Other factors set Jenkins’ Wonder Woman apart from her super sisters. In terms of production, she is the only one who appears in a film directed by a woman, and that film had the largest budget, highest grosses, and biggest opening weekend of any live-action film ever directed by a woman. Within months, it had earned $820.4 million in global box office ($409 million domestic) and became the seventh highest grossing film of 2017.
The meaning of this becomes clearer in the context of the shocking absence of female directors in the U.S. film industry. According to Variety (January 2017 “Number of Female Directors Falls Despite Diversity Debate”), women comprised seven per cent of all directors working on 250 top-grossing domestic films in 2016, a decline of two percentage points from 2015 and 1998, despite two years of public debate about the lack of opportunities for women and people of color in the industry. Variety’s figures predate Wonder Woman and the mobilization of powerful women in the entertainment industry following the Weinstein revelations, but it remains to be seen how long it will take to truly change this culture of deeply entrenched sexism.
Because of that culture, Jenkins had to be something of a superhero herself to direct this film. In 2003, she directed Monster based on the life of Eileen Wournos. By managing to generate understanding for a female serial killer of men, she showed not only her skills as a director but also a feminism canny enough to reach wide audiences. Yet even though the film won critical raves and an Oscar for Charlize Theron, Jenkins went thirteen years before directing another feature film. She now has a contract to direct Wonder Woman 2, for $7 to 9 million, the highest salary ever for a female director, but her career shows how there is no established path in Hollywood for a talented female director even after the kind of early success that would propel a man’s career forward.
Wonder Woman’s critical reception was overwhelmingly positive, with critics generally “swooning,” “freaking out” and “going gaga” over the film. For me, the most interesting response was some variation of Meredith Woerner’s comments in the LA Times (“Why I Cried Through the Fight Scenes in Wonder Woman”), which I read repeatedly in reviews and comments on the film by women:
“I felt like I was discovering something I didn’t even know I had always wanted, after three decades of watching Iron Man, Captain America, Superman, and Batman punching others in face.”
Many agreed that the prolonged battle at the end of Wonder Woman was too long and that some of the dialogue and music uninspired, but most echoed Jill Lepore, the historian and author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, writing in The New Yorker:
“A lot of viewers will come to this film, as I did, after the most ordinary of days, punch-card-punching, office-meeting, kid-raising, news-watching days, days of seeing women being silenced, ignored, dismissed, threatened, undermined, underpaid, and underestimated, and, somehow, taking it.”
Fewer women may be “taking it” since the #MeToo movement, but most women can relate to Lepore’s description of what she brought to the theater when she saw Wonder Woman. And it hasn’t been only women who have been moved to tears by the film. Joshua Johnson, host of NPR’s “1-A,” told his listeners that he too wept when he heard Wonder Woman explain that she was motivated not by what people (e.g. world of men) deserve but by what she believes in, and she believes in love.
Not everyone shared that enthusiasm, though. James Cameron, the well-respected director of the Terminator, Alien and Avatar films as well Titanic and other action-packed blockbusters, jumped in with a textbook case of man-splaining:
“The self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood's been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided. Wonder Woman is a step backward… because the character was wearing kind of a bustier costume that was very form-fitting. She’s absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. To me, that’s not breaking new ground.”
He contrasts her with the character Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton) in his Terminator films:
“She was not a beauty icon. She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit. There was nothing sexual about her character. It was about angst, it was about will, it was about determination. She was crazy, she was complicated.”
Not surprisingly, these comments did not please influential women in the entertainment industry. In a testy on-line exchange, Lynda Carter called him “thuggish,” and an Australian comic book artist urged him to “calm down.” And with good reason, because Cameron’s critique missed the mark in so many ways. For her, despite her pleasure in Gadot’s beauty, Jenkins did not shoot the film with lighting, camera angles and point of view shots designed to please the male gaze. Instead she playfully reverses the gaze, as when a clothed Wonder Woman sees then studies Steve Trevor naked in a steamy pool. Lindy Hemming, who designed Wonder Woman’s costume, “reverse engineered” the conventions already associated with the character into attire more in keeping with what Amazonian warriors might actually have worn. The difference from Lynda Carter’s skimpy and revealing costuming is striking, not only in how the muted colors avoid the nationalistic red white and blue Carter wore but in how their hard surfaces don’t cling to Gadot’s body.
More important, Connor assumed that a character’s appearance—in this case, her beauty—disqualifies her as an icon of female empowerment, which in his view should be complicated and crazy, perhaps more like the wounded and tormented Jessica Jones. And a bad mother? Even better, because Hollywood does not know how to create a good one. Sarah Connor may be compelling, but she is also one man’s fantasy of a strong woman. Above all, Cameron is wrong in assuming that he knows more than women do about what they want and what’s good for them.
Still, and not surprisingly, the film has evoked mixed responses from female viewers who identify as feminists. Here are some typical comments from casual conversations: “I don’t like fantasy.” “Why did a man (Steve) have to instruct her?” “Why did she have to be so sexualized, with bare legs and a sexy costume?” “Gal Gadot is a Zionist.” “How can a feminist hero be so violent?” “The film is too western and too white.” And finally, “I just wanted it to be more feminist.”
To begin with the last comment, feminism is too complex and multifaceted to be reduced to one set of orthodox standards. The burden of representation placed on this director and this film are similar to what directors of color, queer directors and others from underrepresented groups have had to face when they have achieved breakthroughs of their own. The more important question concerns where a film such as Wonder Woman succeeds in breaking new ground, and where it falls short.
The most consistent complaint from feminist critics has concerned the film’s lack of intersectionality, or its failure to integrate a full range of identities into its analysis of gender. Theresa Harold ( “Why Wonder Woman Isn’t the Feminist Fantasy We’ve Been Told It Is (Metro UK, June 24, 2017) quotes a Twitter user as follows: ‘Wonder Woman [the character as played in the film] is a thin, white, cis-gender, able-bodied Zionist. No way in hell I’m watching that ish [sic]’.” As this comment suggests, casting the Israeli Gadot was almost universally praised on artistic grounds, but controversial on political grounds. Similarly, from Cameron Glover in ”Why Wonder Woman is Bittersweet for Black Women (Harpers Bazaar, June 9, 2017),
“The film embraced feminism for a very specific community—one that does not have people like me in mind.”
While Gadot is ethnically ambiguous and her accent makes her a more global figure than blue-eyed Lynda Carter, she is ultimately coded as white. Women of color appear mainly in Themyscira and in minor roles that include Diana’s nurse, an unfortunate choice that calls to mind the mammy stereotype. The film also erases the sexual dimension of the sisterhood celebrated on Themyscira and the lesbianism long associated with the character.
These concerns beg several questions: Where should a director draw the line when seeking to achieve her artistic vision? #MeToo has raised similar questions about relations between acclaimed works of art and their creators, whose personal behavior may have been abhorrent. [open endnotes in new window] And how faithful should a movie be to its source material? Jenkins took license with hers, most significantly in shifting the setting from the 2nd to the 1st World War because she wanted Diana to confront evil in a context that was more morally ambiguous than the later war. She also wanted a PG rating for the film so it could be viewed by children, a decision that may explain its restrained treatment of sex and its avoidance of anything that could be read as queer.
Viewers who fault the film for its lack of realism raise an interesting question for feminist critics because realism offers such limited roles for women. In contrast, fantasy, with its dimensions of allegory, can reach deep into myth and far into the realm of the imagination. Genre films, which are highly conventionalized, also offer opportunities for skillful directors to subvert dominant ideologies.
Jenkins draws on two genres in Wonder Woman —the superhero film and romantic comedy. Accepting genre conventions would have helped viewers such as Lepore to more easily tolerate and perhaps even enjoy elements of the film, such as Diana’s thigh-high boots and golden tiara, that in another genre would be silly. In the past, feminist critics have been troubled by female characters who have used violence, even when defending themselves and avenging violence inflicted on them and others, typically by men (as in the Scream slasher films). Yet the scenes most often mentioned as thrilling to Wonder Woman’s female audiences are ones in which the women of Themyscira show their warrior skills and Diana herself fiercely battles her enemies.
Here the conventions of the superhero film require Diana to take on and then discard the “narrow” femininity Ferrera identified, which she wears literally as a disguise in London. The “action” in action or superhero films refuses the ideal of passivity associated with normative femininity, even if to take action means to risk getting one’s hands dirty, especially in a non-utopian world. Some of Clinton’s potential supporters have given her little room for compromise as she has navigated that reality throughout her lifetime of service in the public eye.
Jenkins also uses romantic comedy, which often pairs an unruly woman with an attractive man and then heightens dramatic (and sexual) tension by showing them covering up their attraction to each other with verbal banter and jousting. In using this genre, Jenkins offered her female audiences a genre they enjoy, and countered the bleakness typical of the superhero genre with lightness and wit. This tone was often cited by critics as central to the film’s success, and I suspect I was not alone in appreciating its idealism in a cynical time. Jenkins is very clear in interviews that she wanted a character who was sincere, not ironic; vulnerable; capable of growth; and motivated by love—in other words, relatable for many women. The director’s view of art, too, is direct and unpretentious: “Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.” (Cara Buckley Times).
After feminism’s Second Wave, the issue of femininity became a wedge between older feminists critical of its constraints and younger women who felt they could enjoy its pleasures without compromising their politics. Unlike Cameron’s Sarah Connor or Ripley in Alien, Diana offers a rare combination of physical strength and femininity. Like popular culture at its most subversive best, Wonder Woman lets women have it both ways. Diana discovers that she likes babies, pretty clothes, and that hunky Steve Trevor. But she never defers to him, or anyone. Nor does she lose her power when she loses her virginity, a trope that goes back to the chaste warrior Diana of antiquity (and that Scream famously upended).
When femininity is re-imagined, so is masculinity. By reversing the gaze to female, Jenkins not only allows female audiences to enjoy beautiful women in action but also a handsome man—Chris Pine—as a naked object of desire. The film is generous to men in other ways too. After guiding Diana into the world of men, Steve becomes an old-fashioned hero himself in a spectacular act of self-sacrifice, conveniently eliminating the necessity of romantic comedy’s generic ending, the woman’s domestication at the altar. Diana will always have the photograph that opens and closes the film and the memories it recalls, but Steve’s death leaves her free to pursue her mission as a Single Wonder Woman.
A few weeks after I saw Wonder Woman, Clinton released her new book What Happened, her account of her campaign for the presidency. Even after the grotesque attacks Michelle Obama had endured from the nastiest corners of the Internet and that Clinton too had suffered throughout her public life, I was not prepared for the dismissal and condescension of commentators in mainstream publications:
Michelle Ruiz (Vogue) gathered a few the day before the book was published: “Democrats are ‘dreading’ Clinton’s book tour, and saying the attention around What Happened is being met with a ‘collective groan.’ ‘They’re mad she’s looking backward; … ‘re-litigating’ the election,’” from Ruth Marcus, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated columnist from Washington Post ( “Hillary Clinton, smash your rearview mirror,” June 2, 2017). Marcus goes on to say that Clinton’s failure to “go gently” is hurting the Democratic party. Pundits from both parties expressed anger that she’s assigning blame, including Bernie Sanders, who belittled her (on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert) as “a little bit silly” to keep talking about it.
At the same time, Ruiz cites Salon’s depiction of Sanders
“as ever, the noble one, with his ‘forward-thinking guide for the young,’ going so as far as to note that, ‘If anyone should be writing a ‘what happened’ memoir, it is Sanders, not Clinton.’”
Salon also accused her of “playing the women card again” when she said some people are more skeptical of people who don’t look like everyone else who has been President. From the Washington Post: “Publicly calling out misogyny is probably not the best strategy for combating it, or for encouraging other women to run for office.” Meanwhile “Clinton is ‘naming names, bristling at her unfair loss and cashing in.’” Of course, Obama, McCain, Biden, Gore and Romney all earned comparable fees for their books.
Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, Clinton’s defenders were too tepid and too few. Smart, left-leaning women demurred—“She’s too corrupt, she’s too old, I just don’t like her,” and I questioned my own reticence to speak more strongly in her defense. Was it just battle fatigue? Or had I also absorbed by osmosis the unrelenting personal and political case made against her by people and institutions that I trusted? Women can be the harshest critics of other women whose decisions and actions cause them to question their own, and many women more easily identify with a male savior—on the left or the right—than with a woman loaded with the ambivalence of a mother figure. It is sobering to confront the fact that 53 percent of white women voted for a man who takes pleasure in humiliating and violating women, and that the term “machine feminism” has entered the popular discourse.
The most obvious explanation for Clinton’s defeat is that this country just does not like ambitious women. Plain and simple. In those difficult post-election conversations I referred to earlier, two elephants loomed in the room, tied to the two most recurring chants at Trump’s rallies: Build a wall and lock her up. Race and gender. Of course, race, gender and class are connected—-but how and why did class preempt both race and gender in the vast majority of postmortems of the election, which held that Democrats lost because Clinton failed to connect with the working class? 
The scapegoating of Clinton enabled Democrats to dodge the deeper currents of sexism and racism, or at least unacknowledged white privilege, that persist across the political spectrum. Racism drove voters to Trump. Sexism drove them away from Clinton. The sexism Clinton dealt with was compounded by her unruliness, and her unruliness compounded by her age.
My first inkling of this analysis came from Dave Chappelle on Saturday Night Live when he called out white Democrats for their panic and shock at experiencing for the first time the sense of alienation from the political system that minorities know only too well. Then this summer, Mehdi Hassan published an article in Intercept entitled “Top Democrats are Wrong: Trump supporters more motivated by racism than economic issues” (April 6, 2017). I discovered the article when a former student posted it on Facebook, framed with an expression of his own frustration as a black man trying to make the same case for months with his white friends, most of them progressive and many “stone cold brilliant,” in his words.
Within a few months, TaNehisi Coates elaborated on Hassan’s argument with a compelling and erudite article in The Atlantic (October 2017) (“America’s First White President”), followed by Adam Serwer in November on the role of white privilege in the post-election analysis by progressive elites, also in the Atlantic (“The Nationalists Delusion”). Yet even as the dust begins to settle, dislodging or at least complicating that class-based explanation has continued to prove elusive (Times op ed Oct 22). It has been easier for young white progressives to line up behind single-issue Bernie Sanders than behind Black Lives Matter, for example, because of that elephant in the room—unacknowledged white privilege—which continues to bedevil not only feminism but also the left. As Server argues,
“To acknowledge the centrality of racial inequality to American democracy is to question its legitimacy—so it must be denied.”
At the same time, Sanders’ supporters agreed that yes, of course, sexism played a role in Trump’s win, and they denounced the most virulently misogynist attacks on Clinton, but they still can’t get over hating and blaming her. As one observer noted, Clinton was hectored throughout her campaign by two old white men, one on the right and the other on the left.
A cool-headed comparison of Clinton and Sanders’ platforms shows how close their positions were on most issues. But Sanders managed to turn Clinton’s decades of experience and achievements into a liability while erasing the implications of his own minimal record during his quarter of a century in the Congress. According to Susan Bordo, in an especially insightful analysis, Sanders also succeeded in re-branding “progressive” to make the demands of women and minorities seem somehow old-fashioned, especially to young feminists who knew Clinton only through the lens of a media assault on her that has lasted for decades (Guardian April 2 1017 “The Destruction of Hillary Clinton: Sexism, Sanders and the millennial feminists”).
This assault began with Clinton’s identification as an unruly woman decades ago and with the complicated and powerful set of emotions that identification triggered. There’s no need to review here the ways Clinton, the former firebrand at Wellesley College, has been pressured most of her life to live a “very narrow version” of her unruly self, especially once she hitched her fate to Bill’s. As a culture, we have barely been able to imagine a private partnership between a man and woman in which each is free to publically pursue their own ambitions. As a textbook example of unruliness throughout her life, she has been criticized for being threatening, unfeminine, “unlikeable.” Her laughter has unsettled reporters for being too much, too robust; her voice too shrill or unpleasant; and her pantsuits and changing hairstyles mocked. Targeting these superficialities, of course, displaced the real source of her danger: her braininess and her drive. Ambition is distasteful in a woman, and unapologetic ambition particularly threatening.
The sexism and misogyny Clinton has always triggered intensified in her presidential campaign, when she tapped into the additional disruptive power available to a woman as she ages. When a woman refuses to acquiesce gracefully to silence and invisibility after menopause, she becomes threatening and monstrous. Think Nancy Pelosi, who has been subject to simmering resentment for her refusal to step aside. There’s a reason witches are typically old. This taboo lies at the root not only of Trump’s squeamishness about Clinton’s body (in truth, the bodily functions of all women), but also the infantile anger of some of Sanders’ supporters at a mother figure who just didn’t deliver for them, and then—to make matters worse—refused to shut up and go away. Mothers are the target of vast amounts of repressed and displaced blame, and motherhood, like unruliness, heavily weighted with ambivalence, as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale so brilliantly exposed.
In Ruiz’s impassioned words, Clinton does not need to go out gently—or be instructed on “how she should or should not handle her particular, unprecedented situation.” As she reminds her readers, if Clinton were a man, she’d be lionized as a “folkloric political hero”—like John McCain, Joe Biden, and “clearly Sanders.” She would also be able to play a prominent post-election role if she chose to, like other defeated candidates such as Al Gore, McCain, and Mitt Romney. Instead, “people roll their eyes at Clinton and basically say, ‘STFU and take a (literal) hike back to the woods’…. No, Hillary Clinton, the first woman to win a major-party presidential nomination, does not need to shut up about it… not now, not ever.”
And so, Clinton did not break the last glass ceiling. But in refusing to become silent and invisible, she achieved a victory that, like Anita Hill’s, will take on growing significance in time. Despite the differences between them, Clinton and Wonder Woman—like Anita Hill—have activated a potent combination of emotions associated with female unruliness. While Clinton has been demonized, Wonder Woman has offered women a catharsis or release of emotions that have been simmering for long time because of our fear that if indeed we do show anger, or laugh “out of turn,” or make an obscene gesture at a powerful man, or expose him as a sexual predator, we are the ones who will have to pay. Remember the effort to criminalize women’s laughter when Desiree Fairooz laughed at Jeff Sessions, or the outrage prompted by the woman on the bike who gave the figure to Trump’s limousine? As Lindsey West noted in the New York Times (“Brave Enough to be Angry” in Nov 8, 2017), these small acts of unruly defiance evoked intense backlash.
The tears tied to these events speak volumes about how tired women are of having our emotions, intellects, and experiences dismissed or trivialized. Of stuffing our anger and shame at the routine violations of daily life. Of being told “No, you can’t—you’re too weak, too old, too fat, too queer, too this or that,” like Clinton, like Diana. Of being told to shut up and go away, or, like Patty Jenkins, of being schooled by powerful (and not so powerful men) about what women want or need.
We have wonder women all around us, on the big screen, on TV, in real life, women refusing to live narrow versions of themselves, whatever the cost. And for me, America Ferrera is one of them—an inspiring example of a young woman who understands the importance of that feminist history drowned out in the ugly campaigns of the past few years, not to mention by the decades of backlash and postfeminism insisting that the feminist struggle is over because it has been won. Ferrera’s wish?
“To become the biggest, badass version of myself possible to honor the lives of women like Hillary Clinton, like Gloria Steinem, like Ruth Bader Ginsberg. To honor the sacrifices they made so women of my generation could have more access.’”
What a heartening vision of the kind of renewed intergenerational feminism we need in these difficult times! And so as we fight back tears of rage at injustice in any form, let’s also welcome tears that speak to our strength and solidarity whenever we see women insisting on their right to live as their most alive selves, fighting what stands in their way or the way of others, with whatever weapons they have at hand, whether magic bracelets, wit or the simple refusal to shut up and go away.