Wonder Woman: Product-of-palatable-bitesize-feminism?

Lili Bidwell 23 December 2016

“What is a secretary?” Wonder Woman asks in a trailer for her upcoming eponymous film. “I go where he tells me to go and I do what he tells me to do,” another female character explains, to which Wonder Woman aptly replies, “Well, where I’m from, that’s called slavery.”

Cue the praise, or the cynicism? The Wonder Woman film, judging from what has been made known to the public, has certainly taken a feminist angle – gender, arguably, is an issue that fundamentally cannot be ignored by the film. There is a reason why it has taken this long for a Wonder Woman film to have materialised in the first place, because there has long been the difficulty of selling a female-led vehicle to both film executives and to the public. But now that such a film does exist, it is clear that it has made the most of the identity of its protagonist, from observations like the role of a secretary to her palpable physical prowess. Unsurprisingly this has won praise from various quarters of the public, but does it also beget the question of whether the film’s feminist angle has been carefully produced and commercialised to appeal to a wider and more diverse range of the public, without alienating its less keen members?  If the latter is the case, then how valid is the message that Wonder Woman is trying to propagate?

Wonder Woman, after all, continues to fight in a bustier and skirt – certainly much less coverage and protection than her male counterparts like Batman and Superman. As superficial as such a detail might be, it illustrates how sex remains an integral part of her identity, of her appeal. Wonder Woman does fight on the same plane as other male superheroes do, but unlike them, being a sex symbol has become an important part of her image. Sexuality and the female embrace of it is important, and should be portrayed more often on screen, yet to what extent is this the intent of the filmmakers, or is the commercial element at play?

The emphasis on Wonder Woman’s sex appeal was a point brought up by protestors of the United Nations’ recent decision to appoint Wonder Woman an Honourary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls, a role that involves speaking out against gender discrimination and inequality. Over 44,000 people signed a petition asking for the UN to appoint a non-fictional woman instead, with the petition claiming that “it is alarming that the United Nations would consider using a character with an overtly sexualised image at a time when the headline news in United States and the world is the objectification of women and girls”. The UN ultimately dropped Wonder Woman as its ambassador in December, just two months after her appointment.

Palatable “packaging” of feminism can be found elsewhere in pop culture, from Emma Watson’s brand of feminism (#HeForShe) to an increasing focus on gender issues in music, and by music groups. Girl group Fifth Harmony, for instance, featured the phrases “women in power” and “break through the glass ceiling” in their 'Worth It' music video, yet the rest of the video was sexualised in typical pop-music fashion. Just as with Wonder Woman, there is nothing wrong with the association of women and sex, but there is also the sense that this is a pandering effort to make feminism more attractive, a bitesize form of agreeable gender equality. Has the industry, and society, thus failed to achieve very much progress?

The answer, perhaps, lies in the acknowledgement that these efforts, while not the end goal for our society, are stepping stones. There is, and likely will be for a long time, controversy over the ways in which women like Wonder Woman are portrayed in pop culture, but events like the upcoming film and female-centric songs are means in which strong and more diverse portrayals of women are normalised. Those who perceive sex in music videos, like that for 'Worth It', as totally detracting meaning from the song’s message of female empowerment are evidence for the existing misogyny inherent in society, the belief that women cannot be multi-faceted and strong if they are sexual. But the very fact that film executives are now willing to produce a feminist, female-led superhero film is proof that a demand for them is present, and while achieving complete gender equality and changing everyone’s mindsets is a long and arduous process, the cheering from thousands of fans to the unveiling of Wonder Woman’s trailer at Comic-Con this year is proof that change has already been set into motion.

After all, sex sells, but, now, so does female empowerment.