When Laura Mulvey coined the phrase “the male gaze” in her “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” paper back in 1975, it was to reveal the ways in which images of women in film are reduced to objects subjected to a controlling gaze that belongs to spectators, mainly men. In her own words, “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live his phantasies and obsessions…by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” In relation to this year’s debut film Wonder Woman, when we see a slow shot of Gal Gadot walking with determination towards the battlefield with her hair flowing about her beautiful head, or when she furtively glances at the lips and eyes of Bristish spy Steven Trevor while they’re dancing, or when she tries on gowns to cover her Amazon semi-nakedness in English society, we are seeing a fetishized version of the demigod. Despite her powers, strength, and fierce will, in the eyes of the spectators – the male gazers that produced her and the ones that look at her from the audience – we see their version of a woman they sexualize to assume command of her, understand her, and pacify her. How can men love a God unless they domesticate her in the most trivial and banal ways possible? By objectifying her, of course. Otherwise, she is unattainable, beyond their reach, reminding them of their own powerlessness.
Mulvey’s “the male gaze” is an intuitive response to watching Wonder Woman this past week, and even if you didn’t know the term or what it meant, there was an uneasy response to watching Gal Gadot parade around in the skimpy Amazon attire reminiscent to Lynda Carter’s wardrobe back in the 70s when she had been the chosen actress to represent Wonder Woman. Women and young girls in the audience were left with a feeling that Wonder Woman was not really created for them. Sure, they felt a thrill when she fought men with the ease we’re told women do not possess because we’re too small and weak. But during the other scenes in the film, the ones that made her the center of male attention – the male gaze – those scenes left the female spectators out, rendering us as silent as Diana Prince was when she was looked upon by male desirous eyes.
This is most obvious, as the creator of Wonder Woman was a man. William Moulton Marston, a psychology student at Harvard who considered himself a feminist, created Wonder Woman so that women had a superhero to counter the countless male superheroes available to men and boys. A man who, according to People’s Michael Miller, “formed a thesis that women are mentally stronger than men, but argued that they are also happiest being submissive.” One look at his depiction of a female superhero and we see a woman he imagined, created, and fetishized over from his own male fancy of the feminine. Wonder Woman is at once physically strong, brilliant, and decisive, but we also encounter in her a naivete that makes war hero Steven Trevor look at her with paternal wonder and affection when she speaks of how Zeus made her from clay and how the war will end once she kills Aries, God of War. We encounter in her a virginal demureness when she visibly has to catch her breath while slow-dancing with Steven, her love interest in the film, even though she’s read twelve volumes of sexual pleasure and has deduced that men are useful for procreation but not for pleasure. And she is diminished to the triteness of Miss America Beauty Pageant contestants who argue that the real reason they’re competing is because they believe in world peace and love.
We never see Batman, Thor, Superman, or good old Spiderman face off against their enemies by spewing drivel like “I believe in love.” A woman, Wonder Woman is created to save humans because they have love inside them, and it’s her job to bring it out, to remind them of their capacity for goodness. This feeds into the stereotype that because we’re female, we are inherently soft and kind, driven by our need to love and take care of others. Even though she’s the secret weapon that Zeus gave the Amazons with which to defeat Aries, the love she feels for Steven, who sacrificed himself for humanity, taught her that humans, despite their flaws and violence, have a choice to be good and can choose love, if only the right kind of superhero, a woman, would show them the way. The depiction of Wonder Woman is as domesticated as this stereotype and endeavors to domesticate the rest of us, including our daughters, relegating us to second-class citizens that live passive lives for the sake and enrichment of others.
A 2016 article by Forbes’s Natalie Robehmed lamented that the reason Hollywood has such a big diversity problem stems from the writing room. A study by TV writer Lyle Friedman, Matt Daniels, and Ilia Blinderman shows that the lack of diversity in films, whether based on gender or race, has much to do with the lack of diversity among the writers. In regards to the lack of women writers and directors, Matt Daniels states that “A lot of the themes you get from women might be overshadowed by male themes because there are simply more male writers in the room.” This is also the case with this year’s portrayal of Wonder Woman. Although the director of the 2017 film is a woman, Patty Jenkins, who has waited ten years to make this film, she didn’t have a say as to who would play Diana Prince: “I remember when I read in the news that Wonder Woman had been cast and my heart sank…I had been talking to the studio for so long about doing it and I was like well ‘that’s that.’ I’m sure we wouldn’t have made the same choice” (Fox News). Of course, she later concludes that the choice was a sound one, but the point is that the director’s choice was made for her, and Gal Gadot was the choice of men, since Warner Bros. is owned and run by them. Men who interpreted what Wonder Woman would look like based on their own expectations of perfect femaleness, their own fantasies of what a demigoddess would look like. Patty Jenkins, albeit the chosen director, was left out of the decision-making process.
The other problem rests in the writing room, as Daniels pointed out earlier. The three people that closed themselves off to write the screenplay for Wonder Woman were all men: Jason Fuchs, Allan Heinberg, and Geoff Johns. With three men creating their interpretation of a female superhero, it’s no wonder that audiences encounter a heroine cut from the cloth of male illusions. She is a virgin who has studied sexual pleasure; a naïve girl that looks like a woman, passionate but easily pacified and respectful; an innocent that meets her first man, acknowledges his manhood without blushing, and follows him away from her secure home to a faraway land ravaged by war; a beautiful woman whose knees go weak during a slow dance with a boyish representation of masculinity; a decisive and fearless supreme being who follows a young soldier around without slapping him every time he says, keep up, Diana, cover up, Diana, put on these glasses, Diana, you’re too distracting, Diana. Strong enough to crush him with her foot, Diana Prince is depicted as a sweet and congenial force who does as man bids with only a few spurts of resistance here and there. Of course, she can’t be too submissive. Where’s the fun in that? But she can’t be angsty and castrating, either.
Fuchs, Heinberg, and Johns also established the film’s Amazon creation story, and a patriarchal one at that, in which the Amazons were given to humans by Zeus to distract them from their warring ways. They ascended from the ocean, completely naked and beautiful, like mermaids without fish tails in the same way Ariel came out of the water to save the prince in The Little Mermaid. As a matter of fact, just like Ariel, Diana Prince saves Steven Trevor from drowning, drags him onto the sand, and gazes at him with wonder until he awakens, the camera caressing Gadot’s face in the same manner it did with the animated Ariel when she saved and gazed into the unconscious features of her own prince charming. Do these writers think girls and women want another Ariel, a mermaid who made a man fall in love with her by surrendering her voice? Or is it that men want an Ariel, an innocent, sweet, almost naked mythical creature who will save them? This is exactly what Mulvey intended when she wrote that “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance… the determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure…women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact.” In many ways, Wonder Woman, as she is portrayed in the film by her three paternal and patriarchal writers, is likened to a beautiful vessel, empty and without purpose until a man, Steven Trevor, comes into her life, brings her an adventure, and gives her something to fight for: love. How very trite.
With four men to accompany Diana to the frontlines of World War I, it seems her male writers want to create some sort of balance of power between the sexes: four human men to one demigoddess. They can fight the human war, and she can battle the God of war. But when she decides to enter no-man’s land and save people trapped by German soldiers, Steven Trevor’s men pursue her, even though they know she is stronger and more powerful than the four of them combined. In a few scenes, we find Chris Pine’s character acting as her wing man, shooting a gun behind her, protecting her, which is laughable. The scene is slowed down so that we see that he is part of the fight scene, that he is her equal, fighting with her, for her, having her back, and making sure that she notices it. It’s as if the male egos in the writing room cannot fathom a goddess being able to destroy her enemies without a man there to catch her lest she falls, or trips, or catches a bullet between her fingertips. They have to inject male prowess into the fight scenes, make Steven Trevor the hero of a story about a female superhero. There has to be a man there, and he has to be just as heroic as she is. He has to be her equal in order to bed her. An equal on the battlefield, he earns the right to her virginity, demystifying her, humanizing the God in her, or else she is too powerful, too unattainable. A fantasy that is beyond man’s grasp, and therefore, a castrating Goddess that is too good for a simple man. The male gazers don’t want to watch a movie about a woman they cannot have. Her domestication is the only solution.
When Steven dies a hero, she weeps on the ground, weakened by her loss of the only man she’s known and loved. A flashback reveals that he told her he loved her, and this expression of love rouses in her the power she needs to fight Aries, crying out to him that she believes in love, not hate. This origin story of a female superhero is centered on a man who teaches her about the warring world, love, and humanity. And because of this, Wonder Woman is just another romantic tale written from the perspective of men who think they know the kind of heroine women and girls want to encounter in movies about superheroes. Take away the gods, the amazons, the superhero narrative, and all you have left is this: girl meets boy, girl loves boy, girl loses boy, girl finds her purpose because of boy. We’ve seen countless of these films, also produced, written, and directed by men. A new study from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media recently found that 66% of women who encounter sexist stereotypes of women on the screen tune out and turn off television and films. This is because we want strong female characters that will empower us, not men’s ideas of strong yet virginal women who feed their fantasies. Give us something else, something new, something to feed our fantasies. Give us what we want: heroines who are not reduced to sexualized virgins intended to feed male desire and fixations on female control and consumption. While you’re at it, move over and let some women write about women. It has been confirmed that Geoff Johns and Patty Jenkins will write the sequel together, so we’ll see how much difference there is when a woman assumes part of the script writing for the part of a female heroine.
Despite the Amazon warrior premise and the incredible Wonder Woman fight scenes, Warner Bros., Fuchs, Heinberg, and Johns missed the mark in bringing us something different than the norm, a heroine not cemented to sexist stereotypes by unconscious biases, and not even a female director or a female starring role could bleach its stubborn and patriarchal spots. As Robehmed points out, “The structural maleness of the entire system, from studio heads to directors to producers and screenwriters, means male themes in films are to be expected,” and this rendering of Wonder Woman was no different. Data scientist Matt Daniels reiterates this point in her article by arguing that “If you have an entire team of male writers and directors, the hypothesis was that male themes would permeate in the movie.” Whether conscious or subconscious, sexism is rampant in the media and in this film, and it’s not until we have women doing the writing that we will find ourselves with female heroines depicted from a female gaze, or even better, a feminist gaze.
One thought on “Domesticating Wonder Woman: the Feminist Gaze vs. the Male Gaze”
I have a question: why would Diana be a virgin. Knowing from the comics that she is bisexual, and stating in the film that men are needed for procreation not pleasure, I think it is safe to assume she has had relationships with women before.