Who do you see in this photo? A female superhero strong enough to kick a whole army of men in the teeth? A descendant of Amazons, female warriors so self-sufficient they don’t need men? To many, Wonder Woman is a symbol of female empowerment–a shining star of feminism in the pantheon of hyper-masculine alpha greats.
To me, Wonder Woman subverts true femininity. Super sexy, gorgeous, daughter of a father god and warrior woman, Wonder Woman has as much to do with actual womanhood as Barbie in a suit. She’s an object of desire, an archetype of cis-male fantasy. Literally a gorgeous Lesbian from Lesbos, she awakens to her true nature (the need of a man) when she meets Pilot Steve Trevor. Aside from her brawn, which I’ll get to in a moment, her greatest power against him is a lasso of truth. Why is this a thing? Men lie, you see, but a virtuous woman tells the truth, something the Lesbians of Lesbos hammer home quite a bit in the film. “The World of Men is evil. It will destroy us all.”
Captain Sexy Names finds he’s utterly powerless against her UNTIL he realizes she’s never had sex–with a man—the only kind that offers one carnal knowledge, right? Her child-like innocence yet another quality of fantasy femininity.
As for her brawn, it’s something every true superhero needs, yes? That’s what makes her a superhero. Yet, unlike Batman, Ironman, Spiderman, to scratch the surface, she was never human. She fell from the heavens, a perfect specimen of purity and sexual potency. Sure, one could argue that Superman is also a god, but it’s a false equivalent. He’s just one of many male figures in this world. Cis-boys of all psyches and shapes can find themselves in DC comics. Wonder Woman is tokenism, and tokenism takes an underrepresented demographic and distills it down to one unattainable ideal–ultimately more harmful than helpful.
Of course I loved her as a child. Of course the thought of her made me feel strong. Maybe she’s a step in the right direction, but as she remains the dominant representation of femininity in the superhero world, she reinforces sexist tropes that infect the DNA of social discourse.
A friend of mine, I’ll call her Tanya, is the new CEO of an arts-related non-profit. She asked a colleague, and frequent art donor, for help. He generously obliged. He wrote her a blank check to cover the cost of their first fundraiser. They’d never discussed her relationship status. It had never come up. Grateful for the support, she thought she’d take their friendship to the next level. She invited him to her wedding. Then things got weird. He was cold, distant and dismissive in their phone calls. He attended the wedding, but went out of his way to blow her off. He walked away when she approached and left having barely greeted her or her new husband.
Another friend, Julie, let’s say, is a Marketing consultant. A CEO brought her in to help him take his company to the next level. He was excited by her work, complimented her on her intelligence and enthusiastically talked of their future together–until he asked her for coffee. She mentioned she and her partner had plans at that time and suggested an alternative day. She never heard from him again.
Jen, another friend, attended a recent conference. During a panel discussion between several men and women, one of the men stopped the conversation to tell the women, “Can I just say, I have a crush on all of you!” Don’t be so sensitive, you may say. He was complimenting them! What’s wrong with that? Because it makes women objects of desire in a space where we seek to engage with our minds. This hurts our bottom line. Men’s desire can literally take the food out of our mouths. They have the luxury to determine when it’s sexy time and when it’s work time. And if women don’t play ball, men take it and go home.
This is the pernicious problem with a figure like Wonder Woman. There are many examples of toxic femininity that get tangled up in the muck and madness of good-intentioned media. I would love to think that movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp might move the needle, but as long as gender disparity is measured in wages lost and careers stalled, I’m dubious.