James Cameron vs. Wonder Woman: Hollywood’s continuing desire to lock women in the ‘strong’ box

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Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, center) can't help but notice that there's no place to put her sword in this outfit. From left, Chris Pine, Gadot and Lucy Davis appear in a scene from "Wonder Woman." Warner Bros. photo

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, center) can’t help but notice that there’s no place to put her sword in this outfit. From left, Chris Pine, Gadot and Lucy Davis appear in a scene from “Wonder Woman.” Warner Bros. photo

In one of the funniest scenes of the summer blockbuster “Wonder Woman,” warrior-princess Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot) undergoes an 1918 lady’s makeover and bemoans the restrictiveness of her new clothing, inadvertently tearing fabric as she tries to figure out how she’s supposed to kick a foe in the face while wearing a snug, straight, ankle-length skirt.

It’s not World War I anymore, but Wonder Woman – and her big-screen champions – are still having to battle the restrictions men want to put on her.

With an interview centered on the 3-D re-release of his 1991 blockbuster “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and published Thursday by The Guardian, James Cameron set off a firestorm on Twitter when he reduced Wonder Woman and her depiction in Patty Jenkins’ record-setting film to “an objectified icon” that he considers “a step backwards” from his female character of Sarah Connor.

“All of the self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood’s been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided. She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing! I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie but, to me, it’s a step backwards,” he told The Guardian.

“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!”

“A step backwards?” Really?

To have the director who ushered to the big screen action-film icons Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) — along with strong-willed scientist Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) in “The Abyss” and strong-willed shipwreck survivor Rose (Kate Winslet) in “Titanic” —  deliver such a misguided declaration about “strong” female characters is deflating if not exactly surprising.

After all, this is the same James Cameron that, as Gavia Baker-Whitelaw reminded us via The Daily Dot, in 2009 described in detail in an interview with Playboy how he designed Zoe Saldana’s alien “Avatar” character for a very human (and horny) male gaze. “Right from the beginning I said, ‘She’s got to have tits,’” Cameron noted in that interview. “Even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals.”

Of course, that troublesome hypocrisy didn’t stop Cameron from basically implying in The Guardian interview that he has singlehandedly been carrying the torch for women in film, telling interviewer Hadley Freeman “I don’t – I don’t know” why Hollywood is still so bad at depicting powerful women.

“There are many women in power in Hollywood and they do get to guide and shape what films get made,” Cameron said. “I think – no, I can’t account for it. Because how many times do I have to demonstrate the same thing over again? I feel like I’m shouting in a wind tunnel!”

So, there seems to be a teensy bit of an ego issue at play here, and not just because Cameron decided to mansplain for all of us why one of the most popular and enduring female characters in pop culture history isn’t so great.

Everyone from Paul Feig to Lena Dunham quickly leaped to Diana Prince’s defense on Twitter, but it was Jenkins herself who delivered a pitch-perfect response tweet:

“James Cameron’s inability to understand what Wonder Woman is, or stands for, to women all over the world is unsurprising as, though, he is a great filmmaker, he is not a woman. Strong women are great. His praise of my film Monster and our portrayal of a strong yet damaged woman was so appreciated. But if women have to always be hard, tough, and troubled to be strong, and we aren’t free to be multidimensional or celebrate an icon of women everywhere because she is attractive and loving, then we haven’t come very far. I believe women can and should be EVERYTHING just like male lead characters should be. There is no right and wrong kind of powerful woman. And the massive female audience who made the film a hit it is, can surely choose and judge their own icons of progress.”

What Jenkins so effectively strikes out against – and Cameron inadvertently confirms – is that “strong” may sound like a compliment when it comes to describing female film characters, but it’s not. “Strong” is a box to lock in women characters.

Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) appears in a scene from 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." TriStar Pictures photo

Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) appears in a scene from 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” TriStar Pictures photo

If a female character is “strong,” that’s all she gets to be, goes this often-held notion that Cameron essentially espouses. She can be troubled, tough or hard-bitten, but only because those traits are proofs of her strength.

She especially doesn’t get to be beautiful or sexy while being “strong,” because women are only really “strong” in the Hollywood vernacular if they are “strong” by men’s standards. If they can fight like a man and beat up bad guys and act enough like one of the guys, then they can be “strong.” But in the cinematic “strongbox,” for a woman to be “strong,” she has to utterly reject femininity and embrace masculinity.

Not only is that attitude apparent in Cameron’s dismissal of Wonder Woman as “objectified” – apparently, as Jenkins indicates, because she wears a short skirt that allows her the freedom to kick someone in the face? He doesn’t really specify why he considers her “objectified” in the context of Jenkins’ film — but it’s also evident in his assessment of Sarah Connor as “a terrible mother.”

By what standard is she a terrible mother except by her rejection of the traditional feminine motherly traits of nurturing and gentleness? In the science-fiction framework of the “Terminator” series, Sarah transforms herself from a damsel in distress into a formidable warrior for the primary purpose of protecting her son and preparing him for the future war against Skynet. Sarah fights so mightily for the sake of her son – much like Ripley with the child she rescues in Cameron’s “Aliens” – and she manages to prepare him well enough that the teenage John (Edward Furlong) survives his initial encounter with the new T-100 Terminator on his own. But in Cameron’s assessment she doesn’t get to be a good mother for it.

Basically, in Cameron’s assessment, Sarah Connor is a terrible mother because she only gets to be “strong.”

Writing for TheDailyBeast.com, Ira Madison III draws a comparison to Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) on “Game of Thrones,” noting that “when male writers set forth to write strong women, they tend to eschew femininity and embrace masculine traits. Just as Arya balked at her sister Sansa for preferring pretty dresses to the sword of a knight, the architects of women like Sarah Connor tend to follow the mindsets of early film scholars that believed action heroines should emulate men.”

More and more, I agree with Sophia McDougall’s 2013 New Statesman essay frankly titled “I hate Strong Female Characters.” Right up front, the piece notes, “Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”

McDougall goes on to point out that “No one ever asks if a male character is ‘strong.’ Nor if he’s ‘feisty,’ or ‘kick-ass’ come to that.

“The obvious thing to say here is that this is because he’s assumed to be ‘strong’ by default. Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. ‘Don’t worry!’ that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. ‘Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.’ … Is Sherlock Holmes strong? It’s not just that the answer is ‘of course,’ it’s that it’s the wrong question.”

The right question to ask, naturally, is why can’t female characters be physically strong — even superhumanly mighty and formidable fighters — while also being beautiful, sexy, principled, funny, awkward, headstrong, naïve, wise, romantic, well-read, compassionate and curious.

You know, kinda like Wonder Woman.

We don’t need Wonder Woman to be more like Ripley or Sarah Connor. What would be a step forward is if there were more woman characters – especially lead characters – of all kinds of our movie screens, period.

And if we could smash Hollywood’s “strongbox” and have lots of women characters who were just as well-rounded, complex, interesting and multifaceted as even a fraction of the male movie characters we see, that would be a giant leap forward.

“Wonder Woman” is available to own digitally Tuesday and on Blu-ray Sept. 19, whether James Cameron likes it or not. For more information, click here.



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