Wonder Woman's Unique Place in Media
Over the past several weeks I've had the joy of watching my friends and family lose their minds after watching Wonder Woman for the first time. It's easy to see why. Wonder Woman is a well crafted, well scripted and well-acted film that establishes the character of Diana as well as breathes some hope into the DC Extended Universe. The film very well deserves its box office and commercial success and hits any and every note a fan of the character could have asked for. DC finally has a solid win under its belt and has Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot to thank for it. It's been amazing watching little girls walk in malls wearing their own versions of the Wonder Woman costume. Even if it's just the tiara it speaks to just how meaningful a movie like this is.
And then an odd thing happened.
I've seen this image at least a dozen times in the past week. Most of the time it's Buffy on the bottom but just as often it's Ripley or Xena. At face value, this is a fair reaction to some of the praise this film has been getting. That while it's good and it is giving a new generation of girls and young women a strong character to look up to, it isn't unique in doing that.
I'm here today to disagree with that statement. Wonder Woman holds a very special place in the entertainment landscape and I think it's important that we recognize that.
I'm not talking about characters here. Ripley, Buffy, and Xena were icons of feminism and female empowerment easily on par with Wonder Woman. No, I'm talking about the place of their shows and films within the wider context of the entertainment industry.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a show about much more than just Buffy. As much as she was a badass destined for greatness the show quickly became about the wider cast. Buffy was certainly the one to do the major leg work but the story arcs switched between characters. That being said there wasn't a female character on that show that wasn't a badass in some way. My point is people tuned in for aspects of the show beyond just the main character. It was an ensemble cast and like any TV show, it shared the spotlight of its title character to keep people coming back along with changing up the narrative focus.
Ripley was the main character in the Alien franchise and the only one that we really got to grow with. The first Alien film just showcases her as a survivor but she really does little beyond running for her life over the course of that movie. It's into the sequels that we really see her come into her own and lead the offensives against the Xenomorphs. But let's be honest. We weren't going to see these films for any of the characters. We wanted the Xenomorphs. Their dark allure has always been the main selling point of the series and while Ripley is a firmly cemented character in the mythos of Science Fiction, she isn't the star or the draw to the franchise she belongs to.
Xena is the closest character in relation to Wonder Woman from these examples but even she doesn't occupy the same space in the entertainment landscape. The series was about her and the quest for her own redemption, she was the main draw and there wasn't a massive ensemble she needed to share the screen with. There were just other characters in what was usually her story. The difference between Xena and Wonder Woman? Xena was a campy TV series. The show wasn't meant to be taken seriously in almost any respect. While it grew to mean quite a bit to a LOT of women it was never made with that intent. So it lacked the attention and especially the funding to really drive these points. This reduced the impact of the lessons and examples of the characters we saw. Watching Xena bring down a room full of barbarians isn't going to have the same impact when the effects department consists of whatever foam we have left over to look like rocks.
Now let's look at Wonder Woman.
The main draw is Wonder Woman and no part of the film detracts from that. As much as people complain about Steve blowing up the gas as taking away her power by being the one to finish the mission, that argument holds NO strength. At no point was Diana's goal to stop the chemical attacks or production of the gas. Her entire arc, mission and character motivation was to find and stop Ares to end the war. Steve fulfilled his mission, Diana fulfilled hers. She trains because she wants to. She leaves with Steve because she wants to. Every one of her actions are taken and pursued by her goals and her values. At no point do you feel like she is in some way coming into her own. She is just as much Wonder Woman fighting on the beach on Themyscira as she is berating a general as she is taking machine gun fire or dancing in the snow. The wider cast doesn't really have stories of their own, just quick lessons about the world for Diana to learn from. This movie is about Wonder Woman's entrance into the wider world and it never loses that focus. Furthermore, this is a big budget movie, full of all of the expectations that funding will come with. In all honestly, would the No Man's Land scene have had even a fraction of the impact if it had the funding for an episode of serialized television? The money and expectation for this film allowed it to be made with the tight focus Patty Jenkins wanted and fought for. You would not have gotten this kind of product if there were 13 expected episodes.
Now I hear you talking about films like Salt or Atomic Blonde or even Sucker Punch and Tomb Raider. That I picked the previous examples in particular to make my point. Well no, because again, the same media space is not occupied. Wonder Woman is a film made FOR young women. You simply cannot say that for these other examples. Salt and Atomic Blonde are meant for an adult audience and it would be hard to argue that Sucker Punch and Tomb Raider weren't targeting the "Young men discovering themselves" audience in terms of how they were shot and the content they featured. Hell, even Furiosa wasn't advertized as the draw for the movie that was all about her.
Wonder Woman does stand apart from almost every other female lead movie. It occupies a unique space in terms of its character, story, audience, budget, and quality that, to the best of my knowledge, no other film has ever belonged to. This doesn't mean that any of the other examples we've looked at aren't also great examples of feminist ideas. Everyone will find what appeals to them. I'm just saying that you don't see too many little girls in the other costumes, but plenty wearing the tiara, and it's very important to understand why that is.