Wonder woman, feminist icon or bodacious fantasy figure?

Wonder Woman
Can Wonder Woman help female empowerment?
01:19 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Lewis Beale writes about culture and film for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and other publications. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Lewis Beale: The new Wonder Woman movie is out featuring hot looking, kick-butt heroine. This is what feminism looks like in 2017?

He says Jessica Chastain and others are right: Hollywood virtually ignores characterizations of strong, realistic women. That has to change

CNN  — 

Oh, goody. Now that “Wonder Woman” has attained a 93% positive score on rottentomatoes.com and looks like it will become a massive hit, we can look forward to an avalanche of overblown, CGI-driven comic-book movies featuring hot-looking, kick-butt heroines.

This, supposedly, is what feminism looks like in 2017?

Yep, Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, has long been touted as some sort of feminist icon, but in reality she’s just a bodacious fantasy figure created by a man named William Moulton Marston. And whether in her comic book incarnation or her ’70s TV persona – played by the extremely curvy Lynda Carter – WW has always been able to take care of herself- but also has been a major sex object.

What’s wrong with this picture? Just this. At the recent Cannes Film Festival, Jessica Chastain, a juror, decried the sexism she saw in so many of the nominated movies. And Nicole Kidman pointed out that last year women directed a vanishing few of the year’s top-grossing films. According to a recent study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University, just 7% of 2016’s top-grossing films were directed by women, down 2% from the previous year.

And even though female leads were more visible onscreen in 2015, comprising 29% of the leads in the top 100 movies, the percentage of female characters in speaking roles, both major and minor, was actually down slightly.

What Chastain and Kidman and other women (and many men, like yours truly) would like are films that showcase strong women – either real or fictional, but not comic-book creations basically geared towards a teenage-boy mentality.

Chastain, for example, recently starred in “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” the true story of a Polish woman who hid Jews from the Nazis. Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for portraying author Virginia Woolf in “The Hours.”Julia Roberts won her Oscar for playing environmental crusader Erin Brockovich. Angelina Jolie won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as a complex psychiatric patient in “Girl, Interrupted.” And so on.

It is summer, and Hollywood, no question, is particularly in thrall to comic-book adaptations, sequels, movies based on toys and games and franchise pictures, but we have a problem here that is year-round: the movie industry has practically forgotten, or willfully ignored, great female characters (and directors) who can provide realistic role models for young women.

And with young people flocking to the multiplexes, it’s beyond tragic that the worst kind of female objectification is being uploaded into the minds of another generation – boys AND girls – with few alternative film characterizations to act as an antidote.

Sure, every once in a while studios do come up with a winner like “Hidden Figures,” the critical and commercial hit about black women mathematicians working for NASA in the 1960s. But that film was also notable because it was an outlier – it once again proved that a film with a great story about real women can draw moviegoers of any age if a studio breaks with the narrow thinking of its business model and invests the money to make it so.

Potential abounds. Where, for example, is the big-budget biopic about Harriet Tubman, who was not only instrumental in helping slaves escape through the Underground Railroad, but during the Civil War actually led a military expedition that freed more than 700 slaves? You think that wouldn’t make for good cinema? You better believe it would. And it’s time.

Or how about a summer movie about Julie Krone, the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race? Plenty of action there. Or astronaut Sally Ride? Or high-powered, World War II spy Vera Atkins. Or Hall of Fame basketball player Nancy Lieberman, known as “Lady Magic,” in her prime, as good as half the guys in the NBA.

I could go on. One problem I should note (and another hill women must climb), is as far as Hollywood is concerned you can’t sequel, prequel and franchise these folks. They are standalone projects, and the studios don’t like standalones.

Why settle for that when you can go straight to the female hotties who can karate chop with the best of them – projects that can be endlessly recharged, for easy familiarity with non-discriminating audiences (can you say Lara Croft? “Resident Evil”?)?

The fact that they are just fantasies, that potential films about people like Krone and Ride are about real women who have achieved things that other women can aspire to, is something Hollywood has shown deep reluctance to promote. Which means that just because previous women-in-tights films like “Elektra,” “Catwoman” and “Supergirl” didn’t exactly make box office history, Hollywood will keep trying to find the femme super-hero formula that will make the big bucks.

The new “Wonder Woman” was directed by a woman – Patty Jenkins – but, given the subject matter, maybe this is not the sign of progress we were hoping for.

The solution to all this is obvious, but represents a big challenge. More women executives. More women directors, for sure (just look, for example, at what Shonda Rhimes – creator and executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy” – has done on TV for women’s roles). But beyond that, executives willing to take chances on movies that do not involve action-hero women—cartoon superheroes or otherwise. Heck, no one thought “Hidden Figures’ was anything special initially, but it grossed $169 million, nearly seven times more than its production budget.

And there’s this. It’s called parental responsibility. When you go with your kids, or send them off with their friends, to see movies like this – and I know not much can stop you from doing so – you need to explain to them what these films are really about.

The boys need to understand that these busty super-babes are not in any way what a real woman is (or wants to be) like, that they shouldn’t use them to measure other women and girls, and that the cartoonish portrayal on screen exists to send their young libidos into overdrive.

And your daughters need to understand that these are not the role models they should be paying attention to, that physical strength is fine, but some arbitrary standard for conventional beauty is about the least of what matters in this world – and that Hollywood only rarely cares to tell the stories of the brainiacs, the brave girls, the nerds, the achievers, the people like, say, the “Hidden Figures” women who have made a real difference in the real world.

But don’t let them believe that Wonder Woman is an empowered feminist.