There’s a reason Gloria Steinem chose Wonder Woman for the first cover of her groundbreaking feminist publication, Ms. Magazine. The first female superhero called into question gender constructs that had long been considered fact: That men are stronger than women. That strength is purely physical, violent, dominating. That women can’t do the jobs historically assigned to men.
Forty-five years later, on the heels of a potential first female president’s loss and in the early days of an administration that looks at women as little more than fetus incubators, Americans still want to overthrow these gender norms — and they're hungry to, judging by the more than $100 million dollars that the female-directed film adaptation earned in its opening weekend. But while women expected to (and certainly did) cathartically engage in the historical experience of watching a woman display superhuman strength to physically save not only her love interest (for goddamn once) but the whole world, it was perhaps not the most resonant aspect of this film’s treatment of Wonder Woman. The most profound takeaway for many was, somewhat ironically, not the display of female superhuman power itself so much as the way that power allowed Wonder Woman to express the humanity women are rarely permitted.
Female moviegoers watched Diana Prince plainly express disgust over injustice in the context of a society that still fails to acknowledge that the injustices women commonly endure are, in fact, real at all. There are seemingly endless quotidian ways in which women’s experiences, from pain to mere existence in their bodies, are doubted. Doctors still underestimate, and frequently dismiss, female pain. Accusers of sexual harassment are still discredited, especially when the men they accuse are powerful. Women’s bodies are still regulated in rooms full of white men.
And then there are the incidents of physical violence — the kind that would seem particularly worthy of superheroine intervention. One in five American women will be raped in their lifetimes, and yet it is the violent crime least reported to law officials. This is in no small part because women are still routinely blamed for the violence that is committed against them. They are asked, “What were you wearing?” and “How much were you drinking?” That is, if their accounts are believed at all, as women are only permitted credibility if they perform a certain role: If they unfailingly maintain a rigid, powerless gender role in the face of the injustice committed against them. If they perfectly perform victimhood. Perhaps this is why even though the vast majority of accusations that are reported to law officials turn out to be true (rape has the same rate of false reporting as any other type of crime), the vast majority of perpetrators do not go to jail. Of course, this is only available for women who inhabit certain bodies: Generally, women of color and non-heterosexual or cisgender identities are completely erased from even this paltry narrative of justice altogether.
Wonder Woman presents the hope of a world in which this performance, this careful avoidance of reactions to injustice that are unquestioned coming from men, is not necessary. This is most evident in the film’s opening on Themyscira, a beautiful island inhabited purely by burly yet ethereal and diverse women who spend their time training for combat. Their bodies are for doing, not viewing; the only gaze there is female. The only injustice present is the looming threat the (male) god of war poses to disrupting their status quo. Once men enter the picture — namely, Diana’s soon-to-be companion Steve and the German soldiers who follow him onto the island’s shores — Diana’s righteous rage blooms. Wonder Woman’s plain fury at the death and destruction wrought by the world war that Steve leads her into is cathartically palpable. First, she boldly articulates rage at the room of white men orchestrating such damage for their own political gain, before plunging headfirst into the war itself, determined to actually fight soldiers on the ground, despite her male companion’s warnings of the futility of doing so. Her forceful charges into violence are emboldening, from the pure finesse of her superior combat skills to, notably, the pure joy she seems to take in her own physical power. She does not question her ability, let alone apologize for it. She just gets shit done.
Perhaps even more impactful, Diana reclaims female humanity with a constant air of compassion and without making a capital-p Point of doing so. She constantly displays empathy for Steve and his compatriots without ever kowtowing to them, or sacrificing an ounce of her strength or leadership. Her subtle blank stare in return to Steve’s persistent reminder that he is an “above average” man cuts to the very heart of thousands of women’s daily attempts to decipher the unfounded confidence and assured superiority of the men in their lives. Her matter-of-fact declaration that men are essential for procreation but ultimately superfluous for pleasure serves a similar purpose for female viewers. Though her presence in a room full of white, male politicians causes them great and obvious discomfort, she hardly notices their distress, opting to speak out and (gasp) calmly question their authority. She cries when leaving her mother behind and defends the power of love to the villain she goes on to defeat. As MTV News’ Amy Nicholson noted, the film “doesn't screech to a halt to deliver big speeches about feminism. It wouldn't occur to Diana that the world needs to hear the obvious, at least not yet.”
Wonder Woman, like most other superhero movies, is ultimately an escapist experience. But while predominantly male audiences normally look to Batman and Superman to escape the ways in which they fall short of their stereotypical gender roles — to vicariously live them to their fullest — female audiences can ironically look to Wonder Woman as a way to escape theirs altogether. Wonder Woman’s physical strength and her ability to save the day are inspiring, but her ability to remind audiences both male and female of women’s humanity is revolutionary.