I heard a friend of mine defending Jim Cameron, who said Wonder Woman was a “step back” because it “objectified” the female lead, as opposed to what he did with Sarah Connor in the Terminator films (he doesn’t get to take full credit for Ripley in Aliens because she existed long before).
My friend said “it was a poor choice of words but you can’t say he hasn’t made kick-ass female characters.” And he proceeded to name the characters. I thought about it for a bit, and for a long time, these characters really were the best women were ever going to get. The best it was ever going to be for us after the fanboy takeover of the past 30 years essentially turned women into playthings, for the most part. For decades, the must we could hope in action films were “tough” women who looked real good, who could fight real good but ultimately — with Ripley the notable exception — needed some kind of saving. It’s especially annoying in Terminator 2 where a young boy is smarter and more capable than his buff but supposedly crazy mother.
I would never spend too much time criticizing Cameron for his female characters because, as I said, they were like water in a desert for a long time. In fact, I love his films and I love the female characters he created — this is not about them, and not really about what he does. Here’s the quote that has Cameron in hot water:
“All of the self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood’s been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided. She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing! I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie but, to me, it’s a step backwards. Sarah Connor 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. And to me, [the benefit of characters like Sarah] is so obvious. I mean, half the audience is female!”
I’m sorry to have to be the one to inform Jim Cameron that Sarah Connor really was a beauty icon. For women, for men. She was just a lean, buffed up, and dressed-down version of one, but kickass eye candy was ultimately the purpose she served. Strong because she was athletic and never backed down. A terrible mother? Maybe. Hardly her fault. She had been institutionalized because nobody believed the truth of the future she knew, so her separation from son John can be forgiven . It’s not my aim to criticize her — it’s just that Wonder Woman represents a leap much further than that for women.
But the problem for me is what Cameron misses in his criticism of Wonder Woman, he says Wonder Woman is nothing but an objectified icon — that’s just false. He also says the film is a step back, also false. In every way that relates to modern movie making, at least for women (perhaps less so for women of color) it’s a huge step forward for two reasons.
First, Wonder Woman’s staggering box office ($800 million orldwide) proves that Hollywood executives no longer claim that films directed by women can’t make THAT KIND OF MONEY. They can’t say it anymore because it will be a lie.
The second way Patty Jenkin’s film is a step forward is that Wonder Woman does not need saving. There is no precocious kid who breaks into the loony bin to rescue her, or a precocious young lad who busts up her marriage to Cal and hoists her onto a wooden floaty. Wonder Woman needs no saving. She’s unquestionably the hero, and that clearly bothers some people. For the first time in a long time, the woman is the hero. Or heroine, if you prefer. As strong and smart and capable as the women Cameron created may be, there is always always always a smarter, more capable man who finishes the job (with the exception of Ripley, — a character that Cameron only briefly adopted).
Wonder Woman does what she does without needing to evacuate love from her heart. In fact, quite the opposite, which eliminates the boring, tasteless accusation that strong women can only exist without men, or that they want to replace men or obliterate them. In fact, the one thing we can say for sure about Wonder Woman? It wasn’t about men. Here is Patty Jenkins’ response:
Now, a bit about the objectification part. The original Wonder Woman was created William Marston as a powerfully sexual feminist. Cameron should know this; maybe he does. Upon her first appearance in 1941, she was one of the first pop culture personification of a literal proto-feminist, as in the earliest days of the feminist movement which helped give women self-determination and access to birth control. As far as we can tell, the creator of Wonder Woman lived with his wife and his mistress under the same roof — it’s rumored that the two women also had a relationship. So it’s hardly surprising that Wonder Woman herself was always imbued with strong sexuality as a strength, which is something women should remember about themselves: for us, in some ways, sex is our super power. To erase that part of Wonder Woman would be to diminish, to insult or to erase that super power, and it would be an insult to the author. For women sexuality is a strength, a strength that men have been trying to control for thousands of years and still try to control. Why? Because a woman’s sexuality can make the weakest of men feel… well, weak.
It isn’t that women should be defined by how much they lift the boner, because all too often what stands in for a good strong female character is just a hard-as-nails hottie who’s not given all that much to do. For all of her physical beauty and strength in Terminator 2, there isn’t a lot that Sarah Connor actually gets to do other than be on the run and athletically jump over plot hurdles. Her importance to the narrative stems not from anything she ever did on her own, but from whom she gave birth to. The legendary Sarah Connor is, in fact, a mythical Cameron version of the Virgin Mary except not a virgin. The leaders and soldiers in the field of battle (all male) honor her because they want to meet the legend who gave birth to the man who would save the world.
Flash forward thirty years. The idea that women, and little girls, can now see Wonder Woman and watch a woman save the day made many of us actually cry. Yes, cry at a super hero movie. It seems dumb, perhaps, but to be a woman in any kind of occupation — let alone film directing — is to always have to prove yourself. A never-ending fight to be taken seriously. A fight to be listened to, a fight to be regarded as highly as their male counterparts. Men feel these same creeping doubts but for women, double it. For women of color, triple it. What Patty Jenkins has achieved is anything but a step back.
When I raised my daughter, it was in era when Hollywood had become obsessed with the “one special boy” narrative (which still persists). It perpetuated the mindset that any kind of male character was special and capable of great things. This has continued for over 20 years now. Eventually things have begun to shift to a better balance, with Star Wars, Frozen and yes, Wonder Woman paving the way. Female filmmakers who succeed — like Ava DuVernay or Kathryn Bigelow or Patty Jenkins — are also rewriting what women can to make money for Hollywood and to compete in the Oscar race. I’m very glad that young girls today aren’t restricted to that moribund narrative, the stultifying lesson that “one special boy” is all that matters.
It is especially significant that Wonder Woman has shattered box office records in the same year that a woman who would have been a wonderful leader was vilified by an entire country for daring to run for president. As a society, we’re not there yet. And a generation of men raised to believe that “one special boy” can save the world are part of the reason we’re not.
Movies aren’t everything. They can’t solve every problem. But think of the young girl who can now see Wonder Woman instead of a “one special boy” movie and have it stand out as the defining movie of her childhood. Who knows what the presidential race might look like in 20 years.