A heroine for the ages

Wonder Woman smashes the superhero glass ceiling in more ways than one, says film studies professor Robin Blaetz.

Interview by Sasha Nyary 

“Wonder Woman,” the summer blockbuster movie directed by Patty Jenkins, “broke a superhero glass ceiling that should have been shattered long ago,” said The Hollywood Reporter. The industry publication noted that the movie’s milestones include the first female character in the DC and Marvel comic book universes to get her own movie, the first female-led superhero movie in more than three decades and the first such film to be directed by a woman. In addition, Jenkins now holds the record for the largest opening weekend for a woman director, $103.1 million. 

Such successes cannot be underestimated, said Robin Blaetz, a professor of film studies at Mount Holyoke College. 

“It is profoundly important that women move to the top of the image-making industries,” she said. “We change the world when we make images of ourselves.” 

Blaetz studies women and film, in particular women’s representation in historical film and women avant-garde filmmakers. “We need to get women into the film and television industry,” she said. “We need to be training them, which is the heart of what I do at Mount Holyoke.” 

Blaetz’s expertise includes the portrayal of Joan of Arc in 20th-century films, which she wrote about in her 2001 book, “Visions of the Maid: Joan of Arc in American Film and Culture.” Kevin Harty of La Salle University called it “an example of cultural studies at their best” in his review. 

In an interview while on a visit to Greece, Blaetz spoke about Joan of Arc and the connections between her and this latest version of Wonder Woman. 

When we think about women in popular culture, Joan of Arc can be seen as the archetypal heroine. How has the French saint been portrayed in 20th-century American film? 

Joan of Arc appears all of sudden during the First World War, which saw a huge blossoming of Joan of Arc imagery — posters, songs, movies. Cecil B. DeMille’s film “Joan the Woman” was made in 1916, the first full-length feature film made in the United States, and his Joan is an incredible, powerful figure. One publicity image shows her holding a giant sword, with which she has cut the king’s little dagger in half, with this gleeful look in her eye. 

At the time, Joan of Arc was allowed to stand as an inspirational figure for both men and women because there was no way women were going to fight in the First World War. Joan was appealing as an authentic figure, imbued with a deep integrity, which was an increasingly rare characteristic at the dawn of our modern consumer culture. She had meaning because she had given her life for something she believed in and that act had real value. 

By the Second World War, Joan of Arc is used in films to motivate others rather than as a heroine — she supports the men and then returns home after the war. Her sacrifice is no longer losing her life for an important cause but the sacrifice of her economic and social freedom. By the late 1940s, the Joan of Arc figure is shown to be inspirational, but uncertain and incompetent in an essential way so that she motivates men to behave heroically. In film history class when we teach a melodrama like Victor Fleming’s 1948 “Joan of Arc,” we observe — only partially in jest — that when women gain power, they either have to die, go blind or get married. 

By the 1960s Joan appears in no films whatsoever, not until 1999, when two films were made about her. They are blatantly not about the warrior Joan, but about the hysteria that would cause a woman to say she could see visions. The warrior part of her story is over. 

I’m always looking to see when it will come back — if it will come back. The closer women get to being combatants in real life, the more threatening Joan of Arc is. 

Wonder Woman, first introduced in 1941, was created by William Moulton Marston and inspired by two women: his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Mount Holyoke class of 1915, and Olive Byrne, their live-in polyamorous partner, niece of Margaret Sanger. Given this origin story, how do Wonder Woman and Joan of Arc compare? 

Both women are warriors and both of them are seen as somewhat Amazonian. Obviously Wonder Woman is an Amazon. With Joan of Arc, her bow, the arc, the Amazonian overtones have been a very intentional part of her iconography since the Renaissance. But otherwise there’s really very little connection.

In my book, I examined three notions present in the Joan of Arc story: androgyny, virginity and the sacrificial violence of her death. And none of them are present in Wonder Woman. Both figures do operate in relation to prophecies. But the androgyny is certainly not there in Wonder Woman. We know Joan of Arc with the short haircut, the pants and tunic. The only way she can approach power is through discarding traditional feminine iconography. And look at Wonder Woman, she’s recognizable by her little skirt, that little midriff top — you would have to call it feminine! I wish the costume in the movie had not been quite so conventional. 

Virginity as we understand it today is not part of Wonder Woman’s story in any way, whereas Joan of Arc was examined at least twice to assure that she was a virgin. Virgin warriors were  allowed when she was alive, but not the sexual woman who had access to maternity. 

And then of course Wonder Woman doesn’t die in the end. She is helped by men rather than always being the helper or motivator and her male colleague dies the sacrificial death while she goes on to live another day. Joan of Arc is valued and has been for almost 600 years because no matter how much strength and success she has, we are always aware that she is going to die on the stake in the end. In film in particular, this is why she has been so popular. She sees ghostly visions, she fights dramatic battles and then she dies spectacularly. 

But Wonder Woman survives! Really, Wonder Woman is a big deal. She is a new version of a heroine. 

Clearly the world is ready for a new version of a heroine, given that “Wonder Woman” generated more than $620 million worldwide in its first three weeks, making it the highest-grossing live action film ever directed by a woman. Is it a different movie because it’s directed by a woman? 

That’s the question I’m most interested in. In terms of her direction, the lighting and everything that goes into the construction of meaning, the movie isn’t different because the director, Patty Jenkins, is a woman. Men could use the same filmmaking tools. The difference is that they don’t. 

What I teach students to do at Mount Holyoke is to read the language of cinema, which involves how you set up the world that will be filmed, how you direct actors in that world, how you light the sets, where the camera is placed — that is, what angle, what distance — and when you cut and how you organize the shots. These are the questions that a filmmaker has to answer to create the meaning they intend. 

Jenkins directed Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman to look both attractive and powerful. For example, rather than having her stand in a conventionally feminine way with her shoulders down, her head lowered and her eyes raised to look vulnerable, Jenkins made her look dynamic and confident. 

And while male directors could do this just as easily, they usually don’t. In teaching film as a feminist film scholar, I illustrate that the most powerful woman — for example, a woman astronaut or a woman heart surgeon — can be filmed to look stupid, vulnerable and incompetent. Or you can put a woman in a bathing suit, which is what Wonder Woman basically wears, and give her agency to drive the film’s action. The meaning of a film is not present in the theme or the plot line but through the cinematic language that is used. 

I am fond of the shot that’s often described in “Wonder Woman,” which takes place during the battle scene where she holds her shield out in front of her, deflecting bullets as she crosses No Man’s Land. What’s interesting to me is the length of the shot. It goes beyond providing information. All Jenkins had to do to tell us that she’s crossing the area with her shield is to shoot for maybe two seconds and then, cut! But instead, she takes that shot and she just holds it. She builds this notion of incredible drive, power, competence — all the things we rarely see women manifesting in film — primarily through the length of the shot. 

I can’t help but think about all the little girls who will see “Wonder Woman” and its powerfully different representation of female action on screen. I can’t help but think that young girls or even college women will say, you mean a woman directed that? You mean, I can do that? And I’m going to say, yes, you can! 

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