I Wonder What a Woman Is: a Superheroine Subject to the Male Gaze

Livia Camperi
13 min readDec 30, 2018

Film began (in its earliest form) in the late 19th century as a way to settle a bet between two rich horse breeders. Since then, it has slowly and gradually transformed into the art form we know, love, and study today. Since the Great Depression, when movie studios decided that women were not business-minded or financially-oriented enough for the industry, female filmmakers have been few and far between; like most other art forms, film has been dominated by men since its inception (or at least since it became a business). To this day, there continues to be a paucity of female filmmakers, and a lack of appreciation for the few working today. As of 2010, women comprised only 7 percent of the directors working on the top 250 grossing films. In fact, since the Academy Awards started in 1928, out of 69 Best Director Oscars there has only been one female winner: Kathryn Bigelow in 2009 for The Hurt Locker. This scarcity of female auteurs contributes to the lack of female-driven stories on the big screen, and stems from the fact that film is and always has been a way for men to depict their desires on screen; this phenomenon has been coined the “male gaze.” In fact, some theorists argue that film is a way for male sexual desires to play out on screen, which always involve some sort of submission on the part of the woman. This prevents real female-led stories from successfully playing out on screen, as the essence of film is male desire itself. Taking a genre-specific approach, I’ll explore how the male gaze affects the way that superheroines are depicted on screen, via an exploration of the feminist theory, as elaborated by E. Ann Kaplan in her essay “Is the Gaze Male?” I will also compare sequences and costume choices from the various on-screen representations of Wonder Woman and the Amazons, as well as a discussion of Diana’s origins, which will help illustrate how the male gaze manifests itself cinematically, even in 2017.

According to theorist Laura Mulvey, there are three levels to the male gaze. The first is the man directing the camera, be it director or camera man, who literally controls the image. The second is the male character in the story, who makes the female character the object of his gaze. The third is the male spectator, who emulates the first two. The structure of film is, therefore, voyeuristic with an intent to fetishize females. Basically, men like to watch. However, the male gaze has more power than just objectification, which is problematic on its own. According to Kaplan, men’s gaze has “the power of action and of possession that is lacking in the female gaze. Women receive and return a gaze, but cannot act on it.” This disparity, between the male who wants to watch and the female who can only be watched, goes further to becomes a sort of sadomasochistic relationship where the male essentially punishes the woman for her lack of a manhood (for more on this, look into Lacan’s psychoanalytical theory on male sexual pleasure). This in turn engenders completely different reactions in the audience, where the male spectator sees himself as the subject and the female sees herself as an object. If a woman were to try to flip the script and own the gaze, would she simply be appropriating the male role as subject, or remain the object of desire?

Enter Wonder Woman. In 1941, psychologist William Moulton Marston created the character of “Suprema, the Wonder Woman,” later renamed just Wonder Woman. Marston was a rather interesting character himself. He believed the world would eventually become a matriarchy, and that women would be the rightful and better rulers of the world. He was in a polyamorous relationship with his wife, Elizabeth, and their girlfriend, Olive Byrne. The three of them lived together and raised their five shared children together. He also developed the early prototype of the lie detector test (polygraph), which eventually inspired Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth. (For a more detailed and highly engrossing telling of Marston’s fascinating life, check out Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman) Essentially, he didn’t like the current slate of characters in comic books, and wanted to create a strong female character to represent the future he believed imminent and unavoidable. Inspired by his two lovers, he created Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman.\

An early issue of “Wonder Woman” where her bracelets are bound by male war criminals

In 1975, ABC decided to make a television show for Wonder Woman after the continued success of her comic book. The two male producers, male director, male costume designer, male cinematographer, and male casting director, decided to cast former beauty-queen-turned-actress Lynda Carter in the title role. Although the show was hailed as a feminist success at the time and was generally a beloved show, hindsight has shed light on some its more problematic aspects, as well as the intensely 70’s campy nature of it. After Warner Bros’ Man of Steel in 2013, Zack Snyder, the director of the new lineup of DC movies, cast former beauty-queen-turned-actress Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman to be introduced in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. In 2017, she was finally able to star in her own movie, directed by the now highest grossing female director of all time, Patty Jenkins. Gal Gadot then reprised her role in 2017’s Justice League, first directed by Zack Snyder, and then Joss Whedon. These three showcase the difference between a male-directed and a female-directed representation of Wonder Woman, as well as showing the possibilities of a female-driven film that Kaplan hints at in her essay.

The first and most obvious way in which these representations were influenced by the male gaze is the look of Wonder Woman and the Amazons. In case one is unfamiliar with her origins, Wonder Woman, aka Diana, is the princess and the only somewhat natural-born woman on Paradise Island (later Themyscira), an island populated entirely by female warriors, known as the Amazons, or Amazon warriors. It would stand to reason that warriors would need warriors’ attire, i.e. armor and such. However, in the 1975 television show, which was directed by a man and costume designed by a man, Donfeld, the Amazons are shown wearing nothing more than quasi-sheer slip dresses, and then glorified swimsuits during the training/sporting montages. All, obviously, are extremely low-cut at the top and high-cut at the bottom.

Stills from “Wonder Woman” (1975) pilot episode

Wonder Woman’s own costume (when she goes to man’s world and starts doing her superhero thing) is more of the same, except with flashier colors, and apparently made of spandex. The show lasted three seasons, and as it went on the designer made her costume skimpier and tighter.

Ep. 1 costume with skirt which is immediately discarded (left); Main season 1 costume (middle); Main season 3 costume (right): the bottom is cut higher to further pronounce the hips and thighs, the “neckline” is lowered and the breasts are pushed up

In 2017, Patty Jenkins made history with Wonder Woman. It was critically and financially the best film to emerge from the DC/Warner Bros machine since The Dark Knight trilogy, and fans finally witnessed a Wonder Woman for the modern age in all her glory. The costumes, designed by a woman, Lindy Hemming (who also worked on The Dark Knight trilogy), were functional and intimidating. Although the functionality of so-called “boob plates” has been called into question, there is no doubt that these are more practical for battle-minded warriors than the sheer swimsuits of the 70’s television show. The Amazons trained and fought in metal armor that hugged their muscles and yet did not amplify or even show any cleavage, and allowed for free movement at the big joints (hips, shoulders), as explained by Diana herself to Etta Candy.

Stills of Amazon warriors from “Wonder Woman” (dir. Patty Jenkins, 2017)
Stills of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in “Wonder Woman” (2017)

Wonder Woman’s outfit is similarly updated. Her training armor is subdued yet tactical, and its simplicity is used narratively to show the difference between herself and the “real” Amazon warriors, since she is the only one who was born rather than created. Her Wonder Woman costume is battle-ready, with sculpted muscles (to go along with all the other on-screen heroes of the DC movies), actual armored plating, and no visible cleavage.

Many of those differences, however, could be chalked up to cultural evolution in the past 40 years, technological evolution, and evolution of the character. However, possibly the greatest proof that the male gaze still dominates today, happened just over a year ago. In November 2017, the movie Justice League was released. Wonder Woman was in most of the movie, and her battle costume was kept mostly the same as in Patty Jenkins’ movie. However, the Amazons also had a small role in the movie: they appear in one scene to defend this movie’s MacGuffin, the Mother Box, from the big baddie, Steppenwolf. They lose quite quickly. That’s it for them in this movie.

Brooke Ence (blonde) and another actress in their “Wonder Woman” costumes (left) and in their “justice League” costumes (right)
A group of actresses in their “Wonder Woman” costumes (left) and in their “Justice League” costumes (right)

Zack Snyder, who was in charge of the new DC lineup, is Executive Producer on all the movies, including Wonder Woman, and has directed three other movies (Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and Justice League). Given the fact that Justice League came out only about four months after Wonder Woman was released, one can assume that they filmed one directly after the other, if not at the same time. The same actresses from Wonder Woman acted as the Amazon warriors in Justice League. Snyder had access to all the same costumes. However, he decided to have his costume designer, Michael Wilkinson, redesign the Amazon’s costumes, for some reason. The warriors who were previously wearing battle-ready tactical armor, were now sporting glorified leather bikinis. There was no logical reason for Snyder to change their whole costumes, especially given the fact that they are only in a few minutes of the movie. The only explanation is that Snyder wanted to pander to the male gaze, exactly how Kaplan described it: men are afraid of women and so they over-sexualize them so as to have them be fetishes rather than characters.

This is also prevalent in the promotional imagery for all three of these movies. In the promotional imagery for the two male-influenced representations, Wonder Woman is striking a glamour pose. She is there to look pretty and to attract male viewers. In the ads for the female- directed one, Wonder Woman is always depicted either mid-battle or striking a fierce, intimidating pose.

“Wonder Woman” (1975) promotional posters (left); “Wonder Woman” (2017) promotional posters (middle); “Justice League” promotional image (right)

There are also times we see Diana in civilian clothes (not her costume). The few times that she wears civilian clothes in Wonder Woman, they are classy and refined, not over-sexualized. In Justice League, on the other hand, the director takes every chance possible to showcase her “natural talents” so to speak.

Stills from “Wonder Woman” (left) and “Justice League” (right)

These examples showcase exactly what the aforementioned feminist theorists were discussing. Cinema is traditionally a way of expressing male desires on screen. The subject treated by a woman filmmaker, given complex characterization, a great story, and a strong message, is reduced to a sexual object to be observed and desired by men when treated by a male filmmaker.

There is also the type of male gaze that Mulvey noted as pro-filmic: the camera. The way the camera moves and “observes” the female characters informs the other types of male gaze, both how/where the male actor will look and how/where the male spectator will look. By choosing the movements, angle, and placing of the camera, a filmmaker has the power to decide what kind of gaze he/she wants on the subject. The differences between the shooting of the Wonder Woman television show and movie are great examples of this. Even just comparing the pilot episode of the television show (which is one hour long and presents Diana’s origin story) to the movie, we see choices made by the directors that show what kind of audience they were expecting and catering to. One of the most conspicuous examples is the use of slow motion. In the television show, Diana and the other Amazons compete in an Olympics-style sporting competition to see who will accompany Steve Trevor back to man’s world. Here, slow motion is used in a very Baywatch style: the camera lingers on and prolongs shots of the Amazons running towards camera in their sheer, thin, barely-holding-it-in suits, with their breasts bouncing all over the place. This gratuitous lingering of the camera shows that the director of this episode, the producers of the series, and the creative team (all men), wanted to market this show to men, in the simplest of ways, despite its purported feminist tone. This objectification and conspicuous eroticism is “designed to annihilate the threat that woman … poses.” The show-runners are effectively, through the pro-filmic gaze, telling men that they need not be afraid of these women, they are just here to be sexy.

Gif of slow-mo shot in pilot episode of “Wonder Woman” (1975)

On the other side of things is the 2017 Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins has said since the start that she wanted Wonder Woman and the Amazons to not only be strong, capable, formidable warriors, but also look amazing doing it. She wanted to knock down the idea that women have to sacrifice femininity in order to be strong. That was why she gave the Amazons heels (albeit reinforced metal ones) and still made sure the costumes were appealing. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly,

Jenkins defends the impractical footwear. “It’s total wish-fulfillment,” she says, adding that the warriors have flats for heavy fighting. “I, as a woman, want Wonder Woman to be hot as hell, fight badass, and look great at the same time — the same way men want Superman to have huge pecs and an impractically big body. That makes them feel like the hero they want to be. And my hero, in my head, has really long legs.”

Gifs of slow-mo shots from “Wonder Woman” (2017)

Although Jenkins did make sure the Amazons still looked attractive (since they were, canonically, created by Zeus to “influence men’s hearts with love”), she did not cross the line into having the camera linger lasciviously on breasts or butts jiggling as they run in slow motion across a field to 70’s pop music. In fact, slow motion is used generously throughout Jenkins’ film, but it is used to accentuate moments of great physical prowess. The film switches to slow-motion as an Amazon is jumping twenty feet in the air and throwing a sword to another Amazon with perfect precision, or demonstrating ferocity with a spear, or jumping off of a shield and shooting three arrows to perfectly kill three enemies. These slow-motion shots are not for men to ogle women’s bodies as sexual objects: they exist, in fact, to show the complete opposite than the 1975 television show. These beautiful bodies are insanely strong and can, probably, destroy you.

Slow motion is used in largely the same way in Justice League, but the biggest difference in terms of the pro-filmic gaze is the repeated use of butt shots. So, so many butt shots.

Still from “Justice League” (2017)

There is, finally, the question that Kaplan asks in her article: is it possible for a woman to own the gaze? In other words, is it possible for a female spectator to identify with something more than the female object of desire, without simply appropriating the male position? Wonder Woman (2017), I think, answers that question with a resounding “yes.” In this depiction, Diana is most definitely a woman. She is traditionally beautiful, and wears makeup and attractive “clothing” (attractive battle armor, really). She is in love with a man, so she is also a heterosexual woman (Kaplan mentions that lesbian depictions on screen are a whole different question as to who the female spectator identifies with), and she has implied sex with Steve. This relationship and depiction of a strong woman shatters the glass ceiling mentioned by Kaplan, as first stated by Mary Ann Doane in her paper “The Women’s Film: Possession and Address”: because a woman is sexuality in male-gaze-driven films, in order for a film to be female-driven, it must be de-eroticized. However, in doing this, the film denies an entire side of the female experience. Wonder Woman (2017) succeeds in showing us a complex reality with a female character who saves the day and is stronger than the men around her, yet doesn’t go the typical male-strongman-hero route of insisting on doing everything alone, and expresses her sexuality and confidence in a deeply feminine and unobscured way. This step forward in feminist cinema is what makes it all the more disappointing that it seems the studio took an immediate step backwards with Justice League. However, Wonder Woman 1984, the sequel directed again by Patty Jenkins, spells hope for the future of superheroines on film.

The male gaze theory states that the male-minded camera, male actors, and male spectators affect how a female character is depicted on screen, and how a female spectator identifies with her. Although the previous depiction of Wonder Woman in the 1975 television series (not to mention all the other truly horrendous attempts at putting superheroines on the screen, such as Supergirl, Catwoman, and Elektra) and 2017’s Justice League definitely show a perpetuation of the trend of hypersexualizing strong female characters so as not to scare men, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman shows the possibility that a female-centric, non-male-ego-stroking, well-made film can shatter glass ceilings, break records, and make history.



Livia Camperi

One and a half degrees in Cinema Studies from NYU and this is the most productive thing that’s come of it.