Let me get something out of the way first: it’s OK to find Wonder Woman troubling. Wonder Woman has always been a weird concept and people have always had differing ideas about who and what she represents. She was inspired by the suffrage movement, sure, but she was also inspired by pin-up girl art. Hell, for a while, every Wonder Woman comic was just an excuse to draw a beautiful woman in various forms of chain bondage. I like Wonder Woman the character and I liked Wonder Woman the movie, but to pretend that there’s nothing weird about a hero who was created to both titivate men and inspire young girls is a little selective.
But, James Cameron, what the fuck?
“All of the self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood’s been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided,” said director James Cameron in his Guardian interview with Hadley Freeman. “She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing! I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie but, to me, it’s a step backwards.”
I want to be as fair with this as I can because, honestly, it’s becoming a little too easy to pull the “a successful white man doesn’t agree with me; I will therefore chuck everything in my feminist arsenal at him and carpet-bomb this conversation to the ground” card. To an extent, I know where James Cameron is coming from. It can get a little irritating when Hollywood does One Good Thing and then proceeds to throw rice confetti all over itself for the next decade, while simultaneously failing to learn from its successes. Take Thelma & Louise: when it first came out, it was praised by critics as the "neo-feminist road movie”, it inspired actual Tori Amos songs and its writer, Callie Khouri, won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
This is where we’re supposed to stop what we’re doing and applaud James Cameron for realising – 20 years ago! – that women are people
And then nothing happened. There were no more neo-feminist road movies, because Hollywood had back-patted itself so hard about Thelma & Louise that no one saw the need to make another one.
So, I’m as suspicious of self-congratulatory back-patting as James Cameron is. I don’t want Hollywood to get too comfortable with itself because, frankly, there’s too much work left to be done. However, it would be much easier to engage reasonably with James Cameron’s opinions on Wonder Woman if he didn’t, in the next breath, start congratulating himself for his own work.
“Sarah Connor was not a beauty icon,” says Cameron, speaking of his own Terminator 2 character. “She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit. And to me, [the benefit of characters like Sarah] is so obvious. I mean, half the audience is female!”
The whole argument, if there was one, unravels. Because this isn’t about holding Hollywood to account for the way it portrays women – this is the James Cameron Show. This is where we’re supposed to stop what we’re doing and applaud James Cameron for realising – 20 years ago! – that women are people. It’s someone who has made their career making female-led action blockbusters getting pissed because somebody else is getting the credit for making female-led action blockbusters. It’s shitting on someone else’s career success just because the best of your career is probably behind you – and, honey, it’s not cute. Its also very, very transparent.
Patty Jenkins, the director of Wonder Woman, responded via Twitter with the following:
I like most of James Cameron’s movies (excluding Avatar, because, ew, Avatar) and I strongly believe that he has created genre-changing roles for women. But this idea that you can’t be a beauty icon and a bad-ass at the same time is one that he doesn’t even subscribe to. He’s the guy who made KATE WINSLET charge around in a GOWN, holding an AXE, so she could save the man she loved from a ship rapidly filling with water.
I’ve always loved that scene in Titanic and it represents the exact kind of multidimensional female hero that Patty Jenkins created in Wonder Woman – one that is soft, loving and unmistakably the agent of her own destiny.
James, we get it. You’ve written a lot of cool women characters, but you’re not the only one who can, and you’re not the person who gets to rubber-stamp your feminist approval on every female character that garners critical success. There are already people whose jobs that is – the women who paid to see the movie.