2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018
Wonder women: women’s tears, and why they matter
by Kathleen Rowe Karlyn
In memory of Chuck Kleinhans, 1942-2017
Monsters. Magic. The desire for purity but the reality of dirt. And tears.
Women engaged with popular and political culture have long ridden the waves of emotions associated with these images and themes, but that ride went into hyperdrive when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton began their campaigns for the presidency in the summer of 2016. [open endnotes in new window] And while the battle between them technically ended with Clinton’s defeat, it not only continued in Trump’s post-election obsession with her but escalated in the massive mobilization of women and other minority groups newly politicized by the Trump presidency.
This paper didn’t begin with Trump and Clinton, however, but with Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman released the following year. Women were crying about it in droves, and I wanted to know why. In the months that followed, I found more occasions for tears, from mass shootings that have become numbingly routine in the United States to the snarky responses to What Happened, Clinton’s account of her run for the presidency, and finally in the #MeToo movement, which originated in 2007 with Tarana Black, a black activist from Philadelphia speaking out against rape culture. In the fall of 2017, when white female celebrities exposed film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual abuse, the movement went global, toppling or at least tainting powerful men in virtually every institution of our society.
I’ve always been interested in cultural figures and texts that move people or push their buttons, especially those associated with female unruliness, a cluster of attributes that can both celebrate and demonize female power. In the late 1980s and 1990s, comedian Roseanne polarized audiences of her standup shows and her sitcom (ABC 1988-1997) with her unvarnished feminist perspective on working class life. By the mid-1990s, Girl Culture and the popularity among girls of such media texts as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Scream (1996) and Titanic (1997) exposed generational tensions within feminism. At the same time, highly acclaimed films such as American Beauty (1999) gave voice to male resentment of the gains women had made since the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
In the past year, two female figures, one real, one fictional, have provoked similarly intense responses: Diana of Themyscira, AKA Wonder Woman, and Clinton. If Clinton’s defeat was a shock, so too was Wonder Woman’s triumph—at the box office, among critics, and with female audiences around the world. Women have wept about Clinton too, and while those tears are of a different nature than the ones triggered by Wonder Woman, the phenomena are related, as is the emotion driving the #MeToo revelations, certainly displaced from its more intractable target in the White House.
My thoughts about these emotions have been influenced by two conversations I’ve had many times in this past year. In discussing the election with friends, especially men, I’ve often felt that I hit an impossible and depressing wall. And most of my conversations about Wonder Woman left me feeling a bit wistful, wanting to share my uncomplicated delight in the film as much as my simmering anger about the narratives that have taken root in our culture around Clinton. In all of these conversations, I’ve sensed ambivalence and the desire for “more.” “Why couldn’t Wonder Woman be more …. feminist?” Or, in a New Yorker film review by scholar Jill Lepore, “I am not proud that I found comfort in watching a woman in a golden tiara and thigh-high boots clobber hordes of terrible men. But I did.” Regarding Clinton, “Why did she accept money to talk to Goldman Sachs?” “Why didn’t she tell off Trump when he stalked her on stage?” “Why did she stay with Bill?”
This desire for more reveals a deeper yearning for purity and a frustration with the reality of compromise that confronts anyone—but especially a woman—who aspires to direct a blockbuster film or to rise to a pinnacle of political power—in other words, to be unruly, to act in a big way on her desire. The burden is heavy, the judgments harsh, and the risks very real for any woman who is a first, and for all who refuse to play by the rules.
In my earlier work, I was drawn more to women’s laughter than to their tears. Tears and melodrama felt too close to women’s suffering and victimization. And in these days of cynicism and despair, I have felt saved more than ever by comedy and laughter. Saturday Night Live, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee, whose feminist rage is positively cathartic. But this has also been a time of tears for me.
Like the old bromide about Eskimos and snow, there are many kinds of tears, which vary significantly depending on their origins: emotional tears versus tears from cutting onions, tears of physical versus emotional pain, of joy, relief, and so on. In her poetic book The Topography of Tears, RoseLynn Fisher magnifies tears under a microscope then photographs them. These tears are mostly her own, and she shed them on different occasions: “Yes.” “My brother’s tears on the other side of a promise kept.” “Last tear I ever cry for you.” As photographic images, they evoke complex geological landscapes that suggest the connections between micro and macro, body and soul, just as women’s tears, whether triggered by Wonder Woman, Trump or the shared trauma of sexual abuse, suggest more emotion than our bodies can contain or our words convey.
One recent instance when I felt emotion I could not contain was on the day after Trump’s inauguration, when I joined caravans of buses filled with women converging on the nation’s capital for an exhilarating mixture of political activism and street theater. There were problems with the march—problems about racial and class privilege that persist within feminism—but they didn’t derail the sensations of sanity and solidary I felt in a world that had seemingly gone cuckoo.
Tears ambushed me again, months later, when I sat in a theater and watched Wonder Woman. As film scholars, we know the power of a shared audience, a big screen and great sound system to amplify the impact of a film, but I was not prepared to be so moved by the giant image of a gorgeous, fearless woman ripping up the screen. Two moments especially thrilled me: in the first, Diana as a little girl takes a warrior pose that shows her fighting spirit and determination to have her way. In the second, as an adult, she again defies those who would oppose her and storms across No Man’s Land, warding off a barrage of bullets with her magic bracelets.
Finally, when Clinton emerged from her post-election retreat to promote her new book and was told, in effect, to shut up and go away, I did not weep. But I felt the smoldering rage that women have long suppressed when faced with assaults on their dignity, let alone their bodies, as testified to by the millions of women finally sharing their stories of sexual abuse and trauma.
I’m not interested in mounting a defense of either Wonder Woman the film or Clinton the person. Clinton is not a radical, and she has taken positions throughout her long career I have not agreed with, although I am sympathetic to the reasons why. Nor is Wonder Woman a perfect feminist film, as if such a thing existed. But I am interested in how the strong and ambivalent responses both have triggered are tied to the conventions of female unruliness I first explored earlier in my career.
Wonder Woman’s unruliness is tempered because it comes in the form of a fictionalized character packaged for a mass audience. Clinton’s is more threatening because she has sought and held real power in the real world; moreover, because she is long past the age of a woman’s perceived “fuck-ability,” she is coded even more strongly with taboo and the grotesque. But both push at cultural beliefs about what a woman can do or be. Both ask us to consider what it takes for a woman to have power today. Just as “sadism demands a story,” in Laura Mulvey’s still provocative words, both remind us that choosing action over passivity, the preferred mode of femininity, may require a willingness to compromise, to get ones hands dirty and even engage with violence. It is hard to imagine Buffy defending the world from vampires without being willing to slay them herself. Both Wonder Woman and Clinton ask us to consider what narrative genres are available to tell the stories of women who combine action and power. Can we still imagine these women only as superheroes or monsters, in the realm of fantasy?
I’ve long admired Latina actor America Ferrera for her performances in Patricia Cardoso’s Real Women Have Curves (2002) and ABC’s Ugly Betty (2006-10), and my admiration has only grown after her recent interview with Clinton in the New York Times Sept 16, 2017):
“As a woman, as a Latina, I’ve always felt there’s a very narrow version of me that’s acceptable, that’s allowed to succeed. And if I stray from that, I’m not just failing myself, I’m failing to many. So I’ve operated from a place of fear, not from my most-alive self ”(my emphasis).
Ferrera identifies here an array of emotions activated by both Wonder Woman and Clinton: the frustration of having to shrink ourselves into narrow versions of who we are in order to be successful; the fear, shame and even violence we risk if we violate the constraints imposed on us; the sense of responsibility to others when we do aspire to do or be something more, a theme that HRC returns to repeatedly in her book; and finally the buried yearning to be our “most alive” selves, something many women are experiencing now, some for the first time, through the power of cinematic identification with a narrative and character they have never experienced before.
In 1984, I experienced something similar when I was forced to confront emotions I had not yet dealt with, about a reality I had not yet fully perceived. I was working as an editor at a Kansas newspaper, and one day I joined the staff in the newsroom to watch Geraldine Ferraro accept the nomination to run as candidate for Vice President. I saw a lone woman on the dais surrounded by men, and tears filled my eyes. At that point in my life, I was reading MS magazine and I supported the ERA, but I hadn’t yet fully grasped the extent of how my imagination, my sense of possibility and my life itself had been colonized by patriarchy.
Like Clinton, Ferraro was smart, accomplished, and experienced in politics, and her candidacy recognized for the milestone it was. Yet in short order, investigations into her husband’s business revealed shady dealings and, corrupted by association, she had to step down. In doing so, she anticipated Clinton’s battle throughout her public life to be a person in her own right, as well the ways she has suffered guilt by association with her husband. Her identity has often been submerged into an entity known as “The Clintons,” a term heavy with distaste.
Similar moments followed in the years to come: hearing a woman’s voice—Susan Stamberg’s—for the first time on a radio newscast; catching a glimpse of a female pilot in the cockpit of a huge aircraft; and then in 1991, being riveted to the radio for Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate, her courage paving the way for the waves of women now naming their abusers and holding them accountable. Even earlier, there had been Shirley Chisholm breaking boundaries of race and gender, paving the way for Ferraro and Hill. But it was seeing Ferraro on that TV screen that jolted me into recognizing what had been missing in my universe.
The shared history of moments like these, and others, helps explain the connection many women of my generation feel with Clinton, and because she is a real person it is easy see why her story matters. It has been more difficult to make that case about Wonder Woman for people who don’t study popular culture, despite her being the most popular female comic-book hero of all time. But her story matters too. With Jenkins’ film, Wonder Woman was finally featured in a live-action feature of her own, which broke records of all kinds and moved legions of women.
Feminists and critics on the left have long been suspicious of media texts that are popular, seeing them as inevitably contaminated by dominant ideologies. As a result, they have failed at times to take seriously the experiences of real rather than theoretical audiences and have minimized both the utopian value of pleasure and the political value of the imagination.
My thoughts about Wonder Woman are inspired by Jacqueline Bobo’s work on Black women’s responses to Spielberg’s film The Color Purple in Black Women as Cultural Readers (1995). Fully aware of its racist distortions of Alice Walker’s novel and of the shortcomings identified by critics in general and Black men in particular, Black women loved the film anyway. They loved seeing Whoopi Goldberg’s face on the big screen and identifying with a Black woman at the center of her own story. Bobo’s respect for these women recalls B. Ruby Rich’s reminder, during the heyday of Mulvey’s abstracted female spectator, not to forget the real women sitting next to us in a theater.
Something like that emotion occurred in screenings of Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, which like Spielberg’s Color Purple makes full use of cinema’s potential for spectacle and storytelling to give women something they’ve craved, often without even realizing it. And it is happening again for Black audiences watching Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018), another superhero film that smashed records when it opened and earned similar praise from critics and viewers.
According to Lepore’s The Second History of Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman has been a feminist icon since her creation in 1941 by William W. Marston, a psychologist best known for inventing the lie detector although notorious for his controversial beliefs about polyamory and women’s superiority to men. (Angela Robinson creates a sympathetic portrait of him in her film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women .) Inspired by Margaret Sanger and other feminist heroes of the 20th century, Marston designed Wonder Woman as a female counter to ultra-violent male superheroes. Adorned with chains, leather and cuffs, she prompted efforts by conservative cultural groups to censor her, despite the association of chains with the women’s suffrage movement. She was also accused of “inciting indecency” in hearings on juvenile delinquency by members of Congress concerned that Themysicra, Wonder Woman’s utopian all-female home, promoted lesbianism.
These ambivalent and charged responses to Wonder Woman can be explained by her ties with female unruliness, a tradition in representation and real life that includes some or all of the following:
Associated with dirt, liminality and taboo, she is a figure of ambivalence rooted in the grotesque and the carnivalesque. She may be old or a masculinized crone, for an old woman who refuses to become silent and invisible in our culture is often considered grotesque. (This element is central to the gendered demonization of Clinton as she has aged, a point I will return to later). Finally the unruly woman can be seen as prototype of woman as subject, transgressive above all when she lays claim to her own desire. These tropes are coded with misogyny. But a woman who embraces and recodes them can tap into their potential to disrupt the existing social order.
Wonder Woman’s origin story places her outside that order from the beginning. Diana is born on the utopian island of Themyscira, protected by the gods and inhabited only by women who train as warriors but live in peace. In Jenkins’ version of the story, Steve Trevor, a U.S. pilot, falls out of the sky into the sea close to Themyscira. Diana, who knows she has unusual powers but not yet how many or why, defies her protective mother and leaves with him to save the world from the ravages of the Great War. In the process, she experiences sex, discovers ice cream, and acquires some fabulous new clothes. She also learns who she is–the half-sister of her sworn enemy, Ares, the god of war. In effect, she journeys from the innocence of her life on Themyscira to experience in the world of men.
Other versions of female superheroes have also drawn large followings among girls and women and interest from feminist critics, although I am less interested in the histories and mythologies of the vast world of superheroes than in what’s behind the impact of Jenkins’ film. Before this film, the most famous cinematic or televisual version of Wonder Woman was Lynda Carter’s TV series (1975-79), notable for its heavy nationalism and campy tone created by such tongue-in-cheek props as an “invisible” airplane. Lara Croft, Cat Woman, Wonder Girl and Superwoman, fantasy-based superheroes from comics, are also defined by their super powers and willingness to use them, a quality excluded from normative femininity. Like male superheroes with their exaggerated signs of masculinity, these female superheroes are hyper-female in their appearance and usually, like Lynda Carter and Gal Gadot in Jenkins’ film, beautiful.
Several of these female super heroes are “noir-ish” characters who inhabit decidedly dark worlds. Xena in Xena Warrior Princess, an Australian TV series (1995-2001), is a more flawed figure than Wonder Woman, having started as a villain. She enjoys combat for its own sake and has some magical powers, and with her female sidekick Gabrielle, brings a strong lesbian component to the show. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) originated as a film and became a cult favorite among teen girls and some boys. According to the Buffy mythology, in each generation a girl is chosen to save the world from evil and given the power to do so. This destiny compounds Buffy’s adolescent angst because it cuts her off from the normal pleasures of teen girl’s life. The protagonist of Jessica Jones (2015-), a TV show based on a Marvel superhero, suffers PTSD and self-medicates with alcohol after having experienced extreme psychological and sexual violence at the hands of her nemesis, an evil male superhero with powers of mind control.
In contrast, Wonder Woman begins with a voice-over of Diana testifying to the wondrous beauty of the world. She discovers its corruption but she is no one’s victim. The optimism of her vision and her ability to sustain it in the face of monstrous evil is an important factor in the film’s power to move audiences suffering from the widespread malaise and cynicism of this historical moment, not only in the United States but globally.
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. 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.
2. In using the first person pronoun to refer to women, I am acknowledging my own identity as a woman, not suggesting that I can or wish to speak for all women.
3. In 1968, she became the first black woman elected to the Congress represented her New York district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. In 1972, she became the first black candidate for a major party's nomination for president and the first woman to run for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination.
4. Important scholarship already exists on superheroes and comics in general, including on Wonder Woman. In this paper, I am interested primarily in how the response to Jenkins’ version of Wonder Woman relates to other instances of female unruliness happening contemporaneously.
5. Roxane Gay, author of Hunger and other feminist books, and contributor to New York Times, gets to the heart of this debate by recounting her changing attitudes to The Cosby Show, crucial to her growing up as a black girl but irrevocably tainted once Cosby’s history of abusing women came to light. “Can I Enjoy but Denounce the Artist?”
6. Meanwhile, by February 2018, the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the election confirmed Russian influence in the election to intensify discord, sow skepticism about democratic institutions and favor the Putin-enamored Trump over Clinton.
7. With thanks to Ulrick Casimir,
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