When I was a kid, I used to do accents and impersonations, mimicking celebrities and my favourite cartoon characters. I even won a tiny talent contest. When I got to high school, there were calls for students to come forward with skills they could perform at an event. Dancing. Singing. Playing instruments. These were the obvious ones. Impersonations? I was told that’s not what people wanted to see of young women. I can’t remember now if it was explicitly stated or not, but the response came with a big side of “Don’t embarrass yourself.” Impersonations were clearly not something I was supposed to be doing. So I stopped.
There’s no denying that men are also subject to judgements about what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour for their gender. However, female experience, even in the 21st Century, is still largely a case of “You can’t” and “You shouldn’t.” Your entire life you’re bombarded with frequently contradictory messages that could easily do your head in.
But let’s just focus on one specific strain of communications:
“You really shouldn’t go out alone at night.”
“Don’t wear that dress; it’s asking for trouble.”
“Wait for the guys to move heavy item X.”
“Are you sure you want to get into that field? It’s not woman-friendly.”
All of these comments are motivated by the speaker’s desire to protect. I’m not going to insist that they stem from a nefarious desire to subjugate women or some kind of insidious play-it-forward prohibition. Maybe it is. But if you syphon out all suspicion of malice, it’s easier to view this kind of counsel by family and friends as a demonstration of concern… however misguided.
Of course, the side-effect of all this “helpful advice” is that women can start to believe that they are Less. If you’re continually bombarded with messages that you’re weak, vulnerable and just not up for certain challenges, it becomes easier to accept it yourself.
Hell, even Wonder Woman, the most iconic of female superheroes, isn’t immune to this self-handicapping mindset. In a way, that’s reassuring for us real-life women to see. It’s also a major reason, as I see it, why this year’s Wonder Woman movie has been, and continues to be, such a huge box office success around the world. Still performing far beyond expectation, the film is notable for breaking trends in regards to cinema audiences. Whereas most superhero movies attract a 62% male audience, with the 18-25 age category dominating, Wonder Woman has achieved an audience gender split of near 50-50, with an unusual number of older cinemagoers watching the movie.
Wonder Woman has clearly connected emotionally with many female viewers, a demographic not normally associated with comic book adaptations. As women watch and re-watch the movie – helping it to enjoy the best sustained box office performance of any superhero film in 15 years! – it is apparent Wonder Woman speaks to them on a deeper level that they may not even be aware of. Because the journey made by Gal Gadot’s Diana is the one that pretty every woman makes in her life.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead]
Here’s the thing about Wonder Woman: she’s a literal goddess. Well, a demigod. The daughter of Olympian god king Zeus and Amazon queen Hippolyta (played by Connie Nielsen), Diana is powerful beyond belief. She’s practically indestructible, incredibly strong, can fly (sort of), and as the daughter of a storm god she can channel lightning and create devastating concussive blasts with her bracers.
If you use as a model fellow Greek demigod Herakles, who throttled giant serpents in his crib, then you can presume Diana has always had her powers. She was born with them. This makes her different from the vast majority of superheroes, who are not meta-human to begin with. Even Superman (post-Crisis on Infinite Earths) needed years of exposure to Earth’s yellow sun before developing his abilities.
Notably though, nobody tries to convince Superman that he doesn’t have powers. He is told to hide them, but at a certain point his parents are honest about where he comes from. They show him the Kryptonian spacecraft he arrived in. Diana, meanwhile, is denied her truth. She grows up ignorant of her real origins, in order to – wait for it – protect her.
There’s that distinctly female problem again.
Diana knows she is different from the other Amazons on Themyscira, but she is spun a yarn about being sculpted from clay and blessed by the gods. She is clueless about her capabilities and encouraged to never test her limits.
It’s debatable how many Amazons are in on the deceit (certainly General Antiope and her lieutenant Menalippe are), but Hippolyta is the key figure teaching her daughter to hold herself back. She hammers home what Diana “can’t” do.
Symbolically, right at the beginning of the movie, 8-year-old Diana makes a daring leap to escape her tutor. She over- (or perhaps under-) estimates her jump, and is about to plummet over the side of a cliff. A similar botched leap in adulthood reveals Diana’s immense physical strength while scaling a tower, but as a child her mother blocks that early opportunity for self-discovery. Ever-protective, Hippolyta catches Diana before she can fall, and proceeds to lecture her about how she cannot train to be a warrior.
Shortly afterwards, the queen shows a curious Diana the God-Killer sword, given by Zeus to slay Ares, the god of war. When Diana asks which Amazon would wield it, Hippolyta’s response is some prime psychological manipulation: “Only the fiercest among us even could. And that is not you, Diana.”
There’s little question that Diana internalises this mindset. She may sneak off (at least initially) to train with her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), but she is still subconsciously limiting herself. With tough love statements like “Harder! You’re stronger than this, Diana” and “You are stronger than you believe. You have greater powers than you know,” Antiope is continually pushing her niece towards her full potential… and the truth of what she is, without saying it.
Antiope’s approach is protection through proactivity and preparedness. It is in stark contrast to Hippolyta’s logic, which is a kind of defensive or shielding protection through ignorance. As the queen tells Menalippe (Lisa Loven Kongsli), “The more [Diana] knows, the sooner [Ares] will find her.” Good-intentioned thinking, but harmful in the long run.
Still, even with all of Hippolyta’s attempts at avoidance, inevitably Diana does tap into her divine capabilities. It happens essentially by accident – in self-defence – while training with Antiope and the other warriors. When Diana raises her bracers to stop a strike by Antiope, she creates a powerful shockwave that floors every Amazon and bloodies her aunt.
Looking on, Diana’s mother is horrified of course. “What have I done?” she laments. She has by this point in the story finally agreed with Antiope’s methods, and encouraged her sister to “train [Diana] harder than any Amazon before her.”
Meanwhile, Diana’s reaction to cracking through the ceiling of her perceived capabilities is a mix of shock, horror and confusion. She’s hurt her aunt. The Amazons are giving her fearful “othering” looks. Even if they did know her demigod status, they probably had no idea how it would manifest. Diana flees and finds herself alone on a cliff, staring at her hands and bracers. For our heroine, as in reality, disproving limitations isn’t always a triumphant experience. It may alienate you from others, at least initially, as they cannot deal with your evolution.
It’s a moment that changes everything in the movie though. Diana has fundamentally altered. She can never go back again to who she was. Her healing has enhanced. It’s even debatable that her shockwave is what weakens the barrier separating isolationist island Themyscira from Man’s World. This allows in Allied spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and the German naval forces.
Battle follows. Lives are lost. In the aftermath Diana embraces her self-chosen mission to accompany Steve back to London, and destroy Ares – who, she believes, is behind “the war to end all wars.”
Even in Man’s World, the “You can’t’” insistence continues. In many ways it’s worse in ultra-patriarchal 1918. Diana can’t wear her thigh-flashing armour in British society. She’s told she can’t attend a war meeting. She can’t go straight to the Front. She can’t even interact with the first baby she’s ever seen, as Steve hauls her away to tend to more important business. Some of these moments are played for laughs, but mostly they simmer with a sense of frustrating impotence as Diana is prohibited from doing what she wants.
Eventually Diana, Steve and their dysfunctional band reach Belgium, and the front lines of WWI. This is the big moment. The plate under the pressure cooker is dialled up to 10. Surrounded by the horrors of trench warfare, Diana is repeatedly told they don’t have time to help. They are unable to aid refugees whipping mud-mired horses. The same goes for liberating the desperate villagers of Veld.
Hands apparently tied by circumstance, the build-up of stress is agonising for Diana – and the audience. Eventually Steve explodes with exasperation at Diana’s continual halts, and idealistic insistence that they can make a difference:
Steve Trevor: This is no man’s land, Diana! It means no man can cross it, alright? This battalion has been here for nearly a year and they’ve barely gained an inch. All right? Because on the other side there are a bunch of Germans pointing machine guns at every square inch of this place. This is not something you can cross. It’s not possible.
Diana Prince: So… what? So we do nothing?
Steve Trevor: No, we are doing something! We are! We just… we can’t save everyone in this war. This is not what we came here to do.
In response, Diana turns away, and fiddles inside her cloak with her clothing and weaponry. When she turns back, for the first time she’s wearing the headpiece of the Amazons’ greatest warrior, Antiope – the woman who encouraged Diana to be as strong as she could be. That’s extra symbolic charge right there, even before Diana makes her final simple reply to Steve.
Diana Prince: No. But it’s what I’m going to do.
This is it – a glorious release of all that pent-up frustration in response to the forbidden.
Now of course you can interpret Wonder Woman’s standout No Man’s Land scene without a gender-focused lens. It works just as well if you examine how the sequence taps into centuries of deeply inspiring cultural and artistic imagery. Diana is another Lady Liberty, leading the charge for change.
Women audiences, though, you could claim, are touched by a second layer of resonance. This is because the No Man’s Land sequence also functions as supreme female wish fulfilment. Even as she scales the ladder, Diana’s companions are still trying to stop and protect her. But it no longer matters what anyone else thinks. Artillery shells explode around her, and she’s untouched. She wields her purpose as a shield.
Slo-mo sumptuousness aside, the beauty of the scene lies in how Diana gradually casts aside everything holding her back. There’s that core of believability again. Our heroine doesn’t charge straight into the fray with a smirk. Just as her frustration has mounted to this point, it slowly vents during her hesitant battlefield advance.
Frowning, she tests the deflection of one bullet. Then another. And another. Her confidence builds. She smiles; she can do this. Her walk becomes a trot, and then a sprint. Even artillery shells and machine gun fire can’t stop her.
By the time she reaches the German trench on the other side of No Man’s Land, an inversion of roles has occurred. She’s the one telling Steve and co. they need to hurry on.
Diana ends the scene still far from realising the full scope of her godlike abilities. However, she has obliterated the “You can’t” mindset as thoroughly as she demolishes the church steeple. It’s practically overkill.
From that point onwards in the movie, Diana’s sense of limits falls away. She no longer questions or marvels at her field-bounding leaps, or anything else her body can do. And she certainly no longer obeys. “What I do is not up to you,” she tells Steve a handful of scenes later, when earlier she was relatively content to follow his advice.
Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins and co. have been very careful in interviews to discuss the film from a Humanist angle, downplaying gender politics which could have been stridently asserted on-screen (see the 2009 animated Wonder Woman film for that approach). Still, there’s little doubt in my mind that Diana’s personal journey is particularly meaningful, and moving, for female viewers.
It comes with an extra dose of catharsis and inspiration for anyone who has – whether as a child, teen or grown woman – let themselves be held back from what they felt they should be doing because of what others have insisted. Wonder Woman bounds over that obstacle. Many of us still stand with the imposing breadth of the battlefield before us. But now we have Diana’s example to emulate.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Critical Hit as an organisation.
Last Updated: July 19, 2017