In a recent interview, director James Cameron criticized the movie Wonder Woman as hindering the conversation about what a female main character should be like. He accused the movie of taking a step backward. He suggested that all the praise for the movie was just “self-congratulatory back-patting” because the movie had both a female lead and a female director. People were so tied up in the genders of the people behind the story that they didn’t really give much thought to the story itself.
But while Cameron might have brought up a possible problem with the hype around the movie, he didn’t have much to offer when the interviewer asked, “So then why are movies still so bad when it comes to depicting truly powerful women?” Cameron’s response was telling: “I don’t know.” He tried to point to his own work, Sarah Connor from the Terminator series, as an example of a strong woman: “She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit.” In Cameron’s eyes, Diana—Wonder Woman—didn’t have any of those qualities and so fell far short of this bar.
While I take issue with Cameron’s ideas (and his suggestion about Sarah Connor), I think this interview provokes important questions about what the ideal female superhero is. Does she have to be a troubled, terrible mother? Or can she be a noble and virtuous goddess? Also, what is the place of weakness in a female superhero?
Alastair Roberts has argued that we should jettison the “strong female character” and instead look to the multiple examples of women in the Bible and how they impacted the world. Roberts writes:
“The dawn of the great new movements of God repeatedly occurs in women’s spaces. The choice of Jacob over Esau occurs in Rebekah’s womb and Rebekah is the one who ensures that God’s choice is honoured. The births of the twelve children of Jacob—who would become the twelve tribes of Israel—are narrated in terms of God’s dealings with and remembering of the wives of Jacob. The story of the Exodus begins with the heroism of women in bearing and rescuing Moses and other Hebrew boys.”
Roberts is onto something important here. God begins new movements in places where women dominate, like birth and childbearing. This is something that Christians seem to have a hard time catching on to. If nothing else, we should be telling more stories that imitate God’s story. And it would also be great to see more movies doing that as well. A few good examples come to mind: Children of Men (2006) and Arrival (2016). Childbirth plays a central focus in these films which were both very successful.
But is childbirth the only female dominated space? Surely that is not the only feminine setting or quality to focus on, is it?
One answer to that question is the Pixar movie The Incredibles (2004). I recently rewatched it and I was intrigued by the portrayal of Elastigirl. Elastigirl’s super power—a flexible body—is an ingenious superpower that is clearly feminine. Her abilities are not just oriented toward power but are rather a subtle combination of both power and weakness. Her body is flexible and can stretch and soften depending on the situation.
Elastigirl regularly uses her body to defend and care for those around her. A key scene is in the airplane crash when she rescues the children by using her body as a parachute to lower them gently to the water. In the next sequence, she uses her body as a boat to hold the two kids as they travel to the island. In this way, the movie offers a woman who uses her body to become the things that her family needs.
Elastigirl’s body is not an extraneous element to her character but rather her body is her superpower. And this superpower holds both strength and weakness together. This point is highlighted in the final sequence with Jack-Jack, when Mr. Incredible throws Elastigirl up at the plane where Syndrome has Jack-Jack. Elastigirl realizes that she can be thrown because she won’t hurt the baby. This is a key insight: she is elastic and can soften her approach as she catches the baby.
Through Elastigirl, we see a woman who is neither strong nor weak but one who can use her weakness (flexibility) in a strong way. This is a profound insight into the power of women. The power of women is that they can act in a way that is both strong and weak in the same action. This is exemplified in childbirth: a moment in which the woman seems to be incredibly weak is the moment in which she is doing something of incredible power.
Turning to Wonder Woman, we do not see this subtle interaction with weakness and strength. At least not in any profound way. Diana is just strong. Period.
The main issue I have with Diana is that she exhibits very few qualities that are uniquely feminine. While a friend of mine tried to persuade me that the fighting which the women do in the film has a “feminine quality,” I don’t agree with that assessment at all. Diana fights just like a man. One way to clarify this is to ask: “Can Diana be replaced with a man and still do all the same things?” Yep, pretty much. In contrast, Elastigirl cannot be replaced by Mr. Incredible.
Some might point out that Diana is a goddess and so that is why she can fight this way. Just like Superman can fly and human men cannot, so Diana can fight this way even though human women cannot. If that works as a justification, then that’s nice but not really an interesting answer.
On the other hand, the film does not give us a totally masculine woman. Diana is genuinely interested in children. At one point she sees another woman with a baby and squeals, “A baby!” Superman would never do that. Diana also repeatedly mentions that she is fighting to save “women and children.” Superman also fights to save women and children but Diana makes it a key point of her fight. To underscore this point, we see Diana saving a woman in the last battle.
The one place where the movie gives us something similar to what we see in The Incredibles is the climactic last fight. Steve sacrifices himself by taking away the bombs in a plane and blowing it up. This allows Diana to fight and defeat Ares. In this way, the story doesn’t simply give us a woman saving everyone but we also get a man saving her. That dynamic salvation suggests that there is both a feminine way of saving and a masculine way of saving. If the movie had played with that difference in other ways then the film might have had more to contribute to this conversation.
In the end, while Wonder Woman doesn’t add very much to the discussion of a female superhero, it doesn’t fall totally into the masculine woman trope. My final analysis then is that Elastigirl beats Wonder Woman, but not because Elastigirl is stronger.