Wonder Woman is an unquestionable success, setting a new box office record for the highest-grossing live-action film directed by a woman, and Hollywood has taken notice—a sequel has already been announced. One of the reasons why Wonder Woman has hit a nerve is that its women warriors are not insipid eye candy for gushing audiences to drool over, but authentic warriors with developed personalities, purpose, and backstories. Though woman warriors abound throughout history, they are absent from most war films and action movies. Besides a few cases like Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from Alien, Sara Connor (Linda Hamilton) from Terminator, and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) from Mad Max: Fury Road, female warrior protagonists hardly get the light of a projector screen compared to their male counterparts.
The failure to portray warrior women in superhero movies stems from the same failure to portray women authentically in war. The DC/Marvel superhero genre is an excellent example of male bias at work. Even though Wonder Woman has existed as a character in the DC universe nearly as long as both Superman (1938) and Batman (1939), we are only now seeing a Wonder Woman movie. In contrast, we’ve seen a tiresome barrage of A-list, B-list, and even C-list male superhero movies with more bat nipples, codpieces, and tight pants than I care to remember. Even though women have participated in almost every aspect of warfare as nurses, pilots, mechanics, and soldiers, women are typically absent from war movies outside of roles as victims, widows, or prostitutes. With women missing from warfare, Hollywood makes it very clear that war is a man’s game only: No women allowed.
Then came Wonder Woman. One of the most unique virtues of Wonder Woman, when compared to other action and war movies, is that the movie does a much better job of portraying the roles of women in warfare than most war movies in the genre. The film is a beautiful combination of historical accuracy and fictional narrative that takes place in World War I, when women were still fighting for the right to vote in a male-dominated world. Wonder Woman is portrayed as a phenomenal exception to the reality of women in the early 20th century; her character is allowed to exhibit personal freedom, physical courage, and ferocity. In contrast, the most powerful female character in the film (besides Wonder Woman and the Amazons, of course) is Dr. Maru, a highly educated biochemist who employs her knowledge in chemical warfare to help the German Army.
Because fictional characters like Wonder Woman are the only women who actually engage in physical combat in the movie, audiences probably left the theatre with the impression that real women did not participate directly in warfare during World War I, but this is simply not true. In fact, World War I has particularly fascinating examples of ferocious women in combat. Imagine your city was being bombed. Your house destroyed. Your loved ones killed. Would you let war ravage your home and destroy your world, or would you be motivated to fight? During WWI, many women found themselves in this exact predicament, and some chose to fight. Emilienne Moreau-Evrard earned 47 awards from the French Academy for her distinguished examples of military courage, which included killing two German snipers in the Battle of Loos in 1915. Helene Dutrieux, one of the first women to fly an airplane in Europe, traded in her skills as a pilot to drive an ambulance and save the lives of soldiers on the front lines. And there was the Russian military all-female shock unit Battalion of Death, a 250-strong force of fighting women commanded by Marie Baktscharow, a war-decorated heroine who saved her male comrades in the heat of battle and machine gun fire.
If any historical example compliments Wonder Woman’s ruthless female Amazon warriors of Themyscira, it is the 19th century women warriors of the Dahomey Kingdom in West Africa. This special class of 5,000 female soldiers was organized into brigades commanded by female officers and were the only warriors entrusted to serve in the king’s bodyguard. Historical images of these warriors often portray them armed with muskets and bows, holding the severed heads of their defeated enemies. Unfortunately, history has largely forgotten these examples, something the authors of Demystifying the Feminine Mythtique: Or, Women and Combat Can Mix have cleverly likened to a “collective amnesia” of women’s contributions in warfare.
The film industry is one of the main culprits of this revisionist history. Because Hollywood fails to honor the real martial traditions of women, the hackneyed portrayals of women warriors as two-dimensional heroines on heels consistently resurface in film. These types of film are widespread throughout the industry: Sucker Punch, Red Sonja, Aeon Flux, Ultraviolent, and Charlie’s Angels are a few examples that come to mind. These portrayals of women warriors are not representations of female empowerment, but cultural reinforcements of the idea that women primarily serve as objects of sexual desire. In war films, where gender roles are more firmly reinforced, accurate representations of women’s contributions in warfare are even more difficult to find, the most recognizable exceptions being G.I. Jane and Zero Dark Thirty.
Wonder Woman was a huge step in the right direction. As both a superhero and war film, the movie not only acknowledged that women exist in warfare (a low bar, I know, but we need to start somewhere), but also portrayed women as strong, fierce warriors willing and able to fight courageously in battle. Following on the heels of Wonder Woman’s boot prints are two upcoming movies that also show the potential to accurately portray and honor female fighters. One is Lioness, starring Ellen Page as a female Marine officer sent to Afghanistan to gain intelligence from local women. Shoot Like a Girl is based on the true story of U.S. Air National Guard helicopter pilot Major Mary Jennings Hegar, who was shot down by the Taliban in 2009 during a medevac mission. The movie, based on a book of the same name, is a true account of how Hegar saved the lives of her crew and patients, despite being wounded in enemy territory.
Similarly, the next Wonder Woman should honor female warrior heritage by including real examples of women who fought in World War II. The film could include a heroine like Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Russian sniper in WWII who had over 300 confirmed kills by the age of 25. Or for an extra suspenseful flair, the movie could dedicate a scene to the Night Witches, an all-female Russian aviator squadron who bombed Nazi soldiers under the cover of darkness. Instead of creating fictional woman warrior heroines, it’s time to right Hollywood’s revisionist history of women in warfare and preserve the memories of the real brave women of our past who are gone but should never be forgotten.