Wonder women: women’s tears, and why they matter

by Kathleen Rowe Karlyn

In memory of Chuck Kleinhans, 1942-2017

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) flashes her magic bracelets and fearless gaze.  

Monsters. Magic. The desire for purity but the reality of dirt. And tears.

Women engaged with popular and political culture have long ridden the waves of emotions associated with these images and themes, but that ride went into hyperdrive when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton began their campaigns for the presidency in the summer of 2016.[1] [open endnotes in new window] And while the battle between them technically ended with Clinton’s defeat, it not only continued in Trump’s post-election obsession with her but escalated in the massive mobilization of women and other minority groups newly politicized by the Trump presidency.

This paper didn’t begin with Trump and Clinton, however, but with Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman released the following year. Women were crying about it in droves, and I wanted to know why. In the months that followed, I found more occasions for tears, from mass shootings that have become numbingly routine in the United States to the snarky responses to What Happened, Clinton’s account of her run for the presidency, and finally in the #MeToo movement, which originated in 2007 with Tarana Black, a black activist from Philadelphia speaking out against rape culture. In the fall of 2017, when white female celebrities exposed film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual abuse, the movement went global, toppling or at least tainting powerful men in virtually every institution of our society.

I’ve always been interested in cultural figures and texts that move people or push their buttons, especially those associated with female unruliness, a cluster of attributes that can both celebrate and demonize female power. In the late 1980s and 1990s, comedian Roseanne polarized audiences of her standup shows and her sitcom (ABC 1988-1997) with her unvarnished feminist perspective on working class life. By the mid-1990s, Girl Culture and the popularity among girls of such media texts as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Scream (1996) and Titanic (1997) exposed generational tensions within feminism. At the same time, highly acclaimed films such as American Beauty (1999) gave voice to male resentment of the gains women had made since the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

In the past year, two female figures, one real, one fictional, have provoked similarly intense responses: Diana of Themyscira, AKA Wonder Woman, and Clinton. If Clinton’s defeat was a shock, so too was Wonder Woman’s triumph—at the box office, among critics, and with female audiences around the world. Women have wept about Clinton too, and while those tears are of a different nature than the ones triggered by Wonder Woman, the phenomena are related, as is the emotion driving the #MeToo revelations, certainly displaced from its more intractable target in the White House.

My thoughts about these emotions have been influenced by two conversations I’ve had many times in this past year. In discussing the election with friends, especially men, I’ve often felt that I hit an impossible and depressing wall. And most of my conversations about Wonder Woman left me feeling a bit wistful, wanting to share my uncomplicated delight in the film as much as my simmering anger about the narratives that have taken root in our culture around Clinton. In all of these conversations, I’ve sensed ambivalence and the desire for “more.” “Why couldn’t Wonder Woman be more …. feminist?” Or, in a New Yorker film review by scholar Jill Lepore, “I am not proud that I found comfort in watching a woman in a golden tiara and thigh-high boots clobber hordes of terrible men. But I did.” Regarding Clinton, “Why did she accept money to talk to Goldman Sachs?” “Why didn’t she tell off Trump when he stalked her on stage?” “Why did she stay with Bill?”

This desire for more reveals a deeper yearning for purity and a frustration with the reality of compromise that confronts anyone—but especially a woman—who aspires to direct a blockbuster film or to rise to a pinnacle of political power—in other words, to be unruly, to act in a big way on her desire. The burden is heavy, the judgments harsh, and the risks very real for any woman who is a first, and for all who refuse to play by the rules.

In my earlier work, I was drawn more to women’s laughter than to their tears. Tears and melodrama felt too close to women’s suffering and victimization. And in these days of cynicism and despair, I have felt saved more than ever by comedy and laughter. Saturday Night Live, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee, whose feminist rage is positively cathartic. But this has also been a time of tears for me.

Like the old bromide about Eskimos and snow, there are many kinds of tears, which vary significantly depending on their origins: emotional tears versus tears from cutting onions, tears of physical versus emotional pain, of joy, relief, and so on. In her poetic book The Topography of Tears, RoseLynn Fisher magnifies tears under a microscope then photographs them. These tears are mostly her own, and she shed them on different occasions: “Yes.” “My brother’s tears on the other side of a promise kept.” “Last tear I ever cry for you.” As photographic images, they evoke complex geological landscapes that suggest the connections between micro and macro, body and soul, just as women’s tears, whether triggered by Wonder Woman, Trump or the shared trauma of sexual abuse, suggest more emotion than our bodies can contain or our words convey.

One recent instance when I felt emotion I could not contain was on the day after Trump’s inauguration, when I joined caravans of buses filled with women converging on the nation’s capital for an exhilarating mixture of political activism and street theater. There were problems with the march—problems about racial and class privilege that persist within feminism—but they didn’t derail the sensations of sanity and solidary I felt in a world that had seemingly gone cuckoo.

The Women's March, a mix of political activism and carnival.

Carnivalesque street theater at the Women's March.

Tears ambushed me again, months later, when I sat in a theater and watched Wonder Woman. As film scholars, we know the power of a shared audience, a big screen and great sound system to amplify the impact of a film, but I was not prepared to be so moved by the giant image of a gorgeous, fearless woman ripping up the screen. Two moments especially thrilled me: in the first, Diana as a little girl takes a warrior pose that shows her fighting spirit and determination to have her way. In the second, as an adult, she again defies those who would oppose her and storms across No Man’s Land, warding off a barrage of bullets with her magic bracelets.

Finally, when Clinton emerged from her post-election retreat to promote her new book and was told, in effect, to shut up and go away, I did not weep. But I felt the smoldering rage that women have long suppressed when faced with assaults on their dignity, let alone their bodies, as testified to by the millions of women finally sharing their stories of sexual abuse and trauma.

I’m not interested in mounting a defense of either Wonder Woman the film or Clinton the person. Clinton is not a radical, and she has taken positions throughout her long career I have not agreed with, although I am sympathetic to the reasons why. Nor is Wonder Woman a perfect feminist film, as if such a thing existed. But I am interested in how the strong and ambivalent responses both have triggered are tied to the conventions of female unruliness I first explored earlier in my career.

Wonder Woman’s unruliness is tempered because it comes in the form of a fictionalized character packaged for a mass audience. Clinton’s is more threatening because she has sought and held real power in the real world; moreover, because she is long past the age of a woman’s perceived “fuck-ability,” she is coded even more strongly with taboo and the grotesque. But both push at cultural beliefs about what a woman can do or be. Both ask us to consider what it takes for a woman to have power today. Just as “sadism demands a story,” in Laura Mulvey’s still provocative words, both remind us that choosing action over passivity, the preferred mode of femininity, may require a willingness to compromise, to get ones hands dirty and even engage with violence. It is hard to imagine Buffy defending the world from vampires without being willing to slay them herself. Both Wonder Woman and Clinton ask us to consider what narrative genres are available to tell the stories of women who combine action and power. Can we still imagine these women only as superheroes or monsters, in the realm of fantasy?


I’ve long admired Latina actor America Ferrera for her performances in Patricia Cardoso’s Real Women Have Curves (2002) and ABC’s Ugly Betty (2006-10), and my admiration has only grown after her recent interview with Clinton in the New York Times Sept 16, 2017):

“As a woman, as a Latina, I’ve always felt there’s a very narrow version of me that’s acceptable, that’s allowed to succeed. And if I stray from that, I’m not just failing myself, I’m failing to many. So I’ve operated from a place of fear, not from my most-alive self ”(my emphasis).

Ferrera identifies here an array of emotions activated by both Wonder Woman and Clinton: the frustration of having to shrink ourselves into narrow versions of who we are in order to be successful; the fear, shame and even violence we risk if we violate the constraints imposed on us; the sense of responsibility to others when we do aspire to do or be something more, a theme that HRC returns to repeatedly in her book; and finally the buried yearning to be our “most alive” selves, something many women are experiencing now, some for the first time, through the power of cinematic identification with a narrative and character they have never experienced before.[2]
In 1984, I experienced something similar when I was forced to confront emotions I had not yet dealt with, about a reality I had not yet fully perceived. I was working as an editor at a Kansas newspaper, and one day I joined the staff in the newsroom to watch Geraldine Ferraro accept the nomination to run as candidate for Vice President. I saw a lone woman on the dais surrounded by men, and tears filled my eyes. At that point in my life, I was reading MS magazine and I supported the ERA, but I hadn’t yet fully grasped the extent of how my imagination, my sense of possibility and my life itself had been colonized by patriarchy.

Ferraro’s persona constructed to combine patriotism, femininity and strength.

Like Clinton, Ferraro was smart, accomplished, and experienced in politics, and her candidacy recognized for the milestone it was. Yet in short order, investigations into her husband’s business revealed shady dealings and, corrupted by association, she had to step down. In doing so, she anticipated Clinton’s battle throughout her public life to be a person in her own right, as well the ways she has suffered guilt by association with her husband. Her identity has often been submerged into an entity known as “The Clintons,” a term heavy with distaste.

Similar moments followed in the years to come: hearing a woman’s voice—Susan Stamberg’s—for the first time on a radio newscast; catching a glimpse of a female pilot in the cockpit of a huge aircraft; and then in 1991, being riveted to the radio for Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate, her courage paving the way for the waves of women now naming their abusers and holding them accountable. Even earlier, there had been Shirley Chisholm breaking boundaries of race and gender, paving the way for Ferraro and Hill.[3] But it was seeing Ferraro on that TV screen that jolted me into recognizing what had been missing in my universe.

The shared history of moments like these, and others, helps explain the connection many women of my generation feel with Clinton, and because she is a real person it is easy see why her story matters. It has been more difficult to make that case about Wonder Woman for people who don’t study popular culture, despite her being the most popular female comic-book hero of all time. But her story matters too. With Jenkins’ film, Wonder Woman was finally featured in a live-action feature of her own, which broke records of all kinds and moved legions of women.

Feminists and critics on the left have long been suspicious of media texts that are popular, seeing them as inevitably contaminated by dominant ideologies. As a result, they have failed at times to take seriously the experiences of real rather than theoretical audiences and have minimized both the utopian value of pleasure and the political value of the imagination.

My thoughts about Wonder Woman are inspired by Jacqueline Bobo’s work on Black women’s responses to Spielberg’s film The Color Purple in Black Women as Cultural Readers (1995). Fully aware of its racist distortions of Alice Walker’s novel and of the shortcomings identified by critics in general and Black men in particular, Black women loved the film anyway. They loved seeing Whoopi Goldberg’s face on the big screen and identifying with a Black woman at the center of her own story. Bobo’s respect for these women recalls B. Ruby Rich’s reminder, during the heyday of Mulvey’s abstracted female spectator, not to forget the real women sitting next to us in a theater.

Something like that emotion occurred in screenings of Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, which like Spielberg’s Color Purple makes full use of cinema’s potential for spectacle and storytelling to give women something they’ve craved, often without even realizing it. And it is happening again for Black audiences watching Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018), another superhero film that smashed records when it opened and earned similar praise from critics and viewers.

According to Lepore’s The Second History of Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman has been a feminist icon since her creation in 1941 by William W. Marston, a psychologist best known for inventing the lie detector although notorious for his controversial beliefs about polyamory and women’s superiority to men. (Angela Robinson creates a sympathetic portrait of him in her film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women [2017].) Inspired by Margaret Sanger and other feminist heroes of the 20th century, Marston designed Wonder Woman as a female counter to ultra-violent male superheroes. Adorned with chains, leather and cuffs, she prompted efforts by conservative cultural groups to censor her, despite the association of chains with the women’s suffrage movement. She was also accused of “inciting indecency” in hearings on juvenile delinquency by members of Congress concerned that Themysicra, Wonder Woman’s utopian all-female home, promoted lesbianism.

These ambivalent and charged responses to Wonder Woman can be explained by her ties with female unruliness, a tradition in representation and real life that includes some or all of the following:

Associated with dirt, liminality and taboo, she is a figure of ambivalence rooted in the grotesque and the carnivalesque. She may be old or a masculinized crone, for an old woman who refuses to become silent and invisible in our culture is often considered grotesque. (This element is central to the gendered demonization of Clinton as she has aged, a point I will return to later). Finally the unruly woman can be seen as prototype of woman as subject, transgressive above all when she lays claim to her own desire. These tropes are coded with misogyny. But a woman who embraces and recodes them can tap into their potential to disrupt the existing social order.

Wonder Woman’s origin story places her outside that order from the beginning. Diana is born on the utopian island of Themyscira, protected by the gods and inhabited only by women who train as warriors but live in peace. In Jenkins’ version of the story, Steve Trevor, an U.S. pilot, falls out of the sky into the sea close to Themyscira. Diana, who knows she has unusual powers but not yet how many or why, defies her protective mother and leaves with him to save the world from the ravages of the Great War. In the process, she experiences sex, discovers ice cream, and acquires some fabulous new clothes. She also learns who she is–the half-sister of her sworn enemy, Ares, the god of war. In effect, she journeys from the innocence of her life on Themyscira to experience in the world of men.

Other versions of female superheroes have also drawn large followings among girls and women and interest from feminist critics, although I am less interested in the histories and mythologies of the vast world of superheroes than in what’s behind the impact of Jenkins’ film. Before this film, the most famous cinematic or televisual version of Wonder Woman was Lynda Carter’s TV series (1975-79), notable for its heavy nationalism and campy tone created by such tongue-in-cheek props as an “invisible” airplane.[4] Lara Croft, Cat Woman, Wonder Girl and Superwoman, fantasy-based superheroes from comics, are also defined by their super powers and willingness to use them, a quality excluded from normative femininity. Like male superheroes with their exaggerated signs of masculinity, these female superheroes are hyper-female in their appearance and usually, like Lynda Carter and Gal Gadot in Jenkins’ film, beautiful.

Several of these female super heroes are “noir-ish” characters who inhabit decidedly dark worlds. Xena in Xena Warrior Princess, an Australian TV series (1995-2001), is a more flawed figure than Wonder Woman, having started as a villain. She enjoys combat for its own sake and has some magical powers, and with her female sidekick Gabrielle, brings a strong lesbian component to the show. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) originated as a film and became a cult favorite among teen girls and some boys. According to the Buffy mythology, in each generation a girl is chosen to save the world from evil and given the power to do so. This destiny compounds Buffy’s adolescent angst because it cuts her off from the normal pleasures of teen girl’s life. The protagonist of Jessica Jones (2015-), a TV show based on a Marvel super hero, suffers PTSD and self-medicates with alcohol after having suffered extreme psychological and sexual violence at the hands of her nemesis, an evil male superhero with powers of mind control.

In contrast, Wonder Woman begins with a voice-over of Diana testifying to the wondrous beauty of the world. She discovers its corruption but she is no one’s victim. The optimism of her vision and her ability to sustain it in the face of monstrous evil is an important factor in the film’s power to move audiences suffering from the widespread malaise and cynicism of this historical moment, not only in the United States but globally.

Xena Warrior Princess (1995-2001), embracing love between women. [top left]

Jessica Jones (2015, 2018), with its tormented noir female superhero. [top right]

For male authors, exceptional power often brings suffering to female characters, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer  (1997-2003). [left]