Recently, I saw Wonder Woman – a superhero film that ticks all the boxes of the genre – so I expected a couple of hours of fun, fairly mindless entertainment. I’d read about women crying during the battle scenes, but not being prone to tears, I did not expect to find myself sobbing along with them.
It took me a whole day to process why. Before seeing it, I thought I’d ‘got it’ – a film about powerful women, who kick butt when required and are not bound by the usual rules of a patriarchal society is a breath of fresh air and long overdue for female audiences. It’s obvious why they would flock to it in droves.
But it’s not until you’re watching this story slowly unfold that you really begin to ‘get’ it. Many women are experiencing this film not with their heads, but their hearts.*
The early part of the film, set in the mythical Themyscira, is beautiful and gloriously shot. The idyllic home of these Amazons shows the true essence of female power in all its glory – strong, compassionate, loving, nurturing, fierce, and unbeatable when they’re working together for a higher purpose.
At the time, though, I felt like it went on too long. And when Diana finally makes it to ‘our’ world, I again found it too slow. ‘Enough with the establishment storyline already, let’s get to the fighting!’ I found myself thinking.
But the fact is, the timing is perfect. We need to spend so long in Themyscira so the constraints of ‘our’ world are jarring. And we need to be with Diana in ‘our’ world for so long before the battles begin because that’s how the movie works its deep, emotional power.
Once in ‘our’ world, I found myself cringing with every social ‘mistake’ Diana made, embarrassed for her naivety and worried how the people around her would react. Walking around in inappropriate clothing? Sure, I was quietly outraged when she was forced to wear appropriate clothes yet also relieved she found something more ‘sensible’. Speaking up to all the powerful men in the room? I cheered her on but also cringed, thinking how anything she could say or do would be pointless and could even put her in danger.
There are dozens of these little moments, and each time, ‘No, don’t do/say that,’ was my instinctive reaction – maybe it would have been different if she’d understood the rules and was breaking them with a ‘fuck you’ attitude, but she wasn’t being the bad girl. Her innocence was palpable. I feared for her. I couldn’t help it.
And that’s why this film is so clever and so very powerful. Little by little, it drew out my internal policing and turned it on its head. Each time Diana ignored what was expected of her – was actually oblivious to it, knowing no other way to be – she triumphed. Shocking, right? Each time I thought, ‘Don’t do that’, she went and did it, and it was okay.
It wasn’t until the battle scenes that the power of this film really kicks in. Diana fights and WINS. Every. Fucking. Time. Of course, it’s what we expect in a superhero film and yet there was still that little ‘no’ deep inside me, waiting for it all to go horribly wrong.
I was silently policing a fictional superhero who has no reason to follow any rules or respect anyone’s boundaries. Why? Because that’s what we know.
Women who stand up for themselves, let alone others, are shot down in flames (see: the internet). We’re told ‘no’ and ‘you can’t’ and ‘don’t’ all our lives. From the moment we can take in any form of media, we’re told we’re not enough – not pretty enough, not thin enough, not nice enough – or too much – too loud, too aggressive, too ugly, too needy, too emotional. We’re called ‘too much work’ if we ask for our needs to be met, and ‘too basic’ if we don’t want more for ourselves. We’re taught to protect ourselves from male violence until it’s second nature but called bitches by men** when we exhibit that protective behaviour, and blamed if we are victims of male violence.
We’re taught to internalise that ‘no’ and hold ourselves in, take up less space, please those around us for fear of not being nice. You can’t turn off all that internal programming because the woman you’re feeling for happens to be a film character.
But here’s the beauty of it. Diana doesn’t have that internal ‘no’. And every single time she ignores those who say no to her, every single time she shakes her head and says, ‘It’s what I’m here to do’ and just gets on with it, a little piece of me unwinds. Bit by bit, that internal ‘no’ fades and in its place is cheering. Each time Diana refuses to do anything except what is in her heart, and refuses to hide any of it or be shamed by it, she not only succeeds, but is celebrated. Even her alpha-male love interest Steve doesn’t hesitate to accept and celebrate her.
(Side note: how good is it to see the love story used as a way for the heroine to develop without it defining her? Even though she doesn’t get the happy ending with her beloved, it doesn’t change a single damn thing. She just gets on with following her purpose.)
By the final battle scene, the voice inside me had been silenced and I wanted her to fight. I wanted her to be herself.
And that’s when the tears started.
I was crying because Wonder Woman is who all women should be – goddesses shining our light on the world, unafraid to do battle for the things we believe in, responding with compassion and open-hearted curiosity when the world doesn’t make sense to us and seeing that love is always stronger than fear and hatred. This is what women have been robbed of by that inner voice and the society that has drummed it into us.
Wonder Woman circles deeper and deeper inside our hearts, grabs hold of the pain of the millions of tiny ‘no’s’ we tell ourselves, and presses the release button. And it is wonderful.
Stuff Batman being the superhero we deserve, women need Wonder Woman right now, and she’s inside all of us.
* I can only speak from a cis white straight female perspective. I don’t claim to speak for all women, nor that this is exclusively an experience for women. If any men reading this have had a similar experience while viewing, please share your experience in the comments.
** Not all men, obviously.