WW84: Men REALLY Need to Stop Telling Us What’s Feminist

This essay is born out of the clamor of male viewers who disliked WW84. I read a number of comments, even got into a few arguments, on social media about this film. I’m also pulling from Red Letter Media’s review of WW84, which was quite negative in ways that were confounding. I’m a fan of RLM, but their views seem to be formed without input from anyone who is not a 40s-ish middle class white male, making them, in my eyes, The Gold Standard of White Male Internet User Opinions.

To begin with, I didn’t think this film was a masterpiece, but I thought it was solidly okay and there were some things that resonated with me. Other things were totally bewildering, like having a big part of the conflict set in Egypt, which is not particularly rich in oil, with a sheik-like character whose dress and motivations don’t seem to fit with that country’s history or culture. I’m not going to focus on issues of plotting, like the lack of clarity about how the wishes worked, because those are quite reasonable objections. Instead I’d like to focus on comments and criticism based on the characterization of Wonder Woman and Cheetah/Barbara Mivera characters.

Okay.

Deep breath.

Ready?

IT IS OKAY FOR WOMEN TO WANT TO BE IN SEXUAL AND ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS.

Whew, glad I got that out. Here’s the problem: there is a stable of Strong Women Characters™ whose main trait is that they don’t need no man. Notably, of course, they’re often created by male writers. These women are either sexually or romantically unavailable. We can even split it into two subcategories: the Ice Queen who doesn’t even give men notice or the Femme Fatale who seduces men without emotional involvement to achieve her aims. Typically, both of these types are brought low when they fall in love.

For instance, we have an Ice Queen in Say Anything, when the ambitious Diane (you’re going to notice a trend of Ice Queen characters being named “Diane” or “Diana,” because in Greek mythology, Diana is literally a virgin goddess who does stuff like turn voyeuristic men into deer that get torn apart by dogs) “needs” ne’er do well Lloyd to teach her about life and love, because, as a school valedictorian and scholarship winner, she clearly needs some… dick, I guess? I dunno. I don’t get Cameron Crowe’s mindset at all.

Femme fatales are more like Black Widow, where she’s cool and unemotional, yet super sexy and brimming with feminine wiles and… then she develops feelings for the Hulk and her whole facade crumbles as she tearfully confesses to being forcibly sterilized by as an adolescent which makes her a monster because she can no longer physically bear children? I dunno. I don’t get Joss Whedon’s mindset, either.

The point is, this characterization of strong women not wanting to have relationships, enjoy sex, or have emotional attachments is not only unfair, it’s inaccurate to the way the vast majority of women feel. If something so normal and so natural is stigmatized in that way, it makes you feel like you are wrong for wanting it. That’s not a good way to feel. Women, typically, do not write their women characters as femme fatales or ice queens because that’s not how most women see themselves or people they know. Look at Elsa in Frozen, for heaven’s sake, she is literally an Ice Queen and while she doesn’t have any romantic interests on screen, but she still has deep emotional attachments to other people around her. Ice Queens and Femme fatales are artificial characters.

But back to Diana in WW84.

Her longing for Steve makes sense to me because of the way Patty Jenkins set things up. In Wonder Woman, she is completely honest about herself and reveals who she is to a variety of World War I era people. She’s coming fresh from her homeland where she is loved and accepted openly. In WW84, which is set 70 or so years later, we see framed photographs and mementos spanning a long period of time of those WWI-era people. The implications, of course, is that everyone who knows Diana for who she truly is long dead. Her homeland is forever lost to her. She’s living an existence where she cannot be open with anyone, lest she suffer the pain of losing those she loves again and again in an endless cycle. She is functionally immortal and emotionally human in a place where everyone she could connect with will wither and die. I can easily imagine her wishing she could have spent more time with Steve because he’s the first person she met outside her world, someone with whom she had instant rapport, and someone with whom she worked constructively to accomplish great things. And then he dies within a few short weeks of meeting her. Aren’t we all occasionally nostalgic for childhood friends whom we’ve lost? Then, in a moment of weakness and childish hope, she wishes for him back.

Now to read or watch some comments from guys, you’d think Diana had been sleeping with Steve’s crash helmet in her arms and had plastered her bedroom walls with pictures of his face scotch-taped over her vacation snaps for 70 years.

There’s a couple of reasons why I think they missed out on Diana’s existential crisis. The first is the Ice Queen archetype and the assumption that Diana should be either above all that mushy stuff or have gotten over Steve decades ago. That really fails to take into account the scope of her loneliness and the issue that any new partner is also going to die. The second is that Patty Jenkins chose to use a “show, don’t tell” method to inform us of Diana’s mental state, which means you need to be watching closely at the crucial moments and recognize aged photos of people from a movie you saw once four years ago. It probably would have clicked for more people if Diana had also expressed verbally that she felt deeply depressed. The third is that existential crises are an ill fit for superhero movies. They’re depressing and at odds with the colorful action and spangled costumes. Sure, they did it with Captain America, but he literally can and does tell his problems to anyone who will listen.

So yeah, it’s fine if Wonder Woman misses a guy she once knew and had a great time with. That’s normal. That in no way means that she’s any less strong, resilient, brave, compassionate, or honorable. That doesn’t mean she’s not feminist. That means she is a character instead of being an archetype.

Yeah. So… like, there’s a real dearth of female role models in film. Characters like Wonder Woman, Princess Leia, or Daenerys Targaryen are really more aspirational figures than role models, anyway. They are naturally mass-marketably beautiful, they have supernatural powers, and they come from exceptionally wealthy and powerful families. They’re all gorgeous magical princesses. Unless you are Zeus going incognito in a Rick and Morty t-shirt, your kid is not going to grow up to be like Wonder Woman. Real role models are the every-person who appears ordinary in every way, but through ethics, perseverance, and hard work goes on to achieve extraordinary things. There’s a ton of male characters like this in film; everyone from Neo to Atreyu to Marty McFly. It’s easy to see yourself in these characters because they don’t have special powers before the story begins. Instead, they earn them along the way. It’s why you’re more likely to look up to Luke Skywalker than Conan the Barbarian. Luke is achievable. Conan is pure fantasy. There’s just not a lot of every-women or every-girls in film because it means we’d have to sit through a movie where an average looking girl who doesn’t instinctively know martial arts has to figure things out and most studios don’t think that’s marketable.

As a result, women still tend to look towards women novelists for role models. Curious why there’s so many adaptations of elderly novels like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables? It’s because their characters feel like real women and girls who have good and bad traits, understandable motivations, and who achieve modest success within the confines of the world in which they live. For instance, Jo March is creative, clever, impulsive, and socially awkward who goes on to publish a novel, not become Queen of the Seven Realms. A girl reading Little Women can easily see herself in Jo and imagine herself achieving the same kind of success.

So maybe, if you want your daughter to have fictional role models, you’re going to have to sit through and support a movie where a non-beautiful girl struggles with issues and eventually overcomes them using regular skills and abilities. Maybe, I dunno, let her be a Ghostbuster.

This one hurts because it exposes how some men feel about women generally. I’ve seen guy complain that the two women in the film are competing for male attention, that their conflict is over being able to walk in heels, and their fight in the end being described as a catfight. That’s demeaning.

Barbara Minerva (Hey! Another mythology reference! Minerva is the Roman name for Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, who is all about the brain literally as she is birthed from Zeus’s head after a splitting headache, yet also one of those jealous bitches who starts the Trojan War) is an awkward academic who is routinely ignored by men and women alike, has a poor self image that’s reinforced by everyone she comes in contact with, and is generally pretty self loathing despite the fact that she’s genuinely friendly and good in her field of study. She gets to know Diana and is wowed by Diana’s innate abilities, including but not limited to, being drop dead gorgeous, fabulously dressed, socially poised, and being able to physically defend herself and others. She, in a very human move, ignores the positive qualities that Diana sees in her and focuses on the areas in which she feels lacking. She wishes to “be like Diana: strong, sexy, cool, special.”

Don’t we all want to be strong, sexy, cool, and special? Isn’t that a human universal? That is what all of the superheroes are. Aren’t we all Barbara wishing to be like these infallible gods?

Apparently not, based on the comments. First of all, Barbara is not jealous of Diana over a guy because there is no guy to be jealous over. Diana’s not hooked up with Steve again yet and has confirmed there is no dude in her life. I can’t believe she’s overly concerned with the randos in the office they show very little interest in. Diana didn’t seduce her prom date or anything. The big motivator in Barbara’s wish isn’t a sexual one at all. The turning point is when she sees Diana effortlessly beat up a gross drunk who was harassing and physically assaulting Barbara. One of Barbara’s first actions with her new powers is to beat up that guy. Her motivation is the need to be self sufficient- to not rely on anyone else for protection or social acceptance. Sure, we see her holding court and fascinating people, but she doesn’t immediately run out to seduce some guy she’s been mooning over.

Barbara’s envy over Diana’s ability to walk in heels is symbolic more than anything (Jay Bauman, you really disappointed me on this one). Diana is a better woman than she is in every capacity. Barbara’s deficits run so deep that she can’t even do something as basic as wear shoes. It would be like if a male character was disgusted by his inability to tie a tie as he looks towards men who are more polished and professional. This particular tie trope is so common it’s been in dozens of media, from Iron Man to the Nostalgia Critic. We don’t react to this trope like “OMG, what is it with Tony Stark and his obsession with ties?! Men!,” we understand it’s meant to suggest that the character is humiliated because they cannot perform a simple task they feel they should be able to do.

The catfight thing is purely because they’re two women fighting, and one is an actual feline just to drag puns into it. The word “catfight” has exploitative connotations to it. A “catfight” generally suggests two attractive women fighting ineffectually over some bit of man-fluff while the audience ogles them, like in a Mamie van Doren prison girl picture. One would not, for example, describe a brutal and deadly fight between two women as a “catfight.” These comments and misunderstandings from men show their inability to truly believe women are whole people. They cannot conceive a world in which women have motivations that are not related to themselves. They assume a level of triviality in women’s lives and have a hard time recognizing that objects and situations that are foreign to them, such as wearing heels, might be significant to someone else.

Yep, that’s true. Diana and Steve have sex after he takes over another guy’s body in a soul switcheroo. The other guy does not consent to either the sex or the soul possession. It is weird that Patty Jenkins settled on that solution instead of just magicing him out of the air since there’s no particular pay off or plot reason for Steve to be in this other guy’s body. I guess I could argue stuff like they have no way of knowing if the spell could be reversed, whether the original guy was spiritually dead, they’re humans making human mistakes, they lack understanding of consent or whatever, but there seems little point in even discussing it because it’s not really an honest discussion of the role of consent in media.

The amount of pearl-clutching from these guys is a little disingenuous. In Red Letter Media’s review of WW84, they touch on callousness of the screenwriters in creating this idea, the lack of care for both consent and possible bodily harm to this guy, and how inappropriate that idea is in a mainstream film. A fair amount of time is devoted to the subject, all of which are reasonable points.

What raises my suspicious eyebrow is that I have never heard them (or other guys I’ve heard raise the issue) complain about a nearly identical situation in Ghostbusters 1984. And I have heard a lot of guys talk about Ghostbusters. In that movie, both Dana and Louis Tully are possessed by the demon dogs Zuul and Vinz Clortho respectively. She’s the “gatekeeper” and he’s the “keymaster” and… can you see where this is going? The movie heavily implies they have sex to open the portal for Gozer and the whole thing is largely played for laughs. Keep in mind, this is a movie which had children’s toys, a Saturday morning cartoon, and a promotional breakfast cereal; and it has a male and female character who are raped by demons. So here’s the guys who refer to Ghostbusters as a “perfect movie” totally ignoring consent issues in a film they like and hounding on it in a film they dislike. If you’re genuinely concerned about consent issues in media, shouldn’t you have noticed them in a movie you’d seen multiple times?

The consent issues in WW84 didn’t particularly faze me, probably because I’m jaded from how frequently violent rape, sexual assault, and attempted sexual assault happen to women in films. The bodily autonomy of an unestablished male character whose name I don’t even know kind of pales a bit in comparison to the hundreds of times I’ve seen a woman be abused on screen. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be trying to do better in film, of course.

Sure, that’s a valid way to feel.

But, the first Wonder Woman movie pulled off a truly miraculous feat that I doubt could ever be replicated by a sequel: it managed to be two movies at once.

Wonder Woman 2017 has screenplay and story credits by a passel of men, including noted female-appreciator Zach Snyder, so I have to assume that this was the result of Patty Jenkins’ influence. It really is two movies. There’s the surface movie, which is an action-filled World War I epic that men felt comfortable watching. Then there’s the secret feminist movie that women saw. For instance, at the beginning, men saw a cool sporty scene with bikini-clad Amazons! (Women saw actual women athletes playing athletes and women over 50 acting in a mainstream movie.) There’s a spectacular scene for men when gorgeous Wonder Woman charges through No Man’s Land. (But it’s also a scene for women where she is so respected and admired by her male counterparts that they follow her into battle without argument, second guessing, or skepticism.) There’s a scene where men get to see Wonder Woman glammed up in an evening dress looking smoking hot. (But it’s also a scene where women see a character wearing a beautiful dress not because she intends to use her body to seduce the bad guy, but because it will conceal her sword.) The result is a film where these two halves are balanced so deftly that the guys didn’t even notice the second movie. But women did. That’s why so many women cried during Wonder Woman and saw it multiple times. It wasn’t the plot or the visuals, it was the feeling that Diana was a character who was honorable, brave, courageous, truthful, and kind without any of the nonsense heaped on female characters in film. It felt so revolutionary.

But could you replicate that in a sequel? Probably impossible. Also, unnecessary. What are we saying then? Every film meant to feature women needs to be coated in easy-to-swallow male packaging? I need to get out my Little Orphan Annie decoder ring after the feature presentation to spell out “women are not objects” using numbers concealed in the background?

Women are stuck in a terrible position where voting with our wallets doesn’t work. Titanic, Gone with the Wind, and The Sound of Music are all films with women leads and huge female followings and they are among the highest grossing films of all time. You’d think then that women would be a coveted and courted demographic, yet we’re not. There’s even an demeaning expression for movies aimed at women, “chick flicks,” which are typically low budget films focusing on romance or light comedy. However, under the “chick flick” umbrella we have films like Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias which deal with such light-hearted topics as institutional racism, martial abuse, death and dying, LGBTQ issues, and sexism. They’re only considered “chick flicks” because they star and are aimed at women audiences, not because of their content.

Additionally, women’s opinions on film are routinely drowned out on social media because most women look at the risk/rewards ratio and decide that saying they like a movie is not worth being demeaned, talked down to, or infantilized. They’ll wait until they’re among friends or in a situation where they know their opinions will be valued. That means that the toxic fans then manage to create an echo chamber where their opinion is the majority opinion purely because they have created an environment where no other opinion is tolerated. The online silence of women also means there’s relatively little evidence for claims of women liking or disliking films, which had lead me into irritating discussions where I claim things like you can tell women are a huge part of the Star Wars fandom because women buy the most Star Wars merchandise, only to be told by a dear (male) friend that it was probably mothers buying things for their sons, and I couldn’t find direct evidence that women WEREN’T buying Darth Vader dresses and BB-8 panties for their underaged boy children.

Frustrating.

Maybe I’m overthinking this.

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