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The Problem with Wonder Woman

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013 | Posted by Jon Sprunk

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman-smallWonder Woman is my wife’s favorite superhero, and for good reason. The character is powerful, dynamic, and she isn’t afraid to throw down with evil villains. While I didn’t read the comic, I’m old enough to remember the television series with Linda Carter. I also knew the character from The Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon back in the day.

Every few years, rumors emerge from Hollywood about a Wonder Woman movie or show in the works. We hear about the possible casting choices, and then it goes away for a while. Meanwhile, movies about male superheroes are being churned out as fast as possible.

Recently it was leaked that actress/model Gal Gadot (left) might be cast as the legendary Amazon princess in the next Superman movie, and the internet went ape-poop.

At first I didn’t understand why. Then I read the various comments floating around, most of which had to do with Ms. Gadot being too skinny for the role. Which, of course, started debates about how much muscle mass she could pack on with the right trainer, comparisons to Hugh Jackson, et cetera and so forth.

At first, I thought to myself that it doesn’t matter who they cast; just making the @%#^$* movie. After all the travails this comic juggernaut franchise has encountered on its trek through Hollywood, I just want to see the ball rolling. Heck, it couldn’t be any worse than Daredevil or Green Lantern, right?

However, all this talk of the “right” person for the role reminded me of other conversations about female characters, especially in fantasy lit. On one hand, most consumers want their heroines to be beautiful. Wonder Woman is not just strong and handy with a lasso, she is the ideal of feminine beauty as well. Tall, pretty, perfect teeth and hair, busty with an impossibly narrow waist — these attributes are actually an albatross around the character’s neck.

Red Sonja 1-smallWait? What? Jon, you’re off your meds. How could super hotness be a curse? Now you sound like those “pretty” chicks who complain how tough their lives are when everyone constantly fawns over them.

Bear with me. Beauty cuts both ways for female characters. Sure, there are the obvious advantages, but in genres where the strongest and toughest rise to the top, being pretty isn’t heroic. Pretty is the prize that gets claimed by the hero. Female pulchritude is viewed as something to be hoarded and protected.

The problem isn’t that attractive women can’t also be strong and kick butt; it’s that they aren’t taken seriously even when they have the chops to do the job. Red Sonja was depicted as an unbeatable swordswoman, but all the male villains smirked at her. “Aw, isn’t this cute. She’s gonna fight me. That’s just adora— ugh! I’m dead.”

No wonder Sonja was always in a bad mood. She never got any freaking respect.

So what’s the solution? Cast a bigger actor as Wonder Woman?

In George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, Brienne of Tarth is described as big, stocky, and not very pretty, but she kicks butt with a sword. For the HBO series, they cast Gwendoline Christie, who is quite fetching, but they “rough her up” for the series, turning her into a plain-looking woman with a mannish figure.

I’m not convinced that movie-goers would embrace a “plain” Wonder Woman, but I think they are eager to see heroines of different sizes. Five-foot-nothing and a hundred pounds may have worked for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Wonder Woman isn’t a tongue-in-cheek play on traditional roles.

Wonder Woman 164-smallShe is a traditional role. An archetype of the first order. And she deserves respect.

When it comes to protagonists, I’m of the opinion that beauty doesn’t equal power. Power equals power. In fantasy, just as in superhero comics, the heroine must be able to grapple with the enemy, often with violence.

It bothers me to no end when a book cover shows a cutesy, skinny woman in a ridiculous costume (usually tight leather pants and a belly-baring shirt, with at least one tattoo) trying to look dangerous. Strong women exist in the real world, so there’s no reason for them to be excluded from the entertainment industry.

So, studio execs, if you’re casting a sheltered princess who uses flowery sonnets and batted eyelashes as her primary weapons, sure, go with the pretty chick with perfect teeth. But if you want me to believe the character is a warrior who prefers using bare knuckles to settle her conflicts, then ditch the waifs. Physical hardiness can be beautiful, too, and you’ll have the added benefit of producing something that actually looks believable.

To quote Madonna, beauty’s where you find it.


Jon Sprunk is the author of the Shadow Saga (Shadow’s Son, Shadow’s Lure, and Shadow’s Master) and a mentor at the Seton Hill University fiction writing program. His next epic fantasy series begins in March 2014 with Blood and Iron.

11 Comments »

  1. Jon,

    Interesting post. But I don’t know about critiquing Gal Gadot for being too skinny. I get where you’re going — why not have a hero who looks a lot more like a warrior? — but Wonder Woman has a secret identity, right? The whole POINT of a successful power fantasy is that a person who looks weak and helpless is secretly the strongest in the room.

    I loved Spider-man comics as a kid (still do). And what appealed to me so much at the time was that he didn’t have a chiseled physique like Batman or Superman. He was a scrawny high-school kid. No one would ever suspect Peter Parker of being a superhero, because in his civilian identity he looked as powerless as they come.

    My fourteen-year-old daughter is very skinny, and comics like Wonder Woman (and BIRDS OF PREY, her current DC favorite) really appeal to her. Red Sonja, not so much… Sonja is a warrior woman, and she both looks it AND acts it. My daughter can’t identity with that.

    A producer who casts a warrior woman as Wonder Woman is making a fatal mistake, I think. A woman who cannot convincingly project vulnerability and helplessness when needed can’t really capture an essential element of the power fantasy at the heart of the most successful comics. I don’t know if Gal Gadot can act, but looking at the pics I’ve seen, she certainly seems capable of that.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 25, 2013 4:50 pm

  2. Although I never read the comics, I remember the TV series. Who could forget the invisible plane? Clearly modern audiences will have different expectations, but I actually think the actress in that series was well-cast, being believable in both her roles as a nerdy scientist and as an Amazonian. She wasn’t defined by her looks, being pretty rather than drop-dead gorgeous, or by her physical prowess, having various utensils to help her.

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - December 25, 2013 8:22 pm

  3. There’s some weird vibes about gender coming off this piece.

    “Now you sound like those ‘pretty’ chicks who complain how tough their lives are when everyone constantly fawns over them.”

    You probably shouldn’t just toss off a line like that if you want readers to take your views on gender seriously.

    It just seems like there’s a weird false dichotomy being posited here where beauty and toughness are seen as mutually exclusive.

    “The problem isn’t that attractive women can’t also be strong and kick butt; it’s that they aren’t taken seriously even when they have the chops to do the job.”

    If the character is done well, the audience will take her seriously. Think of The Bride (or any number of women) in Kill Bill, or Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Think of Ripley from the Alien franchise, or Trinity from the Matrix films. Those are just off the top of my head.

    As for Wonder Woman, the mighty Nicolas Winding Refn has expressed interest in the project; if he does end up making it I’ll be very excited. Apparently he wants Christina Henricks for the role; I think she’d be great.

    Comment by Golgonooza - December 26, 2013 10:43 am

  4. Maybe so, but there’s a reason why, say, the Olympics divides competitors on the basis of gender. I think asking the audience to believe that a 120 pound woman can take out an equally well-trained man twice her size in a physical fight is a big ask – even the force with which a kick can be delivered is very much dependant on bulk and strength. A script or a storyline will need to work very hard to make those kind of conflicts credible, all the more so if your female mc is beautiful as well. Why would her looks be an issue? Because standard conceptions about feminine beauty (like it or not) are based on a woman having a willowy, hourglass figure, a physique that just isn’t compatible with such roles. Such casting seems to be more about providing teenage boys with some eye-candy – what I’d call ‘Seven-of-Nine Syndrome’ – than promoting positive role models of women as men’s physical equals.

    I’d qualify that by saying it would very much depend on what type of fighter the woman is: I can buy a women with an epee in a world where men are armed only with broadswords. I’d think she’d kick ass. I can buy a woman gunslinger. Hand-to-hand fighting? I’m sceptical. That isn’t sexism. It’s just being realistic.

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - December 26, 2013 11:03 am

  5. Golgonooza,

    The “pretty chicks” line was sarcasm aimed at myself. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

    It sounds, though, as if you’re agreeing with me. Except for The Bride (which was a gag character), the other actors you mentioned are all suited to their roles. (Sigourney Weaver might have made an awesome Wonder Woman.) Which is what I’m saying. Hollywood needs to stop assuming that “super-slim-runway-pretty” is a proper default setting for women actors, especially in the fantasy and superhero genres.

    I’d have the same problem if they cast Brad Pitt as Conan. Not going to work for me, although I think he’s a great actor and obviously good-looking.

    Comment by Jon Sprunk - December 26, 2013 1:50 pm

  6. Mr. Sprunk,

    Hollywood and the fashion industry prefer women that look like adolescent boys for rather obvious reasons. Men who actually like women, however, find a broad range of female body types attractive, including athletic women. Unfortunately, many view feminine beauty and feminine strength as being in opposition. The hysteric opposition to Olympians posing in bathing suits is the most prominent example of this. The actress for Wonder Woman should be tall and athletic just like the comic book character.

    Comment by Tyr - December 26, 2013 2:33 pm

  7. “My fourteen-year-old daughter is very skinny, and comics like Wonder Woman (and BIRDS OF PREY, her current DC favorite) really appeal to her. Red Sonja, not so much… Sonja is a warrior woman, and she both looks it AND acts it. My daughter can’t identity with that.
    A producer who casts a warrior woman as Wonder Woman is making a fatal mistake, I think. A woman who cannot convincingly project vulnerability and helplessness when needed can’t really capture an essential element of the power fantasy at the heart of the most successful comics. I don’t know if Gal Gadot can act, but looking at the pics I’ve seen, she certainly seems capable of that. ”

    By that logic, my heavier than average nieces couldn’t relate to a skinny Wonder Woman, nor would I, when I was a teen, have been able to relate to Batman or Superman because I didn’t weigh more than 130lbs until almost graduating high school. (at almost 6ft, I’m rather slim)

    The problem here is Wonder Woman IS an Amazonian warrior princess, and I believe that she needs to LOOK that way. Superman could look like an emaciated starving alien, but he doesn’t. He can look both powerful and vulnerable. He needs to project what seemingly appear to be opposing aspects. (I would recommend looking up Frank Quietly’s art in the way of handling the difference)
    Or- better yet- have you seen the movie Warrior? Those guys exude both power and emotion. That’s the job of acting. They need to look the part, then act the emotive parts- make us believe they are real. As for Miss Gadot, I’m not sure. She was only mediocre at best in the Fast & Furious films. My worry here is Snyder will bring her down to the level of one of his Sucker Punch girls instead of creating a big screen role model for modern girls.

    This will sound fairly awful, but Wonder Woman needs to look like she can take a punch from Superman. She can be beautiful and look physically strong with some heft- muscles and athleticism should be seen. I can only suspend disbelief so much, and I can’t believe watching a 100lb actress take on a bunch of beefy brute baddies. Until she does, she doesn’t “look” right. I mean how often to you see unrealistically petite women “kicking ass” and it looks ridiculous? (note: Ripley and Lisbeth are of a different type of strength that don’t require appearing physically imposing.)

    I can however wait to reserve further judgement for her until I’ve seen her in the role. (I see the argument often that they can “train” for the role, but all the names brought up are males, I’ve simply NEVER seen a female bulk up in any film as males have in action movies.) Who knows, maybe Snyder and Gadot will pull it off. Until I see the changes, I remain skeptical.

    Comment by MrJoshua - December 26, 2013 3:07 pm

  8. “I’ve simply NEVER seen a female bulk up in any film as males have in action movies.”

    Well, there’s Linda Hamilton / T2, but apart from that, I can’t recall anyone else.

    Sandahl Bergman, Brigitte Nielsen, Grace Jones – in the eighties, the mold for a mainstream actress was not as constrictive as it seems to be these days.

    Comment by Dr. Inknstain - December 26, 2013 5:57 pm

  9. “Well, there’s Linda Hamilton / T2, but apart from that, I can’t recall anyone else.”

    True, but she looks more leaned out than bulked up. Miss Hamilton somehow looked thinner in T2, despite the muscle. She still looks like she could kick my ass though.

    Comment by MrJoshua - December 26, 2013 6:10 pm

  10. I’ve read Wonder Woman for several years; from Gail Simone’s run, through Straczynsky, and the New 52. I consider myself a fan, and I am bewildered by the choice both conceptually and ideologically.

    Conceptually, the casting choices they have made for Batman and Superman have been not just unexpected, but also seemingly calculated to create anger among long time fans. I was willing to take Ben Afleck with a grain of salt, the man can direct, but Gadot seems almost random aft6er Warner Bros. reached out to many female actors who were fan favorites. Are they trying to create buzz? Do they have some master plan to reinvent DC comic movies? Those are the only exp[lanations that make sense.

    Ideologically, I have a problem with casting a former beauty pageant contestant as Wonder Woman, no matter what she looks like. It seems anti Feminist to cast a model, rather than an established actor who can bring the proper gravitas to the role.

    I agree with many of the above comments, that male actors often change themselves for a role. I believe this is done because we it is easier to mold a talented actor’s physique to fit a role than to make someone who already looks the part give a good performance. I think I would rather have a wonder Woman that can act the part, rather than someone who just stands there looking good in tights, or pant, or whatever. Gal Gadot has not had enough speaking lines to convince me she can do this.

    Comment by darangrissom - December 26, 2013 7:31 pm

  11. True, but she looks more leaned out than bulked up.

    In general women don’t bulk up. They can, however, get a lot stronger. It’s pretty common for action movies these days and does a lot to sell it. Biel in Blade 3 comes to mind. Compare Rhona Mitra’s physique in her action movies to any of her non-action movies.

    Looking at what Gadot has done before, she doesn’t look like an obvious pick, but hopefully she’ll transform for the role.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - December 27, 2013 2:32 pm


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