Wonder Woman, Moana, and why they matter

Have you ever experienced the sensation of not realizing how hungry you are until food is placed in front of you?  Of not realizing that you were hungry at all until you’re offered something to eat?

That is the closest I can get to describing what I felt while watching Moana last fall, and again last night when I saw Wonder Woman.

If you know me, or have spent any amount of time around this site, you know that the stories I gravitate towards – both those that I consume and those that I tell – have a definite fantastical bent.  Certainly the media that I consume almost always has some incarnation of the classic, epic hero’s journey.  These are the narratives that I love and cherish and keep coming back to again and again.

And I cannot tell you how rare it is to see a woman at the center of it all.  Which leads me back to the hunger I was talking about.

Let’s start first with my reaction to Moana.  That hunger, that craving sensation crept up on me gradually, and I think that is partly due to the fact that it’s a Disney film.  Female protagonists are nothing new in the Disney canon, after all.  The endless parades of princess merchandising is a testament to that.  Therefore it was the little (and not so little) departures from the typical princess story, accumulated over the course of the film, that fed into my realization that I was watching something both familiar and entirely new.  The difference hit me maybe two-thirds of the way into it, when Moana is left on her own – her mission to save her island seemingly failed – only to carry on anyway to finish the job herself.  Because she knows that she can.  Or at least she knows that she has to try, because no one else will.  That’s not your run-of-the-mill princess tale.  That is stuff straight out of the classic hero’s journey.  And I think that’s what did it; in that moment she shifted in my mind from simply the protagonist of the story, to the hero of the story.  A teenage girl – eager, compassionate, inexperienced but ready to learn – got to be the hero and save the day.  And that was something I’d never seen before in a film like this.

And then there’s Wonder Woman.  The sensation hit me much earlier this time around, within the first few minutes of the movie, in fact.  When I saw the opening scenes of Diana’s childhood on Themyscira and saw my giant cinema screen completely filled with women, I found myself leaning forward in my seat, eyes tearing up, completely in awe and wonder.  Because not once have I ever seen a fantasy film entirely populated by women, for any portion of the narrative.

And even when it does shift away from Themyscira to enter into the chaos and conflict of World War I – in many ways adopting a mold (and cast of characters) much more typical of superhero films – Diana is never relegated to the role of just the “strong female character,” a phrase which I have mixed feelings about.  Too often these “strong female characters,” as it were, are described as such because they are a direct analog to a male action hero and therefore are frequently denied traits and qualities that are seen as feminine.  They’re allowed to be strong, but not vulnerable or emotional or even interested in anything that might associate them with those characteristics.  This is not the case with Diana.  Yes, she is strong.  But she is also intelligent and compassionate and curious and driven by a desire to do good in the world, purely because it is the right thing to do.  Those things, far more than her strength, are what define her.

In short, she’s allowed to be a person, faults and all.  That, too, is a rare thing.  And I am desperately hungry for more.

I want to end this with a passage from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which I read for the first time earlier this year.  In the intervening months since I read the novel, these words have stayed with me more than just about anything else in the book:

“You could pretend that Guenever was a sort of man-eating lioncelle herself, or that she was one of those selfish women who insist on ruling everywhere.  In fact, this is what she did seem to be, to a superficial inspection.  She was beautiful, sanguine, hot-tempered, demanding, impulsive, acquisitive, charming…One explanation of Guenever, for what it is worth, is that she was what they used to call a ‘real’ person.  She was not the kind who can be fitted away safely under some label or other, as ‘loyal’ or ‘disloyal’ or ‘self-sacrificing’ or ‘jealous.’  Sometimes she was loyal and sometimes she was disloyal.  She behaved like herself.”

We need more Guenevers and Dianas and Moanas in the stories we tell.  As White said, “It is difficult to write about a real person.”  But then again, most things worth doing usually are.

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