What Is A 'Strong Woman' Anyway?
Hit film director James Cameron caused controversy recently with his comments about Hollywood's portrayal of women in general, and of Wonder Woman specifically. He called the Wonder Woman movie “a step backwards” for women, and said that the character was an “objectified icon”.
His comments have largely been laughed at, given what a success Wonder Woman has been and how much women have loved the movie. Director Patty Jenkins responded that “James Cameron’s inability to understand what Wonder Woman is, or stands for, to women all over the world is unsurprising as, though he is a great film-maker, he is not a woman,” and one feels that she has a solid point there.
This discussion got me thinking – why is it that Cameron, who is known for featuring tough women in prominent roles in his films, objected to Wonder Woman? And what is it that we mean by a 'strong woman' anyway?
Who Are The Strong Women?
The most obvious answer to this question is a literal one: a strong woman is one who is physically capable, able to lift heavy weights or to fight hand-to-hand. There are certainly plenty of examples of kick-ass women in movies, from Cameron's Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 and Ripley in Aliens, to Letty in the Fast and the Furious franchise.
On the other hand, there are plenty of physically strong women who are written in a sexist or demeaning way. Zach Synder is the master of this, with his films like Sucker Punch which show tough women fighting and kicking ass – while dressing them like little girls and angling the camera up their skirts. I'm not buying this as an expression of women's strength when it looks so much more like a male fantasy.
Another issue is the way that some male directors like Joss Whedon love to show women being super-humanly physically capable, but only on the condition that they appear to be tiny and delicate (consider Buffy Summers, River Tam, and the MCU's Natasha Romanoff). God forbid a 'strong' woman should have visible muscles, lest they appear unattractive to the (straight male) audience.
Portraying Physical Strength In Women
You'll notice that it's expected nowadays that a male actor who is cast into a superhero role will buff up for the part. Just think of the change of cuddly comedian Chris Pratt into chiseled muscle man for Guardians of the Galaxy. He wasn't even playing a character who has super strength! Don't get me wrong, this emphasis on unrealistic bodily perfection causes a great many issues for men too, but that's not the focus here. What I'm wondering is this: where are the buff women?
Think about it: when was the last time you saw a woman on screen who looked like a muscled athlete? The only examples since Xena that I could come up with were Gina Carano playing Angel Dust in Deadpool, and Ronda Rousey playing Kara in Furious 7. Both of these women are highly regarded MMA fighters and have the kind of muscle definition you would expect from someone who is supremely physically able. Not coincidentally, they both put in awesome fight scenes in their respective movies which were a delight to watch. However, they both have minor roles and they both play characters who are firmly evil. I can't help but think that, consciously or not, filmmakers queer code muscular women as inherently aberrant and untrustworthy.
When it comes to Wonder Woman, poor Gal Gadot got dropped right into the middle of this mess. When her casting was first announced, many people complained that she was too thin for the role. In fact, a major complaint leveled against her was that her boobs were too small to play Diana – clearly, the fanboys were focusing on the important aspects of the character. On the other hand, DC execs specifically advised Gadot against getting too buff during training for her role, because they wanted her to look soft and sensual. This is the impossible line that all women must ride, but actresses especially. Look strong, but not too tough; curvy, but not fat; capable, but not intimidating. I feel exhausted just thinking about it.
What About Psychological Strength?
It's obviously limiting to say that 'strength' only means physical prowess. This definition would exclude women who bravely face hardship, or who overcome difficulty, or who achieve great things from being called strong, and that's clearly reductive. There's a whole other category of female characters whose strength is psychological in nature: think brave Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, determined teenager Mija in Okja, or the women of Hidden Figures who overcome racism and sexism to bring their mathematical genius to the Space Race.
There are a million ways to define strength in the broader sense, and I feel that this is one reason why the term 'strong woman' is so fraught and why people constantly argue over who gets to be called strong. Certainly, female characters should be allowed to have faults, to struggle, and to make mistakes, without this detracting from their perceived strength. No one wants to watch movies in which female characters never face any kind of difficulty or have any kind of problem. Cameron alluded to this when he said that what made Sarah Connor distinctive was that “She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit.”
However, we also don't want to see women put through horrendous experiences just so writers can prove how tough they are for surviving them. Think of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which purported to be a story about women's resilience and strength but which was so full of brutal misogynistic violence that I found it unwatchable.
Wonder Woman is a power fantasy for women. We neither want nor need to see Diana broken down and abused to enjoy seeing her become a hero, and I'm suspicious of the view that says women need to be hurt or damaged in order to make a good story or to be considered strong.
Physicality, Femininity, & Attractiveness
The way we talk about women's strength and physicality inevitably ties into the issue of attractiveness. Indeed, what sparked off Cameron's original comments was that he saw Gadot's Wonder Woman as a “beauty icon”, unlike his character Sarah Connor who was not. Now, to some extent I can see his point, in that one of Diana's qualities seems to be the ability to look ethereally gorgeous at all times. This is even sent up in the film when the characters are trying to go undercover and they give Diana a pair of glasses. “Specs, really?” asks Etta. “And suddenly she isn't the most beautiful woman you've ever seen?”
To flip Cameron's comments around, however, I'd challenge his assertion that Sarah Connor isn't a beauty icon. Actress Linda Hamilton is obviously a very attractive woman (and presumably James Cameron would agree, given that he married her). Sarah as a character isn't defined by her beauty, and she absolutely has a role in her movies that has nothing to do with her sitting around and looking pretty – and the same is true of Wonder Woman.
It's frustrating that discussions which purport to be about women's strength inevitably end up at a discussion of women's attractiveness. You can argue that this attractiveness makes sense for Diana's character – she is a literal goddess, so of course, she is stunningly beautiful. But Diana isn't (just) supposed to be pretty, she's supposed to be intimidating too. One of my favorite artists for Diana is Darwyn Cook, who draws Diana so tall that she stands above even Superman.
I would have loved to see an on-screen Wonder Woman who was as physically large as her comics counterpart. As such, my favorite scenes in the film were set in Themyscira, when we saw a society full of powerful women of different body types and races training together and mastering physical skills. However, I can't fault Gal Gadot for the way she embodied the character; from the way she moved to the way she spoke, she portrayed Diana with a steely determination and a physical grace that was spot on. Griping about her body type seems unfair when she did such a terrific job as an actress.
The real problem is that Wonder Woman, like all women, is expected to be attractive first and foremost, above and beyond all other qualities including her strength. Even a goddess can't escape sexism.