The Celluloid Glass Ceiling: How Patty Jenkins Became Our New Super Heroine

Last weekend, Warner’s Wonder Woman broke a box office record. It’s the first film directed by a woman to crack $100 million at the box office. It also revealed a long suppressed, dirty secret of Hollywood; the celluloid boardroom is just as sexist a the rest of corporate America. And it took a film about a strong woman directed by a strong woman to show us that.

Last year, only 7% of the 250 highest-grossing films were directed by women, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. That number has fallen 2% over the past two decades. Even though women consistently take home directing prizes in prestigious festivals like Sundance for art-house films, they’re largely boxed out of the most lucrative genres.

I don’t think Patty was raised by Amazons or wears body armor (except maybe in the boardroom) but she had to overcome a lot of obstacles to make this film happen, including replacing another director (Michelle Maclaren) to make the first major superheroine movie in over a decade. The last attempts were Catwoman and Elektra: both films were directed by men, got poor reviews, flopped at the box office and convinced studios for several years that female superhero movies just “don’t work.”

Ironically, Patty nailed it by not shying away from Wonder Woman’s (played by Gal Gadot) fragile, “more feminine” side. The film opens with our young heroine, Diana, true to the legend as a girl being raised by women on a remote Greek island. The notion of a young, fearless girl being trained by strong-willed mother figures is a powerful, irresistible trope that has long languished in Hollywood’s overtly sexist “princess mentality.” The notion that a superhero can only recognize her superpower from a male dominated myth, is refreshingly obliterated by the first ten minutes of the film.

When the young Diana finds herself in the middle of World War I, confused and fragile, I marveled at how far we’ve come from the TV cartoon icon of the 1970’s. Diana doesn’t look tough and voluptuous the way Lynda Carter did; she looks tough, and lost. By avoiding all the distracting modern gadgets that fuel modern superhero movies, and placing it in a backdrop of history’s most bloody and pointless war, we see a real woman, who must use more wits than magic to overcome a fear many women have: that their power and drive will undermine a real, romantic relationship.

The casting of Godot was brilliant and is true to form for Jenkins as she’s adept at turning incredibly beautiful women into real human beings (She directed Monster, starring Charlize Theron). Godot isn’t really beautiful until she gets knocked down and punched in the face. Then she becomes the kind of woman who baffles and enthralls her love interest.

For her achievement, Sally Jenkins stands alone, but I don’t think this film could’ve gotten a green light were it not for our begrudging acceptance that gender roles are complex, too complex for your typical “Blockbuster.”

Hollywood, despite all it’s liberal progress needs to realize that sex and gender are still worlds apart and exploring this divide will make future “superhero movies” into films about real women who realize their extraordinary power comes from within.

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