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How Patty Jenkins secured a future for female heroes in the action genre

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Patty Jenkins turns 46 today, after this year becoming the first woman to ever direct an American studio superhero movie, and being only the second female director in history to command a budget of over $100 million.

The reality of Hollywood is that it is a field dominated by men, and the superhero genre is even more so. Jenkins is a real-life superhero, forging through patriarchal obstacles and establishing her success unapologetically, much like the superhero that secured her a place in the history books.

Much of the reason for Jenkins’ success with Wonder Woman is down to her integrity. It allowed her to turn down projects whose narratives betrayed her purpose, and led her instead to a project over which she could have control and tell the real story, the way nobody else could have. Rather than succumbing to the well-rehearsed formulas that have made Marvel and DC movies such a success in the last decade in particular, she utilised other principles to steer this project into becoming the highest-grossing movie ever directed by a woman.

She brought to the table new principles of peace, love, and compassion that the genre had previously cast aside, preferring the overly used sequences of white males repeatedly throwing punches at one another. Patty Jenkins was only drafted onto the project after being originally rejected for the job, once the first choice of director left over creative differences with the studio.

The talks surrounding Wonder Woman began as early as 2005, and Jenkins initially didn’t secure the directing job with Warner Bros. because her vision for the heroine’s narrative did not correlate with the studio’s. This very strength and integrity allowed her, the second-time round, to hold fast to her conceptualisation of the superhero, and create something truly different and beautiful.

“Fighting does not make you a hero,” her mother, the Amazonian queen, tells a young Diana. In some ways, this might make the entire premise sound hypocritical, since Diana preaches peace and for the downfall of god of War, yet exists within a genre that requires her to fight. Yet once again Jenkins steps in to ensure the film stays true to both the core of the heroine and to the comic book. She ensured Gal Gadot’s choreography was defensive, never hateful or destructive, setting her apart from her male peers in the genre, who are often portrayed to enjoy the act of exerting brute force in damaging and lethal ways.

Jenkins’ open embrace of the heroism and optimism characteristic to 1941’s Wonder Woman, ensures her 2017 portrayal would stay true to her original purpose. William Moulton Marston created Diana Prince to be an allegory for the ideal leader, one who led through love over force, and for the kind of women whom he believed should run society. A creation of the second World War, part of her purpose was also to inspire hope and faith, at a time when violence, cruelty and death was all around. And in many ways, the political and social climate today has these themes in common with the early 1940s.

Therefore, Jenkins’ decision to remain faithful to Wonder Woman’s optimism is key to her success, and makes her movie a beacon of light over other recent superhero productions. Jenkins could so easily have ceded to the bleakness that has plagued DC, but instead stuck to her vision: “I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love…who believes in the change and betterment of the world”. And that is precisely the spirit and purpose of the superhero genre, that has somehow been lost as it became such an intrinsic part of popular film culture.

Criticism arose from online communities in particular, from individuals who found that Diana’s appearance was contradictory to her status as a feminist icon. Her outfit has been criticised for being too revealing, which some believe is perpetuating the idea of female characters as products of a patriarchal system that designs them for the male gaze. Once again Jenkins jumps to her hero’s defence: “When people get super critical about her outfit, who’s the one getting crazy about what a woman wears? That’s who she is; that’s Wonder Woman”.

In the lovely dress-up montage during which Diana must find civilian clothing to wonder the streets of London in, she complains of each outfit being impractical to fight in. It’s a scene that undermines the casual sexism displayed when calling her out on her attire, and legitimises her choice of clothing once in battle. In my opinion, sticking to the original costume is about reclaiming the character, and rejecting the idea that her appearance is intended for the satisfaction of men. This isn’t objectification anymore. It’s a cultural reset that celebrates the female body for its strength, and that is a feminist act. 

The turning point of the movie celebrates this. In a sequence that Jenkins had to fight to keep in, Diana defies orders to stay in a trench and instead braves the way through No Man’s Land, to go and rescue a village of starving innocents. This scene, when she steps out in her legendary outfit, and becomes Wonder Woman, is the pinnacle of the entire movie.

This is a woman who will not obey men, and takes agency over her own destiny. It’s symbolic of what not just what Diana can be, but of what everyone can be. It’s representative of a belief in people’s ability to inflict good change on the world. Once again Jenkins’ bright optimism shines through an otherwise grim context. She allows Wonder Woman to hold the camera and the audience for longer than a female superhero has ever been given the chance to; the scene isn’t about the enemy, the conflict, or the people in the trench. It’s about her.

Another key moment of the movie is the opening scene, as we witness Amazonian women of every age, race and build, training, through the curious and gleeful eyes of a young Diana. The first act, set on Themyscira, has a cast of entirely women shown to be capable and complex all at once, something that’s unfortunately still a rare feat particularly in the superhero, or even more broadly the action genre.

Also, Jenkins from the beginning quashes a recurring issue with movies about warrior women, in which violence against them can become gratuitous. A strong and seemingly unbreakable woman in the action genre can be somehow liberating for violent misogynist propensities. Since she’s unbreakable, there’s no need to feel bad about the violence perpetuated against her. From the first act Jenkins destroys this trope when Diana’s aunt Antiope, military leader of the Amazon women, is murdered during an attack on the island. Violence has consequences, and this movie will not use it, nor will it allow it to be used, needlessly.

Having grown up in such an environment, Diana has no concept of gender roles, has never encountered sexism, so is oblivious to it. Jenkins utilises this to expose everyday acts of sexism in society as observed through her eyes, which therefore appears so much more absurd than often does when witnessed by women who have been brought up experiencing ingrained misogyny and are therefore desensitised to it. This is also what allows for Wonder Woman’s ‘show, don’t preach’ approach to feminism to be so impactful.

The film isn’t just about displaying feminism through the acts of women, however. It’s also an exploration of gender politics. Steve Trevor is permitted to be simultaneously funny, brave, and emotionally complex. He is aware of Diana’s intellectual and physical superiority, and celebrates this, instead of being emasculated by the concept of a woman being better than him in his field.

Patty Jenkins’ portrayal of Steve Trevor is a change to represent masculinity with feminist ideals. As Bell Hooks writes on this topic, for too long has patriarchal society taught men that “their sense of self and identity… resides in their capacity to dominate others… But they must also have a clear vision of what feminist masculinity looks like”, for how can you become what you can’t imagine? Jenkins embraces yet another rare opportunity to present audiences with alternatives to the status quo.

Jenkins’ battle against sexism isn’t contained just within the cinema screens. Her own experiences in Hollywood too reflect the industry’s sexism. In interviews, she often describes the lack of opportunities given to female directors. She’s been described as a “gamble” for being put in charge of such a big-budget movie, despite her successes with Monster, which had grossed seven times its budget and won Charlize Theron an Oscar and a Golden Globe.

She’s also very aware that any mistake made would likely result in the end of her career, whereas male directors such as David Ayer, Zack Snyder and Martin Campbell, respectively the directors of major DC flops Suicide Squad, Batman v Superman and Green Lantern, have not had their career prospects affected.

Because only 7 percent of the 250 highest-grossing domestic movies of last year were directed by women, which most dishearteningly presents a 2 percent decline from the year prior, the spotlight is put on any female director, as if their failure or success would be representative of how well other women would fare in the same position.

Even in high-ranking film roles, such as producers, editors and writers, women only represented at 17 percent, which once again is a decrease since 2015. As Jessica Chastain stated in Cannes, the way women are represented in film will only change once women are telling the stories. Therefore, throughout her career, Jenkins has been fighting institutional sexism and the assumption held against her that hiring a woman is a risk.

Superhero movies starring women had precedent in 1984’s Supergirl, Catwoman, and 2005’s Elektra, none of which were successful. This fact that has been used for a long time to excuse why female heroes are so underrepresented in DC and Marvel productions, and why efforts weren’t being made to rectify this. And whilst things are changing, thanks to female-led movies like The Hunger Games, Mad Max: Fury Road or even Ghostbusters, there was still immense pressure put on Jenkins to ensure Wonder Woman was a success.

It didn’t get to be just a movie, for it was the first female-directed and female-led superhero production, which saddled Wonder Woman with the task of proving that such a film could be profitable. Somehow the future of blockbuster films with female leads would rest on this one movie; its failure would negatively impact the chances for female directors to be entrusted with big-budget films, and of stories being told with female leads.

Jenkins, well aware of this, sadly acknowledges that “anything I do could take down half the population of the future aspiring directors”. And it’s with this burden on her shoulders that Patty Jenkins successfully directed the best hold of any American superhero film in over 15 years.

What she and Wonder Woman proved about the industry will hopefully inspire change in the future. It undermined the established belief that the audiences for superhero movies, primarily young men, were not interested in the stories of women. Women in this genre were still being treated as a niche audience, until Wonder Women hit the big screen. The audience for Wonder Woman was 52 percent female, and therefore proved that 48 percent of men were indeed interested in female heroes.

Somehow this was a revelation to Hollywood executives. A film and television revolution is undergoing, as we’re witnessing in the recent successes not only of Wonder Woman, but also of Get Out and Hidden Figures. People are clearly craving diversity, in in the age of Netflix and Amazon, when cinema tickets are comparatively extremely expensive, audiences expect new stories, ones they’ve not heard before.

Patty Jenkins has played an immense part in pioneering the way for women in the industry, and putting pressure on Hollywood to produce more female-led films in all genres. Against all odds she made her way to the top of a male-dominated field, and brought to life a feminist icon to inspire women and men alike. Jenkins leads by example, and ignores the constructs that would otherwise hold her back. She’s a superhero in her own right.

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