Wonder Woman: Polarizing Fan Division Mirrors US Politics?

There’s been a lot of talk about the new Wonder Woman movie. We went to see it opening weekend, and I thoroughly enjoyed it for many reasons, not the least of which was watching a superhero movie which featured a female star. You’ll probably find more elegant analyses elsewhere. I wish I’d kept track of some of them because they made me fist pump the air and shout ‘yes!’ when I read them. And there was a truly beautiful piece on Tumblr, which of course, since I didn’t reblog it, I can’t find now, but fans chimed in with the bits that moved them, each building on the other impressions and reactions to the film. I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but it won’t be easy.

My husband asked me as we left the theater if I wanted to run around punching bad guys or go to the gym. I thought about that for a moment.

“Yes.” I nodded. “I feel like I could, at any rate.”

He said he wasn’t surprised. That’s usually how he felt on leaving some testosterone-fueled summer blockbuster. Lord knows, he has a LOT more of those to choose from.

While I enjoyed Wonder Woman very much, will probably see it again at the theater, and have every intention of buying a copy when it comes out on DVD, it wasn’t perfect. It was a superhero movie, which means in places very simplistic, with over-the-top bad guys, and slightly predictable plots. It wasn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen, but thoroughly entertaining, nonetheless. I’d seen Guardians of the Galaxy 2 a few weeks before, and I have to say, I enjoyed Wonder Woman more, even though I’m a huge Marvel fan.

Much has been made of the importance of this movie to women–seeing a female lead in a genre typically given over to men. How many significant female characters are there in most action/superhero movies? If you’re lucky, maybe one, though Marvel did a great job with including more women in GOTG2. Bottom line, women in action movies are usually someone for the hero to rescue, or her death is the motivational trigger for the hero’s journey.

Some people like to point out this isn’t the first time we’ve had female leads in our entertainment. After all, Wonder Woman was a 70s television show.There was the Bionic Woman and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I watch Supergirl now–and (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the penultimate episode to the season finale) I know some people were taken aback by the fact that Supergirl sent her boyfriend, Mon-el, to safety while staying behind to prevent his mother from successfully invading Earth. And he went. The season finale was remarkable in that all the people in charge and making decisions about the safety of the planet were… women. I didn’t even notice that at first, until my husband mentioned it.

We also had the short-lived Agent Carter, who galvanized nearly every female fan I know with Peggy’s iconic line, “I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion of me really doesn’t matter.” Fans have embraced this line as a personal mantra in the forms of bracelets, T-shirts, necklaces, and even tattoos. The kind of demeaning disregard for her abilities that Peggy Carter dealt with at the end of WW2 is recognizable to many of women in the workplace today as something ongoing, that must be battled daily. As too are the negative lessons we’ve learned throughout life: from our parents, from society, from our peers. Being able to recognize we hold inherent value is hugely freeing for many women, as is the moment when Elsa releases her powers in Frozen.

Science fiction is better in general about depicting diversity and equality among the sexes, which is probably why I have been a die-hard fan my entire life. I was fortunate to have grown up in the 70s and 80s, when women’s rights were improving. Believe me, it was a shock when I discovered that as recent as the late 70s, women still had to have the approval of male family member to open a bank account or rent a car. Think about that for a moment.

So the Wonder Woman movie, with a female lead and a female director, did some great things. Gal Gadot pulled off a nearly impossible feat, depicting a Diana both naive in some respects, but confident in her beliefs, unwilling to back down because something might not be safe, walking into a fight against hopeless odds because it was the right thing to do. She was sexy without being sexualized, for which I give the director, Patty Jenkins, full credit. Drawing on real athletes to depict the Amazons was sheer genius, giving the right amount of realism to their scenes. I think there could have been more women of color, especially in roles other than nursemaid to a young, recalcitrant Diana. (I like to think because Diana was so valued in the community, this job was considered both a high honor and a curse) I don’t think we need even casual storylines where powerful, white woman turn the rearing of their children to women of color. I also believe that with so many women turning out to see a female lead, more were hoping to see something of themselves as well.

There were other aspects of the movie they got right, though. Sameer, wanting to fight but being prevented because of his color. Chief, a Native American displaced by Steve’s ancestors, making ends meet any way he can. Charlie, with his PDST that made him nearly useless as a sharpshooter, but they kept him around anyway. I was surprised–and pleased–that there was no neat bow attached to resolving his condition, as I had expected.

And let me say here it was no mean feat for Chris Pine, a fine actor in his own right, and having carried the weight of the Star Trek franchise on his shoulders when he took on the role of Kirk in the 2009 Star Trek movie, to do what he did in Wonder Woman. He did an amazing job of being exactly what he was–a love interest and supporting actor. Bravo, Mr. Pine. Well-done.

But the thing that makes this movie different from every other venture before it is that it was financially successful. More than successful, it smashed records. THAT is ultimately what determines whether we get more of the same. It belied the notion that people won’t go to see a movie with a female lead (along with Rey in The Force Awakens, and Jyn of Rogue One–but these were more ensemble pieces than WW). It means that Hollywood might finally recognize women will gladly pay to see more than romcoms and that we make up a bigger part of the audience than they realize. And that a movie with a female lead can appeal to both men and women.

I can’t tell you how frustrating it’s been as a die-hard sci-fi fan to hear producers cancel shows because they aren’t capturing that highly prized demographic: young men ages 18-24. Let me tell you, they don’t make up the majority of the crowd at sci-fi conventions. They weren’t the ones buying calendars, mugs, graphic novels, and photo ops with their favorite stars. Many of them don’t have the discretionary income of the older fan, in particular, the middle-aged woman who loves cosplay. Who can afford to travel, or is an obsessive collector, who in other words, does NOT fit the magic demographic but has money to spend.

In many ways, fan reaction to Wonder Woman has been more interesting to me than my own. Only like with The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and the new Star Trek show, Discovery, a certain kind of fanboy is raising a ruckus, complaining of the invasion into his sacred space, railing against the introduction of women and people of color as more franchises follow these leads. If you’re not familiar with GamerGate or the targeting of the Hugo Awards by the Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies factions, I’ll summarize here: there is a subset of fans who want to see sci-fi and fantasy return to the ‘old school’ they grew up with. White, male heroes, standard ‘spaceship battles’, no POC in key roles, women relegated to love interests or victims only. Perhaps I’m overstating my case, but I think not.

Another example of the protest against diversity was the howl of outrage that went up when The Force Awakens didn’t have a white male lead. When Rogue One followed suit, demands for a fan boycott of Star Wars went out. (That went well, by the way. TFA  was the fastest movie to gross one billion–only 12 days. RO did the same in 39 days…)

More recently, some Star Trek fans are wailing about the trailer for the new series, in which the leads appear to be women of color. They called it no less than “white genocide in space.” Their anger over the casting–in particular, the failure to have a white male captain–and subsequent complaints over the ‘terrible direction’ the franchise was going led original cast member George Takei to take them to task over it.

I was both surprised and saddened over this kind of fan reaction. C’mon guys, have you seen Star Trek? It’s like the most diverse show ever! A black woman, an Asian men, and a Russian (during the time of the Cold War)–all bridge officers on a show taking place in the late 60s. Spock was of mixed race. Heck, the Vulcan philosophy was ‘Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.’ It was the first show to depict an interracial kiss (even if it was only because the Aliens Made Them Do It), and they tackled weighty issues such as racism, ageism, and more. Yes, the original series was in some ways as sexist as hell, but it was written at a time when WOMEN COULD NOT RENT A CAR OR OPEN A BANK ACCOUNT WITHOUT MALE PERMISSION. To even have women bridge officers was amazing. To have a black woman in a role as someone other than a maid or cook even more so.

So when the same kind of trolls began complaining about the ‘women only’ screening of Wonder Woman in Austin, TX, I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised some New York lawyer would file a complaint against the theater, however. It’s not like the theater was ONLY going to have women-only showings. There were more opportunities for men to attend than that one (or two) women-only showings. But a guy in New York didn’t like the theater’s ‘uppity’ attitude about it on Facebook, nor the mayor of Austin’s support for the idea, so yeah, complaint filed.

That’s when it occurred to me that this rift in sci-fi and fantasy fandoms is so much more than the old-timers protesting against the new guard. It’s more than some disgruntled geeks saying you can’t possibly be a Marvel fan unless your playpen was lined with old Spiderman comics and you teethed on the entire catalog of the Fantastic Four. It’s more than a protest against girls in the boys-only clubhouse.

It’s our current political climate in microcosm.

It’s a bunch of fans who are angry at having to share with people that aren’t like them. It’s fanboys who’d rather trash the playground than to let ‘the other’ in. When you have privilege, it’s hard to see that letting others be equal doesn’t diminish your privilege in any way. Frankly, I don’t see any difference between those that call themselves ‘real fans’ versus those that call themselves ‘real Americans’. It’s the same sort of destructive mentality that denies the very foundation of the thing they profess to love.

Hey, I get that your fandoms are important–even lifesaving–to you. They’re important to me too. There are days when seeing something fandom related online or knowing I have a show or movie to look forward to seeing is the only thing that gets me through a crappy day. I have scores of fandom friends who share stories, artwork, and squee over our favorite characters and shows. It’s what makes life more than just going to work so you can try to pay the bills.

But women, POC, people with different sexual orientations or of different religions–we’re not the bad guys here. It seems to me that a sci-fi fan would understand that better than almost anyone else, so it hurts when I see fans get up in arms about diversity and equality. It hurts, but it makes me angry, too. We’re all in fandom because we need something from it. We need the strength of our heroes. We need the courage of their convictions, to do the right thing when it may cost us more than we can bear. We’re all pre-serum Steve, before he becomes Captain America, and Peter Parker, before the radioactive spider bite.

We’re that tech guy in the Triskelion who has to decide what to do when ordered to push the button that will launch the Insight codes. The good guy refuses to do it, even though he knows he will probably get killed for refusing to implement it. He’s literally shaking with fear, but he refuses because Captain America told him to stand up for the right thing.

Be the good guy.

I read somewhere once that every villain sees himself as the hero of his own story. These days, I’m seeing far too many people who think they are Captain America, when they are really Red Skull. Who insist they are Diana Prince, when in reality, they are Dr. Poison.

There is an ugliness to political discourse in this country I don’t think we can ignore. It would be nice to sit here writing my lightweight romance stories and never think twice about politics again. But we’re being forced to fight for our rights and, in some cases, our lives. Even the planet.

I’m not leaving fandom. I’m going to continue to read, write, and play there. I’m also going to vote my conscience, and protest against what I see as being wrong and unfair, and to stand up for anyone I see needing help to the best of my ability.

And yes, dear husband, I’m also going to the gym.

 

Tell me what you think!