On Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot, and the Nature of Muscles

Posted: December 10, 2013 in Braak, comic books, crotchety ranting
Tags: , , , , ,
braak

Okay, I wasn’t going to write about this.  I am practicing this new thing where I try not to get worked up about stuff, and instead try to maintain a sort of zen equanimity about things that I can’t control, that don’t affect me, and that — in the long run — probably don’t matter very much.  But I read this article from Glen Weldon at NPR: “Dear Zack Snyder, Regarding Wonder Woman“, which is one of those dumb open-letter things where you write to someone who you know could not possibly care about what you have to say.  I read it and then I sort of succumbed to temptation, and so I guess I am going to write about this whole business.

So.  Zack Snyder is directing Batman Vs. Superman, and Wonder Woman is going to be in it, and for the part of Wonder Woman they have cast an actress named Gal Gadot, who was in the Fast and Furious movies.  Here she is:

936full-gal-gadot


There has been a lot of criticism about this casting choice, as obviously there is always a lot of criticism about casting choices for fan favorite superhero characters. Some criticism maybe might have been: “she looks awfully young, I hope there is a good reason why there’s a very young-seeming female hero in a movie about two mature male heroes”; “maybe she is not a very good actress”; Glen Weldon (see previous) seems to think it was a missed opportunity to cast a woman of color in the role (though Gal Gadot is Israeli, and Wonder Woman — in addition to actually being made out of clay — is an Amazon which means: Greek, or possibly Ukrainian, or possibly Libyan. So, er, are Greeks and Ukrainians not white? Are Israelis not people of color? I am not going to get into this one, honestly, there are better people to have this discussion.)

Anyway, we’re just going to have to wait and see for the first one, and for the second one, I didn’t watch the Fast and Furious movies, so maybe she is very good, I don’t know. Certainly, it’s not like the standard for acting in superhero movies needs to be especially high, so I don’t know if we need to worry about that. (Yes, we should, skill is very important, but there’s no convincing Hollywood of this.)

The other major criticism about this is: look how skinny she is. And that’s a thing about which Glen Weldon has some things to say , and it’s a thing about which a lot of nerds have some things to say, and since I have written before on the subject of very skinny people beating up much larger people, I felt like I had to weigh in.

Just so’s we’re clear: I am not defending this position, exactly, so much as I want to clarify it. Like I said, this actually is not very important to me as an issue, but if folks are going to argue about it, it’d be interesting to me to see them argue about the right question, rather than a bunch of silly straw-man stuff. And to be double clear, I am clarifying A position on it, not THE position on it, because definitely a lot of nerds just have an amazon fetish, and that’s cool — I am not trying to tell anyone there’s something wrong with their sexual proclivities — but it is also weird to find yourself in a position where you’re on the same side of the line as guys who want a fitness model cast as Wonder Woman so that they can wank over it. That is not my position, either.

On Muscles

The thing about this is, Glen Weldon does say something that is, technically, correct:

Diana, on the other hand, is creature of myth and fantasy. Her physical strength is an important aspect of her character, but it is not a function of her lean body mass. Whether or not Gadot will make an interesting, let alone convincing, Wonder Woman has nothing to do with the size of her biceps.

Good. And I want to clarify the point of this so that we can talk about it the right way. It is true that Wonder Woman does not actually NEED giant muscles (any more than, strictly-speaking, she needs to be played by a woman), that it’s not required for whatever passes for realism in comic book movies that she be tall and broad-shouldered, she can have magic strength like Buffy or whatever, that’s fine.

But here’s what I would like us to consider: muscles are not just a source of power for average human beings, muscles also represent power.

This is the reason that Henry Cavill had to do exactly one million pushups to be Superman, even though we can say the same thing about him.

This is the reason that Rosie the Riveter is flexing her bicep.

This is the reason that Conan the Barbarian is always running around in a loincloth.

It’s the reason why, actually, it’s not such a big deal in principle if Wonder Woman doesn’t wear pants. It’s because, if it’s done right, we understand that she has a skimpy costume for the same reason that Conan does: to reveal the muscles of her limbs, to signify her physical power, and importantly, her personal physical power. It’s why Wonder Woman also doesn’t need weapons: if you have a sword, or armor, part of your power is in the sword and the armor. If you’re practically naked, the power is all in you. Superman’s costume can be simple cloth or spandex for the same reason: it’s simplicity is a kind of nudity, that situates his physical power in himself.

So, now, when we say, “you don’t need to have huge muscles to do kung fu” that is correct, and when we say, “you don’t need huge muscles if you are a magic amazon made from clay” that is ALSO correct, but it’s a little bit beside the point, because one thing that you DO need muscles for is to be representative of the IDEA of physical strength.

On Body Types

Here’s another thing I want to talk about, look at this picture:

o-FEMALE-OLYMPIC-ATHLETES-facebook

original

These are from the book Athlete by Howard Schatz. So, notice how many different kinds of bodies you see there, among athletes. It’s something that comes up a lot, when we talk about how a superhero has to have the “ideal” body — it reminds me about how we talk about evolution, how things “evolve” or “devolve” or are “higher up the evolutionary chain”, as though evolution has some specific endpoint that we’re all working towards, and how that’s completely wrong. There’s no such thing as an “ideal” body, only bodies that are “ideally-suited to some purpose.” Some bodies are good for some things, some bodies are good for others: none is better or more perfect.

But look at the bodies here and then let’s think about how often we see this variety of bodies reflected in our media. One of the problems that we’re facing is not just the casting of this individual part, but of how the casting of this individual part is part of a vast network of decisions that have an extremely powerful impact on how women view themselves, and on how men view women.

And one of the things that our culture works very hard to do is to deprive women of the opportunity to be seen as powerful — that is why the “ideal” body for men is a ripped musculature, and the “ideal” body for women is skinny and smooth. It is part of a culture that systematically tries to deny women representation as figures of power.

Of course we can say, “But it’s Wonder Woman, she’s going to be competent, she’s going to kick ass, that is power!” and again, that’s true. But it’s also one thing, it’s not all the things. We’re talking about a systematic deprivation here, and systematic deprivation isn’t going to be countered by a handful of examples in which women are portrayed as powerful in one particular way — anymore than, for instance, a casino isn’t going to go out of business because sometimes people hit the jackpot.

In fact, a casino NEEDS for people to hit the jackpot sometimes, and that makes me wonder if sometimes our notions of “empowerment” are maybe doing more harm than good. It’s a question that I often have about Buffy the Vampire Slayer — we’re meant to understand her as a figure of power because she fights vampires, but she also exactly as skinny and petite as any other actress. And the thing is, women don’t especially need to be liberated so that they can fight vampires, it’s possible that they need more to be liberated about how they can view their own physical bodies as vessels for power.

I worry that characters who are model-thin and pretty but also BADASS ZOMG are actually creating a kind of weird paradox for women — sure, you can be good at kung fu and be super-skinny, no one is arguing that, you can be good at fighting and only weigh a hundred pounds. But for a lot of women, that’s not just unlikely, it’s basically impossible. Human beings have a lot of different kinds of bodies, and not all of them build strength and stay Victoria’s Secret-thin; a lot of them build strength by, you know, putting on muscle.

What you end up with, then, is a culture that says that women are allowed to be powerful, but ONLY in the ways that men proscribe, and very specifically only as long as they fall within the rigid proscriptions on physical appearance. So, a casting choice like this, while it’s not necessarily an offense on its own, is still part of the system that says, “Yes, women, be powerful, yes women, be competent.  But also make sure that you are super-skinny while doing it.”

Be It Concluded

Be it concluded, then, that I think there are two — let’s not say “major”, but rather “reasonably interesting” — problems with this casting.  The first is that it misses a major opportunity to take not only the best-known female superhero in the world, and one who is literally shorthand for physical female power, and portray her with all the same signifiers of physical power that male characters enjoy.  The second is that it contributes to a damaging cultural contradiction that encourages women to embrace some kinds of power, without liberating them to embrace others.

Obviously, whatever, the part’s already cast — Gal Gadot may certainly do a fine job, good luck to her, I hope she does.  She may also do a million pushups in the intervening time and end up with shoulders like a linebacker, that is definitely possible.  But the question of what a choice like this means in a larger context is an interesting one, I think, and I would like there to be discussion about it.

(The third issue, and this might actually be a major problem, is that you took that same best-known female superhero who is a shorthand for feminist empowerment, and made her a tertiary character in a movie about two dudes, directed by the writer and director of Sucker Punch.

Guys, come on.  Seriously?)

NOTA BENE:  Anyone who wants to comment here must familiarize themselves with the Bullshit Positions, as well as my previous arguments about Representations of Women in (Mostly Superhero) Comics. I will not be re-hashing any of these arguments, and will summarily delete any comments in support of those arguments.  Similarly, I will summarily delete any violations of Moff’s Law, and if anyone says something to the effect that “individual artistic choices shouldn’t be looked at as part of the broader cultural context.”  That is a corollary to Moff’s Law that I just invented, and I’ll delete your shit for that, too.

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Comments
  1. John Jackson says:

    “It’s a question that I often have about Buffy the Vampire Slayer — we’re meant to understand her as a figure of power because she fights vampires, but she also exactly as skinny and petite as any other actress.”

    First point: Kristy Swanson. The exceptional cheerleaders are usually more built like gymnasts than Sarah Michelle Gellar. Granted, I said ‘usually,’ as not all gymnasts are built like gymnasts, which takes my argument to the point of pointless. I wanted to say it anyways. Though now I’m revisiting photos, and I guess what I took for muscular shoulders was just padding? Ah, well.

    Set up for the Second point: This doesn’t really have much to do with the argument, which I thought was a good viewpoint on this… “controversial” casting. I’ve not seen Gal Gadot in much, but what she lacks in physical appearance power, she carries with a look. (And now I have to point out that I mean ‘look’ as in a ‘look’ she gives Vin Deisel/the camera, not her physical appearance.) A ‘look’ isn’t “acting,” but Gisele doesn’t have a lot of lines in the F&F movies, so it’s practically all I have to go on. I’m going to presume that she will take this opportunity to bulk up a bit: not Linda Hamilton level, but maybe Lena Headey level in SCC–not a lot, but enough to look appropriate while holding a shotgun. And now I’ve wandered again…

    Second Point: I’ve heard from someone who knows comics better than me, that when Marston wrote her for All-Star Comics, there was a clause that she could never be a cameo, if she appeared in anything, it would have to be a featured role. I can’t seem to find any sources, as I had never heard it before, but I’ve never seen her as a cameo. Some forum has someone answering a different question related to the original contract: “It WAS true. But in the last several years, the terms of that contract have expired apparently.”
    http://forums.comicbookresources.com/showthread.php?321190-William-Moulton-Marston-amp-Wonder-Woman-Contract
    They go on to talk about the “guest-spot-embargo”, So I guess there is a source I just found, if internet forums are sources.

  2. Josh says:

    It’s cool; I have okayed that corollary, everybody.

  3. Smeagol92055 says:

    Well written as always, Braak.
    I agree with your points and I’ve spent the last week rolling my eyes at the endless debate over casting a real woman and not an imaginary woman with a size zero waist and 88-triple Z tits to play Wonder Woman.

    Also… I’m going to have to appropriate that photo of Arnold.

    For… for research.

  4. bee says:

    Why is she a “woman of color”? She is Ashkenazi Jewish, the exact same ethnicity as Natalie Portman, Paul Rudd, Logan Lerman, Jonah Hill, Kat Dennings, etc.

    I am a little confused here about people’s interpretation of Israelis. While Israel is only a little under 40% Ashkenazi Jewish, most famous Israelis have been Ashkenazi (and thus, white), including every single prime minister, and the two most famous Israeli entertainers at the moment are Natalie Portman and Bar Refaeli, and no one considers either non-white. So what gives?

  5. braak says:

    Hey, I didn’t say she was, I asked if she was, because I legitimately do not know the best way to address that issue. I further said that I wasn’t going to go into it, because I’m not in a position to make an argument on that score — neither to defend that position, or to defend Glen Weldon’s.

    If you feel that he was right, I encourage you to respect my neutrality on the issue — either by writing about it yourself, in your own space, or else at the very least by taking a position on it here that is not implicitly adversarial to me.

    Thank you for reading carefully.

  6. bee says:

    I don’t mind taking an adversersial position, and I read carefully. However, I find it impossible to understand why anyone would even consider calling her a “person of color” unless they plan to use the same term on all other Ashkenazi Jews.

  7. braak says:

    Zut alors. I mind you taking an adversarial position, because I straight up just asked you not to, on the grounds that you can’t really take an adversarial position, because I am not now nor have I at any point disputed what you’re saying.

    But, if it means so much to you.

    1) I didn’t know that Gal Gadot was Ashkenzai, just that she was Israeli. That’s why I said “Israelis” and not “Ashkenazi”. Good careful reading there, thanks.

    2) I don’t fucking know a thing about Israel. Is everyone there Ashkenazi? Are some of the people Sephardim? How genetically and culturally integrated are the two groups? Is it reasonable to assume some amount of mixed genetic background, or is it right to say that if someone is an Ashkenazi then they must have had only relatives from central and eastern Europe?

    You’ll notice — careful reader that you are — that these are all framed as questions. That’s because I don’t know the answers to them. It is not atypical for people to ask questions about things to which they don’t know the answers, and it’s furthermore not atypical that a person should refrain from forming an opinion on a subject about which they are largely ignorant.

    3) Ethnicity is complicated by the fact that Ashkenazi and Sephardic are not necessarily genetic categories, but also cultural categories, and any of the members of either branch of Judaism could have members with any number of complex ethnic backgrounds.

    4) It’s further complicated by the notion that “woman of color” — indicating a woman who isn’t white — isn’t necessarily defined by genetics either. You could call a Venezuelan woman a woman of color, even if all of her ancestors were white Spaniards, because of her cultural and linguistic heritage. Up until the 19th century, mainstream white culture didn’t even consider Italians to be white.

    Famously, the fact that Jewish people were not always considered “white” was often capitalized on to horrendous effect.

    Does the influence of culture and language have no bearing? Should there just be a blood test? Should I ask every actress I see to submit to one?

    5) You can see, I’m sure, how problematic it is for me to be a white guy talking about who is and who is not a woman of color, like I’m the fucking white police. I was happy to refrain from having that conversation though, and deferring to people who had more better knowledge and clearer opinions on the subject, which you clearly do, though why you couldn’t have just said, “She’s an Ashkenazi Jew, those guys are white,” is baffling to me.

    I thought that I had made that position clear, by saying exactly what my position was, but just in case:

    6) I am not interested in having a conversation about who counts as white or about what kind of Jew someone is.

    You have opinions on the subject, clearly. You’re welcome to them.

  8. Josh says:

    Aren’t we all women of color in our own way?

  9. bee says:

    Ashkenazi Jews are a little under 40% of Israel’s population. However, all Israeli Prime ministers and most Israelis famous abroad have been Ashkenazi. Gadot’s family are (relatively recent) immigrants from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Poland. This is a pretty typical background since the majority of recent Israeli Jews come from immigrant backgrounds.

    If Ashkenazi Jews are non-white, that is a different argument, but in that case, I think it’s much bigger news that Spider-Man is being played by a non-white actor, and that a non-white actor was cast as Antman today (and Sandman earlier this week).

  10. Carl says:

    Not for nothing, but as regards Italians and the timing of their racial transformation from persons of color to white folk, you may be underestimating how recent a development that is. My grandfather (somewhat famously in our family) adopted an anglo pseudonym in 1936 in order to get around the strict no-WOP hiring policy that was keeping his friends and brother from securing day labor work on the railroad. Unlike most of the Italian diaspora, which was Calabrian, his family was from Rome, and he was light-enough skinned to pull it off.

  11. braak says:

    Yeah, I guess I shouldn’t have brought it up if I didn’t want to talk about it, but racial politics is complicated. Ashkenazi Jews from Czechoslovakia, if they’d immigrated to a neighborhood in Boston in 1925, would definitely not count as white; Ashkenazi Jews that had immigrated there in 1825, though, and just stuck around for a hundred years probably would have.

    Anyway, I don’t disagree that a good choice would have been to find an actress with African or Asian ancestry. I don’t know about Gina Torres specifically, because I feel like I’d prefer a Wonder Woman that I hadn’t already seen in Cleopatra 2525.

  12. John Jackson says:

    That’s a great show: Cleopatra 2525.

  13. JBT says:

    Amazon = tall & aggressive, athletic, strongly built.

    I don’t see Gal Gadot having those characteristics

  14. braak says:

    *sigh*

  15. Hello there, I love your blog, so I nominated you for the one lovely blog award! http://thegreatzambini.com/2014/01/12/a-lovely-community/
    …… Please don’t delete my shit for that, as it doesn’t really say any position on this topic….

  16. […] Unfortunately, it’s the Internet and the tone of the argument quickly turned to replacing Fetishized Woman A with Fetishized Woman B. Instead of discussing casting and symbolism, we got commentary over which unrealistic ideal of a woman fans would like better. Braak re-frames the argument into something more useful, while not discounting the choice of Gadot: […]

  17. […] I don’t have to answer these questions. Chris Braak at Threat Quality Press (author of that stupendous Wonder Woman piece a few weeks ago) already has. He twists himself in logical loops that amuse, edify, and speak […]

  18. […] one of the voices I trust and listen to most when it comes to the culture and politics of identity. This article he wrote at Threat Quality Press remains one of the clearest and most incisive pieces of writing on gender […]

  19. […] and critic Chris Braak, who wrote not just one, but two of the best articles of this past year, broke the question down into categories: which is the best movie, […]

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