When I went to see Batman vs Superman with some friends last year, the last thing I expected were tears. My expectations, to be completely honest, were low. But it wasn’t bad writing that made me cry. And, come to think about it, there’s only one thing I remember about that entire film anyway:
I have two brothers and, maybe as a result or just because my personality turned out that way, I’ve never been extremely girly. When I was young our parents struggled for money and the only thing we could afford to do regularly as a family was rent a video. So I grew up watching Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T. and Jurassic Park on good nights, old black and white war films when it was my dad’s turn to pick. I don’t doubt that this shared activity is one reason I love films. It’s also probably why my favourite toys were Lego, a homemade light-saber and a box of art supplies (crucial for making said light-sabers).
My parents treated me the same as my brothers and so roles or differences in ‘gender’ were alien to me. I was happiest wearing my pink dressing gown and waving my loo-roll light-saber like a pro. I was a fierce frickin’ Jedi and I asserted my authority by kicking my little brother’s ass in battle on the daily.
I always thought I was really lucky on the childhood front because I was allowed to be completely myself. I couldn’t miss it, because I’d never had it, but seeing Wonder Woman on screen showed me what I’d been denied. Something all the little boys had had. Something I wished I’d had too.
There was a strong, female character in a position of power. She wasn’t harnessing the might of something else (like X-Men’s Storm) or using words and cunning to get out of trouble (Star Wars’ Padme). She was wielding a weapon – a long, hard, phallic one – and that symbolism wasn’t wasted on me either. But I was confused by my tears and the strength of my emotional reaction to a fight scene.
Needless to say, I was madly excited for the first female-led (and female-directed) DC superhero film. I sincerely hope the execs at Marvel are crying tears of regret for ignoring half the population. In return, I will waste only three words on them: suck on that. Wonder Woman is storming box offices worldwide and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
But what I have noticed is that many women reacted the same as I did – with tears. And, most often, during that first incredible fight scene. It wasn’t just that it was a woman leading the action, but the way she did it. Over and over again, tough women are celebrated for having typically ‘male’ traits; courage, resilience, leadership, determination. They’re called tomboys – an abnormal, manly phase we’re expected to grow out of. Strong women in film aren’t allowed to be strong women, they’re women who are worthy because they act how society tells us men should behave. The celebrated way to behave.
Take, for instance, Alien’s Ripley. She’s tough but she’s also extremely androgynous in appearance. In the second instalment, her distinctly female characteristics, namely her maternal instincts, are portrayed as the flaw that puts her in danger. She’s our hero just as long as she acts as a man would.
Enter Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Undeniably feminine in appearance, her female form only uncovered for the necessity of battle. She is fierce. She changes the stakes and takes control of her future. She acts on empathy and compassion to save lives. She is curious and willing to learn, but she constantly opposes her male co-star and follows her heart rather than his cold logic. These traits – beauty, empathy, emotion – commonly associated with the female sex as weaknesses, are for once shown as strengths. They’re upheld as courageous and strong.
My brothers had an endless supply of macho, fearless heroes to look up to and empower them*. What was on offer in the pink section of the toy store? Barbie, miniature kitchens and plastic babies. It’s no wonder I was a tomboy when womanhood appeared so unappealing.
I cried during Wonder Woman because finally, finally, we were told it was not just ok to be a woman. We were told it was strong to be a woman. To be empowered in one adrenaline-fuelled scene and see just how much had been missing from our childhoods… It was the validating, encouraging fist-bump we never had. It was permission.
That is why so many of us cried. We cried for the strength we always knew we had. We cried to see it recognised on the big screen. We cried when we felt how empowering it was. And so we cried for the little girls we were and we cried with relief and joy for the little girls to come. Because Wonder Woman is the heroine we deserved. And she’s the heroine we need.