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How Wonder Woman Is Undermining Professional Women
When it comes to gender equality, we’ve come a long way. But does the big screen’s portrayal of female characters condition women into old gender stereotypes? And does it preserve biases that can profoundly affect millennials who are thinking about choosing a career?
Take Wonder Woman. The female superhero is the epitome of girl power — or so we think. The heroine of the 1970s TV series leaves her home on Paradise Island after falling in love with a man who crash lands there. She takes on the responsibility of returning this man back to America, thus surrendering her power of immortality and responsibility as the island’s princess. All for a man.
“Sure, women have abilities and responsibilities, and sometimes they’re profoundly self sacrificing; but they’re usually motivated by very old-fashioned and nurture-driven reasons,” says by J. Ken Stuckey, senior lecturer in English and Media Studies at Bentley. “Many are trying to lift up a man.”
Stuckey’s course, Wonder Women, specifically looks at female personas in television and cinema. The film Zero Dark Thirty, for example, features main character Maya, a CIA agent on the hunt for Osama bin Laden. While powerful, she is also seen as sacrificing much of her humanity for her job.
“The only friend she has is a female colleague who dies in an explosion while she is trying to pursue the same case,” Stuckey notes. “She spends the rest of the film trying to get shortsighted men — who don’t even acknowledge her because she’s a woman — to recognize that she sees something that they don’t.”
At the end of a successful mission and capture, the camera cuts to Maya crying. By herself. And Stuckey isn’t surprised. “When women are operating at full power in almost any film they are usually doing so in total emotional isolation. And the narrative portrays the full use of their power as the sacrifice of human relationships.”
The professor is at no loss of material for his syllabus: Bewitched, Kill Bill, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jackie Brown, Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise, Fargo, Silence of the Lambs. The personas have clearly survived through the decades.
“Everyone who is raised in this culture is bombarded with images which imply that a man’s power is augmented when he pulls away from emotional entanglements, while a woman’s power is a direct product of those entanglements,” Stuckey says. “In TV shows like The Closer, Law and Order: SVU, CSI: Miami and NCIS: New Orleans, you often see women talking out loud to victims of violence, even on the autopsy table, because it’s as if they can’t analyze a crime until they are ‘wedded’ to someone in it.”
The impact of these constant messages means that a lot of what we’re fighting is the unconscious. In fact, Stuckey believes that it becomes very difficult for a woman in this culture to decide that she is going to make decisions about a career or about marriage and family that run counter to these thousands of narratives that tell her she should be doing otherwise.
In the classroom, however, he is careful not to advocate for any given choice. “The most powerful thing I can give students is the ability to critique. The ability to say ‘This is the limit of this person’s vision; my vision can go past that’ — whether it be about a film, a novel, or even the syllabus itself.”
Whether it’s Shakespeare or Super Bowl TV commercials, we are being influenced. But if we are conscious readers and viewers, we can manage what we do and how we respond. We can make our own decisions vs. simply doing what we are “supposed to do.”
Kristen Walsh is a freelance writer.
Alison Davis-Blake, the former business school dean at the Universities of Michigan and Minnesota, was inaugurated as the eighth president of Bentley University in a ceremony attended by students, faculty, staff, alumni and other members of the extended Bentley community.