On Friday night, my wife and I took our son to see Wonder Woman. The theatre was packed, and considering it was the top-grossing film in North America this past weekend, I’m guessing every other screening was packed, too.
The audience was unlike any I’ve seen at superhero movies (and I’ve taken my son to most of them: the X-Men, the Avengers, the mopey recent incarnations of Superman and Batman). Instead of the typical fanboy crowd, the theatre was filled with moms and their daughters, lesbians on dates, crowds of high school girls taking up entire rows of seats, and groups of middle-aged women like the boisterous foursome in front of us dressed in Wonder Woman costumes. My son, one of the few teenaged boys present, was in the minority.
It’s clear why the movie has generated this degree of excitement for women and girls — it’s the first female-led, big-budget superhero movie in more than a decade, and the first major superhero movie to be directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins. And kicking off a new franchise as the Amazonian princess Diana, Gal Gadot is perfectly cast — her Wonder Woman is tough, brave, compassionate, brilliant and funny.
I took my son to Wonder Woman for the same reason others I know took their daughters and nieces — we wanted in on the buzz and fun. But more than that, I took him to see Wonder Woman because boys are in need of female superheroes, too.
From the time our son was a toddler, we’ve been conscious about representation in movies. Our son is Anishinaabe, and in mainstream films, like the sci-fi, action and superhero blockbusters he loves, he’s essentially invisible — on screen, there’s an absence of fully realized and heroic Indigenous characters. But he has become a superfan of the racially diverse Fast & Furious franchise and the increasingly ethnically mixed and female-fronted world of Star Wars.
These are rare exceptions, though. The Hollywood renaissance of superhero and sci-fi movies has primarily created roles for a bunch of ripped and mostly interchangeable white guys named Chris (Evans, Hemsworth, Pratt, as well as Pine, who co-stars in Wonder Woman). Even when casts include women and people of colour, they’re almost always sidekicks to the white male lead, like Zoe Saldana in Star Trek and Guardians of the Galaxy, or RJ Cyler who movingly portrayed a black autistic teenager in the otherwise goofy Power Rangers re-boot, or the barely-there Scarlett Johansson as the Avengers’ Black Widow. Next year, we’ll finally see the first big Marvel and DC movies starring non-white characters: Black Panther with Chadwick Boseman and Aquaman with Jason Momoa.
While it’s overly simplistic to suggest that superhero movies propagate sexism and racism, the images and stories we consume do shape our worldview and reinforce our prejudices. Since the majority of big budget movies feature white, straight male protagonists, we all end up identifying with those sorts of characters, even if we aren’t white, straight or male ourselves. Theirs’ is the default perspective and theirs’ is the default story. Screenwriters can imagine alien life forms, time-jumps, super powers and battles between gods, but somehow they can’t conjure up a single world or galaxy where white dudes aren’t in charge of everything.
Even as technology has evolved to make superhero films evermore visually dazzling, their gender dynamics are stuck in the 1950s —women are invariably helpers, victims, girlfriends or villains. Rarely are they equal partners or heroes themselves.
Meanwhile, the men who star as superheroes are boxed in by their own old-fashioned set of gender expectations, namely that real men are never weak, never vulnerable and never in need of saving. What is a superhero after all, but a high-octane ideal of traditional masculinity, one that reveres men who are jacked-up, stoic, physically dominating, and isolated from others. (Bruce Wayne rattles around the Bat Cave with only Alfred for company, while Superman retreats to a literal Fortress of Solitude.)
Girls lose out a little bit every time pop culture ignores them, or reduces them to damsels in distress. Boys lose out, too. First, by also not getting to see girls and women portrayed as full, equal human beings. And second, by being repeatedly served a standard of manliness that’s impossible to achieve. Tellingly, the popularity of comic book movies has led to a worrying body-image obsession among young men, who are lifting weights, using steroids and guzzling protein drinks in order to get bodies like Thor and Wolverine. Even action figures have become unrealistically chiseled.
Wonder Woman can’t reverse or correct all this — it is just a movie, after all. But the film challenges some of the genre’s most irksome gender clichés. Diana stands apart not only because she’s a woman. Her origin story (in the movie at least) lacks the usual trauma — there are no dead parents, no destroyed planet, and no bullying or persecution. Anger, isolation and a thirst for vengeance don’t define her. Love and a sense of justice do.
And while she strikes a revolutionary figure charging onto battlefields, repelling bullets with her bracelets and wielding a sword called “the god killer,” the depictions of the men around her are just as revolutionary. Her ally and love interest Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is buff, brave and cocky. Soon after he meets Diana, who’s never seen a man before, he tells that he’s “an above average” specimen. But tough as he is, he still needs her to rescue him, first from drowning and later from a gang of German thugs. He’s not diminished or threatened by her strength and power. He loves her for it.
Scrolling through social media over the weekend, it was thrilling to see pictures of girls heading to screenings dressed up in their Wonder Woman costumes, just as it was to see legions of mini Reys and Jyn Ersos and Leias join the resistance. I hope these budding badasses will get even more female superheroes to emulate, from more backgrounds, races, abilities and sexualities.
Just like I hope that boys and young men will also flock to Wonder Women. Because with her confidence, strength and drive to be good, Diana is a role model for boys and men, too.