While Marvel movie fans have been eagerly awaiting a Black Widow movie, DC has stepped up and released the first big-name superhero movie to star a woman in quite some time. Released on June 2nd, Wonder Woman has a lot of expectations to live up to.
Originally designed as a symbol of the suffragette movement, Wonder Woman is often regarded as a symbol of feminism. Though her original design may be questionably titillating, the ideals of feminism have changed over time, and Wonder Woman's character design and personality has changed with them. Now, she's not only a highly skilled fighter, but an incredibly empathetic and morally upstanding person who finds it hard to walk away from anyone in need.
In the new movie directed by Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman is born Princess Diana (Gal Gadot), on the small magically concealed island of the Amazons, a seemingly immortal race of only women, who fled ancient Greece to escape their enslavement. Sculpted from clay and granted life by Zeus, Diana grew up the only child on her island, and so was already fairly sheltered by the time American soldier Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes through the magical barrier concealing her island.
This could easily have been a problematic plot-point. Science fiction and fantasy have had a history of fetishizing naive or isolated women, creating a fantasy in which an average man becomes the smartest, strongest, kindest example of his sex in the eyes of a woman who's never met a man before. This trope has been recently recognized by the TV tropes website and named "Born Sexy Yesterday."
Coined by Youtube’s “Pop Culture Detective Agency,” this trope is described as involving a woman with "the mind of a naive yet highly skilled child, but in the body of a mature, sexualized woman." It often centers around androids or other synthetically created women--who literally were “born yesterday”-- such as Leeloo from The Fifth Element or Quorra from Tron: Legacy, but can also be applied to women who have been isolated from society in one way or another, such as Altaira Morbius from 1956's The Forbidden Planet or almost any of Captain Kirk’s love interests from the original Star Trek series. Though currently it’s most often found in science fiction and fantasy, the trope is really an offshoot from one in which white men discover indigenous women and must show them the ways of “civilized” society.
The problem with this trope is that it fetishizes a power difference between the man and the woman (examples of this trope with the gender roles switched are extremely rare and are often played for laughs). The women are often portrayed as little more than children, yet in sexualized bodies. It’s often used as an excuse for the woman to disrobe in front of men because she “doesn’t know better.” Since so many of them have never seen a man before, the leading man becomes the most amazing man they’ve ever seen by default. The man is often a completely average one, often socially awkward or in some way unable (or unwilling) to have a lasting relationship with a woman who’s his equal. Average knowledge such as how faucets work or how to find your way around New York make him seem smart and worldly to the woman born yesterday.
Which brings us back to the Wonder Woman Film. Diana has lived an extremely secluded life, growing up the only child on a magically concealed island made up entirely of women, and could easily fall into the “born sexy yesterday” trope. The difference here is that, while she does share a love story with the leading man and he does have to teach her how to behave in the outside world, the focus is not on their relationship but on Diana’s own personal struggles with morality. If anything, the romance is downplayed to give more attention to Diana’s character arc. Diana is never portrayed as a child in a woman’s body, however socially unaware she might be, and is never actually sexualized or objectified. In fact, she’s incredibly headstrong and refuses to be talked down to, often ignoring Trevor’s advice when her own code conflicts with it. They often butt heads on the battlefield when they disagree about the best way to handle a situation, and neither of them are portrayed as right or wrong--the takeaway of the movie is that morality is not black and white, and war especially is wrought with shades of grey.
In the end, it is Trevor’s love that gives Diana the strength to defeat the evil war god Ares, in a way. In another way, it’s the concept of love itself. At the height of her moral dilemma, she’s realized that evil does not come from any outside influence, corrupting the hearts of man, but was in the hearts of man to begin with. She looks over at her little battalion as they embrace each other and prepare for the end, and she thinks of Trevor standing up for what he believes even in the face of such evil, and she comes to the conclusion that only love can conquer evil. She did love him, but she could have come to this conclusion without him, as her platonic relationships with the other battalion members were just as real and honest.
Her relationship with Trevor was entirely set on even ground. In the beginning of the movie, being a man in WW1, he tried his best to guide her through London and show her the ways of the world, often coming off as patronizing. Yet it’s only after they go into battle together and fight as equals, and he finally stops looking at her as a child, that she initiates the relationship. Though she’s only dealt with men for a short time, she already knows how they work, and nothing happens that’s not on her own terms.
At a Glance: