The politics of Wonder Woman

My working title for this review was “White woman tries to reconcile Wonder Woman with intersectional feminism”, so if you want a straight-up “Is this a good movie?” review, best you look elsewhere.

Wonder Woman is a good movie. In fact, it’s a great movie. The cinematography and production values are excellent, the script has its problems but is good overall, the acting is spot-on, the action is fast-paced. I loved it. But I can’t call myself a feminist and not view the film through a political lens.

So, who is Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot)? She is Diana, princess of Themyscira, daughter of Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons. Her mother sculpted her out of clay and begged Zeus to give her life.

Zeus also created a safe island for the Amazons, who had fought on the side of the gods in a battle against Ares, the god of war.

The mountainous idyll of Themyscira is protected by a misty dome, invisible from the outside — until captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy, breaks through the dome in a burning aeroplane, followed by German soldiers in hot pursuit.

Diana rescues Steve from the sea, and when the soldiers arrive shooting on the beach, the Amazons charge into battle with their flaming arrows. The rest of the plotline is simple: Steve has come from the War and must return. They are on the verge of an armistice, but Steve has evidence that the evil General Ludendorff and Dr Isabel Maru, or Doctor Poison, are creating a chemical weapon to unleash yet more horror.

Diana, convinced that Ares has returned and is behind the conflict, insists that Steve take her to the War so that she can defeat her foe once and for all. In London, where Steve’s evidence is met with scepticism from his superiors, he puts together a ragtag crew and they head to Belgium. To the front. To the War.

I didn’t realise how much I wanted this film until after I had seen it. It’s the first superhero film to be directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, and not being forced to watch a movie though the male gaze makes all the difference.

The Amazons are a race of warriors and everything about Diana is strong. She is muscular. She lands on the ground and you can see her thigh jiggling as her muscles absorb the impact. Look, a woman made of flesh! In a Hollywood movie! I loved this movie with all of my little girl heart.

It’s here that I have to step back a bit. Yes, it’s hugely important that a woman was finally allowed to direct a superhero movie. But representation that only includes able-bodied white women isn’t a “step in the right direction” — it’s exclusionary.

So, how intersectional does Wonder Woman get, exactly? Frankly, not enough. There are characters of colour, but they are not given much space. The Amazons are diverse and the first lines of the film are spoken by a black woman — except she is young Diana’s minder, calling after her in exasperation after the girl has run off. The moment grates. Why is the first black character we encounter a domestic servant?

As a queer woman, I loved the Amazons and I loved how they were perfectly happy by themselves, apart from the world of men. I just wish some of them could have been obviously gay. It’s well known that Diana is bisexual, although this wasn’t mentioned in the film. But as idyllic as Themyscira is, why weren’t we shown scenes of romantic queer love as well as platonic and familial?

And then we come to Gal Gadot.

The actress was an active soldier in the Israeli Defence Force during Israel’s invasion and bombing of Lebanon in 2006. She is, as Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa has described her on Al Jazeera, an “avowed Zionist and cheerleader of war crimes”.

In 2014, when Israel spent nearly two months bombing Gaza, killing more than 2 000 civilians in what they justified as an effort to flush out Hamas, she sent a message of support to Israeli soldiers.

Gadot makes an excellent Wonder Woman. But it is extremely difficult to reconcile casting a Zionist nationalist in the role of a character beloved for fighting on the side of the underdog, as a member of the Justice League.

A review is not enough space for everything I’d like to say about this film, let alone Gadot’s politics. I don’t know how to square my support for this movie with my abhorrence of Israel’s military actions and my intersectional approach to feminism, because I can’t.

You could say that we need to support Wonder Woman so that Hollywood will see that we want more action films with female directors, but that’s shorthand for “solidarity is for white women”. And where’s the justice in that?

It’s not so much that I wish they hadn’t cast Gadot in the role — I wish she held different politics. She calls herself a feminist and I want young children, especially little girls, to have a feminist hero. But as Abulhawa makes clear, Zionism is antithetical to feminism.

I still love Wonder Woman. It affected me on a deeply personal level, and I’m not alone. But I can’t allow myself to appreciate it without holding on to the discomfort created by its politics.

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