WOMEN IN CINEMA: For young girls growing up in the early 1980s, strong female role models were in short supply.
We were too young to know that Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor existed, let alone aspire to be like them. The popular characters in those days were the “Transformers” and He-Man and GI Joe and… Barbie. Of course, there were also Han Solo and Superman and Indiana Jones. And…Jem. The boys got the heroic warriors. The girls got frilly clothes and makeup.
There were two noteworthy exceptions: Princess Leia and Wonder Woman.
Both were great role models, particularly for young girls. But there was one glaring difference between the two. Princess Leia, while smart and sassy and fierce, never got the chance to wield a light saber and frequently needed to be rescued. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, was the hero of her own story. She was the hero of many stories. She was a warrior in her own right.
There were only three seasons of Lynda Carter’s “Wonder Woman” in the late 1970s, although the show lived on for years in syndication. Long after cancellation, it was a favorite among kids and Wonder Woman was one of the most popular girls’ Halloween costumes throughout the 1980s.
In my lifetime, there have been three big screen iterations of the Batman franchise, played by five different actors. Three have donned Superman’s cape. And I’ve lost count of the Spider-Men. On the other side of the universe, Marvel has made billions with Iron Man and Captain America and Thor. But, neither DC nor Marvel have made a real effort at unleashing a female superhero on the big screen. Until now.
There were half-hearted attempts at movies like “Super Girl,” “Catwoman,” and “Elektra.” But the problem with those films was a total lack of understanding how to properly allow a woman to be a superhero. How to tell a story about a strong woman that would appeal to a broader audience than pubescent boys.
We could go through the vital statistics on women in cinema. Like the fact that “Wonder Woman” is only the eighth female superhero to have her own film, even though there are over 100 featuring men. We could talk about how Patty Jenkins is only the second female director ever to be handed a budget of over $100 million. Or we could mention that in the modern age of Marvel and DC, very few women have joined the fight against tyranny. And none of them have gotten their own film. “Captain Marvel” won’t be released until 2019.
I was born during the Carter Administration. The Cold War was alive and well. After Carter came Reagan. It was in the years when the country was still trying to sort out the Women’s Movement and what to do about it. The first woman was appointed to the Supreme Court and the first woman astronaut went into space while I was in elementary school. It seemed as though the time had finally come that there would no longer be the “first woman” anything. There would simply be judges and astronauts and directors and writers. Gender mattered, sure, but it would no longer have to be an adjective to describe what type of fill-in-the-blank career person.
Except, that was not how it happened.
In many places, women were still an anomaly. A novelty. Something Important Men could show off to demonstrate how enlightened and forward-thinking they were.
Eventually the Cold War ended and gave way to other geopolitical threats. We don’t need to rehash all of the atrocities the world has seen in the past 20 years. Every day there’s some new threat. The world is frightening and dangerous. It seems as though there are bombings every day, somewhere. The fighting escalates. In life, and online. Just a casual stroll through Twitter can yield some unpleasant views of humanity.
Wonder Woman matters for two reasons.
One, for the step forward this will hopefully be for women in film. Both on and off the screen. In an era that has seen great heroes emerge like Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” and Hermione Granger in “Harry Potter” and Rey in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” it is high time for a big screen female superhero. Just as it is high time for women to write and direct big budget projects. So many female characters end up turning out wrong because they are the creations of men. They are the incarnations of what men think they should be, and not what they really are. This film is cinematically significant for its lead as well as its overall production.
As a character, Wonder Woman matters too. She is strong and a fighter. She can defeat the bad guys just as well as Superman or Batman. But what sets her apart is her capacity for love. The fact that her first instinct is to fix a situation, not fight her way out of it. Diana, Princess of Themyscira, always seeks peaceful resolutions wherever possible.
Patty Jenkins recently gave an interview to The Guardian. During the interview, they talked about a line from the movie where Diana’s mother says to her, “Fighting does not make you a hero.” Jenkins said, “I MEAN THAT. Becoming a hero is not what you thought because there is no villain, it’s us, and [we have] a collective responsibility to become better people and only that will save the world.”
The world needs all of those qualities that Wonder Woman possesses. Strength blended with compassion. A combination of integrity and fortitude.
Wonder Woman matters because she is the embodiment of all the things missing from the arts as well as from society. She represents the qualities we need to rediscover in ourselves. She is the hope we need right now.
Wonder Woman matters because children growing up today get to see a woman that is every bit as capable as men. It’s an important message for girls to see that they can aspire to be like her. And it’s an important message for boys to grow up knowing that they aren’t superior.
It has been a long road to this film. “Wonder Woman” as a movie is long overdue. But, perhaps she is here at exactly the time when we are ready for her.