of War, is with ‘“better violence.” There IS no “better violence”. Women’s lives have been destroyed by violence since time began. War is not glorious. War is death and destruction. Your husbands and fathers and brothers may die. Your children and mothers and sisters may die either from direct violence or from the illness and famine and social upheaval that invariably accompany war. You and other women just like you may die. Even if you’re not a warrior yourself, turning away from the cause of peace towards the use of force as “empowerment” leads down a dark path. Even as we cheer a pretend superhero goddess punching pretend proto-Nazis, we allow our leaders to wage war in countries thousands of miles away. We don’t stop to think, that as we send in our “peacekeepers” we may be causing harm to women just like us. Iraq. Afghanistan. Syria. Women in these countries are suffering now, today, this minute because of war, because of violence. Yet Wonder Woman, this supposed feminist masterpiece, glorifies violence as much as any John Wayne movie does. It is toxic masculinity in drag, not feminism. Wonder Woman was nothing more than pro-war political propaganda and everyone fell for it. It was brilliant, in a way, wrapping jingoism in feminism and conning women into buying it. Spinechilling, but brilliant.
I know a story of true female heroism in the face of war. It’s the story of my grandmother, a real live Wonder Woman. She didn’t beat anyone up (that I know of) but what she did in the years from 1942 and 1945 required as much courage and strength as anything I can possibly envision.
In February of 1942, my grandfather enlisted as a pilot in the Army Air Corps. Training pilots took some time and so he was in training for over a year after he enlisted. He wasn’t allowed visitors for much of this time, but late in 1943 this policy changed, so my grandmother got in a car and drove from Lafayette, Indiana, to Chicago where she picked up a member of my grandfather’s flight crew, and then all the way to New Mexico, where my grandfather was stationed. She was there by Christmas. The living conditions of the wives were terrible; so many men were stationed in the area, all of whom had brought in their wives from across the country, that there was very little room at the inn. Some of the women lived in an unheated chicken house with no running water. We don’t know where my grandmother lived during that time, but it was almost certainly spartan conditions.
The women were allowed to stay until March 1944, when their husbands shipped out. Then they had to hit the road. By this point, my grandmother was about 3 months pregnant and while I don’t know this, I assume based upon personal experience that she was likely nauseous and exhausted. But she got right back in that car and drove the 1500 miles back to Indiana. Alone. She rarely talked about it, but told my father once that she was terrified every second, and I can imagine she was, worried the entire way about the car breaking down, about the weather, about the baby, about what kind of people a girl might run into along the way. It snowed at least once and the car slid off the road into a ditch. Somehow she was able to get it out of the snow and back on the road all by herself and eventually made it home again.
Two months later her husband was dead. Killed in France when his plane was hit by flak.
My grandmother had to go through 6 more months of pregnancy alone, deliver a baby alone (by c-section, no less, which was much more dangerous and hard to recover from in 1944 than it is today), and face the prospect of raising a child alone. Mourning not only her husband, but her friends on the flight crew, the guys she’d surely come to know well in that time. The kid she’d driven from Chicago with, gone too. She had to support herself, a newborn infant, and recover from a major operation while in mourning with no one to help her but her mother. That, to me, is empowering. I can’t even imagine what any of that must have been like. It surely required courage and strength that I honestly cannot even wrap my head around and seriously doubt I even possess.
That’s the reality of war. Women without husbands. Children without fathers. Mothers without sons. A nation missing a generation of hopeful, energetic young men – and women as well, since in future wars women will all but certainly be involved in the fighting. Lives with so much promise, cut short. It’s not entertainment and it’s not empowering. It’s not a comic book. War is awful and it is something to be avoided at all costs. Reminder – that is why Diana wanted to defeat Ares, God of War to begin with – he was spurring the humans on to war and war is decidedly a Bad Thing. Finding the fighting in Wonder Woman empowering because the girls get to beat up the boys for a change is not only stupid in a real world sense, but because it undermines the fundamental message of the movie. War. Is. Bad.
There is no better violence. Regardless of who wields it, violence is lame and pointless and unevolved. And we’re better than that, we women are, right? We’re better than those who resort to violence and hatred and war. Feminism, to me, is about more than just equality in the eyes of the law. Feminism, to me, certainly isn’t about having to ape male behavior that I despise in order to succeed in life and triumph over adversity. A critical element of my personal feminism is celebrating and valuing female strengths rather than demeaning and belittling them as being inferior to male qualities. And gentleness, peacemaking, non-violent negotiation – those are female strengths.
I would never tell any woman that she needs to limit herself to stereotypical female behavior. Never. But at the same time, as a feminist, I reject the idea that women cannot be empowered without embracing the worst stereotypical male behavior. I reject the idea that women cannot be empowered without turning their backs on the ideals of kindness and peace which women have valued – rightfully so – since women were invented.