YOU COULD call it “camsplaining,” except really, it’s simply Hollywood business as usual.
When filmmaker James Cameron, that “king of the world’s blockbusters,” told the Guardian, as published Thursday, that this year’s “Wonder Woman” film was “a step backwards” for tough female characters on screen — certainly a regression from his “Terminator” heroine Sarah Connor, he insisted — he was belittling Patty Jenkins’s cinematic creation by leading with both his chin and his ego.
Which goes to show that the one living down to a stereotype here is not Wonder Woman, but rather James Cameron.
Coming across like a throwback chauvinist of a male filmmaker right out of Central Casting — as if channeling Dabney Coleman’s director character from the ’80s social satire “Tootsie” — Cameron serves as a viral reminder that the female hero still faces a twisted scrutiny in Hollywood, in this case all the more so because she succeeded (cinematically and commercially, to more than $800 million worldwide) as guided by a woman director.
And let’s acknowledge: Another aspect here is simply that Cameron did not direct her himself. He has an ego to match his pioneering talent, which, in as brutal a business as blockbuster filmmaking, hardly makes him unique. But I’m struck by the classy fashion in which Jenkins defended her “Wonder Woman” without leading with her own ego. She brings it back to the larger cause. Her forceful and dignified response on Twitter late Thursday backed up her work without allowing herself — not unlike Diana Prince — to be drawn into an ego-ramming mountain battle of comparing bighorns.
I’ve interviewed Jenkins about how she has professionally dealt with sexism and upheld feminism. I’ve interviewed Lynda Carter about how her TV “Wonder Woman” inspired Jenkins as a girl. I’ve interviewed “Avatar” star Zoe Saldana about the long strides she believes women still need to make in Hollywood, including in decision-making roles. And I’ve stood next to Cameron shortly after a Comic-Con sneak-peek of “Avatar,” as his longtime producing partner Jon Landau explained to me at length why Cameron’s passion for filmic innovation is intense and relentless; the man is driven to be a cinematic top dog.
But if we put aside Cameron’s ego for a moment — and call in a team of key grips for that — let’s look at what he said. The Oscar-winning director calls this Wonder Woman an “objectified icon.”
On one level, there is truth. Because Cameron well knows that the vast majority of longtime comic-book heroes, male and female, are objectified icons — why else would they so often be forced to flaunt form-fitting Spandex? That is just part and parcel of the entire fantasy in an industry long ago designed to appeal first to adolescents. Why, Cameron himself even spoofed that truth on HBO’s “Entourage,” when he portrayed himself directing Vinny Chase, who was cast not for his impressive acting chops but for a pretty face, in the series’s version of Aquaman. (Nice foreshadowing, that.)
And to his credit, Cameron has featured more tough original heroines in his movies than most filmmakers offer in an entire career. Yet he has also found reasons to have some of his women characters disrobe as the male gaze is perched in a position of power. Again, that is precisely designed to appeal to fantasies, just as Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston would bind his Amazon heroine in seeking to thrill male readers — the act of escaping such bondage was depicted time and time and time again as a dual act of liberation and titillation.
But part of the reason this year’s “Wonder Woman” is so triumphant is because Jenkins gives us a Wonder Woman who can be sexual without being cheaply sexualized.
“I don’t think about ‘Wonder Woman’ as a female film,” Jenkins told The Post. “She’s a major superhero.” Yet part of the character’s appeal, as portrayed by Gal Gadot, is how she deftly navigates a sexist system — even as Jenkins subverts stereotypical tropes by instead bringing Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) under the female gaze with a cheeky cinematic wink.
“When they say, ‘How can I make it as a woman?’ I say: ‘Don’t think about that fact, because it’s only going to hurt you,’ ” Jenkins told Comic Riffs of navigating Hollywood. “But because of course [the sexism] is real, I don’t belittle it. I’m just saying: You’re only more powerful for forging through.”
Fittingly, Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman,” in representing major steps forward for Hollywood, nimbly does just the same.
Your move, Mr. Cameron, as we await your next steps on behalf of strong, multidimensional female protagonists in “Avatar 2.”