On Wonder Woman’s Suit and the Male Gaze

Do you ever imagine what it would be like living on an island populated solely by women? I do. I thought about it last week as I was heading home from an evening jog in the park. As I brushed past two middle-age men with beer guts and tattoos on the sidewalk, I braced myself for their commentary. I had felt their eyes following me from over a block away. One turned to yell “hey cutie, where you going?”

When I didn’t slow my pace, I was rewarded with the other remarking that I had headphones on and probably couldn’t hear (right…because clearly if I could hear, I would’ve stopped and told them where I was going). Breathing a sigh of relief that I had gotten away so easily, I found myself contemplating a world so safe that getting hit by a car would be my worst concern when jogging after dark.

What Would a World Free From Men Be Like?

Diana grew up in a world where she didn’t have to fear the dark. If I have one wish for the Wonder Woman sequel, it’s that we get to spend a little more time on the island where Diana was born: a world free from staring men. I want to know what it would be like to walk and sweat and live free from what men think of women’s bodies. Wonder Woman’s world may be mythical, but some days imaging our current world without sexual objectification is unfathomable.

This is not to say that Wonder Woman has never been the product of sexual objectification. She’s one of history’s most iconic sex symbols. However, in the context of Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman, I think it’s important to note that Diana is in possession of her signature short-skirt warrior suit before leaving Themyscira. The other women on the island were wearing similar outfits long before any men showed up. In fact, it’s not until Diana enters London that her clothes seem worthy of mentioning at all.

Let’s Save the World, but First Let’s Go Shopping

Steve’s first priority in a city on the verge of being attacked by Nazi’s is what Diana should be wearing. Granted, he’s trying to make sure she blends in, which is important for any spy. However, having his secretary take her shopping while he disappears to take care of some unknown business is a reminder that she can’t exist in a man’s world until she subjects herself to a dress that makes her less of a distraction.

Never mind that this dress limits her freedom and fighting abilities. Never mind that this dress that covers her from neck to ankle isn’t enough to stop Steve’s buddy Sammie from instantly hitting on her the moment they meet. For the rest of the film Diana will be literally and figuratively restricted not just by what she wears, but by people’s perception of her in those clothes.

Steve even goes so far as to tell her not to enter the Nazi’s gala, where he knows important information is to be found, because she isn’t dressed properly. And while I want to believe that Steve’s love for Diana is genuine, in that moment he becomes every man who has ever told a woman she isn’t dressed appropriately, that she must put her boobs away because her body is distracting to others (and to him).

Diana is Women Everywhere

Likewise, Diana becomes every woman who has ever been chastised about her clothes. Every girl who couldn’t have bare shoulders in school because it might distract the boys. Every woman who’s ever put a pencil skirt or a turtleneck back on the rack because even in these garments you can still see the curves of her body, and this might garner her the wrong kind of attention at work.

When Diana finally casts off her robe to reveal her iconic Wonder Woman outfit, it is a pivotal moment in the film. In that moment she reclaims the mission as her own. She steps up to invade No Man’s Land and go bravely into battle whether the others will join her or not. And as she moves forward to defy Steve’s wishes, she reclaims her warrior suit. She is asserting not only her purpose in the war but also the freedom of her unrestricted body. Her power in this moment is enough to defeat a whole army of men.

Female Directing Rescues Us From the Male Gaze

This is just one of the many scenes where Diana gets to show off her strength, but even with her arms and legs bare for the majority of the film, the camera doesn’t waste time lingering on her breasts or butt. This is partly because she’s usually moving far too fast to oogle. However, it’s also the result of Patty Jenkins. With a female director at the helm, the movie just felt different.

Although it’s clear that Diana has chosen to live in a man’s world, the cameras that are filming her are free of the male gaze. As such, she is depicted as powerful and strong. She’s sexy too, but her sexiness comes not from allowing our eyes to linger on her legs, but from the spirit she embodies when she takes her future (and the future of the world) into her hands. We are seeing Diana for the first time through a woman’s eyes, and she’s more powerful than ever before.

It wasn’t until I left the theater, smiling and slightly in tears, that I realized I needed Wonder Woman to show me the power a woman could claim when she is free to use her body as she chooses. I may consider myself a feminist. I may read all the right books and surround myself with lots of strong female role models, but it’s not until I, and other women like me, stop to consider what life would be like free from the male gaze that we can discover what our powers truly are.


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