We have made it to the final installment of the Ithaca College Writing Assignment awards. The students in the class that helps run Ithacon were tasked to submit a guest column entry for this space and we have a winner. You can see the previous runners up on this site from the past two weeks here and here.
The winner is Caleigh Clarke who took on a pop culture accepted opinion and challenged it. What really set her over the top is that not only did she take issue with prevalent take on movie making, she presented an alternative example of what she was looking for from feminism in pop culture movies.
Men Direct Feminist Films Too
By Caleigh Clarke
When I think of female-directed films with a superheroine, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman comes to mind. It is the first of its kind, with Captain Marvel and Black Widow following and trying to erase the previous sexist works of Catwoman and Elektra. It follows Diana Prince, an Amazonian goddess, as she joins American spy, Steve Trevor, to fight in World War I as she believes it is a result of the Greek god of war, Ares.
This movie was definitely marketplace feminism. They wanted to appeal to the little girls who would go on to buy the lunchboxes, t-shirts, and costumes after watching the movie, like with most superhero films. However, does this have to be the case in our modern world saturated with superheroes? Are superheroines just there to be a “look, feminism” moment? Or are executives starting to break the mold?
I thought of comparing Wonder Woman to a superhero film that I personally loved and was critically praised- Black Panther . Released just one year after Wonder Woman , the movie follows the titular character who is crowned king of Wakanda after his father’s death, but is challenged by a man who seeks to use the country’s resources for a world revolution. Written and directed by Ryan Coogler, Black Panther is filled by many women, mainly Nakia, Shuri, Okoye, and Ramonda. These female characters are integral to the story and success of T’Challa. Nakia is not merely his love interest. She holds a lot of agency. Her goal is not to become queen of Wakanda, but rather convince T’Challa to reveal Wakanda as a country and open its gates to help people with their advanced technology. She is also a spy fighting for enslaved women, she is expertly trained which we see in her first appearance on the screen.
Shuri, T’Challa’s teenage sister, acts as one of the film’s primary comic reliefs. Although young, she is extremely intelligent and skillful in technology, even building the Black Panther suit. Okoye serves as general of the Dora Milaje, the all female special forces team who guards T’Challa. In the big final fight scene, Okoye has to confront her husband who has chosen Killmonger’s side. She does not back down from her pride, loyalty, and responsibilities. Lastly, Ramonda is T’Challa and Shuri’s mother and Queen of Wakanda. She is often there to give advice to her son. All these women had to either save T’Challa or themselves, at one point, and had power.
I say all of this because it shows how Coogler felt it was important to highlight these characters even in a male-led film. T’Challa would be nothing without these women, and it is not to push feminism in our face, but to give representation of our society- mainly within the black community. Women are necessary in our world. They are strong. They are intelligent and they do not need saving.
I have a problem with Wonder Woman . While claiming to be ultra feminist, it succumbs to a lot of problems with movies made by men. Yes, Diana lives on an island populated with only strong Amazonian warriors (which is incredibly fetishized in the film and pop culture). Yes, she saves Steve in an alley (remaking the iconic Superman scene). Yes, she is determined in her goal and beats Ares in the end- but so what? In this film, we see Diana get away with a lot because she is conventionally beautiful as she is white, tall, and thin as it is constantly commented on when she meets anyone.
She is supposed to be the antithesis of the other female character, Dr. Poison who is deemed “unattractive” with her injured face, and thus is evil. Diana has to have a makeover / shopping montage, like most female characters. She gets her powers from Zeus, a male god. The reason our protagonist defeats the villain is because she loses her love interest. We see our female lead get through “No Man’s Land” and tells Steve that women do not need men, but for only reproduction. It is all too out there with their message. A good feminist movie does not need to spell out its message so much to the audience.
I saw this in theatres, and for some reason, left uninspired. I felt like Diana was almost like a secondary character in her own story, she does not really learn anything new. She does not hate humans from beginning to end of the movie. She falls in love, and knew she was a strong warrior from the get go. I wondered why I felt that way, and then, I saw that it was written by two white men. In comparison, Steve has a much better arc in this movie. He learns a whole new world. His beliefs are challenged and proven wrong unlike Diana (which would have been better). Steve gets to see a strong, powerful woman and realizes that his female counterparts are more than capable and he does not need to save them. He sacrifices himself, dying a true hero.
Despite a female lead, Gal Gadot is swarmed by a practically all-male cast. There are four other prominent female characters in a main cast of eleven. Diana’s mother, Hippolyta, is seen only in the beginning half of the film. Her aunt and mentor, Antiope, also dies in the first thirty minutes. Steve’s secretary, Etta, is seen for just that shopping sequence. And lastly, Dr. Poison is seen as just an evil accomplice to Erich Ludendorff. Wonder Woman could have been a great film that discussed the inequalities between women and men, showcased badass, independent women, and challenged us to reevaluate our beliefs and open ourselves up to a different perspective unfortunately, I do not think this movie was ready to do that where Black Panther (or even hit TV shows like WandaVision, Jessica Jones, or The Umbrella Academy) unapologetically gave us these positive representations. I have not see the sequel to this heroine’s story and honestly never plan to.
Let’s just hope Black Widow doesn’t fall to this tragic fate.
This was a well thought out critique with interesting perspective spotlights on important aspects of the storytelling. We loved this column and invite Caleigh back to see what she thought of Black Widow when it is released this summer.