(Wo)men in tights: Femininity in Wonder Woman

 The Amazons were created by a man to teach men love. In this heteronormative fantasy world, this means that the most important, Amazonny Amazons look like this.

Yup. Thin, white, cisgender, and in outfits of varying degrees of impracticality. Image source.

Now, I want to be clear. I’m not here to attack these women for how they look. What I’m interested in is the transparent fact that the Amazons with the most screen-time tick almost every single box for conventional, rigid beauty. By choosing leading ladies that conform to patriarchal beauty standards, Wonder Woman contributes to a mindset that codes beauty to goodness, and worthiness. This beauty often excludes fat women, women of colour, trans women, and women with physical disabilities. Women who don’t fit this mould do not have the opportunity to be seen as three-dimensional characters.

Funny how that happens, on a magical island completely isolated from everything else.

What really surpised me was how many women of colour there are in this film. It’s disappointing that none were really pivotal to the plot (you can see some of my thoughts on that here, and here), but director Patti Jenkins clearly did make an effort to diversify the cast, so props to her.

However, this diversity doesn’t extend into body types. Although there are both thin, and muscular women, there aren’t any fat Amazons.

Jenkins cast real-life athletes, yogis, farmers, personal trainers, and even Olympians to play the Amazons. It was so fucking hardcore and empowering to watch a bunch of women hold their own in a fight, and for their skill, not their beauty, to matter.

It would have been so frustratingly easy to cast a bunch of women who have the mildly unrealistic task of being slim, lightly muscled, but with super-secret nano muscles that allow them to beat the shit out of people much heavier than they are. Which is…kind of what happened.

My superpower is that I’m crazy strong AND skinny enough for boys to like me! From DC comics.

Despite her slim appearance, Diana can easily hold her own with the male power fantasies she calls coworkers. Because….goddess magic?

Gendered beauty standards play into this – the male superheroes are unrealistically beefed up, whereas Diana is smaller and looks more delicate. Not to beg for realism in a movie about superheroes, but it follows a much larger pattern of women being expected to be everything.

We have to be thin and curvy in all the right places, beautiful, perfectly styled, and now physically strong without any evidence of muscles.

And this brings me to Diana’s hot mess of an outfit.

Standing next to the rest of the Justice League, hers is the most impractical and skimpy. Sporting a boob tube (yes, in 2017), a miniskirt, and an expensive blowout, Diana storms into battle in the most horrifying and dangerous conditions.

Honestly, this is probably why she’s so popular as a Halloween costume (full disclosure: I went as Diana last Halloween). There’s no way Batman would want to party in that stuffy suit. But Diana? She’s down. She already has her heels on, for God’s sake.

This versatile boot is appropriate for the office, as well as a fun night out! Image source.

But I digress.

It just isn’t enough for Wonder Woman to be Wonder Woman. She has to become sexualised, a caricature of what society thinks beauty is. This was Jenkins’ intent – “I, as a woman, want Wonder Woman to be hot as hell, fight badass, and look great at the same time…my hero, in my head, has really long legs.” She’s a superhero, somebody to aspire to, but somebody that few of us could hope to become. This fantasy of the woman that does it all while looking perfect is exciting, but it stops us from giving female characters more depth and diversity.

Wonder Woman just ends up being pretty hypocritical. By casting real-life buff, hardcore ladies, but making sure that Diana is palatable enough for audiences to think she’s hot, Wonder Woman wavers between embracing female power and beauty outside of gender norms, but traps our leading lady between both.

More on this

Another of Feminist Frequency’s videos on how clothing is used to sexualize female characters.

Ann Wolfe discusses her role and experience as a woman of colour in Wonder Woman.

Jenavieve Hatch highlights to more Amazons.

Anne Cohen tries to run in heels, Wonder Woman-style.

Dark Side of the Moon: Black women in Wonder Woman

Welcome to my first mini-series! I’ll be writing some short essays that take an intersectional feminist view of Wonder Woman over the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

I’m going to discuss the occasional presence, and notable silence of black women, and their role in Wonder Woman. I’ll focus on two black female characters; Diana’s sitter, and a black female warrior. These are the only black women that had any measure of importance in the film. I will not discuss any other women of colour as there were none that had any significance to the plot.

Although the Amazons of Wonder Women have existed in total seclusion, the white patriarchy has mysteriously crept in and pushed black women down in order to raise white women up. Who woulda thunk? Black Amazons do not have the privilege of the blank slate afforded by a society in theory unmarred by patriarchy. In their precious few appearances, they are regulated to supporting the white female leads. They are the nanny, raising Diana while the Queen is on official business. They are the powerful, muscular warriors that Diana defeats in order to show her own strength. These characters form the stepping stones for Diana’s character development, and as she leaves Themyscira, they fade into the background, forgotten both by Diana and the audience.

The first black woman we see (and notably, the only one with more than one line) is Diana’s sitter. Black women in the US have historically cared for white children, either under slavery, or a lack of opportunity. As a result, the Unfriendly Black Hotties note that while using a black woman to be Diana’s caretaker is at best, iffy, they were happy to see that one of the most important women in young Diana’s life was a black woman.

Certainly, caretakers have an important role in any child’s life. But not in Diana’s. Diana’s caretaker’s one line is to scream her name over, and over again, as she races all across town to recover her charge. It would have been so easy to include her as a valued part of Diana’s childhood. So many questions go unanswered – “How do her values and beliefs shape how she helps raise Diana? Does she agree with the Queen’s protectiveness? Does Diana continue to disrespect her throughout her childhood?”  

But Wonder Woman is so much more deep than that. I must commend the creators of Wonder Woman for making the difficult, trailblazing (and of course, unexpected) choice to make a black woman’s existence revolve around a bratty white girl.

Thanks to the sacrifice of this vital black female character, Diana can truly shine. Diana’s rebellion shows hints at the tenacious, independent woman that Diana becomes. Her willingness to go her own way, even if it means forcing your minder to chase you across an island, foreshadows Diana’s bold move to leave the island, and the only home she’s ever known, in order to do what she thinks is right – whether that’s running away to do the training your mother forbids you from, or to take the destruction of Ares into your own hands.

Thank goodness the writers used, and then promptly discarded this black woman. Without the disrespect Diana shows her, how could she ever have any credibility as an independent thinker?

Wonder Woman‘s treatment of this sitter as subordinate to a white woman, and as being disrespected by Diana, mirrors the way black women have, and are being treated by US society at large. Black women are often silenced, used, and shut down.  This is obvious in Diana’s sitter, who disappears as quickly as she appeared once she’s no longer useful. Black women are not allowed the complexity, or character development of their white counterparts. Tied in with the history of black women caring for white children, Wonder Woman repeats the mistakes of our white female past and present, by continuing to use black women as tools for our own gain. Whether it occurs in the form of cultural appropriation, gaslighting, or blatant racism, us white women continue to disrespect, ignore, and devalue black women and their personhood.

Further reading

See Girussy by the Unfriendly Black Hotties for their thoughts.

Black Cultural Heritage and the Subversion of the Stereotypical Images of the Black Woman in Toni Morrison’s Sula by Mona Faysal Sahyoun.

Cameron Glover’s take on why Wonder Woman is Bittersweet for Black Women.

Check back next week for the part 2 of this essay!