As a professor of theater at Northwestern University, and a professional actor and director of color myself, I pay close attention to, and can’t help but closely analyze, how women and actors of color are represented on screen.
Of the 19 films that Marvel and DC Comics have made over the past 10 years, none of them have had a woman at the helm, either in front or behind the camera. All that changed with the Warner Bros. production of DC’s “Wonder Woman,” starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins. The movie is now the highest-grossing live-action film directed by a woman, and it’s on the verge of becoming the biggest earner in DC’s extended universe.
“Wonder Woman” begins on Themyscira, an island of Amazons, mythical women of extraordinary fighting ability that — and this is key — the gods created to protect the world. In interviews, the film’s stars stressed its themes of world peace and female empowerment. Nonetheless, the film was besieged by controversies well before it opened, from its marketing campaign with a diet protein bar, to the United Nations designating Wonder Woman, a character many considered a sex symbol, as an “honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls.” The backlash was so intense that the U.N. quietly withdrew the designation several months later.
None of that seemed to trouble the young girl my daughter pointed out at the movie theater when we saw it, who was there with her father, replete in her Wonder Woman costume, shield and all. And it hasn’t bothered the film’s Israeli star Gadot, despite enduring two years of sexual and anti-Semitic harassment. Referring to the double standard our society seems so eager to embrace, Gadot said, “I don’t quite get it, if she’s smart and strong, she can’t also be sexy. That’s not fair. Why can’t she be all of the above?” The film’s success shows most critics and audiences agree. (Despite the well-deserved praise for the film’s female empowerment, it is nonetheless hard to deny its racial Achilles’ heel: Women of color in the film are noticeably marginalized.)
The timing of the film’s release during the current climate in our country is both ironic and so important.
The rise of President Trump, and the misogynistic attitudes that he has espoused so often over the years, no doubt paved the way for some of the controversy surrounding a recent women-only screening of the film in Austin. Up to now, of course, the screenings of superhero movies have been metaphorically all-male all along, from gender disparity on corporate boards and in positions of leadership to on-screen representation. So naturally, a film about an exceptional group of women created specifically to save the world that men have wrecked would be threatening.
But it is eerily apropos at this moment in our nation’s history, when a new international poll of 37 countries found that favorable perceptions of the United States has fallen, and only a median 22 percent of those countries surveyed, including traditional allies such as Britain and France, felt that our president could be trusted to do the right thing when it came to global affairs.
Unlike the central action of the film — personified by American soldier Steve Trevor’s selfless determination to defend the world from evil and by Wonder Woman’s own drive to stand up for the vulnerable — the poll indicates that Trump’s words and actions scorn those very principles that traditionally defined the United States in the 20th century and have caused America’s standing in the eyes of the world to plummet.
So it’s no wonder that watching Wonder Woman with my daughter — on the very day that Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord — lines like “If no one else will defend the world, then I must” blared out like clarion calls.
To both of us, and I hope many others, the film served notice that if men won’t save the world even though we’ve long held the majority of powerful leadership positions and thus had ample opportunity to have done so by now, then women are ready to do it instead.