It was a real joy to participate in Tabor’s inaugural Theologicon conference a couple of weeks ago, presenting a session on Wonder Woman. We had a great day talking about the intersections between pop culture and the gospel and looking at how the media we engage with both reflects and shapes the world around us. While I am basically an outsider to the ‘Comicon’ crowd, I think this was a useful position from which to analyse the movie and in particular to consider the connection points between its story and the gospel story, as well as why it resonated so strongly with many women in our culture.
Wonder Woman is ultimately a story about grace.
The film’s climactic moment comes when Diana realises the falsity of the key assumption she has made – an assumption which is the conventionally accepted wisdom of our day – that humanity at its heart is good. She sees the darkness and hatred within humanity and realises that they don’t deserve her help or her love. But she chooses to give it anyway. That’s grace. It’s an echo of the best story ever told, the good news of an incarnate God who recognises our brokenness and undeservedness but chooses to redeem us anyway because of his great love.
It’s also worth considering why this particular iteration of Wonder Woman was so popular and seemed to speak so powerfully to many women. I heard numerous comments from friends and students along the lines of “Now I understand why guys like superhero movies so much!” A wide array of memes on social media showed similar resonances.
At Theologicon, I suggested that in a world where male characters continue to make up over 70% of characters on screen in popular films and speak more than twice as often as their female counterparts, where women’s roles are trivialised and overtly sexualised, Wonder Woman was both a breath of fresh air and a powerful statement. I think it tapped into the frustrations and desires of many women in this cultural context and spoke in particular about how they wish they were seen more often.
Diana Prince in 2017’s Wonder Woman is both empowered and empowering. She is heroic, brave and strong. She is the protagonist of her own story, but the men surrounding her do not appear threatened or emasculated by her. She is portrayed as clearly feminine and yet not overly sexualised. She is emotionally vulnerable, idealistic, perhaps even naïve, and her greatest strengths lie in her compassion, her love and her hope. She upends the assumptions that a parade of men make about her to ensure that she is fully heard and seen. She fires up our imagination of what a girl can be.
I proposed that something in this movie crystallised a wider cultural moment that many women are experiencing. In a world of #YesallWomen and #Metoo and an industry of the likes of Weinstein and Cosby, it felt like part of the reclaiming of women’s voices and experiences, not to privilege them above those of men, but to put them alongside as equally valuable as well as uniquely contributive.
And I think this brings a challenge to the church, which unfortunately has a reputation in this area that is not that dissimilar to the overall reputation of most superhero movies. That is, a reputation of assigning women a second-class status and a subordinate role. Of telling its story predominantly through the voices and perspectives of men. Of failing to inspire imagination in women of all they are created and called to be. This greatly saddens me because it is not the way the Bible or the gospel presents women, who are invited to be co-heirs with Christ and participants in the co-creating work of God.
I want to continue challenging the church to inspire this kind of imagination in our women and girls alongside our men and boys.
So obviously my review of the movie was pretty positive. I’m currently writing up my session on Wonder Woman into some kind of academic paper (!) and so will continue to ponder some of these thoughts further.
But for all my positivity, my pop-culture analysis experience comes with a frustrating and disappointing postscript. Some of the DC fans who attended my session asked me afterwards if I was planning to see Justice League, the new EDCU movie in which Wonder Woman is a key character. I hadn’t previously thought about it, but in answering their questions, discovered that my genuine answer was yes. I had found Wonder Woman engaging enough to go see the follow up, no doubt fulfilling the hopes of the movie’s producers and marketers of drawing a new consumer cohort to their ongoing enterprise.
So last weekend I saw Justice League and all I can do is sigh. Two steps forward, five steps back.
I lost count of the number of camera shots that went up Wonder Woman’s skirt or zoomed in on her butt. I was irritated and disturbed by the sexualisation of both Diana and her entire tribe in the costuming choices made for them. I rolled my eyes at the objectifying way that every other character in the movie relates to Diana. And I lamented the lack of any other female leads, as if one out of six is somehow equality.
Many others have commented on the differences between the two movies, and in particular the gender of their respective directors and the deflating impact of storytelling this particular character via the male gaze. If Wonder Woman tapped into the hopes for how women would like to be portrayed, Justice League felt like it mansplained them to put them back into their usual Hollywood blockbuster place. Sorry DC, but I think you might just have lost me.
Fortunately, the much bigger story that I’m far more interested in how we tell has an abundantly better postscript. The forthcoming instalment of the gospel story is one in which all things are set right once and for all. Where our imagination of all we can be finds expression in the complete realisation of all our hopes for reconciled relationships between women, men, God and all of creation. Where ultimate grace and justice triumph. No disappointments there.