smashing records and subverting stereotypes: how wonder woman is sexy, but not born yesterday
Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is strong, beautiful and naive – but that’s not standing in the way of her feminist superpower.
Born Sexy Yesterday is the new Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The term was coined in April 2017 by vlogger Jonathan McIntosh for a woman with "the mind of a naive yet highly skilled child, but in the body of a mature, sexualised woman". Born Sexy Yesterday is patriarchal bullshit, McIntosh concludes, because whoever's summoned this woman, or keeps her around -- think Weird Science or The Fifth Element -- is a man or boy who "either can't find or doesn't want a woman from his own world, a woman who might be his equal in matters of love and sexuality."
Born Sexy Yesterday is creepy as hell and you can bet that Patty Jenkins, the director of Wonder Woman, knew that when she created the movie adaptation of a comic book story otherwise ripe for infantilising its lead.
Wonder Woman is Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, played by relative newcomer, Israeli actress Gal Gadot. Themyscira is a fecund and green island plonked somewhere in the Atlantic, where Amazonians -- all of them women, all of them robustly good fighters, steel themselves for the return of Ares, the god of war.
When Chris Pine's American WW1 spy, Steve Trevor, crashes into the turquoise waters encumbered by the German warplane he's stolen, with a battalion in pursuit, it is clear that, though a pacifist, Diana is physically strong and ignorant to the world's grislier nuances. Yet, several scenes purposefully step around mocking Diana's ignorance. First, when Diana's confused by Steve's watch, and the concept of time, the audience is instead invited to gaze upon his embattled, sculpted and naked body. He's objectified, and he's kind of awkward about it.
Later, night falls as the pair sail from Themyscira to join the Real World, where Diana can avenge Ares and Steve can report back to MI6. In bed -- but not like that, yet -- Diana reveals that though she's been made of clay and raised in a commune of beautiful butch women, she knows what heterosexual sex is. So much so, she asserts "men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary".
Diana is naive, sure, but she's definitely not Born Sexy Yesterday. Plus, she's not flustered or impressed by Steve's body, but drawn in by his love.
Once in the Real World, Diana notes a revolving door, gears up for it, then charges through it, without much of Steve's help. It's a direct nod to Splash, where Daryl Hannah's Born Sexy Yesterday mermaid thickly over-shoots a revolving door, and Tom Hanks's Nice Guy has to strong-arm her through it the right way. Just like the door, the tables have turned. Much of her innocence is charming: she tells an ice-cream vendor "I'm so proud of you!" for his impeccable fare, instead of, say, inadvertently making a double entendre about cream for the audience to guffaw at. Diana is naive, sure, but she's definitely not Born Sexy Yesterday. Plus, she's not flustered or impressed by Steve's body, but drawn in by his love.
The film also does away with other tropes of women. Our evil villainess, Dr Poison, is reeling from her own mystery victimhood. When shopping for Diana's disguise, Steve's secretary sarcastically jokes that giving Diana glasses will definitely make her look less pretty, which will remind anyone of the 1999 Pygmalion remake She's All That, a film that depended on the flimsy premise that glasses could render Rachael Leigh Cook ugly.
Following fall-out from Vulture critic David Edelstein's review where he breathlessly thanked Gadot's face for giving us "somehow the perfect blend of superbabe-in-the-woods innocence and mouthiness," there is endless discussion on Gadot's looks, both on and off screen. While discourse on her beauty is repetitive, it's trite to suggest that neither Gadot nor Diana should be beautiful, and their looks left uncommented on: the character is a literal goddess. And Gadot has been entrusted to carry the first superhero film led by a woman since 2005. To posit she shouldn't be so gorgeous is to have a Diana-level naivety with regards how Hollywood and its audiences behave.
However, Wonder Woman is getting a lot of press and chatter right now, not just because it subverts a few tired tropes, but because there is pressure on this film to be objectively feminist. Whatever that means. Steve Rose at the Guardian criticised Wonder Woman for not being a "glass-ceiling-smashing blockbuster", and Slate's Christina Cauterucci said she was "sick of the 'sexy lady is also hyper-competent' joke". No film led by a male character is under the same pressure to fight sexism, but at a time of ideologically-driven political threats against women's rights and freedoms, even older texts like Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale are being imbued with new fears. And within Hollywood, all-female remakes of Ghostbusters and Ocean's Eleven are latching onto feminism's increasing popularity and commercial viability, and the perhaps more organic successes of The Hunger Games and Hidden Figures show that women can carry films.
Within Hollywood, all-female remakes of Ghostbusters and Ocean's Eleven are latching onto feminism's increasing popularity and commercial viability.
Jenkins, otherwise known for Aileen Wuornos biopic Monster, is only the second woman in history to be granted over $100m budget for a film. But sadly, just as Diana has more battles to fight -- WW1 really isn't "the war to end all wars" -- the burden of proof will remain on the world's few female filmmaker's shoulders for decades to come, as the traditional lens focuses on women as doing, not just being.
Feminine nature and freedoms stymied by aggressive male greed and industrialised destruction is a theme we've seen before, in 2015's superlative Mad Max: Fury Road. If its aesthetic and pacing wasn't enough to mark it as a more entertaining film than Wonder Woman, it has a shrewd lead in Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa. Not only does she know the bullshit of sexism, she helps those hurt by it by literally casting off the shackles of patriarchy.
Diana, by comparison, simply wants good to triumph over evil; and hasn't been around for long enough to get into the actual detail of how Ares' poison of war percolates through mankind. Plus, Fury Road was directed by George Miller and had Tom Hardy as the titular Mad Max: there was zero expectation of its feminist credentials.
It's worth noting that though Diana's innocent earnestness and love for humankind could be her downfall, Wonder Woman flips this into her superpower. Never is this more evidenced than when she deflects blows from her biggest, baddest opponent, and yells, like an Instagram aphorism against a sunset: "Only love can truly save the world!". While that may be true, it sure ain't gonna save Hollywood.
Text Sophie Wilkinson