Wonder Woman, Work, and White Feminism

[Beware of spoilers.]

The new Wonder Woman film opens with a sequence at the Louvre. Cue unnecessary voiceover that could double as Lana Del Rey song lyrics. We see a pair of sky-high heeled boots that likely cost more than a year of my undergraduate education (I went to school in Canada, but still) glide forward, away from us—just parts of an expensively dressed woman. When our superhero protagonist enters her luxe office, where she works as a curator, all I can think is the vibe is so Ivanka Trump Women Who Work. I guess the luminous Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) has to have a glamour job so she can dress like a basic wifey to keep her down-and-dirty identity a secret. (But I’ve been behind the scenes at several museums, and back of house is often a cubicle farm with sad lighting and people eating limp sandwiches or cat food grade sushi at their tiny desks.)

Wonder Woman is many things, but it isn’t feminist in the slightest, unless you count the peak white feminist moment where Steve’s secretary Etta (Lucy Davis) describes her duties and Diana responds, “Where I come from, we call that slavery”. Nope, just nope. Doing admin drudgework for a hapless handsome man is not comparable to being ripped from your homeland, sold like property, and raped. I say this as someone who once interned at Dazed & Confused and was told by Jefferson Hack to take the heavy couch covers “not to the close drycleaners, but the good drycleaners”. The photo editor took pity on me and lent me her A to Z—do Londoners still use that resource now that there are smart phones? So I lugged all that upholstery and the spider-killing map book with me for fifteen minutes on foot. NOT COMPARABLE TO SLAVERY.

It’s not that I expected Wonder Woman to be anything more or less than the usual DC Comics fare, even if the marketing machine is branding this as the second coming of the Women’s March. I refuse to hold this movie to a higher standard than ones starring lantern-jawed dudes, but I gotta say, I disappoint lah.

After the Louvre, it’s flashback time: we meet Diana as a child, being chased by her nanny. Cameron Glover notes in an essay for Harpers Bazaar, “The first Black woman we’re introduced to is Diana’s caretaker, a representation which hits the Mammy trope on the head. With roots in the transatlantic slave trade, Mammies were Black women who were domestic caregivers, mostly charged with taking care of the children of slave owners and, once slavery was abolished, white families who hired them for low wages.” Pop culture really has to stop shitting on black women. This casting choice does not represent not diversity or inclusion.

[Dammit, I can’t find a picture of young Diana with her caretaker.]

This flashback sequence yields scene after scene passing the Bechdel Test (wherein two women must appear together and have a conversation about something other than a man), but that’s because we’re following Amazons in their man-free world where the water is crystalline and the light makes everyone glow in that no-makeup selfie way. Had it not been for this sliver of origin story, there would have only been one scene in the entire film that passes the test. (That single moment involves shopping.) But soon on Paradise Island the conversation turns to men because obviously we can’t have nice things because we’re women. All Diana and her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), can talk about are Zeus, Ares, and the pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) even after seeing a beloved family member sacrifice herself on the battlefield. We learn later that every Amazon knows a hundred languages, so I imagine they know how to say “he did me wrong” a hundred different ways.

In the grand tradition of leading women in action movies being stubborn, foolish, and super fucking annoying (because that is how their dude creators see them), Diana leaves the island with Steve. I wish her impulse was to go see what’s beyond her perfect island or to escape being suffocated by her OG helicopter mom, but she’s off because she believes that she alone can defeat Ares, thereby ending the Great War. Some friendly advice, Princess Diana: no one likes a self-righteous hubristic do-gooder, not even if you’re gorgeous and have better hair than Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.

There’s a funny scene on the boat to London between Diana and Steve that was improvised by the actors, and it’s one of the only moments where our superhero is witty and charming. I’m not asking her to be Deadpool, but it would be great if every other line of her dialogue wasn’t “I want to fight” or “Take me to Ares.” After a while, she comes across like a child on a road trip who asks, “Are we there yet?” every twenty minutes.

They arrive in London and of course all Diana wants to do is find Ares. Suddenly she goes from having glimmers of a multifaceted personality to being a beautiful bot programmed with a mission. Steve tries to explain the situation to her: the Great War is a complex shitshow, plus he needs to deliver intel to his superiors because he has this thing called a job and he’s trying to prevent mass death by poisonous gas. I’m sure some see this as mansplaining, but he’s disabusing a book smart dummy of her wrong ideas, so I’ll give him a pass here.

We see Diana shop, fight, and become the first woman to ever enter a parliamentary session. I think we’re supposed to cheer for the girl powerness of all it, but I’ve seen so many pinky violence movies that I’m used to seeing a woman kick ass. There’s a scene in bar, and an effort to round up a motley crew of men. There’s an alcoholic sniper, Charlie (Ewen Bremner, who will always and forever be Spud to me) and a con man, Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui). We meet a character named Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), an Indigenous man presumably from North America. He doesn’t get to have a backstory beyond escaping genocide to serve the colonizer. Somehow he’s hired to be their guide to the Western Front—I suspect his entire storyline exists because white people think that Indigenous men have a magical mastery over natural landscapes. Let me bitchsplain this: the ability to navigate North American terrain wasn’t some innate gift, it was based on knowledge and experience gained over generations and passed down. The Chief character is pure what-the-fuckery in service of a misguided nod to diversity. There’s a painful woke-lite scene where Chief reveals that Steve’s “people” are the ones responsible for his suffering. Later, we get another swig of Diet Woke when Sameer tells Diana that he wanted to be an actor, “But I am the wrong colour.” We’re being trolled hard here, like when Lena Dunham wrote a black Republican into one episode of Girls as a fuck you to all the critics who questioned her racial politics.

Then we’re off to No Man’s Land, where trench foot has everyone feeling despair, but not Diana! She chastises Steve for not caring about the little people and runs out into an open field to make a difference for her social justice cause. Instead of dying, she kicks ass and with a tiny bit of help from the men, they liberate a village. (Whoever said that there are more women in the Black Panther trailer than all of Wonder Woman is right.)

When a photographer takes a post-victory picture of Diana and the men, (an image we first saw back at the Louvre) I found myself thinking: will we ever have a female superhero who isn’t beautiful in an otherworldly, yet predictably feminine way?

Diana and Steve dance under the stars, then wander off to engage in post-victory off-screen sex.

The next scenes drag on and on. One extended sequence is an excuse to show Gal Gadot in an evening gown. She’s already done the swimsuit portion five times in this one-woman beauty pageant, so it’s time for formal wear, questions, and final scoring.

Emcee: What is the most important issue facing mortals today?
Diana: Ares. I alone will fix it.

All you really need to know about the thirty minutes I’m cutting out is that Diana refuses to take shit from Steve because white feminism and gets mad at him for all the wrong reasons. It’s clear that he left the toilet seat up in her hotel room after they had sexy times.

Onward to the climax! (Of the film, you perv.) We make it to the final showdown with the help of smoke signals from Chief. (I’m not making this nonsense up. This actually happens.)

I don’t feel like rehashing everything, so let’s jump to when Diana thinks she’s killed the big bad. She’s so proud of herself. Yet the war rages on, which hurts her ego. Wasn’t it all supposed to end when she completed her assignment? (Maloy—M. Paramita to you—says: “Wonder Woman’s simplistic reaction is like how white people view problems. Let me defeat the big bad and all will be well. White people love saviours. One easy answer to everything. Kill the dictator, and then everyone will be peaceful and happy and all will be well.”)

Diana is emotionally immature, so instead of taking responsibility for her own failure, she fights with Steve, pouts, and gives up on all the little people that she was so gung ho on saving before. Steve goes off to finish the mission. While Diana is alone, the real Ares arrives. At first, she’s no match for the god of war. As the scene unfolds, it’s clear that even though Gal Gadot gets the most screen time—she’s a pure movie star, so it’s a delight to see her catch the best light in every frame—the narrative structure is set up to deliver Chris Pine as the hero.

Steve decides to sacrifice himself for the greater good, taking a plane filled with explosives set to detonate away from the battle. He’s going to be the man Diana wanted to be, a dead hero. (I won’t lie, I got a bit teary here because I’m a sucker for this “I volunteer as tribute” bullshit.) Meanwhile, Wonder Woman writhes under a bunch of metal as he soars into the sky. She gives zero fucks about saving herself or anyone else because she can’t get free and no one can see her hot outfit anymore. She’s ready to head off into the afterlife to party with Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite. Then she sees a giant explosion in the sky. “Steve!” she screams, forgiving her love for leaving the toilet seat up. She’s so sorry for being petty and stubborn. Her strength returns. She gets up and slaughters Ares like a boss.

Yes, friends, you read that right: our intrepid superhero only shows up to work because she’s pissed that she lost her boyfriend. One hundred years later, during her interview for a curatorial position at the Louvre, she has the perfect answer when the panel asks her about a time she overcame a challenge.

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