Wonder Woman is my wife’s favorite superhero, and for good reason. The character is powerful, dynamic, and she isn’t afraid to throw down with evil villains. While I didn’t read the comic, I’m old enough to remember the television series with Linda Carter. I also knew the character from The Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon back in the day.
Every few years, rumors emerge from Hollywood about a Wonder Woman movie or show in the works. We hear about the possible casting choices, and then it goes away for a while. Meanwhile, movies about male superheroes are being churned out as fast as possible.
Recently it was leaked that actress/model Gal Gadot (left) might be cast as the legendary Amazon princess in the next Superman movie, and the internet went ape-poop.
At first I didn’t understand why. Then I read the various comments floating around, most of which had to do with Ms. Gadot being too skinny for the role. Which, of course, started debates about how much muscle mass she could pack on with the right trainer, comparisons to Hugh Jackson, et cetera and so forth.
At first, I thought to myself that it doesn’t matter who they cast; just making the @%#^$* movie. After all the travails this comic juggernaut franchise has encountered on its trek through Hollywood, I just want to see the ball rolling. Heck, it couldn’t be any worse than Daredevil or Green Lantern, right?
However, all this talk of the “right” person for the role reminded me of other conversations about female characters, especially in fantasy lit. On one hand, most consumers want their heroines to be beautiful. Wonder Woman is not just strong and handy with a lasso, she is the ideal of feminine beauty as well. Tall, pretty, perfect teeth and hair, busty with an impossibly narrow waist — these attributes are actually an albatross around the character’s neck.
Bear with me. Beauty cuts both ways for female characters. Sure, there are the obvious advantages, but in genres where the strongest and toughest rise to the top, being pretty isn’t heroic. Pretty is the prize that gets claimed by the hero. Female pulchritude is viewed as something to be hoarded and protected.
The problem isn’t that attractive women can’t also be strong and kick butt; it’s that they aren’t taken seriously even when they have the chops to do the job. Red Sonja was depicted as an unbeatable swordswoman, but all the male villains smirked at her. “Aw, isn’t this cute. She’s gonna fight me. That’s just adora— ugh! I’m dead.”
No wonder Sonja was always in a bad mood. She never got any freaking respect.
So what’s the solution? Cast a bigger actor as Wonder Woman?
In George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, Brienne of Tarth is described as big, stocky, and not very pretty, but she kicks butt with a sword. For the HBO series, they cast Gwendoline Christie, who is quite fetching, but they “rough her up” for the series, turning her into a plain-looking woman with a mannish figure.
I’m not convinced that movie-goers would embrace a “plain” Wonder Woman, but I think they are eager to see heroines of different sizes. Five-foot-nothing and a hundred pounds may have worked for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Wonder Woman isn’t a tongue-in-cheek play on traditional roles.
When it comes to protagonists, I’m of the opinion that beauty doesn’t equal power. Power equals power. In fantasy, just as in superhero comics, the heroine must be able to grapple with the enemy, often with violence.
It bothers me to no end when a book cover shows a cutesy, skinny woman in a ridiculous costume (usually tight leather pants and a belly-baring shirt, with at least one tattoo) trying to look dangerous. Strong women exist in the real world, so there’s no reason for them to be excluded from the entertainment industry.
So, studio execs, if you’re casting a sheltered princess who uses flowery sonnets and batted eyelashes as her primary weapons, sure, go with the pretty chick with perfect teeth. But if you want me to believe the character is a warrior who prefers using bare knuckles to settle her conflicts, then ditch the waifs. Physical hardiness can be beautiful, too, and you’ll have the added benefit of producing something that actually looks believable.
To quote Madonna, beauty’s where you find it.
Jon Sprunk is the author of the Shadow Saga (Shadow’s Son, Shadow’s Lure, and Shadow’s Master) and a mentor at the Seton Hill University fiction writing program. His next epic fantasy series begins in March 2014 with Blood and Iron.