New animated “Wonder Woman” movie reflects America’s conflicted feelings toward feminism

"Remarkable, the advanced brainwashing that has been perpetuated on the females of your culture. Raised from birth to believe they’re not strong enough to compete with the boys, and then as adults, taught to trade on their very femininity."

— Diana in Wonder Woman, the animated movie

I should tell you upfront that I’m not generally a fan of animated movies — they tend to bore me unless they were a childhood favorite — but my partner Lori likes them, and she occasionally makes me watch them with her (as penance, I suppose, for all the lesbian movies I make her watch).

Last night, we watched the new straight-to-DVD PG-13 animated Wonder Woman movie from Warner Bros., directed by Lauren Montgomery and based on a story by Bruce Timm, William Marston, and Gail Simone (who is currently the head writer of the Wonder Woman series) about the journey of the Amazon princess Diana from the hidden island of the Amazons to New York and D.C., as she seeks to stop Ares, the God of War (Alfred Molina) from unleashing chaos on the world.

Ares, the Greek God of War

Virginia Madsen (Sideways) voices the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, Rosario Dawson (Seven Pounds, Sin City) voices one of the fiercest Amazon women, Artemis, and Keri Russell (Waitress, Felicity) is surprisingly perfect as the voice of Wonder Woman herself.

Throw in Marg Helgenberger (CSI) as the voice of the god Hera, and you’ve got a solid and eclectic cast of women.

Here’s the trailer so you can get a sense of the movie before I dissect its cultural relevance:

Official Wonder Woman Trailer

From an entertainment perspective, this movie combining Amazonian women, a female superhero, ancient Greek myths, clever writing, and great animation is fun to watch. A few minutes into it, I even put down my iPhone to give the movie my full attention — and it takes a lot to get me to do that!

Wonder Woman and the other Amazons are shrewd warriors, and that’s a refreshing change from most action movies these days, where the women just wait around to get saved by men.

From what Lori tells me, the Amazons’ extreme fanaticism in the movie about war and bravery in battle — and dismissiveness of the one character who preferred reading over fighting — is not really an accurate representation of the Amazons in the comics, who also prize the arts and an ideal, balanced society, but that detail didn’t bother me too much. (Although I must admit, there was so much emphasis on the "we are warriors, hear us roar!" theme that I was expecting a Klingon to pop up during one of the battle scenes and shout "today is a good day to die!")

From a cultural perspective, the film is an interesting reflection of America’s mixed feelings towards feminism. While this movie appears to have a strong feminist message, it also has a strong anti-feminist one — much like current American society in general.

The Amazonian women in the movie are presented as strong, independent, and wise (although not perfect), and Diana’s journey to becoming Wonder Woman is a story of bravery and sacrifice in the tradition of all great heroes.

The Amazons including Persphone, left, Artemis, center, and Diana, right

There is ongoing conversation (sometimes nuanced, sometimes not) between Diana and Steve (Nathan Fillion), the pilot who crashed on the Amazons island and started this whole chain of events, about the evils of men and sexism, like in this conversation between Diana and Steve when she wakes up after a battle and learns he chose to save her instead of stopping the bad guy:

Diana: I’m an Amazon, Steve. We’re prepared from birth to give our lives in battle. I knew what the consequences were going into this mission. I bet you would have acted differently if I were a man.

Steve: Oh, playing the sex card again? I’ve had just about enough of you going on about how terrible men are.
Diana: Does the truth hurt, Steve?
Steve: Newsflash! The Amazons aren’t so perfect, either. You act brave but cutting yourself off from the outside world was cowardly. Not to mention stupid — like less communication between men and women is what the world needed.

He goes on to tell her something to the effect of "not everything a man does is misogynistic" and that he saved her simply because he cares about her, etc.

But except for that conversation and a few others, Steve is mostly portrayed in a — forgive the pun — cartoonishly sexist way. When he is first captured by the Amazon Queen, he tells her, "your daughter’s got a nice rack." It doesn’t get much more stereotypical than that.

So it’s no wonder that when thugs attempt to rob Diana and Steve in an alley, Diana not only refuses to hand over their money, she demands an apology, "for contributing to my present disillusionment with men in general."

I found a clip of that scene on the movie’s official MySpace page:

Clip of Steve and Diana in the alley

When Persephone (Vicki Lewis) — an Amazon who betrayed them to help the God of War — is dying, she accuses the Amazon Queen of denying her a life of families and children, telling her "the amazon are warriors, but we are women, too."

What?

Having her say "but we are women, too," instead of "but we are human, too" reinforces the sexist idea that all women want families and children, and all or most men don’t. That’s simply not true, no matter how many times American culture tries to say it is. Persephone’s argument that she should be able to choose to fall in love and have a family is valid, but it’s just as valid for men as for women.

Ultimately, Wonder Woman clearly falls on the "empowering" side of how it portrays women, but it’s constrained by the contradictions of contemporary American beliefs: that women should be strong, but not too strong — and look effortlessly glamorous at the same time. Independent, but not too independent, because they ultimately need true love and children to complete them (a message the kiss between Diana and Steve at the end also subtly conveys).

The aide who tells the President at the end of the movies that the evil forces have been neutralized by "armored supermodels" is pretty accurately summarizing the ideal woman in contemporary American pop culture: beautiful, fashionable, and just a little bit dangerous.

This makes a movie based on a decades-old comic series drawing heavily from centuries-old Greek mythology surprisingly relevant to 2009 America. If we’re lucky, it might even provoke thought and discussion about sexism among its viewers.

If you haven’t seen Wonder Woman, I recommend it; if you have, let me know what you thought in the comments.

(You can read fuller reviews of the film at EW, Wired and DVD Talk, and check out the movie’s official site for more photos, etc.)

Tags: ,