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Wonder Woman and the critical generation gap

Photo: Warner Bros./Ratpac Entertainment

Had we gotten a big-screen Wonder Woman much earlier, the buzz surrounding the film would have been different, to put it mildly. Triumphant press releases boasting about star Gal Gadot’s hip and bust measurements—common practice in old Hollywood—would have been sent to the press, perhaps accompanied by a public weighing-in to prove that her figure was indeed as “wonderful” as advertised. (Slate reprints a 1931 issue of Photoplay listing the heights, weights, and measurements of more than a dozen female stars of the era.) “What a Gal!,” reviewers might write, praising Gadot’s long limbs and model-perfect features with a mixture of paternalistic pride and leering objectification. And there would have been no dissenting narrative, at least not in the press.

But, for better or for worse, we didn’t get a Wonder Woman movie until 2017, in an era when public pressure has jolted movie studios into at least vague gestures toward social consciousness. One such gesture was the hiring of director Patty Jenkins, whose success has been puzzled over like a mythical beast by critics both deliberately contrarian and otherwise. Jenkins leans overwhelmingly toward celebrating Wonder Woman’s athletic prowess over her sex appeal, and keeps her focused on her mission over her budding romance with Steve Trevor.


But that didn’t stop a handful of reviewers from taking what we’ll politely call an “old-school approach” to the film, and its star. The Guardian’s review takes what appears to be offense to a joke about men being unnecessary, bringing it up a couple of times before asserting that they “might be unnecessary for pleasure, but they’re still essential for big-budget action movies.” Meanwhile, New York magazine’s David Edelstein—who has a history of writing about protagonists’ looks in his reviews, including describing a then 11-year-old Emma Watson as “absurdly alluring” in Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stonedescribed Gadot as a “perfect blend of superbabe-in-the-woods innocence and mouthiness” and quipped that “Israeli women are a breed unto themselves, which I say with both admiration and trepidation.”

Whether or not it’s ever appropriate to comment on an actress’ looks in a review is certainly open for debate. But approaching objectionable reviews of Wonder Woman as a question of who “can” and “can’t” say certain words does the debate a disservice, and not just because framing it as a free speech issue invites kneejerk backlash. The deeper question is about the unspoken, usually subconscious assumptions critics make about themselves and their audiences when they write a review. The writers mentioned above weren’t thinking of how female readers might interpret their words—the alternative is that they don’t care if what they say is hurtful, so we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. They simply assumed that the abstract “reader” would see things their way.


That’s because they’ve never really had to see things from the female perspective, or the perspectives of people of color, or of LGBTQ people, or any other perspective but their own. White men have dictated the terms of public discourse for a long time, and scientific studies demonstrate how when women speak—even if they speak much less than men—men will still perceive them as dominating the conversation. Which brings us to the question of objectivity.

Critics who came up through journalism schools—particularly holdovers from the newspaper era—operate under the idea that there exists an objective metric through which you can measure art, and that it’s a critic’s obligation to be objective when applying these metrics. It’s a concept completely divorced from identity politics, which is fine if you belong to the group whose perspective has long been defined as the default—and there’s no denying that, historically, the “objective” viewpoint has been overwhelmingly been a white male one.


In the case of Wonder Woman, then, a reviewer who removes the film from its social context, not accounting for the overwhelming emotional response the film has provoked in fans (female fans, specifically, but all genders report finding it moving) who have been waiting their entire lives for a sequence like Diana’s heroic crossing of no man’s land, could frame that decision as analyzing the film like any other superhero blockbuster. From that “objective” perspective, the idea that this isn’t just like any other superhero blockbuster to a large segment of its audience is irrelevant. In fact, in his apology for the review published last week, Edelstein admits to exactly that, citing a female colleague who suggested that he was not treating the material with the respect “the movie’s partisans consider appropriate.”

Let’s talk about those partisans for a moment. In the 2010s, a new school of critics steeped in both intersectional politics and fandom has arisen, a more inclusive but equally obsessive alternative to the toxicity of fanboy culture. (Intersectional feminist pop-culture site The Mary Sue is a perfect example.) The approach embraces the idea that everyone appreciates things (or doesn’t appreciate them) for different reasons, making the social context of a film essential to gauging its quality. Sometimes dismissed as a politically correct “purity test,” by these metrics an otherwise flawed film can be great if it empowers its fan base, or an otherwise well-made film can be a failure if it alienates segments thereof. Therefore, diverse representation is good, and stereotypes and whitewashing are bad. (This viewpoint can itself become complicated when the alienating factor is simply someone challenging your beliefs—but that’s a topic for another time.)


Vox’s Jaime Weinman wrote about the rise of socially conscious criticism back in April, pointing out that writers who fall under this general umbrella tend to take genre films more seriously than more traditional, newspaper-oriented critics. It’s not too much of a stretch to tie this to the passionate online fan cultures, specifically on Tumblr, that have nurtured many younger pop-culture writers, seeking oneness with their favorite properties and demanding personal accountability (and gratification) from filmmakers and studios. Combine the deep personal identification with pop-cultural icons with equally deep political convictions, and you get unapologetically subjective decrees that something is either perfect, or it is trash.

The clash of objectivity and subjectivity would seem to be a philosophical impasse, but as always, the way forward lies somewhere in the middle. Throughout history, the clash between radical upstarts and the status quo have claimed headlines while the majority of opinions—in this case, critical ones—lie somewhere in between. American Theatre’s interview with Kelundra Smith about a similar culture clash at The New York Times theater desk back in February takes just such a middle path, acknowledging the role white privilege played in the conflict between the producers of a musical adaptation of Huckleberry Finn and the critic who took issue with the show’s racial politics while holding said critic to high professional standards.


Like Smith, I do believe that there should be some measurable standards of quality in the work produced by skilled tradespeople like writers, actors, cinematographers, and editors. Critics have more than a century of film history at their disposal to which they can compare new works, and without knowledge of this history behind an opinion there really isn’t much of a difference between a professional critic’s review and your average Facebook post. Besides, opinions mellow with experience, and the first big lesson I learned as a working critic is that there are very few As or Fs in this world. Most things, it turns out, are a mixture of both.

It’s when we get into writing about how films make people feeland good movies do make people feel things—where the new generation of socially conscious critics could teach the old timers a thing or two. For my money, the most important step forward is acknowledging that the traditional journalistic concept of “objectivity” was created by white men speaking amongst themselves. And, if that’s the case, do we re-define what that term means, or do we throw it out the window entirely? Critics should be fair, yes. But if that fairness means not taking into account what Wonder Woman means to female superhero fans, for example, or the upcoming Black Panther for fans of color, well—you’re going to be left behind. It’s a disservice to the filmmakers, to the audience, and to yourself.


The most obvious solution to that particular issue, of course, is to hire more women and people of color for criticism jobs, to destabilize the homogeny of critical viewpoints. As far as Wonder Woman goes, a discussion of the film between Valerie Complex and Robert Jones Jr. illuminated some issues with the film’s racial politics that weren’t in the front of my (white) mind while watching it, and I wish more reviews of the film had interrogated these ideas the way they did. But while asking white male critics to walk out of their jobs en masse would certainly open up a lot of bylines, that’s not a fair or workable solution, either.

Perhaps the best thing to do is throw away the idea of “critics” and of “audiences” as monoliths. There is no objective way to watch Wonder Woman, and therefore there is no single authoritative way to write about it. As pop culture and politics grow ever closer and studios begin to realize that diverse representation is an asset rather than a liability, it’s more important than ever to reach out, to listen, and to look outside of ourselves. It’s an awesome responsibility in both senses of the word to be entrusted with the label of “critic,” and a little humility goes a long way toward earning it.


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