Academics Weigh in on Wonder Woman

Released on June 2, 2017, Wonder Woman was a movie decades in the making.  As Wonder Woman’s first solo movie, it not only had to do well at the box office but also had to show that women – in front of and behind the camera – could create a successful blockbuster.

Hotly anticipated, the film has met with overall positive responses from critics, audiences, and the box office.  Since these reactions have already been noted, I wanted to produce a different type of document related to Wonder Woman.  As such, I have reached out to academics who professionally study popular culture and mass entertainment, and asked them to share their thoughts on what type of scholarship Wonder Woman could inspire.

So please take a moment to take in what these amazing scholars have shared with us.

Wonder Woman occupies a uniquely paradoxical space when we talk about gender representation in mainstream media. She is – and has always been – a highly sexualized spectacle for the masculine gaze on the one hand, and a symbol of feminine empowerment on the other. Horrifyingly, she was designed to be both by her creator, but those two elements always seem to exist in conflict with each other. She can be too sexualized to take seriously; or her power and mission can strip her of any relatable femininity. Jenkins’ film, with the eyes of the world upon it (a world that doesn’t have a rich history of female-led superhero stories) gets it right. It gets it perfect. She is strong and powerful, but that strength is grounded in a humanity that keeps her deeply relatable and sympathetic. She isn’t precious, hypersexualized, condescending, masculinized, or subservient. In my humble opinion, the film version we’re seeing here is the best representation of Wonder Woman in the history of the character, a character who has always been defined in the past more by her potential than by the quality of her actual stories.

Dr. Andrew Deman

University of Waterloo

Author of The Margins of Comics


While I applaud Wonder Woman for its important work in centralizing women in superhero cinema, I felt it wasn’t as deviant from its male-centric cinematic predecessors as it could have been. Throughout the film, Steve Trevor becomes such a central and well-developed character to the point that his complexity seems to supersede that of Diana.  This disparity in character depth is concerning for a film that reportedly aims to distance itself from the hypermasculine standard set in these films, however Steve is a positively compelling and autonomous love-interest the likes of which we have rarely seen in DC films of late (if ever). A critical comparison of Steve and other love-interests in DC films would be really interesting, particularly with the gender dynamics.

I also think there is much to be discussed about Wonder Woman in regards to race and intersectionality, particularly regarding its pervasive whiteness. The inception of the character as an icon of female empowerment in the comics was closely tied to white feminism so I understand its integral role in her history, however by having more women of color present on Themiscyra and nowhere else, the film seems to argue that this racial diversity among women is only possible on Paradise Island.  In this way, the movie further propagates the diversity issues present in many other films in the DC cinematic universe.  Still I find the critiques asserting that the film is only for white feminists to be vastly inaccurate.  Adhering to the comic renderings of Themiscyra as a racially diverse community, the film portrays Amazons of many different races, particularly notable black Amazons like Philippus and Niobe—nonetheless once we leave Paradise Island both blackness and black femininity are left completely behind.

These concerns aside, Wonder Woman is a great example of how to portray a captivating origin story.  While the film features an iteration that seems to be an amalgam of her varying comic origin stories, it works well for both general audiences and comic loyalists. The movie is a visually stunning must-see.

Chamara Moore

University of Notre Dame, Doctoral Student in English

With so much pressure on it to disprove the (incorrect) conventional wisdom that films with female leads do not draw male filmgoers or make money, Wonder Woman had the 15th highest opening out of 119 superhero films, and sits at about 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. In many ways, the film captured the essence of the character as laid out by her most prominent writers: she is taught the importance of peace and trained to fight by an all-female society, she assumes that all people should be treated equally and with compassion, she leads with courage and by moral example even when those around her are sexist. In other ways, it appeared that at least some of filmmakers were uneasy about the character and these elements of her comics history: she is the lone female in about half of the movie, she kills without reaching out her hand in friendship first, she is born not of a mother’s love and goddesses’ gifts but via the king of the gods, she appears to be motivated more by her romantic interest’s words than by her Amazonian values. To what extent is the film’s success a product of staying true to the elements that make Wonder Woman different from other superheroes versus having both the character and the film lean toward more “traditional” superhero tropes? Or is its success ascribable to the combination of all of these components in one package?

Carolyn Cocca, PhD

Department of Politics, Economics, and Law

State University of New York, College at Old Westbury

Wonder Woman has been applauded as a bold step in the fight for women’s equality in the film industry and in popular culture representations. Tales of women crying in the theater while watching Amazon warriors display their battle prowess prove just how important representation really is. However, despite being lauded as a groundbreaking film in many ways, Wonder Woman is not without its critics. More importantly, these critics can be found among those most likely to celebrate the film — women and feminists.

For a cultural scholar like myself, the timing of this film is essential to its power and its failings. This film represents a major victory for feminism, but only for a specific kind of white feminism. In the era of Beyonce and Hillary Clinton, who was rejected by large numbers of white women, the rallying cry of intersectionality is louder than ever. Moreover, for an audience increasingly aware of institutional systems of power, the idea of a single individual as a source of evil is a welcome oversimplification but also, perhaps, a problematic distraction from the way societies and their evils actually work.

Scholarship on audience reactions to this film are going to be fascinating. In particular, the character of Ares, and Diana’s insistence that he is the source of human evil, play into our own all too human desire to blame individual Others for the problems in our society. The filmmaker’s choice to establish doubt about the existence of Ares and then, eventually, eliminate that doubt, might be comforting while sitting in the theater, but the way feminist critics have already begun to grapple with the ending indicate that this aspect of the film may have consequences beyond narrative and storytelling.

Vanessa Flora-Nakoski, MA

McDaniel College

While Wonder Woman features a concluding apocalyptic battle similar to other recent superhero movies, at its heart the film contains a powerful anti-war message. In William Moulton Marston’s original 1941 story, the amazon princess leaves Paradise Island on a mission to defend “America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women”; in Patty Jenkins’ movie, this motivation has been transformed into Diana’s effort to fulfill the amazons’ purpose of ending war by defeating Ares, the god of war. Her mission begins in naïveté, but as she approaches the actual war it takes on added intensity.

The first major scene of her awakening to the true horrors of war comes as Diana and Steve prepare to leave for the front: she witnesses a troop ship unloading scores of war wounded, with missing limbs and crippling battle shock. The amazon’s (and the audience’s) education in the senselessness of war continues in the trenches, where men have sat for a year without any discernible advance, only continued slaughter, and in the bleak landscape of no-man’s land. The contrast between the joyful celebration in the liberated village and the annihilation of the same villagers in the subsequent gas attack demonstrates the “collateral damage” that accompanies any war. Finally, Diana’s despair when the war continues despite her slaying of the general she believes is Ares mirrors the frustration of all those hoping for peace.

The antiwar message risks being undone in the pyrotechnics of the movie’s final 20 minutes, as Diana battles the true Ares. As I considered the film as a whole, I began to wonder if it was even possible to combine opposition to violence with a superhero blockbuster. But the massive crater left behind after Ares’ destruction, and the shell-shocked brotherhood of the surviving few, leave a lingering question: was it all worth it?

A. Waller Hastings

Professor of English

Graphic Narrative Program

West Liberty University

The success of Wonder Woman, will no doubt shed light on gender representation, which in itself is wonder-ful, in a day and age when we still see misogynistic values infiltrating society. The strength and abilities of women is fully realized in one particular scene set in Belgium. Steve Trevor, “Chief”, and Sameer boost Wonder Woman into a bell tower so as to take out a sniper that is plaguing the villagers. No doubt many astute fans would recognize the symbolism immediately. However, it is the character of “Chief”, played by Eugene Brave Rock, who quietly challenges some strongly held stereotypes that go unnoticed by the vast majority of the public.

In a movie set in the early 20th Century, on the heels of such Wild West theatrical performances like Wild Bill, we find the character ‘Chief’, fighting a war in Europe “because he has nothing left to fight for”. He is defending the very people who “took it all from [him].” And, unsurprisingly, one of ‘Chief’s’ contributions to his rag tag team of heroes includes sending up smoke signals. Both the name ‘Chief’, and the use of smoke signals are blatant examples of racial caricatures. But then again, are they? Set in 1918, working undercover, behind enemy lines, is this just an effective use of a learned skill?

Chief’s first words to Wonder Woman, were in actor Eugene Brave Rock’s traditional language of Blackfoot. Vincent Schilling, writer and editor for Indian Country Today, pointed out that “he introduced himself as Napi, the Blackfoot demi-god who is known as a trickster and story-teller”. Brave Rock was also quoted by the CBC saying: “It’s unprecedented, especially in a role that has to do with Indians; it’s someone else’s interpretation of Native Americans. [In this business] people are told what to do and how to do it. But I was given so much control.” It has also been reported that Brave Rock was able to choose his wardrobe for the character Chief, and that he would not have taken the role were he not able to “keep his culture front and centre.” It was important for Brave Rock to have “long hair, riding [his] horse, singing, and dancing, speaking [his] language,” (ibid) for his character “Chief”.

In essence, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, enabled Brave Rock to redress the imbalances and negativities that Indigenous characters and actors have faced since the dawn of cinema. Here, Wonder Woman seeks to retell a segment of history: the First World War. But in this fictional retelling of this history, were ethnic characters used to perpetuate harmful stereotypes, in a sense using the elite to form a new alternate history, or were they able to tell their own stories in their own voice? We are fully aware that media objects have the power to challenge prejudices by responding to and problematizing the attitudes shaped by colonialism, and through their stories, Indigenous voices challenge historically held stereotypes, prejudices, and tropes that are still prevalent in pop culture (Metis in Space, 2014; King, 2012; Recollet, 2010; Buddle, 2008; APTN, 1999). In the history retold through Wonder Woman, the character “Chief”, with Brave Rock’s guidance, tells Chief’s story. He is, in essence, retelling another segment of history that has traditionally been told by white man or mainstream for their own purpose. Brave Rock was able to bring his heritage, through language and regalia to mainstream, while remaining true to his culture. The freedom he was allowed told his story to mainstream in the way he wanted his culture to be shown and not for the purpose of exploitation.

So as we dissect Wonder Woman and in particular the portrayal of ‘Chief” questions need to be asked: do indigenous characters speak in broken English or do they speak from a tradition of oral story telling? are pejorative words such as “savage” or “squaw” used, and if so how are they used? are non-indigenous characters the authoritative characters? who are the role models of the story?  Historically, “for the most part Indigenous people became the plot device to move a story along” (Sheyahshe p. 9).  It is here that the common literary tropes begin to appear such as the “’cannibal’ chief, the ‘red’ Indian, the ‘witch’ doctor, or the ‘tattooed and shrunken’ head, and stories which told of savagery and primitivism, generated further interest, and therefore further opportunities, to present the Other again” (Smith 2012 p 8). These stereotypes and tropes become the Imaginary Indian, “childlike: unsophisticated, undisciplined, independent,” (Francis, 1992, p. 144). But in the case of Brave Rock’s “Chief’– *Spoiler Alert* Chief did not die, nor was he an expendable victim of collateral damage–he did not speak in broken English, nor was he childlike. He was clearly proud of his heritage, introducing himself in the traditional way. And while his name may be considered stereotypical, ‘Chief’ was never used in a manner to demean the character. In fact he was often times seen in the role as a leader, and thus fulfilling the traditional role of a Chief. “Chief” was not merely a plot device, but an integrated well developed character who was consistently a ‘good guy’ throughout the entire movie.

Carolyn Potts

M.A. Candidate, Faculty of Education, Western University

When I imagine future scholarship on Wonder Woman, my thoughts immediately drift toward culture studies and gender/sexuality studies. The messiness of the film’s feminisms and the fraught nature of its justice claims make it a productive site for such conversations. Wonder Woman certainly has the potential to break glass ceilings (particularly in terms of being a woman-led and woman-directed superhero film), but that narrative is limited by its treatment of POC characters, the Zionist politics of Gal Gadot, and the film’s unwillingness to depict Themyscira as an explicitly queer space. Similarly, while I loved Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, he was ever-present in the film. With Diana surrounded by men as she leaves Themyscira, we are left to wonder just how much space in the film is occupied by men and by men’s voices.

Much has already been written on these issues, with particular attention paid to Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Patty Jenkins, and the film’s feminist credentials. Yet it may be the “minor” characters in the film who inspire the most interesting scholarship. While the film faces important critiques about the intersectionality of its feminisms, it also does important work at its margins. For example, the casting of Spanish actress Elena Anaya as Doctor Maru/Doctor Poison opens up a space for thinking about transnational solidarities and patriarchal systems—particularly as Diana is faced with the prospect of killing Maru. Similarly, the casting of Muslim actor Saïd Taghmaoui as Sameer and First Nations actor Eugene Black Rock as Chief is an important step toward acknowledging the transnational and transcultural histories that are too often written out of fictional World War I narratives. That Eugene Black Rock speaks in Blackfoot, refers to himself as a trickster god, and chooses his own attire for the film provides scholars with new opportunities to think about indigenous representation in mass-market films. While representation in this film is certainly problematic, I am hoping that the influence of these “minor” characters will return in future films in ways that demonstrate their formative influence on Diana—just as I hope we will be given more opportunities to explore the influence of Themyscira and Amazonian sisterhoods on Diana in future films as well.

That being said, I feel somewhat conflicted as I ask for this kind of consideration from the film. I clearly want to hold Wonder Woman to some incredible standard for representation and social justice, while at the same time I recognize Diana’s fraught history as a character. I also am painfully aware of what I can expect from a film produced within Zack Snyder’s DCEU universe. I am therefore cheering the film’s successes while also hoping that critical reactions from academics and fans will help Wonder Woman (and the entire DCEU franchise) push up against the norms and expectations that hamper its ability to give us a more explicitly queer and explicitly intersectional feminist narrative. Recent scholarship in comics studies has shown how important this work can be (and how it can influence publishers and creators), and hopefully a transmedial view of comics-inspired movies can do the same for mass-market superhero films.

Nicholas E. Miller, Ph.D.

Visiting Assistant Professor, English

Hollins University

Twitter: @theposthumanist

Thank you taking the time read what these scholars had to share. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Nicholas Yanes has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and his dissertation examined the business history of EC Comics and MAD Magazine. In addition to being a professional writer, he frequently consults entertainment companies in regards to video games, films, and comic books.

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