You know what I mean by a “strong” or “badass” female character. You’ve watched her on screen a thousand times. As she puts on whatever gear she wears—a black bodysuit, tiny shorts and a tank top, a cape and tall boots—the camera pans up her body in shots meant only for men. She punches and kicks her enemies. Just when it looks like they’ve forced her to the floor, she wraps her legs around their bodies and flips them using only the strength of perfectly toned thighs. She wipes the blood off her bottom lip and smirks. She’s a man’s idea of a female hero.
Which is why many women are hoping Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, will introduce a new archetype for female action heroes when it hits theaters this weekend. The film will be the first in which a female superhero has led a story since Elektra and Catwoman, and though Wonder Woman, a.k.a. Diana, does have a history with BDSM imagery, she’s never been as overtly sexualized in media as them. Greg Rucka, the writer of Wonder Woman Rebirth comics, tells Glamour, “Many people have this concept of Wonder Woman as virginal, wrapped in bubble wrap and in lucite-encased perfection.” His Diana, whom he co-wrote with artist Nicola Scott, expresses interest in dating both men and woman, and she’s an equal partner to her boyfriend, Steve Trevor.
Diana also does something that her female superhero and supervillain contemporaries—Black Widow, Harley Quinn, Jessica Jones, to name a few—haven’t done yet: She tries diplomacy over violence every single time.
We haven’t seen Gal Gadot’s version of Wonder Woman as a sexual character yet—Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) comments on her beauty in Batman v Superman, but it’s her power on the battlefield that really knocks his socks off. Of course, a sexy female hero who can also fight well isn’t a new concept. In fact, it’s a very old one; franchises built for men typically include one or two female protagonists in a group, though these characters are essentially just combatants with large breasts. It’s the Ms. Pacman problem, in which male creators simply slap a hairbow or long eyelashes on a male character and call the comparison equal. What made Wonder Woman so unique was that her creator intended her to stand apart from the big superheroes at the time. In a 1943 essay, Wonder Woman creator William Marston called her “a feminine character with all the strength of Superman, plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”
Greg Rucka says that definition has evolved considerably. What marks Wonder Woman for him is a certainty that he says Superman (Clark Kent) and Batman (Bruce Wayne) don’t necessarily have. “Bruce goes out every night trying to keep what happened to 8-year-old him from happening to anyone else,” Rucka says. “But he’s always in conflict between Batman and Bruce Wayne.” Rucka adds that Superman is the same way, juggling between two identities, having been ejected from his home world and sent to Earth. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, is only one person and always has been. “Diana had paradise and could have been content there, and she left it for us,” he says. “She’s not going back. She can’t, so she attempts to make our world paradise.”
And unlike other female superheroes, Diana doesn’t enjoy beating people up. In fact, her fans aren’t really supposed to enjoy watching her physically dominate a villain either; you’ll notice even in Wonder Woman trailers that her physical moves are aimed to incapacitate or subdue violent enemies. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the DC extended universe, Superman is under international fire for killing thousands, and Zack Snyder’s Batman snaps necks and mounts guns onto the Batmobile. Wonder Woman’s core strength is in her reluctance to use it.
What’s more, Wonder Woman is accustomed to women looking and thinking in conflict with her, which differs from the current female superhero line-up in Marvel and DC movies; only one woman of color, Suicide Squad’s Katana, has appeared in superhero films, and she spent her movie crying and not interacting with other characters. Nicola Scott, the artist on DC’s Wonder Woman Rebirth comics, says diversity in Wonder Woman’s homeworld is very important. “Greg [Rucka] and I knew Amazons were all women, obviously, and that they’d be fit and strong women, but we wanted to portray women of all ages,” she explains. “We didn’t want a bunch of supermodels hanging out on the island. You can be any shape and size and still be strong and fit—women’s Olympic teams of any country look different, though they’re all in peak condition. We decided to make Amazonians appear that way, too.” It’s only when Wonder Woman arrives in our world that she discovers men prefer a certain type of woman: either sexual or demure, but all subservient.
So what does this mean for women watching action movies? Wonder Woman suggests that a new role exists somewhere between the Bond girl and the damaged, bloodthirsty living weapon. Diana, coming from Themyscira and raised in a world without constricting women’s garments and the patriarchy, is more liberated than the human women she meets in her stories, but she never had to drag herself out of a proverbial hell hole to get there. Ugliness in the world is disturbing to Wonder Woman, rather than thrilling or familiar, and she experiences guilt when forced to hurt others.
If Wonder Woman convinces us that Diana has a place in action films, we may be on the verge of a new dawn for female characters. The ones that will undoubtedly follow Wonder Woman aren’t sexy killing machines; they’re simply women with character weaknesses who make mistakes and try to reason with their enemies.
And, like Wonder Woman, if all else fails, they’ll be able to stand up for themselves, even if that means sexily flipping some dude onto his butt using only their thighs.