Friday, December 6, 2013

Bodies of Wonder

The kerfluffle currently going on about the casting of Wonder Woman has me thinking a few things, and most of them consist of being really annoyed that people. Don't. Get. It. when it comes to body commentary and women.

So, Wonder Woman has been cast to feature, in some capacity we don't yet know the extent of, in the next Supes/Bats movie. This movie doesn't have a title, so it's possible they'll do the Justice League and make her important. She could also be a totally sidelined character in a story revolving around Supes and Bats. She could be a cameo. We don't know yet. The actress who has been cast in the role is Gal Gadot, who was formerly in the Israeli military. I have zero opinion on her because I haven't seen her in anything, I didn't see the audition that landed her the role, and I tend to refrain from judging actor's abilities who don't have a long track record. Or, conversely, those who do but who can break out and surprise everyone. See Charlize Theron in Monster for a good example, I don't think anyone expected that transformation.

My main concern?: Zack Snyder will be directing this movie and, I'm assuming, have a hand in the scripting like he usually does. This doesn't fill me with confidence. I think he's a visually stylish director who, more often than not, substitutes said style for substance. He does great trailers, but the final product tends to, at best, leave me feeling cold and underwhelmed. Beyond that, I think his views on what "empowering" stories are is questionable and superficial. As a storyteller I just don't have a ton of confidence in him or what he thinks a "strong" female character is.

I saw some concern about this, but what's drowned it out has been a truly stunning degree of body shaming aimed at the actress. Yes, she has a slim, lithe frame. Yes, Wonder Woman is depicted as curvier and more muscular in the comics. Depending on the stats, Wonder Woman is anywhere from 5 foot 10 to 6 feet, possibly even taller in heeled boots. One stat I found put her weight at 130, another 140. At 6 foot that would be a VERY slender frame. When I worked at DC I'm relatively sure I saw her official stats at a more reasonable 150, though that'd still be pretty slim. Given her muscular frame in the more current incarnations, I'd say 175 to 180 is more reasonable. People see that kind of weight on a female character and they'd freak out that she's "fat", which is one reason I'm guessing those numbers aren't used. That and a fundamental misunderstanding of the fact that muscle weighs more than fat.

I also wonder if there isn't something subconscious going on in making a character as physically solid at WW have stats like that, in direct contradiction to her actual frame. If you checked out the stats of female athletes you'd find that weight varies a lot by frame and type of sport, but you can't really tell by looking how much they weigh. Also, WW's powers are suped, so she doesn't get her strength strictly from her physicality. There's god magic involved. Still, artists like Phil Jimenez have developed an incredibly iconic look for her that is, physically, imposing, and that's not a bad thing at all. However, it's a tall order for finding an actress in the real world.

Basically, if you wanted an actress to match these stats to an even somewhat close degree, you'd need someone like Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth on GoT). And, fyi, people FLIPPED out when she was cast, too. A lot of people claimed she was "too pretty" for the role. And if someone like her had been cast as WW, I can pretty much guarantee the conversation we'd be having right now would be along the lines of her being "too" big, "manly", and not attractive enough.

I'm using this example for a reason. Which is namely: women can't win in the body wars. Something is ALWAYS wrong with us, and this goes double for actresses or women in the public eye at all. Too thin, not thin enough, fat, ugly, whatever. And the problem with the conversations around it is that they're rife with entitlement, a culture that is obsessed with policing women's bodies, and all kinds of messed up ideas about what women "should" look like on any given day. I get that this is frustrating for people who want to have a conversation about WW's physicality, but that's just how it is. It's not unreasonable for people to be wary of this topic and skeptical that it's coming from some kind of "helpful" place aimed at having any helpful dialog about the myriad factors involved.

I mean, honestly, how does "she's a stick!' and "eat a sandwich!", both of which I've seen a LOT, and from people I thought better of, constitute a useful discussion? In what way does that do anything other than body shame and attempt to elevate one idealized body type for another? I've seen a lot of "well, she should be curvier!" Okay, but, why? Like, is that because the character must be curvy or she's not Wonder Woman on some essential level...or is it because you find curvier women more attractive personally? That's not about her looking stronger, that's about her looking more sexually appealing to you. That doesn't look like concern for the character performance or we'd be talking about that. Instead it looks like a lot of people are having a mini tantrum that their head version of WW wasn't cast so they could see their personal fantasy version on the screen. It looks like Wonder Woman exists to be appealing to people physically, not who she is.

When you reduce Wonder Woman to her body like that, you're reducing -her-. I'm pretty sure she has a whole bunch of character traits you could rattle off before you got to looks. And yet that appears to be the main focus of the "concern trolling" I'm seeing about the actresses build. That people are worried about her health (doubtful) or that the Hollywood ideal is damaging and problematic (more believable, except that it seems to be serving as more of an excuse to then say crappy things about a slim woman than any useful discussion). It's nice some folks suddenly seem to care about women in Hollywood/media and our cultures worship of specific body types, but I remain skeptical it goes that deep. Especially if you're not willing to discuss how complicated this conversation is because of the culture we live in, which colors everything. The fact is, women's bodies are clearly considered public property. Whether we're talking tabloid "Whose Body Is or Is Not Acceptable This Week" features, the way we gleefully wonder who has an eating disorder to who looks "too fat" to wear a bikini, to the way reproductive rights are being undermined, how we discuss women and their bodies has wider ramifications than the casting of a superhero movie. And no, you can't just brush that aside and pretend it doesn't exist in a larger context. Maybe -especially- because we're talking about a character like Wonder Woman, who represents a lot of amazing ideals, like strength through compassion, justice, and fighting for those who can't.

Granted, I am not arguing that Wonder Woman's physicality doesn't matter. But actors often make major transformations for roles, we have absolutely no idea if that's planned here or not. I'm also not arguing that we don't have an issue with a very restricted, narrow definition of beauty that is still defined by thinness. However, saying things like "she's a stick!" in no way improves that or does anything to diversify our idea of beauty. I think sometimes people (usually men) think they're being helpful when they say they like curvier women, or whatever. The problem with that? It still frames the discussion as being about what men prefer about women's bodies. And it assumes that putting down one body type will somehow make another one more acceptable. It won't. We should be working towards the idea that beauty is not a woman's most defining or important feature. Which this current conversation is not doing in spades.

Given all that, it seems like comments like "eat a sandwich!" should maybe not be happening. Because that's about as far away from what Wonder Woman represents as you can get.

1 comment:

  1. A lot of people are more forgiving towards male actors who don't meet certain muscular requirements of a particular hero than they are of females, as if they forgot that women can pack on muscle mass. Yes, I envision Wonder Woman as a physically intimidating muscular woman. Gadot's got the height and can certainly put on the weight. Now the question of whether the executives will allow her to bulk up and risk looking "manly" is up in the air. But regardless of that, when I see comments about her weight, I agree with you. I'm little skeptical about where their intentions lie. Because many of those comments also make it a point to mention Gadot's "lack" of cup size and butt. Neither of which have to do with her being physically menacing. And I'm pretty sure Amazons don't have a prerequisite of pant and bra size to join the "club."
    On the flip side, I wonder what the reaction would be if the cast an actress that was a little overweight or who had the musculature of someone like Serena Williams?
    If we look at the alternatives people have suggested-- based on physique and acting ability-- such as Emily Blunt and Jaimie Alexander, they're not that much bigger than Gadot. So, from what I'm seeing, they want someone who has some muscle but not too much. Who looks athletic but not too athletic.