Wonder Woman was a really good movie. I’m not a film critic so I won’t go into any nuanced details on that statement except to say it was by no means perfect but that didn’t change what it meant to me. Seeing the First Lady of Comics finally portrayed on the big screen in such a manner was cathartic to me both as a feminist and as a long-time nerd. When my wife and I left the theater, she turned to me, her face wet with tears and said, “where was that when I was 10 years old?”.
It’s a sentiment shared by many. Even though I was socialized as male from birth, seeing a big, female-led superhero movie also struck chords with me that moved me to tears. To so many women, especially very young women, this was a defining moment.
Leave it to the internet to try and ruin a good thing.
Have you seen this meme? Do you agree with it? Do you share it? I’ve been seeing it, as well as a version shared with Xena and Ripley from Alien, all over Facebook lately. The message is simple: saying Wonder Woman is some kind of first for bad-ass women forgets the bad-ass women who came before her. On the surface, it’s a fine argument. It makes sense in the simplest of terms. But if you dig any further down than the surface, you find a lot of cultural factors that it just doesn’t hold up to.
If you’ve shared this meme before (or a similar one), I have some predictions about you. I predict that you’re older than your mid twenties and grew up as however you classify a nerd/geek from an early age. Am I right? Do I get a cookie? The reason I’m confident in that is that this mindset comes from the very specific set of circumstances that shapes such a worldview. I’m there too. I’m in my early 30’s. I’ve been a geek my whole life. I used to watch Xena and Buffy all the time. I loved those women and the power and confidence they portrayed. I’m sure you were the same way, and that like me you also see many of those same characteristics in Diana.
Here’s the problem though: we’re not 15 years old right now. See, for as much as we like to think we’re still young at heart and are in with the same pop culture stuff today’s teens are, it’s just inescapable that we have a dynamically different world experience from them. Even when we were growing up watching Xena and Buffy, we knew those things were never part of the mainstream culture. When we were teenagers, liking nerdy stuff meant getting your ass kicked. It meant being bullied, teased, harassed, and shunned. I’m not saying those things aren’t still there to some degree, but liking sci-fi/fantasy isn’t taboo anymore. The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies were some of the highest grossing films of all times. The popular culture is currently dominated by the very same superheroes we were teased for reading about as teenagers. Nerd stuff equals cool now, and that’s something we never even considered growing up.
Remember, 15 year old girls didn’t grow up watching Xena and Buffy. And even if they did, their fandom never carried the cultural ubiquity that sci-fi/fantasy does today. Do you ever remember Walmart having an entire section of the toy department devoted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Xena? Well, they certainly do for superheroes right now! Iron Man, Spiderman, Hulk, Thor, Batman, Superman, their images are on everything these days. I can walk into any crowd of people, ask “who is Tony Stark?”, and likely get a majority of correct answers. The same is not true for, “who is Buffy Summers?”. It’s not just about the character existing, but the character existing on the same global stage as everything else people are into.
You have to remember, today’s teen girls have grown up in a world where shared universe superhero stories dominate the popular culture. We’re talking about a genre of stories that, for decades, was mainly targeted at adolescent boys of our generation. This means that the subject matter largely speaks to them (i.e. why nearly all the heroes are male and win through showings of physical strength) not to mention long-time comics fans have been thrust into the limelight for being the most qualified people to talk about the history, continuity, and nuanced aspects of these properties. And since these properties were so heavily focused on boys back then, it’s mostly boys filling those rolls today. The biggest thing in entertainment on a global, broad-appeal scale right now is something made by men and for men to the largest degree.
This is why Wonder Woman is such a dramatic shift. Not only is it a female superhero, it’s a female superhero leading the movie. It’s also a female superhero displaying aspects of femininity. I mean, Alien was a big movie back in the day (even though sci-fi/horror was still a very niche genre back then) but Ripley always appeared and acted just masculine enough to not offend the fragile egos of boys not wanting girl stuff to distract from the cool, scary aliens ripping people apart in space. Wonder Woman’s whole persona doesn’t just convey confident person, but confident woman; and the distinction is palpable.
Think back to your childhood. How would you have felt to see Xena made into a big blockbuster movie? How would you have felt to walk into a theater and see a giant cutout of Lucy Lawless, dressed in her iconic outfit and striking a heroic pose? How would you have felt if such a movie exploded into the kinds of toy and novelty items that superhero movies do today? How would you have felt if said movie made millions of dollars, became a cultural phenomenon, and cemented itself in the minds of everyone in the world?
This isn’t just about a bad-ass female character. This is about a bad-ass female character sharing the same spotlight as everything else that’s culturally relevant right now. This is about declaring that women can direct and star in movies that are meant to appeal to the masses instead of just needing their own little club. This is about seeing our Xenas and Buffys break from the shackles of Saturday afternoon cable TV and join the biggest of heroes on the biggest of stages. So remember this the next time you hear someone making a “big deal” about Wonder Woman. Instead of trying to explain away justification of their views, maybe ask them to explain why they feel that way. Maybe then we can be the type of humanity Diana always knew we could be.