No Man's Land: Attending the All-Women Wonder Woman Screening
Listen, I’m not sexist. Some of my best friends are men. I think patriarchy is poisonous to men as well as women. I care about men. But when the Alamo Drafthouse announced its screening of Wonder Woman with no men in the audience or on the staff, I wanted to cry with happiness. Right away, I bought tickets for my best friend and me.
At first, the majority of guys responding online were cool with it, even excited, but as always there was a very vocal group who thought we’d all like to know that they were adamantly opposed to the idea. It got nasty. I felt awful. The reason I wanted to go wasn’t because I wanted to protest the idea of men or promote segregated screenings everywhere forever. I wanted to go there for one simple reason - to relax. Sometimes a safe space doesn’t have to be safe, it just has to allow you the freedom to take a deep breath. Men, I live in your presence every day. I play equality all the time. As a genre film fan, I have sat next to you hundreds of times, occasionally as the lone woman in a busy theater. You laugh at rape scenes, you look down our shirts, you loudly have annoying conversations, you sue us for texting, you are always looking and expecting. So many of you are well intentioned, but you defer to other men, your eyes glaze over when a woman talks, you might think you’re listening but you aren’t absorbing. You don’t trust what we say, our every sentence feels to you like a question that must be rebutted and explained. That skepticism in your voice that you don’t want to admit is there? We hear it. We pretend we don’t notice where your eyes are traveling, but we know. We have to act as though these things don’t bother us in order to keep our jobs or our relationships or our lives intact. Maybe we give you the benefit of the doubt when you say “wow you look so much sexier with that haircut”. Maybe it is with good intentions when you rush in to take over a small task because you don’t believe we can handle it. You merely think you’re being helpful.
Even though we may know that most of you don’t seek to actively harm us, when we are in public we can’t know which of you is safe. It takes work to live with this. It takes work to be a wall. It takes strength and energy that we shouldn’t have to expend to let these tiny things roll over us like waves and remain standing. We get tired. We needed two hours.
I know there are plenty of women who heard about this screening and thought it was stupid, even offensive. You thought, why segregate us when we want to bring people together? Who cares if men are allowed, shouldn’t they be able to go wherever they want? What about the decent men in my life, are they also to blame? Maybe you hate feminists, maybe you are a cool girl who gets along better with men. I will gently say that some of your annoyance may be misguided or ask that you support the women who feel differently even if you don’t approve. I may think you’re wrong, but deep inside myself there is a little dark tumor of envy. I know that you have figured out how to survive this patriarchy unscathed, and I imagine you were sleeping peacefully all the nights I laid awake worrying about whether someone at work would harass me the next day. How do you do it? How do you walk the same streets as I do and interact with the same sorts of men and not let the million little things bother you? How do you let it roll off, where do you get your indifference? What life have you led where you have never been affected by the oppression that threatens the rest of us? What is it like to live without ever feeling so smothered, so small?
The screening itself was a little different than I’d expected. A group of mini-Wonder Women were posing for photos outside the front doors of the theater, employees were dressed up in tiaras and cuffs, the roar of bubbly voices rendered my conversation inaudible. I had prepared myself for something ecstatic and wild. During the movie there was cheering and applause, but not the excited vibration of a concert that I had dreamed up. The energy was mostly pleasant and relaxed. Comfortable. When Diana wryly remarks on the uselessness of men for pleasure, it provoked the biggest reaction of the audience, so loud that I missed the following couple of lines. No fear of offending anyone present, no need to reassure a partner later that of course she wasn’t laughing at him. Afterward, I mentioned how odd I thought the overall lack of rowdiness was to my friend, and we briefly speculated but couldn’t come up with an answer. It wasn’t until she texted me later that it made sense - she said maybe that’s the whole point. Folks, it was normal. That night should have been nothing special, not an oddity or abomination causing an uproar. Wonder Woman should have happened a long time ago, and we should be allowed to gather together without fear of inducing an avalanche of outrage. The night was nothing more than a loving appreciation for an experience long overdue.
Diana’s story is a coming-of-age tale. Though her actions in the film largely revolve around a man, he is there primarily as a step in her path to maturity and understanding. She connects with him because he represents something bigger about mankind. Within Diana’s story is a truth about womanhood and our relationships to men. She discovers the complex ways that men are good and evil, and though the film is simplistic in worldview, what matters most is the refreshing optimism and devotion to empathy. The moments where Diana screams or cries with the deep pain of watching the gap between her idyllic world and cold reality closing are for me the closest the movie comes to real, true feminism. Women face a moment in their lives when they first comprehend what their changing bodies mean to the world. Men are no longer merely fathers or brothers, they can also be predators. When Diana tries on human clothing and awkwardly attempts to move and kick in the oppressive fabrics, this too is a relatable hurdle. Along with the changing body and confusion comes society’s expectations, all before you are old enough to figure out just why anybody cares what you wear. Why do I have to wear a dress? Why can’t I climb trees with the neighbor boys or swim in my underwear anymore?
Maybe Etta, Steve Trevor's secretary, saw something in Diana’s face that made her question why she had to imprison herself in her binding clothes each morning, and at what point youth left her. This started to make sense. Diana awakens to what men are capable of in much the same way a teenage girl starts to view her place in the world differently. Her decision not to crumble or turn to darkness is what’s inspiring. While her jaunt across the battlefield is undoubtedly powerful, it isn’t until she makes the choice to remain on the side of good that she fully transcends from merely ass-kicking tough chick to a true superhero. Her power is not only the ability to conquer and win, but to see the worst in people and still decide that as a whole, they are worthy of her protection.
Overall, this is the best of the modern superhero movies I’ve seen. Coming from someone who has sometimes enjoyed but never fallen in love with the corporate hero machine, that may not mean much, but I did enjoy it. So often Wonder Woman works splendidly, but it’s still trapped within the confines of the multimillion dollar Hollywood blockbuster. For every moment of pure aesthetic beauty, there are ten moments of bland CGI landscapes. Her politics are presented in simple, easily digestible bites - a nod to women’s suffrage, a comment on corsets. For all her quips about women being relegated to inferior roles, she seems to have little trouble accepting it as a fact of society and moves on. There is no exploration of the complexities of the feminist movement beyond “girl power!”
Far too little time is spent on Themyscira, the only point in the movie where sisterhood feels tangible. Black women are barely represented on the island, and Earth’s ragtag group of male companions are broad racial stereotypes. The only woman who is anything above a size 2 is the dowdy, somewhat ditzy comic relief. There are so many small things to pick on, and frankly, I’m glad. Just as I hope legions of young women and children are inspired by Diana’s strength and devotion to love and goodness, I also hope many women challenge the movie’s motives and messages. It’s only through this critiquing that we can figure out how to do better. For what it is, Wonder Woman is a success. The pieces it got wrong must be acknowledged, but the pieces where it deftly avoided disaster should also be appreciated. If superheroes are to be a dominating presence in our media culture, I’m thrilled that this door has been opened for new perspectives. They will never be perfect, as at heart they are still a product to be consumed, influenced mostly by the boardrooms of straight white men that influence everything else. Patty Jenkins did the best that she could have done with what she had, and it must be said that no man could have pulled this movie off. Not only because it needed a woman’s sympathetic eye, but because Jenkins understood how much was riding on her performance. She made a monumental effort to overcome a script so clearly written by men, to focus her camera on Diana as a person rather than an object in order to make up for the fact that so much of the runtime is devoted to male characters. For all the issues I had with it, the thing that buoys me is the hope that every child who sees it might envision a world in which they are capable of more, and believe that they deserve better. They need to find what Wonder Woman did well, and then demand more of it for future incarnations of their hero.
To be a feminist, especially one who is involved in the entertainment world in any capacity, means playing a game of what you’re willing to sacrifice. There’s a lot of settling for “fine” when you know you deserve “great”, asking yourself which projects are worth your time and money, trying to define what progress means to you. I want more women directing movies. I want them to make blockbusters and have huge paydays. The comic book zeitgeist shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, so we might as well push for some diversity. We need new voices and perspectives. It’s complicated. For me, this meant briefly supporting a mega corporation, but I begrudge no woman for refusing to give in to this. Each time a supposedly feminist movie starts a fresh debate, I struggle to convince myself to be overwhelmed with happiness, to not let my disappointments take over the power of this fleeting victorious moment. I don’t want to be the naysayer, especially now, when positivity feels so out of reach. Even though the injustice of waiting so long for a thing as simple as a superhero movie stings, and even though it has arrived imperfect, I have to take some comfort that progress is being made. I had an extremely positive experience at this event, and I remain optimistic, but it never feels like enough. Two hours of sisterhood in a theater, one night of energy and love, one night to recharge, one night to relax, a brief moment in which we may dare to hope. How can that still seem like too much?