Over the last year, some of my friends have offered up this jokey-not so jokey prayer in public: “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”
It came to mind today as I watched white dudes react to the runaway success of the new “Wonder Woman” movie. Frankly, it’s been an awkward grapple.
Here’s Rich Lowry at National Review, wondering why we can’t just enjoy a good superhero flick without getting caught up in feminist politics.
The critics have swooned, and some of them have literally cried over the movie. This is a bit much. The advancement of women in this country, or even just in Hollywood, didn’t depend on the production of a better female superhero vehicle than, say, Elektra (Rotten Tomato rating: 10 percent). Nor is it unusual anymore to see women beat up villains on screen. This hasn’t stopped people from losing their minds — a new American core competency — over Wonder Woman.
More complicatedly, David Edelstein at New York found himself, er, revising and extending his previous remarks giving the movie a mediocre review. After answering charges he’d spent too much time contemplating his looks, he answered the broader charge that he simply didn’t take the movie seriously enough:
I underestimated how much a superheroine at the center of a woman-directed film would mean to many people, and descriptions I considered lively and complimentary would come across as demeaning. Moreover, if Wonder Woman will empower women at this moment in history — in which reproductive rights are imperiled, and an admitted groper is working to undo decades of gains for women — then some of the criticisms of my review are just. I reserve the right to think that this is not, overall, a very good movie. But it is an important one.
For which NYT columnist Ross Douthat offered this bit of snark: “It’s a mediocre movie, but I didn’t understand how important mediocre movies are to the Cause.”
…which seems to miss the mark a bit.
The key to understanding why mediocre movies might be “important to the cause” goes back to Lowry’s column: He’s right! Elektra was a lousy movie that did lousy business. And what happened? Despite the flowering of the superhero genre over the last decade, nobody’s seen fit to make a major female superhero movie again until about now.
When superhero movies about white guys do badly, nobody puts that on their white guyness. Ryan Reynolds survived the critical failure of Wolverine and the failure failure of Green Lantern before finally striking gold with Deadpool. Now, it seems, he’s set for life. Short story: White guys don’t have to worry about mediocrity being a major setback.
Meanwhile, the studios offered up three major women-centered superhero movies over the course of 30 years, they flopped, and based on that — instead of the fact that the movies just sucked — the dudes-that-be decided there wasn’t an audience for women-centered superhero movies. They even decided women couldn’t be the villains.
Wonder Woman, it seems, proves that’s wrong.
So the response to Lowry is: When women are getting as many of these opportunities as men, maybe we’ll be able to dial the conversation back a bit. Until then, the process is natural.
And the response to Douthat is: Maybe you shouldn’t sneer at people taking seriously something you don’t have to take seriously because it will never be a problem getting a superhero movie made about people who look like you.
And the response to Edelstein is … well, I kind of wish he hadn’t written his response at all. Critics are inundated with fanboy — a term I used advisedly — criticism whenever they diss a superhero movie, and maybe he should’ve just shrugged it off. Today’s piece was too defensive to come across well, and certainly didn’t appear to be as considered as most of his film criticism usually is.
But read those last sentences again. He doesn’t owe Wonder Woman, the movie, undue respect if the movie hasn’t earned it. Indeed, he says that his review of the flick — that it’s “not … a very good movie” — stands. He can acknowledge that it’s an “important” movie, though — a judgment that belongs to a slightly wider conversation than the “thumbs up-thumbs down” movie review might permit. Did he do wrong with the initial review? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t miss out on something.
Underlying all this (I think) is this sense, among white dudes, that their experience is the median, and that the white dude consensus about, well, anything is the conventional wisdom — maybe even objective truth — about a thing. But we all bring ourselves, our lives into the movie theater with us, and those perspectives affect how we see the movie. To say a movie is “important” without calling it good is a way of beginning to acknowledge those other perspectives.
It’s worth noting that the front page of Rotten Tomatoes “Wonder Woman” page features 20 reviews of the movie — and just five of them are women. The second page? Twenty more reviews, just one identifiable woman.
Think that influences our perspective, even a tiny bit?
I’m not sure that I’m articulating exactly what I want to say here. (One friend allowed I might be suffering from kneejerk leftism on this matter.) It just seems to me that white dudes — I am one — are often like fish in the ocean: They swim in a culture that often facilitates their desires. That’s not a culture that requires them to consider the feminist politics of a piece of art, or one that makes them grapple with why a movie might be important without necessarily appealing to them.
Apparently, it’s very upsetting when something comes along to challenge that.
Going to see the movie this weekend!