There’s been a fun feud going on over the past couple of days between James Cameron, the director of the two highest grossing movies of all time (Titanic and Avatar), and Patty Jenkins, who helmed the biggest superhero movie surprise hit of the year, Wonder Woman.
When asked what he thought of Wonder Woman, Cameron was not exactly complimentary, accusing the movie’s main character of being too beautiful and optimistic, and of lacking “grit”, which is apparently a necessary requirement of a female action hero.
After calling the movie “a step backwards”, Cameron stated that the better way to make strong female characters that resonate with audiences is to do exactly what he did with Sarah Connor, a crucial character in the Terminator franchise.
“Sarah Connor was not a beauty icon. She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit. And to me, [the benefit of characters like Sarah] is so obvious. I mean, half the audience is female!”
Patty Jenkins wasn’t particularly pleased with Cameron’s remarks, and has hit back against them, arguing that no, actually, women can be both pretty and badass at the same time.
Female characters, says Jenkins, should be “free to be multidimensional”, which means there’s more than one way of getting the whole thing right.
— Patty Jenkins (@PattyJenks) August 25, 2017
So who’s right in all this? Is James Cameron the best judge of female characters, with his preference for hard-bitten, deeply flawed women who aren’t literally beauty queens (Gal Gadot was Ms Israel once upon a time)? Or is Patty Jenkins right to argue that there’s more than one way to create a believable female hero in movies?
There is merit, to some degree in what James Cameron has to say. He feels that women in movies should be allowed to be flawed, which is something we don’t always get to see – too often, the Strong Female Character trope involves a woman who is beautiful and great at everything, and super cool, without any notable flaws.
This kind of characterization is bad for female representation – it perpetuates the myth that women are somehow otherworldy and special and beautiful, and films with this type of writing often fail to do anything meaningful with their Strong Female Characters because there’s no genuine depth to them.
Besides, this kind of character is exceptionally boring.
So, as Cameron points out, there’s a place for imperfect female protagonists that are cut from a different mold to Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. This, however, doesn’t mean that Wonder Woman as a movie is quite as much of a step back as Cameron may claim.
As Jenkins notes, her version of Wonder Woman is a symbol of hope and power. Diana Prince, as portrayed by Gal Gadot, is the kind of stalwart, unshakably good and honest superhero that little girls (as well as movie fans of all ages and genders) can get behind.
This feels all the more important considering that the rest of Wonder Woman’s Justice League friends (we’re looking at you, Superman) are all so joyless and bitter, uncharacteristically grumpy at the merest action of having to save other people’s lives as if they’re somehow above all this.
So now, Wonder Woman doesn’t give the world a gritty, dark, deeply flawed female character that challenges gender stereotypes. Instead, Patty Jenkins’ movie embraces a form of femininity, stating proudly that women can be good and virtuous and heroic – even in ways that the men of this particular world fail to be – and celebrates the notion that some people really do want to try and help to make the world a better place.
Is Wonder Woman ideologically perfect? No – but that’s Patty Jenkins’ point. Her movie doesn’t need to be the definitive word on female led narratives, because in an ideal world, we’d get a lot of different types of women in key roles within stories.
There’s room for Sarah Connor and Diana Prince to exist side-by-side in the pantheon of worthwhile female heroes, and attacking various different representations of feminine power won’t necessarily help the issue that women are chronically under-represented in big budget movies.
That said, let’s not shut down this discussion instantly – so long as everyone involved is thoughtful, respectful, and eager to listen, there’s a lot that we can gain as a culture from debating the portrayal of women in the media.
Hopefully, if we keep talking about this, it’ll filter into Hollywood movie discussions, and we’ll get some pretty cool female-led movies in the near future that explore different aspects of what it means to be a woman.