No-Mans-Land-Warner-Bros-Wonder-Woman

Wonder Woman Battling the Male Gaze

by Lois Machelessen

When Warner Bros studios announced in 2015 that there was a Wonder Woman movie in the making, I had mixed feelings. For the first time since the superhero hype began in 2010, a female superhero would get her own film. Expectations were high and there were numerous ways this movie could let its audience, especially female audience, down. Female superheroes have been around in comic books almost as long as male superheroes have, but in the film world, female-led superhero films are rare. Catwoman and Elektra, both movies from the early 2000s, were the last female-led superhero films and flopped miserably. The Avengers universe has a female superhero in Black Widow, but it is unlikely that she will ever get her own movie. The future of superheroine movies depends on the success of Wonder Woman. There is more at stake, however, with the representation of women. Women in movies are often represented through the male gaze, but in Wonder Woman, this gaze seems to be refreshingly absent. By comparing the films Wonder Woman with Cat Woman, Elektra, and Black Widow in Iron Man 2, I ask the question: How can the male gaze be challenged in these representations of female superheroes?

The male gaze is “the tendency of works to assume a male viewpoint even when they do not have a specific narrative Point of View, and in particular the tendency of works to present female characters as subjects of a man’s visual appreciation” (TVtropes.com). The most famous result of the male gaze is “the way a (usually male) director/cameraman’s interest in women informs his shots, leading to a focus on breasts, legs, buttocks, and other jiggly bits even when the film isn’t necessarily supposed to be a feast for eyes of their admirers” (tvtropes.com). When this male gaze is projected on the female characters in movies, it turns them into an object or a fetish. Women lose their status as active subject when presented through the male gaze and, as Lisa Purse points out, “these exploitation films presented ‘serious problems’ for second wave feminists because while they provided a space for women who possessed and displayed physical agency, they popularised ‘an overtly coded, fetishised image of woman as sexual object’” (79) which counteracts their active subject status. The male gaze is also used in the Point-of-View shot, where a particular perspective is projected on the screen, in this case a male perspective, even when a story is narrated by a woman or the main character is a woman. As Jeffrey A. Brown argues, the male gaze in the Point of View shot is not just “employed to freely look at female characters, but [also] as a male-aligned ability to see what others do not—to decipher the truth, to control the narrative through controlling what others see” (209). The male gaze is overtly present in comic books. Even though female superheroes “are typically as powerful, violent, skilled, smart, and self-assured as any of the male comic book counterparts” (Brown, 55), they are sexualized in a way that male superheroes are not. This sexualization is mostly visible in the clothing. Even in the Wonder Woman comic books clothing is sexualized, but the 2017 film, directed by Patty Jenkins, is different.

The plot of Wonder Woman is based on her origin story from the comic book. Diana grew up on the island Themyscira in a society of Amazonian warriors. She is trained to be a warrior, but there is no war to be fought on Themyscira. When pilot Steve Trevor crashes his plane in the ocean near the island, he is saved by Diana and tells her about the evil that is plaguing the world. She decides to accompany Steve to his world and fight in the war to defeat the god Ares, who she believes is guilty of unleashing this war. While most movies with female superheroes make use of the male gaze, it is refreshingly absent throughout the movie. The first time we meet Diana, she is a child training to become a warrior with the help of the other Amazonian warriors. These Amazonian warriors are depicted as strong, powerful, and smart women. Their outfits are not sexualized, but functional, covering the whole of their torsos and actually giving protection in a possible battle. When filming the fighting scenes on Themyscira, the focus is on the strength and athleticism of the warriors. The camera does not focus or linger on their breasts or butt. The warriors also vary in age and body type, unlike the narrow standard, and the lack of male gaze is clear when looking at these warriors, since they do not exist as eye candy, but are there to fight.

Wonder Woman herself is slightly more complicated with regards to her outfit. While some might claim that her outfit is sexualized, it is not. The first time we see Wonder Woman walking in her battle outfit is in the scene where she crosses no man’s land, the land between two trenches. This scene is completely void of the male gaze. As Wonder Woman ascends the stairs onto the battlefield, the camera focuses on different things. There is a shot of her shield, her boots, her lasso, and her arm guards. Her whole body-armor is revealed when she reflects the first bullet with her arm. The camera does not linger once on her breasts or her buttocks or any other part of her body for that matter, not in a sexual way. Not one shot in the whole scene sexualizes Wonder Woman. The camera captures her strength, endurance, and bravery as she storms onto the battlefield on her own. This is in stark contrast with battle scenes from Elektra, Catwoman, and of Black Widow, where the focus is mostly on the bodies of the female superheroes and their tight outfits.

Elektra is introduced at the beginning of her movie in a fighting scene. However, the audience sees her body, especially her breasts in a red bustier, before her face. Elektra also wears tight red pants, which are clearly shown as she walks to the last man to kill, and the camera zooms in and lingers on her buttocks. The usage of the male gaze in this movie was to be expected by the movie posters that came out. There are two different taglines used, namely “don’t let anything stand between you and her special features” and “looks can kill.” The first tagline features “Jennifer Garner (…) displayed in her crimson bustier as an erotic ideal for men to look at” and “the second [focuses] on her eye and her weapon, with the double entendre clarifying that it is her look that can kill” (Brown, 223), foreshadowing the objectification and usage of the male gaze in the movie Elektra.

Catwoman’s whole outfit is first revealed in a dance club where she is trying to seduce a man in order to kill him. She wears leather pants, a black leather bra and two belts that go diagonally across her abdomen. Her whole outfit is made for the sole purpose of distracting men and the whip that comes with it is used to seduce. The scene plays out as if Catwoman was in a strip club, the camera’s attention is on her, her body, and her movements only. In the fighting scenes, the camera often focuses on Catwoman’s breasts or buttocks. When fighting the robbers of the jewelry store, the camera focuses on her movements. However, those movements often involve spinning around and doing back kicks, and the camera clearly focuses on her buttock. In the fighting scene with Laurel Hedare, who is also wearing an extremely tight outfit, the camera is focused on her breasts. She is not presented as powerful, but as sexual, sensual and extremely agile. This agility is emphasized as the camera lingers on her buttocks and legs.

The first time Black Widow appears in The Avengers universe is in the film Iron Man 2. She is first seen from the viewpoint of Iron Man and his friend, thus a male viewpoint. As the scene progresses, Black Widow’s signature move in a fight, bringing down an opponent with her thighs, is established. Later on in the movie, when Black Widow changes into her superhero outfit, her breasts and bra are on display and the driver of the car she is in becomes clearly distracted. Showing her breasts is not to further the story but just to feed the male gaze. Throughout the fighting scene, the camera focuses on the tightness of Black Widow’s outfit by focusing on her buttocks and breasts. As Black Widow is reaching for the weapons she took with her, the camera lingers on her behind, an obvious example of how the male gaze is present in the presentation of Black Widow. Black Widow is presented as strong and powerful but also as very sensual, since she uses her body to seduce men before fighting them, as was the case in The Avengers. What these three characters, Black Widow, Elektra, and Catwoman, have in common is that “all these action heroines are displayed in ways that eroticise their gendered form – often precisely at the same moments they are demonstrating their active, capable physicality” (Purse, 79).

This does not happen in Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is portrayed as a strong and powerful woman who knows what she wants and does it on her own. As mentioned above, when her outfit is revealed, the camera does not linger on specific parts of her body or sexualize her in any way. In action scenes, the camera focuses on how powerful Wonder Woman is and not on how sexy or beautiful. There is even a scene where her thigh jiggles, and while this might not seem as much it is actually important. Wonder Woman is not fighting to look sexy for men; she is not fighting for the male audience to find her attractive, alluring, or sexy; she is there because she is strong and powerful and that means that her thighs jiggle.

The difference between Wonder Woman and Elektra, Catwoman, and Black Widow in Iron Man 2, is due to the directors and screenplay writers. Elektra, Catwoman, and Iron Man 2 are directed by men. Men observe women through the male gaze, which has now become clear in these representations of women, and objectify them, even if they do not realize doing so. Josh Whedon, screenplay writer of The Avengers, The Avengers Age of Ultron, and Justice League, wrote an earlier version of a script for Wonder Woman, which he eventually did not make. Looking at scripts for his Wonder Woman, it becomes clear that there is a difference that a female director, screenplay writer, or producer can make in reducing the male gaze in film. The first time Diana is introduced in Patty Jenkins’ movie is through the eyes of the other women on the island. Josh Whedon, however, introduces Wonder Woman in the following way:

To say she is beautiful is almost to miss the point. She is elemental, as natural and wild as the luminous flora surrounding. Her dark hair waterfalls to her shoulders in soft arcs and curls. Her body is curvaceous, but taut as a drawn bow. She wears burnished metal bracelets on both wrists, wide and intricately detailed. Her shift is of another era; we’d call it ancient Greek. She is barefoot. (Whedon qtd. in Rosa, par. 5)

It is clear that Whedon uses the male gaze to look at Wonder Woman. He focuses on her beauty and it becomes clear that Wonder Woman’s point of view is not used here. It is Steve’s point of view, used to look at Wonder Woman. Diana is objectified and sexualized before she has even said anything. Even though Whedon titled his movie Wonder Woman, his overall script is not about Wonder Woman but about Steve meeting Wonder Woman and how he is changing her. Whedon also worked on Justice League, featuring Wonder Woman and the Amazonian Warriors. Again, there is a lack of female influence, as Zack Snyder produced this film and Josh Whedon did the screenplay, and this shows in the portrayal of the Amazonian Warriors. When comparing the outfits of the Amazonian warriors from the Wonder Woman movie and the Justice League movie, it becomes clear that the outfits from the Justice League movie are highly sexualized and not functional as battle armor at all. The outfits are in essence a bikini top and a very short skirt. Their torsos are clearly visible, showing off their abs and their strength. The women are sexualized through their outfits as they draw attention to the physical beauty, and this is their only purpose since they would be useless in an actual battle. These outfits are catered towards the male audience. The difference a female director and screenplay writer can make in regards to the representation of women in film is thus critical.

To conclude, there is a significant difference between Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Elektra, and Black Widow in The Avengers universe, in the usage of the male gaze. Wonder Woman was directed by a woman and this seemingly has made all the difference. The male gaze is absent in Wonder Woman and Diana is not hypersexualized or objectified throughout the movie. She is presented as strong, powerful, and independent, and while still being beautiful, she is not there to entertain the male audience with her body. Because men in general view women through a male gaze, this gaze will also be present in movies directed and written by men. This was the case in Catwoman, Elektra, and for Black Widow, where the female superheroes were sexualized and objectified through the male gaze. To get better representations of women in film, especially in the superhero genre, women have to be included in making these movies, as directors, screenplay writers, or producers. Until this happens, the female audience will at least have Wonder Woman beating up Remus Lupin and the male gaze on screen.

Works Cited

Bowman, Rob, director. Elektra. Twentieth Century Fox, 2005.

Brown, Jeffrey A. Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture. University Press of Mississippi, 2016.

Devonport, Jess. “How Wonder Woman Stepped Away From The Male Gaze.” Film Reviews Movies Features BRWC, Battle Royale with Cheese, 22 June 2017, battleroyalewithcheese.com/2017/06/wonder-woman-stepped-away-male-gaze/.

Favreau, Jon, director. Iron Man 2. Paramount Pictures, 2010.

Giambanco, Gabriella. “How ‘Wonder Woman’ Destroyed The Male Gaze In Movies.” Thought Catalog, Thought Catalog, 3 Oct. 2017, thoughtcatalog.com/gabriella-giambanco/2017/10/how-wonder-woman-destroyed-the-male-gaze-in-movies/.

Ginder, Rachel. “On Wonder Woman’s Suit and the Male Gaze.” Literally, Darling, Literally Darling, 16 June 2017, www.literallydarling.com/blog/2017/06/16/47949/.

Jenkins, Patty, director. Wonder Woman. Warner Bros, 2017.

“Male Gaze.” TV Tropes, TV Tropes, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MaleGaze.

McNamara, Brittney. “Wonder Woman’s Thigh Jiggled on Screen – and It’s a HUGE Deal.” Teen Vogue, TeenVogue.com, 8 June 2017, http://www.teenvogue.com/story/tumblr-user-explains-wonder-woman-male-gaze.

Page, Aubrey. “The Joss Whedon ‘Wonder Woman’ That Never Was.” Collider, Complex Media, 2 June 2017, collider.com/wonder-woman-joss-whedon/#poster.

Pennell, Hillary, and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. “The Empowering (Super) Heroine? The Effects of Sexualized Female Characters in Superhero Films on Women.” Sex Roles, vol. 72, no. 5-6, 11 Mar. 2015, pp. 211–220. Springer Science + Business Media, New York City, doi:10.1007/s11199-015-0455-3.

Pennell, Hillary, and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. “The Empowering (Super) Heroine? The Effects of Sexualized Female Characters in Superhero Films on Women.” Sex Roles, vol. 72, no. 5-6, 11 Mar. 2015, pp. 211–220. Springer Science + Business Media, New York City, doi:10.1007/s11199-015-0455-3.

Pitof, director. Catwoman. Warner Bros., 2004.

Purse, Lisa. “Action Women.” Contemporary Action Cinema, Edinburgh University Press, 2011, pp. 76–93.

Rosa, Christopher. “The Unfinished ‘Wonder Woman’ Script by Joss Whedon Is Getting *Crucified* on Twitter.” Glamour, Glamour Magazine, 19 June 2017, www.glamour.com/story/unfinished-wonder-woman-script-joss-whedon-twitter?mbid=social_twitter_glamourmain.

Shepherd, Jack. “Joss Whedon’s Leaked Wonder Woman Script Labelled ‘Sexist’ by DC Fans.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 21 June 2017, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/joss-whedon-leak-wonder-woman-script-sexist-a7800571.html.

Wendroff, Jessica Ariel. “4 Wonder Woman Scenes That Could Have Been Very Different If They’d Been Directed by a Man.” POPSUGAR Entertainment, Popsugar, 26 July 2017, www.popsugar.com/entertainment/Wonder-Woman-Scenes-Werent-Overtly-Sexual-43607158.

Whedon, Josh, director. The Avengers. Marvel Studios, 2012.

Loïs Machelessen is an American Studies major from the Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. She identifies as bisexual, is a self-proclaimed feminist, and has an obsession with dogs. Loïs is planning on one day opening her own bookstore that specializes in feminist and LGBTQ materials.

Top Image: Film Still from Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins, 2017, Warner Bros.)