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In Defence of Wonder Woman

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Samantha Lee
Samantha Lee

I read a comment recently which ridiculed main female characters on television. The comment was that over the last decade all women on all shows were now required to have the characteristic of being able to kick some serious butt- be tough mentally, emotionally, and physically. The view was that ‘normal’ women should be depicted more realistically; that female characters being that strong was completely ridiculous - women are not superheros.

I don’t have the same impression of women on television- in fact it seems to me that on screen you are more and more likely to see a blonde with a bad Botox job complaining that she can’t get a man or an outfit for her Chihuahua, or a show where eighteen women demean themselves by competing for the affections of Bachelor Number One - who is seeing someone on the side, anyway.

I think that there should be more intelligent, funny, kick-ass and yes, strong women of all ages on our screens, not less, because if life imitates art we are in serious trouble. Think of the girls from Made in Chelsea (a UK ‘reality soap’) and the airheads on True Beauty and then think of the determined chicks on The Biggest Loser or the solo mums on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition- I know who I prefer to watch.

Some of women we see on our screens indeed are tough, strong, independent women. You have your Temperance Brennan from Bones, your Kate Beckett from Castle, your Teresa Lisbon from The Mentalist. Even Rachel McKenna from Shortland Street is no pushover. Yet every single one of these characters is flawed in some way- too stubborn, too isolated, too driven. The fact the some of them have been known to be able to toss a few people over their shoulders (Sydney from Alias, Scully from The X-Files, and of course Xena and Buffy) is either central to the plot of the series or an amplification of the fact that yes, the character is tough- this is always juxtaposed with the fact the character is very vulnerable or flawed in some way also.

I would rather see a strong lead character- male or female- than a weak one. I would rather see someone stand up against the odds; make a hard choice; win despite great opposition. Because that’s what inspires me, that’s what makes me want to watch more; you need weak characters in order to advance the plot, provide tension or a good character arc- but if all I saw were permanently weak, indecisive characters;  I wouldn’t watch television; simple as that.

On the subject of ‘strong women being ridiculous’, do you know what these characters have to put up with? Take Wonder Woman. The poor girl is given super-human strength, flight, super speed, super stamina, and super agility. She can lose her powers if she allows herself to be bound or chained by a guy. She has bracelets that she can’t take off without going insane. She’s warded off tsunamis; lifted islands out of the water; built bridges just with a coin. She doesn't get a minute to herself without some crisis occuring that only she has the power to sort out. She has to be all things to everyone- which strikes me as an accurate, if generalised description of today’s typical ‘normal’ women- and who can’t relate to having to be super fast and have super stamina?

Despite all of that, she’s not as bad off as the Women in Refrigerators. Women in Refrigerators Syndrome ‘describes the use of the death or injury of a female comic book character as a plot device in a story starring a male comic book character. It is also used to note the depowerment or elimination of a female comic book character within a comic book universe.’ It was coined when a female character- a friend of a male comic book hero- was stuffed into a refridgerator to die. A huge list was then generated of all such events in comics, and the syndrome was born. 

Wonder Woman might have a really crap time of it on occasion, but at least her strength makes her an asset- weakness is a liability, in the comic book world and I would argue in the television and movie worlds also. And if art imitates life, it would follow that female weakness is seen as something that can’t be shown, if you want to survive.

Even the creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston, had this to say:

“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

Therefore; Sydney Bristow of Alias. Buffy. You. Me. Women are taught through these ‘ridiculous’ shows to be strong, to protect others, to fight for what we believe in; to stand tall and not be ashamed of who we are- to use our gifts and our talents to the best of our ability. We are taught to help and honour those we are loyal to and to take the path that’s right for us. That’s a great thing.

We are also taught to be wary of love, to back down only when absolutely necessary and that to ask for help is akin to pulling your fingernails out with a pair of pliers. We are taught although vulnerability is an accepted part of life; it’s best not to stay that way for long.

We are taught through some of these reality shows that having the perfect waist, bust size, smile, is more desirable than being able to hold a conversation, than being happy mind, body and soul. We are shown that intelligence, compassion, a sweet nature are on nobody’s checklist anymore. We are taught that the only thing more important than pouring yourself into a dress and applying makeup perfectly every day is to snag a guy. You could even say that females are being depowered through this type of portrayal.

Women are taught that we aren’t good enough.

So where is the happy medium? How much strength is too much?

There’s no easy, black-and-white answer. It is an answer everyone has to figure out for themselves- as long as there are a range of positive options available to learn from.

Shows like Private Practice with the main character of Addison Montgomery are mostly affirmative- the character is no push-over but she also makes mistakes and learns from them- she grows, positively.

Day time talk shows like The Ellen DeGeneres Show reinforces both a message of standing up for what you believe in and creates a sense of fun and enjoyment in life that I don’t think has been replicated in any television show and is part of why the show’s ratings continue to rise.

I think shows like Sex & The City and Desperate Housewives (despite the complete soap opera melodrama) have done a good job of juxtaposing strength and weakness, vulnerability and determination, flaws and redemption...maybe all Wonder Woman needed to keep her sanity if she took her bracelets off was a glass of red and a few friends.

And perhaps to bitch slap the girl with the implants freaking out because she broke a nail.

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