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The Conversation We Should Not Have About Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Gal GadotZack Snyder cast Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman for the upcoming Man of Steel sequel, thereby ending months of speculation about the possible portrayal of DC Comics’ oldest nod to feminist virtue and grrl power. Previously seen by American audiences in the recent Fast & Furious movies, Gal Gadot’s casting has been met with equal praise and derision. My initial response is hearty, heartfelt, and honest.

I told you so.

Sexism alone will prevent the obvious casting of a fitness model under the tiara, a woman who can rival not only Superman’s power set, but his physique as well. Instead, we’d receive more of the Joss Whedon conceit — another ninety-two pound five-foot-one-inch lily-white waif who practices tai chi and knocks out six-foot-two-inch men twice her size and age with slow roundhouse kicks. The goons’ brawny, broken masculinity will fly across movie screens, launched from determined but weak punches by tiny, dainty fists, and all the men in the theater will pretend that the bad comedy on-screen makes sense, so they don’t screw up their chances at date-night sex. (I watched Firefly, loved Serenity, but let’s be clear — Summer Glau can’t kick my ass.) Women today lift exceptional weight, run ultra-marathons, and go hard in the paint — to cast Wonder Woman, Warner Brothers would need to channel Nike and reflect the active woman’s sweat and sacrifice. This the male gaze will not allow. – J. Lamb, “We Don’t Need a Wonder Woman Movie

Casting Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman does not preclude the display of an active woman wearing a golden lasso in the Man of Steel sequel; indeed many reactions to this casting news have hoped that she would increase her muscle mass for this role as actors like Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale have to play superheroes on movie screens. But we now know that instead of a fitness model or Crossfit chick under the tiara, we have a standard issue Israeli fashion model with just enough Mediterranean swarthiness to read ‘dainty exotic’ to the Western male gaze. While I’d be surprised by anything more than a cameo for Wonder Woman in the upcoming film, it’s now clear that the ‘Joss Whedon conceit’ will inform practically all female superhero movie adaptations for the foreseeable future. Just replace the shaky tai chi with slow Krav Maga and switch Summer Glau for Gal Gadot and you’ve’ve got a Twenty-First Century Wonder Woman, a metahuman coat hanger that punches heavyweight hooligans through brick walls. Movie magic.

“Nerd movie casting news has become the tree in the internet schoolyard where everyone meets to fight at 4:15. No bit of superhero or sci-fi casting news comes without its share of social media outcry and geek-bitching nowadays, and EVERYONE is a casting director.” – Howard Decker, 12 of Zack Morris’ Ex-Girlfriends That Would Make a Better Wonder Woman than Gal Gadot, UnderScoopFire

The Joker
The Joker

The simple truth, though, is that superhero movie casting news today serves only to expose the biases of the core comics’ audience. We’ve all been guilty – imagine being the guy who publicly dismissed the possibility that Heath Ledger would entertain as the Joker? Cautious optimism appears the sane option for those willing to evaluate corporate media upon completion, when we have something to debate. We don’t at this point: Gal Gadot’s new job tells us very little about the feminine ideal today. Indeed, that’s the real problem: as long as Wonder Woman is viewed by comic aficionados and feminist theorists as an expression of the feminine ideal, our pop culture debates will examine the physical image presented by those who play her far more than anything else.

Right now, the conversation revolves around how this woman looks – thin, White, European, beautiful. I’ve found very little about her acting talent, past movie roles, or any childhood interest in comic books. Her military service is highlighted in several articles, as if it’s somehow interesting that a young Israeli citizen fulfilled a compulsory state requirement to defend her homeland while she pursued a modeling career that culminated in her 2004 Miss Israel victory.

I would imagine that part of the problem with casting Wonder Woman is that Hollywood is mostly run by guys who each have their own inaccurate and occasionally offensive perspective on what the Ultimate Vision of Womanhood would be. But honestly, you could put Sheryl Sandberg, Camille Paglia, Hillary Clinton, Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, the women from American Horror Story, and the writing staff of Jezebel in a room for a week and ask them to cast their ideal Wonder Woman, and the net result would be the same. – Darren Franich, Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman: 13 thoughts on the bombshell-casting bombshell, PopWatch

I don’t want to have another public conversation about how a woman looks. With Wonder Woman this conversation strikes me as inevitable and tired, necessary and pedestrian, logical and inappropriate. Ms. Gadot’s strikingly slim build and elfin features may excite the eighteen to thirty-five straight White male demographic so prized by movie executives and domestic advertisers, but when applied to Wonder Woman, an avatar for the Ultimate Vision of Womanhood in the Western pop imagination, her scant physical humanity delivers a social sermon we all should want to avoid. Please understand – I’m no fat acceptance advocate. Too many Fit Moms are lectured into silence about healthy eating habits and regular exercise by an ever-widening femininity convinced that muffin tops and underarm fat are inevitable after age twenty-nine. No.

The Wonder Woman you deserve, but won't get right now.
The Wonder Woman you deserve, but may not get right now.

But it’s hard not to lament the missed opportunity here. Casting a physically imposing Wonder Woman, with bulging pectorals and veiny biceps, would deconstruct this bizarre preoccupation with porcelain womanhood our modern media still clutches. Zack Snyder could have taken the chance with which the Hunger Games flirts, and introduced the world to a Wonder Woman that would defy the waif conventions of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow or Jaimie Alexander’s Sif. Mind you – this is still possible, but a Wonder Woman dwarfed by Henry Cavill’s Superman will not scream ‘first among equals’ to most viewers. But even now, this choice’s symbolism nauseates. We’ve heard nothing of a script, and seen Ms. Gadot in precious few roles. We’re only left with how she looks, and I don’t want to have that conversation.

captain_america_2_teaser_image
They introduced Captain America in 1941, and the only story Marvel Studios could find to build a script around outside of the origin was Ed Brubaker’s 2005 Winter Soldier? Really?

For decades, Wonder Woman fans have insisted that this character represented the pinnacle of the female condition, to parallel Superman’s perceived effect on American masculinity. Too many of us still believe that we need a female god to balance the Kryptonian deity. It wasn’t clear to me until I engaged this debate some time ago how completely Wonder Woman’s supporters and detractors talk past one another. I find Wonder Woman archaic and unimportant, more historical footnote than feminist icon. Most of the articles I’ve read on this new casting choice work in a line to justify this news that reminds readers that Wonder Woman is the Most Important Superhero without her own movie; by doing so, they continue to force-feed us a manufactured sense of the character’s importance that outstrips any clear-eyed view of her stories or her book sales. She’s DC Comics answer to Captain America – another Greatest Generation holdover too iconic to cast in compelling drama, who spends her days in dated flag fashion playing bingo at the local VFW Hall. Everyone loves Grandma Diana, in small doses on Veteran’s Day when she remembers her teeth, though we all appreciate and respect her service. In comics, Oil of Olay pencils and Botox brushwork falsely advertise a youthful vigor that Wonder Woman’s absolutist worldview belies. After years of false starts, the movies now offer an unknown bombshell so that we might focus so intently on her face that we ignore the character’s mind.

But what if Princess Diana’s fans are to be believed? If Wonder Woman is and should be the Ultimate Vision of Womanhood, than the statement made by casting any woman is hardly positive. None of us represent all of us, so when we pretend otherwise in popular culture we limit, not expand, corporate properties’ cultural impact. Superman’s the perfect case study. At no point in my life did I look upon Christopher Reeve or Brandon Routh or Henry Cavill and see myself reflected under the red and blue spandex. I don’t consider this accidental or weird – it’s normal to avoid the pretense that you are the invulnerable squarejaw you read on colored pages when you were five. It’s not innocence lost, it’s maturity, and I expect this without regard to gender. Wonder Woman doesn’t represent all women. She can’t, in part because she can’t resemble all women, and when we’re willing to admit this, the best possible thing can happen from this news.

We reserve judgment until the movie opens.

27 thoughts on “The Conversation We Should Not Have About Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman”

    1. Ultradude13 – Thanks for reading and commenting! I’ve very little experience with Gina Carano, but she’s certainly closer to the modern comic Wonder Woman art than many other choices. I think someone that screams ‘active woman’ is a positive feminist choice for this role. That being said, Gal Gadot may still offer this to viewers. We’ll have to wait and see.

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    1. Candice, thank you for reading and commenting! I think that the backlash reflects the inability of many core comic fans to appreciate live action versions of corporate comic properties until they see the finished product. Howard Decker from UnderScoopFire made a lot of sense to me; too many comic fans believe they make better casting directors than the professionals. A wait and see approach works for me.

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  1. The casting news was very suspect to me because it came after the death of Fast & Furious co-star, Paul Walker. Great timing, Warner Bros. Thanks for mentioning the news frenzy over fit moms. If anybody went to the fitness and bodybuilding competitions they’d be amazed at how many fit mothers there are.

    But now I’ve thought if X-Men’s Storm was a better indicator of how superpowered heroines are capable of getting their own solo films. Both heroines are exotic looking, they come from isolated backgrounds. Fans laughed at Halle Berry’s call for a Storm movie. But we should have considered how that idea is transferred to making a Wonder Woman film. Wonder Woman returned to the public eye through the Justice League cartoons. Storm is known mostly for being part of the X-Men. It’s startling how two powerful superheroines are better off in an ensemble film instead of solo outings.

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    1. BernieB, thanks for reading and commenting! I thought I wrote a useful feminist argument that championed fit moms and active women everywhere. I stand by the writing – Gal Gadot is certainly capable of displaying the muscles people think of when they think ‘Wonder Woman’, and she deserves all the time possible to develop that look. I just left the gym – it ain’t easy.

      And I agree that Storm and characters like her deserve to be the barometer of gender parity in superhero film leads much more than Wonder Woman. While you’re right that the two have many similarities, Storm has the added benefit of exuding a much more accessible persona than Wonder Woman’s general perfectionism. While it’s true that Storm is often written with her African royalty/ goddess elements in mind, her position as an X-Men leader and teacher often gave her access to regular people in the 616 universe that Wonder Woman stories do not emulate. Wonder Woman’s usually hanging out with other superheroes, or discussing geopolitics with United Nations diplomats. While different writers have tried to humanize her, WW’s prominence as a feminist icon usually limits her accessibility, and that limitation has much more to do with her inability to get a solo movie than general studio executive sexism, in my view.

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  2. You say you don’t want to have a public conversation about this woman’s looks, but go on to use dismissive descriptors such as “dainty exotic”, “metahuman coat hanger”, “strikingly slim”, “elfin”, and what the hell is “Mediterranean swarthiness” supposed to mean?

    And while you might link to an article rejecting body shaming, there’s a pretty healthy dose of fat shaming in the prior paragraph.

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    1. Jasmine – thanks for reading and commenting! There’s an intentional tension in this piece between my disinterest in another public evaluation of a woman’s looks and and my desire to challenge a male gaze that requires a certain slim female to pay attention. The descriptive language you cited from my piece is not dismissive; rather I describe Gal Gadot as she appears in recent films and in the pictures various news outlets display in articles about her recent casting.

      Let’s be clear – those of us who hoped that Zack Snyder and Warner Brothers would cast a brawny, athletic woman in this role have been largely disappointed. I’ve no doubt that Ms. Gadot can and will develop a musculature that respects this character on-screen, but it’s worth interrogating what may be lost by not displaying a Wonder Woman who’s body reflects the sweat and sacrifice female bodybuilders and Crossfit chicks engage daily.

      It’s frankly absurd to call this fat shaming. I’ve written a feminist defense of active women in the context of the new Wonder Woman casting that recognizes the dangers in a debate that equates female worth with straight male desire. If we must engage a looks-based debate, I’d rather support the women who embrace regular exercise and healthy nutrition, the women who run marathons and bench press more than their body weight. That’s the feminist ideal Wonder Woman most naturally supports. This has nothing to do with fat shaming.

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  3. Great perspective. Really agree with the lost possibilities of this casting decision. The idea of casting a builder in this role is so much more realistic (for a comic book movie). I’m not a big fan of Wonder Woman as an ‘Ideal of womanhood.’ Though, to be fair, the idea that the perfect woman would have to be delicately build while fighting large enemies is a pretty good example of what we expect women to face every day. Thanks for the post.

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    1. Melissa, thanks for reading and commenting! I don’t know too many people who are fans of Wonder Woman as a feminist icon or a feminine ideal; I think the character doesn’t work well when viewed through that lens. That being said, Wonder Woman has a long tradition as a feminist symbol; it’s this tradition, not the strength of her stories in the comics, that had led so many to clamor for her to headline a major blockbuster comic book movie. I’m just unsure how much feminism American audiences will notice in a Wonder Woman more defined by her thinness than her abilities. Thanks again for your remarks.

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  4. It isn’t a bodybuilder physique that gives Wonder Woman her fighting ability. There is the whole super power thing. This might be a legitimate complaint for people without superpowers, but that’s not a problem with Wonder Woman.

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    1. Jeremy, thanks for reading and commenting! My discussion of the Joss Whedon conceit recognizes that viewers who watch superhero protagonists understand that the superpowers they possess explain the fantastic feats these heroes perform. My point is that this convention is not applied equally with regard to gender. Chris Hemsworth had to bulk up considerably to portray Thor, and Henry Cavill’s physique is necessary to play Superman. Both Superman and Thor owe their amazing physical abilities as characters to superpowers, so why do we need them to flex Olympian pectorals on screen? In contrast, female superheroes like Sif or this new Wonder Woman have no requirement by the moviegoing audience to resemble Ms. Olympia, and the sensible explanation for this difference involves the movie studio assumption that the straight White male 18 – 35 core audience for these films will be turned off by fitness models playing superheroes.

      In truth, it doesn’t make sense to watch a ninety-five pound woman dispatch twenty grown men single-handedly with uncommitted jabs and slow front kicks. We wouldn’t have to watch those travesties if Hollywood wasn’t so afraid of women with muscles.

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  5. It’s not so much that characters are an ideal man or whatever. It’s important, however, in my view, that even the most fantastical hero be relatable. Is Wonder Woman the ultimate woman, no. However, girls who watch adventure movies should be able to look to someone else than the damzel in distress. Wonder Woman can kick Superman’s butt. That matters. Though she is superstrong, she should look the part.

    I also think that an informed fan can do a better job casting than a pro because the fan will not be motivated by star power or sex appeal but by who fits the part.

    Wanted: statuesque, strongly built Mediterranean woman to be Wonder Woman. Martial arts and body building experience an asset. Shakespearian traing an asset.

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    1. K.a. Stone – thanks for reading and commenting! I’ve considered the question of whether “girls who watch adventure movies should be able to look to someone else than the damzel in distress” for some time now, and while I respect that many viewers feel strongly that that is important, I’m not sure that it creates decent movies or interesting heroes. It’s certainly a laudable goal, to ensure that young women in the Western world know that heroic action is not simply for boys. But it’s not the same concern one faces when writing an interesting script. Please note – I’m not suggesting that we can’t imagine a good action movie with a female lead. I don’t believe that. But it is true that most action film scriptwriters do not write female leads for their stories, so it’s possible that they may make conceptual mistakes in trying to capture the female superhero on screen.

      Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman gives me no reason to believe that Hollywood will achieve some newfound skill in capturing female action; indeed, we know practically nothing about her acting skill. At best, if Wonder Woman can kick Superman’s butt, and if that is a good thing, I’m slightly concerned that the “statuesque, strongly built Mediterranean woman” you envision as Wonder Woman is now a skinny, fragile Mediterranean woman. Of course she can and probably will bulk up, but I think it’s all too likely that she will never be asked to add fifty pounds of muscle to her frame before filming, and the Joss Whedon conceit I speak about will define her every fight scene. That would make for a horrible action film, in my opinion. We’ll have to wait and see. Thanks for your comment!

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      1. From my long experience on fan forums, the fans haven’t proven they know better about casting superhero roles. They’re no better than the dudes that worked in Wizard magazine. Usually they’ve chosen starlets who are the latest “IT” girl, or someone who’s been on pin-up covers. When too much time has gone by for them to look ‘young enough’ they whine and moan and move on to the next ‘IT” girl. They think like producers instead of filmmakers because it’s not a story they’re thinking about. Oh no, they can’t fathom why their favorite stories aren’t immediately adaptable for live film. They can’t even understand why one famous director wouldn’t do a superhero film. Instead fans are treating their favorite characters like products. That doesn’t make sense because they have no vested interest in selling a possible film. But they believe in their entitlement to seeing the character get realised.

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  6. I generally don’t mind the “waif-fu” thing that’s been going on in the movies lately, but only up to a certain point. I’m a woman, but I wouldn’t call myself a feminist. Equality is good, but some things seems to be unavoidable. Casting beautiful women in action films is one of those things.
    Like I said, it has to have at least a little believability to it for me to buy the fact that a tiny woman is responsible for so much physical violence. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has super-human strength, speed and healing, so that makes her ass kicking alright, even in her tiny 5’2″ frame. Selene from Underworld is a vampire, so she’s already superhuman, but she also totes a ton of weaponry, a definite bonus. But any film that doesn’t have this kind of explanation often gets an eye-roll from me. Because it doesn’t matter how much you train, if you’re just a normal human girl, you’re not going to be able to toss around a 200 pound dude.

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    1. Vampireplacebo, thanks for reading and commenting! I’m totally done with waif-fu, especially since with Wonder Woman, we’re sold a character that is supposed to reflect active martial skill and amazing Superman-level brute strength. You’re right – the conventions of American blockbuster film do not allow for much female diversity, but when the female action star looks too thin to be believable as an action star, it’s possible that movie industry conventions like only showing attractive women on screen have outlived their usefulness. Further, ‘magic’ seems to me too quaint and deus ex machina a plot device to explain Wonder Woman’s amazing physical capabilities. In the comics, writers can get away with these weak superhero conventions, but on screen in real time? Not so much. The Joss Whedon conceit does not appeal universally.

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  7. I’m sorry but wonderwoman is supposed to represent women. She represents the idea of what they should be. When I see Gal Gadot it makes me wonder how I’m going to explain to my 13 year old sister how why wonderwoman looks like all the other hollywood bimbos who have no curves. I just can’t support this movie if they don’t understand the importance wonderwoman plays in so many women’s lives especially the children who need role models in this jacked up media culture we have.
    I’m just so disappointed

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    1. J-Dub: thanks for reading and commenting! My only response is that the idea that Wonder Woman should represent all women is to my mind, outdated. No one woman represents all women. Sure, this choice reinforces Hollywood’s idea of the skinny, desired woman, but it also has the potential to drive home a new paradigm for fitness models on-screen, especially if Gadot embraces the gym and bulks up somewhat for the role. While it’s difficult to imagine what this pick says about feminism and body image at present, it’s possible that this could work out well.

      Unlikely, sure. But possible.

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  8. Your column echoes my thoughts. When I saw her cast as WW, my first thought was ‘Huh? She’s one missed meal from being blown over by a strong wind.’

    Dating myself here, but MY WW was Linda Carter. Tall, beautiful, and not anorexic looking. Gia Carano (as mentioned above) would be an awesome choice. In her heyday Rachel McLish would’ve been my choice.

    Google images of ‘Female Fitness Models’ to see plenty of women who fit the physical ideal or at least are a heckuva lot closer.

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