Oh, the hours I spent playing Wonder Woman as a child! She was the ideal superhero–yes, because she was a woman (and a dark haired one at that, which made her the un-Barbie to me–and my joy in discovering her only highlights the pain that children of color often feel when they face another summer with no heroes of color on the screen). But she was also accessible to me: you could step into the role with nearly no gear. Unlike billionaire Bruce Wayne, who relied on a manor full of gadgets to get the job done, Wonder Woman required only three things: Bracelets of Submission (which could be crafted from the blue extra-wide rubber bands that held together broccoli bought at the grocery store), the Lasso of Truth (which we made from any old rope we could find), and an Invisible Plane (which was the easiest of all to craft!). Clearly, DC wasn’t thinking about merchandizing to children when Wonder Woman came to be.
But that she was a woman meant a lot, too. I’d like to say that we simply didn’t see too many women as heroes “back when I was a kid,” but that’s still pretty much the case (though I think there are significant exceptions, including Mulan, Brave, and Moana). We tend to classify movies by and about men as movies (unless they are about war or whatever The Revenant was about) and movies by and about women as women’s movies, as if men’s gendered experiences don’t shape how they view films but movies for women are only accessible to those who have been through the gendered experiences of women.
And writers know this. It’s why Harry Potter is about a boy and his friends Hermione and Ron–a group that is two-thirds boys. When girls take the lead role or outnumber boys, boys start to see the book (or the film) as for girls. And when a book about a boy is written by a woman, her publisher will ask her to use her initials or a pen name to hide her gender. Ramona Quimby and Pippi Longstocking are the literary exceptions in that they are read by boys (or are read to boys), too, but Ramona and Pippi are also girls who are quite explicit about embracing danger, fun, and silliness–and rejecting dresses, obedience, and good manners. Until Dora the Explorer, we didn’t have a girl character with the kind of multi-media power (a TV show, video games, books, a stage show) that was cultivated for boy characters. Even Dora, though, wasn’t bringing in the boy viewers and so she got a male counterpart: her cousin Diego.
Above, left to right: Pippi Longstocking challenges Adolf, the strongman, at the circus, Ramona Quimby tears around on her tricycle, and Harry Potter and his pals Hermione and Ron pose for a picture
So, while it’s so important for women to see women as heroes on the screen, the major obstacle to them getting there is the idea that men won’t watch them. Yet the fact that audiences for things like monster truck rallies and pro wrestling events and Mel Gibson films are mostly men doesn’t prevent them from being produced–nor does the fact that some films (50 Shades of Grey, all those lovely Jane Austen adaptations) were watched primarily by women mean that such films shouldn’t be produced. Twilight made a boatload of money but was marketed mostly to women and girls.
If we already produce movies with a gendered market in mind, why the hesitation to produce more movies with women in the heroic roles? As the success of Wonder Woman among women viewers shows, women are available and ready to watch.
I’m not sure, then, that the problem is so much with films with strong women characters as much as it is with men who can’t imagine a woman saving them. Films like 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight might be movies for women, but they don’t threaten men. Wonder Woman is going to save men. She might even physically save them. (As happens in real life, too–women work as fire fighters and on avalanche rescue teams and as hostage negotiators and they often actually physically save the lives of men, sometimes even by picking them up and carrying them to safety.)
So, yes, as you point out, if you are a white man mocking women crying at Wonder Woman, don’t; it’s easy but ugly to “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.”
But I’m also betting that part of white men’s discomfort with Wonder Woman is that she’s saving people who do look like them.
Above, a drawing from a Wonder Woman comic. Wonder Woman rescues a man from a fire by carrying him on her shoulder. How much you wanna bet he tried to insist that he could handle it on his own?
PS. I have a lot more to say about Wonder Woman, including Gal Gadot’s support for assaults on Palestinian civilians, a real-life message that seems at odds with the film’s apparent criticisms of nationalism. I’m also not a huge Chris fan (Pine, Pratt, Hemsworth, Evans) as they seem to me to be the living embodiment(s) of the idea that in order for people of color and women to get ahead, undeserving white men are going to need to step aside. So let me think about it more. In the meantime, I’ll spend my free time this weekend re-reading Herland.
The cover of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, serialized in 1915 and not published in book form until 1979.