I asked my Facebook followers to see Wonder Woman this weekend. The film is not earth-shattering or stylistically innovative; I hoped people would support a film about a female superhero which received next-to-no backing by means of advertisements. In comparison, Warner Brothers has consistently barraged cinema and TV viewers with teasers, trailers, and every product tie-in possible for films like Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, both films leaning heavily on macho males to drive their images. Overall, the film found success this weekend; Wonder Woman took in just over $100 million in its first weekend and is the highest-grossing open for a female-directed film. That said, there still seems to be a good bit of criticism out there.
Steve Rose penned a review featured in the Guardian in which he argues the film rendered Wonder Woman “not feminist enough,” calling her a weaponized Smurfette who fails to shatter the glass ceiling. I hope that Rose sees the irony in his review; he, a freelance writing male, feels that he is empowered to render verdicts about what is and is not feminist enough because… he feels he can? There’s no discussion of traditional feminism, feminist standards, or traditional tests such as the Bechdel test (which the film passes) in his review. Moreover, Steve Rose doesn’t look any deeper than the most surface narrative reading of the film in his “analysis,” and I use that word incredibly lightly; his “review” is really just an “opinion piece” which goes no deeper than answering the evaluative question of, “Did you like it?” I’d like to look at one particular directing decision made by Patty Jenkins which makes Wonder Woman a much more feminist film, its pastiche of the Disney princess narrative.
Film pastiche is a common practice in which a film mimics certain attributes of a previous work. Charles Z. Newman discusses pastiche as a game for the audience to play in his book Indie: An American Film Culture; you must know the source material well enough to piece together the fragmented pieces hidden in the new work and understand the film’s commentary on the old work. Jenkins takes a script that is admittedly less feminist than ideal and injects her own deeper message into the final film through this kind of game. I’ll discuss one moment in the film without any major spoilers to illustrate this practice.
In an early scene, Diana (soon-to-be Wonder Woman) stands on a rocky cliff looking out over the sea. The scene almost exactly mimics a similar scene from last year’s Disney film, Moana. Jenkins identifies her connection to the previous princess narrative by connecting to the most recent example. As Diana looks out over the ocean, a plane crashes into the water ahead of her. Diana springs into action, leaping into a perfect swan dive with noticeable shades of Pocahontas that have already been built in her costuming. She pulls the man from his plane and swims powerfully to the surface. She pulls the man up onto the beach and rests over top of him, staring down at him. We see a POV shot from the man’s view as he awakens that frames Diana’s wondering face identically to Ariel’s in The Little Mermaid. There are other moments of Disney princess pastiche; as it begins to snow in a later scene, Diana states that it’s magical with a delivery that almost perfectly parallel’s Princess Jasmine’s line, “It’s all so magical,” in Aladdin.
These allusions, connections to previous films, are the puzzle pieces. When you put them together, you can understand Jenkins’s commentary. I would argue that Jenkins intentionally links to the Disney princess narrative to reframe the character of Wonder Woman. Jenkins suggests that little girls no longer need to look to emotional princesses who teach little more than gender roles assigned by the standard patriarchy. Instead, these girls can be Dianas, strong women who fearlessly run into the void that “no man” would dare enter. If the measure of a film’s feminism is hinged on the female protagonist’s near omnipotence and omniscience as Rose seems to desire, then by no means is Wonder Woman a feminist film. If you look a bit deeper, as I’ve demonstrated above, Wonder Woman has a considerably stronger feminist message than his limp reading of the narrative seems to suggest.