Feminist triumph in action thrillers has always been for and about white women
By Sherronda J. Brown
This post contains Wonder Woman spoilers and discussion of sexual violence
The last time there was this much buzz about feminism in a popular action thriller, it was following the release of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. With a story about women fleeing sex slavery, it was not difficult to find the feminist themes in it.
That same year, Star Wars: The Force Awakens broke records with Daisy Ridley as the female lead. The conversations about her character largely mirrored what was said about leading women in action films who came before her, and also acknowledged the progress made.
Here we are now, in the wake of Wonder Woman, and we find ourselves amidst these familiar conversations once again, and once again we are reminded that feminist realizations in major U.S. action films thus far have largely been for and about white women.
Wonder Women set box office records last week as the first major superhero film with both a female hero at the center and a female director at the helm. It’s a technically well-made film. It certainly surpasses what the DC Universe has done so far with Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. People are rightfully excited about it.
Many are also critical of it, especially given that its star is an unrepentant Zionist and that the plot affords compulsory significance to an unnecessary and distracting heteronormative romance in a film that has so much opportunity to be expressly queer. The love story—although barely there—is so integral to the overall narrative that Diana is only able to realize the true magnitude of her power after she suddenly loses her lover, harnessing her pain and channeling it to land a mighty god-like blow against her enemy. It’s a narrative that largely revolves around men and just barely passes the precious Bechdel Test.
Moreover, the film lacks intersectionality in terms of representation for Black women. This is another missed opportunity, and a familiar one.
Despite these truths, Wonder Woman has been and continues to be heralded as a feminist masterpiece and a triumph for women—all women being implied. Bloggers and writers are citing reasons from the jiggle of her thigh to the importance of seeing female representation in a major film. There are lines obviously meant to be interpreted as feminist (and perhaps even misandrist) messages, like “Men are easily corrupted” and “Be careful in the world of men, Diana. They do not deserve you.”
It is clear why some audiences are identifying these moments as feminist, but for others this is simply not enough. And the ease with which Wonder Woman fans are able to ignore healthy critiques of the film and its star reflects how mainstream feminism and feminist solidarity have always been for and about white women.
This tunnel vision translates very easily to the reception of action narratives because filmmakers can easily place “strong women” within them. This was demonstrated exceptionally well with the response to Mad Max: Fury Road. It was declared an accidental “feminist manifesto” due to its narrative about Immortan Joe’s “prized breeders” escaping from his clutches, led by Imperator Furiosa. It’s a damn good action flick, maybe one of the best made in recent years.
But, like most others of its genre, it is overwhelmingly white, with Zoe Kravitz being the only person of color present. The film also treats fat characters and people with disabilities as grotesque and immoral clichés (aside from Furiosa’s cool-looking metal prosthetic), but the “sex slavery is very bad” theme was enough to proclaim it as a feminist victory for all, and anyone who disagreed was quickly dismissed.
It seems that all an action thriller needs in order to be considered “feminist” is for a white woman to be present, self-sufficient, physically strong and capable, able to hold her own in a fight without the help of a man, or able to dominate men in a way that is considered traditionally masculine.
Aside from Fury Road, there are also Edge of Tomorrow, Hanna, Lucy, and Star Wars: Rogue One which all feature “strong female characters” who have been declared feminist role models in film, as well as the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Terminator, The Hunger Games, and Divergent franchises. This list is in no way complete, and what each of these films and others like them continue to leave out is representation for Black women and other women of color on par with the representation for white women. When women of color cannot find ourselves in the same types of roles in these narratives, then the “feminism” within them feels hollow.
This issue surrounding women in action films may seem inconsequential, but it is indicative of a much larger problem that is evident in mainstream feminism. Every year we celebrate the 19th Amendment and “women’s right to vote” in the U.S., citing 1920 as the year that solidified the position of women as enfranchised citizens. We do this annually even though the amendment only applies to white women, and it took many years before women of other races were legally able to exercise that right.
The problem is also apparent in how the Gender Wage Gap is discussed, with the claim that women make “77¢ to the male dollar,” despite the fact that this figure only applies to white women and men. It’s in the way that white women encourage us to “lean in,” ignoring that Black women have been doing so for ages. It’s in white women wearing their Pink Pussy hats at the Women’s Marches to protest Trump, but never showing up for Black Lives Matter.
It’s in how mainstream feminism often gets constructed as women being allowed to freely perform “masculinity” through icons like Rosie the Riveter, because while white women have historically been forced into the role of delicate and infantile femininity, Black women have been combating narratives which see us as being nearly always-already too masculine and indecorous. We are constantly left out of the narratives of mainstream feminism, just as we are too often left out of the narratives of mainstream action films.
White women have been starring in these films for years, and while there have been issues with character depth and forms of representation—namely being conceived of as sexualized subjects for the male gaze/consumption and the kind of compulsory heteronormativity which we see present in Wonder Woman—women of color are still mostly starved for any representation at all.
To be frank, we are exasperated with the homogeneity of whiteness, on the screen and off.
When women of color speak about our lack of representation and the inability to see ourselves in spaces where white women have been seen for a long time, we are always met with accusations of divisiveness. Because white women supposedly open the door for all other women, we should be grateful to lap up the crumbs that they leave behind while they feast on their “feminist” achievements. This is how white supremacy operates, by normalizing whiteness and demanding that the rest of us see it as the standard, while simultaneously denying us access to it as a property that affords social privileges. White women winning is simply not enough, and it is past time for white feminists to acknowledge this.
Sherronda J. Brown is a native North Carolinian with an academic background in Media Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, and African American & African Diaspora Studies. She is passionate about social justice, black feminisms, and zombies. You can support her work at https://www.paypal.me/SherrondaJBrown