Wonder Woman: feminist icon or symbol of oppression?

2024-04-24 11:15:50135

It’s been a busy – and controversial – year for Wonder Woman.

In October 2016, the United Nations made a curious appointment: Wonder Woman would be the global organisation’s new Ambassador for Women’s Empowerment, aligned with the launch of a new campaign to fuel Sustainable Development Goal number five, which aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030.

Wonder Woman: feminist icon or symbol of oppression?

The announcement, which coincided with Wonder Woman’s 75th birthday and a new Hollywood super-production about the comic book character, was met with a great deal of criticism.

While the fictional feminist icon has long been a representative of strong, liberated women, her Western appearance, sexualised image and unrealistic beauty don’t resonate with millions of young women around the world. They’re actually alienating.

Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress who plays Wonder Woman. Haaretz

Feminists skewered the decision. Was the UN implying that no flesh-and-blood woman was up to the task?

Over 44,000 people signed a petition resulting in “one less woman in politics”. Just as quickly as she’d got it, Wonder Woman lost her job.

What’s a feminist?

She’s still winning at the box office though. The film, released on June 2, has already brought in US$571 million worldwide.

Director Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman is being hailed as a “masterpiece of subversive feminism”. It is the first time since 1984’s Supergirl that a female superhero has anchored a film.

This woman-directed, woman-led film tells a story of justice, of a character who fights evil forces for the greater good. As Wonder Woman, Gal Godot overcomes the trite “damsel in distress” narrative and rescues her own damn self. But are we being overly generous with the feminist label here?

In a recent article, the Hollywood Reporter said that Warner Bros had created “what one might describe as a postfeminist Wonder Woman”, with Jenkins “temper[ing] the character’s traditional strength with vulnerability.”

Even Gadot, the film’s Israeli star, is quoted as saying, “Credit Patty for not turning [Wonder Woman] into a ballbuster” – not the most feminist of concepts.

Rather than represent real women, Wonder Woman satisfies the societal image of the ideal woman. Inhumanly strong, super sexy and bolstered by her exceptionalism, Wonder Woman is a “walking contradiction of the competing demands placed on women’s shoulders today”.

How many actual women or girls around the world can live up to Wonder Woman as a role model? Would we even want them to?

Is Wonder Woman really the model young girls need in this world? Pilar Olivares/Reuters

Also lacking in laudatory reviews of Wonder Woman is the idea of intersectionality – the acknowledgement that women’s multiple identities (not just sex but also gender identity, race, class, sexual orientation, religion and others) expose them to numerous forms of oppression.

Why haven’t feminists noted that the film is, quite simply, too Western and too white?

Meanwhile in Lebanon

In Lebanon, where I currently live and work, Wonder Woman was banned nationwide, upsetting fans, shocking civil liberties groups and raising concerns about government censorship.

The decision is based on the Israel Boycott Law of 1955, which prohibits economic relations with Israel, “an enemy state”, including with any “institutions or persons having residence in Israel”. Actress Gal Godot is clearly among them.

Lebanon and Israel have a long history of conflict (the most recent flare-up occurred in 2006), and Lebanon forbids its citizens from travelling to Israel. It also prohibits entry to anyone with an Israeli passport stamp and forbids the purchase of Israeli products.

More than a political disagreement, the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel-Lebanon explains, this is “resistance against occupation”, which is to say that the ban isn’t about Israelis or Judaism but rather about the government-supported Zionist project that has resulted in human rights violations against Palestine and the Palestinian people.

But enforcement of the law is uneven. Hewlett-Packard and Coca-Cola, supposedly banned, are actively operating here, and Lebanon has previously screened films featuring Israeli actors, including Star Wars (with Natalie Portman) and the Fast and Furious series (with Gal Gadot).

Nor is the Lebanese government consistent in supporting the Palestinian people. Palestinians here are routinely denied access to jobs, healthcare and citizenship. In Lebanon, popular sentiment on Palestine ranges from indifference and resentment to outright discrimination.

As the Lebanese researcher Halim Shebaya noted in a June 2 opinion piece, it would have been a much more powerful statement if the Lebanese people had refused to see Wonder Woman because it symbolised oppression than for politicians to make that decision for them.

If this ban was an act of solidarity, it’s unlikely that Palestinians here or elsewhere saw it that way. Letting the film run and then donating the proceeds to support Palestinians living in Lebanon – perhaps to Palestinian women’s organisations – would have been read more clearly as solidarity.

Remembering intersectionality

Lebanon’s dubious ban and Wonder Woman’s dubious feminism may seem poles apart but the two are, in fact, related – because of intersectionality, of course.

In both the Arab region and the United States, there is a growing debate about whether feminism and Zionism are compatible.

One camp claims that they are, a position that the Sarah Lawrence College student Andrea Cantor laid out for the Huffington Post earlier this year.

“Israel is more than a government” she wrote. “It is a country that allows trans people into the army,” and has “progressive stances on women’s and LGBTQIA’s rights”.

Lebanese women protests against Starbucks in 2002, accusing the US company of supporting Israel. Jamal Saidi/Reuters

The other side questions that notion. Linda Sarsour, a prominent Palestian-American activist, has been an outspoken proponent of the view that you can’t be a Zionist feminist.

As an Arab woman raised in America, I don’t so much question the choice of Gal Gadot to play Wonder Woman – because, in point of fact, Hollywood rarely denies actors roles because of their beliefs and moviegoers hardly care – but her elevation as a global feminist icon. Is it appropriate that an outspoken Zionist – a woman who supports the idea of a national identity rooted in another’s national erasure – should become the emblem of powerful Western womanhood?

In the end, despite its efforts, Wonder Woman merely exposes the dominant narrative of white women’s feminism and the global indifference to Palestine’s plight. Its failures to challenge the status quo are too important to ignore, because a feminism rooted in oppression is no feminism at all.