I watched Wonder Woman last week, and I’m pleased to admit that I enjoyed it. The film featured plenty of humour (albeit standard, fish-out-of-water comedy, as in Wonder Woman being awestruck by her first encounter with ice cream), back story (which is my favourite kind of super hero story), 3-Dimensional characters (although, I saw the movie in 2D), and an unusually clear rendering of action (in fact, Wonder Woman and her fellow Amazonians had an inventive fighting style that was entertaining to my non-video-gamed eye).
Most impressive of all, the movie was not overrun by an infestation of “Girl Power.” This may sound like a contradiction since Wonder Woman is a girl with lots of power. However, by “Girl Power,” I mean the “Because I’m a girl” attitude that is exhibited increasingly often in movies (and advertising) these days where a person of female persuasion is treated as extra powerful by the very definition of her being a girl, as opposed to her particular circumstance and character having led her to that powerful place. In the case of Wonder Woman, her position of power is not parachuted in by her gender, but instead is explained by her supernatural back story and training.
And, while the film occasionally panders to its feminist godmothers (comparing a 1910s’ female secretary to a slave), it is not as blatant in that gendered agenda (“agender,” if you will?) that so many rival mega action franchises are today. Consequently, I found it to be relatively refreshing.
Nevertheless, the media portrayal of this movie has been much more Girl-Powered than the movie, itself. For instance, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas decided to have a women-and-girls only showing of the film on opening night (and women-only staff of it), and when a few equal-gender-defenders criticized the policy, they were dismissed by many mainstream pundits as sexist simpletons.
I believe the following soliloquy from a Mashable.com commentator fairly sums up the pro-women-only argument:
“Sounds like a good idea, right? Women getting together to celebrate a strong, empowered, three-dimensional female superhero on the big screen. Of course. It makes perfect sense. But, as we all know, we can’t have nice things… The Drafthouse received hundreds of comments from angry men who felt ‘excluded’ from the event… Of course there were also many people who loved the idea who understand that this film is a celebration of women finally being included in the world of superheroes and finally being represented on the big screen. Let’s hope these dudes can get themselves together…”
I’m happy to hear arguments in favour of the discriminatory screening, but it is daunting to listen to such smug commentary, which seems to imply this controversy is merely about whether countering perceived injustice is worthy or not. Such “of course it makes sense” pundits are either unwilling or unable to consider the possibility that direct discrimination based on sex, no matter how noble it may be in intention and platitude, is an ethically dicey enterprise.
It’s not obvious to me whether men or women on average deal with more real-world discrimination in the West today, but it is indisputable that men are the only sex that is currently the victim of open discrimination for which there is no recourse. I recently attended a BC Human Rights workshop in which I learned that it is illegal to discriminate in the workplace against a person on the basis of sex (and other irrelevant traits), unless of course you’re working on a special project to uplift a group that is historically disadvantaged. And, since we all know that the official gender policy of our society is that it is only women who have ever been disadvantaged (forget about wars, coal mines, and parental custody disputes), that means you can discriminate against men so long as you provide clear evidence that you stated that you were empowering women in the process.
Political parties are doing it, too. From Justin Trudeau’s quota-based promoting of women to cabinet positions “Because it’s 2015,” to the BC NDP limiting the number of men allowed to run for office, it is clear that our society not only wants to ensure equal access to powerful positions, but also to discriminate against men along the way. The defenders of such policies, as well as those defending the Women-Only screening, seem unable to consider the possibility that a principle of discrimination might be dangerous even it is supported by a pleasing symbolic message.
Indeed, my neck hurt from shaking my head as the hosts on a local Vancouver radio show, “Steele and Drex,” could apparently not comprehend why anyone would have any issue with a fun opportunity for women and girls to celebrate their potential.
Thus, I penned the following letter to those local pundits, but as ever, I did not get a reply, so I am posting it here. Some might see my argument as melodramatic and overstating the impact of a tiny incident, especially as I ponder a hypothetical autistic man who might’ve been excluded from the theatre. However, as our modern, anti-“privilege” discrimination unveils new examples each day, I think it’s vital that we at least consider the possibility that by leaving people out because of their sex, race, or sexuality (even if they are of the demographic that is presumed to be advantaged), we are playing with ethical fire. Despite our best intentions, when you tell any person that they are less worthy because of what they are, instead of who they are (to paraphrase Youtube star, Sargon of Akkad), we are setting a worrisome precedent.
As it is, not only do our mainstream pundits not consider the downsides of “affirmative” discrimination, but also, when they do learn of dissenters, they accuse such skeptics of being cranially-challenged bigots. So the counter conversation is not just ignored, it is ostracized. Perhaps I’m wrong in my assessment that the current level of popular discrimination is dangerous, but if we do not openly discuss this delicate subject now, how will we know when such exclusion has gone too far?
And, with that, I give you me in epistolary form:
Some friendly wonderings about the Wonder Woman Policy:
Dear [guest host] Jody [Vance] and Drex:
I wonder if you would consider a friendly counter argument to your analysis yesterday regarding the appropriateness of having a women-only screening of Wonder Woman (hereafter the “The Wonder Policy”).
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you both seem to be arguing that a business restricting its audience to women for one occasion is benign, and just a fun thing to do given the circumstance of the movie being about a female superhero.
Personally, I dislike the Wonder policy on principle, not because I’m opposed to fun and creative ways to take in movies, but because I’m opposed to discrimination based on sex (even if that sex is male). I suspect that most defenders of the Wonder policy would be less willing to support a men-only screening of Superman, and the distinction they would likely make would be that it’s okay to discriminate against men in this way because they are the historically privileged group.
For the record, I do not think that assumed truth is as clear cut as we’re told; it seems to me that both men and women have been discriminated against in multiple different ways for a long time. For instance, women got the vote later than men, but it is only men who were drafted into wars.
Nevertheless, even if it were clear that women have been significantly more oppressed than men throughout history, are you so sure that is still the case today? There are many categories today in which men are more often doing worse in North America than women (for instances, homelessness, workplace death, suicide). That does not necessarily mean those men are oppressed, but it does mean that the question of “male privilege” is more complicated than most gender scholars will allow, especially given how many more resources, advocacy groups, and scholarships are currently focussed first on women.
But, even if I were to stipulate that in North America today, men are privileged, I still find the women-only movie viewing to be ethically suspect. The Wonder Policy is not just saying, “Yay, girls!” It is implying that the experience of seeing Wonder Women for the first time would be losing something if the boys were there, too. Every time you say, “X People Only,” you are saying, “Y People are NOT welcome.” And, while it may seem fun and benign in the moment because we generally don’t think of men as victims of discrimination, if you look for it, you can see male-excluding language and sentiment has become ubiquitous today in politics, advocacy, academia, and even the media (examples available upon request). The Wonder Policy is just one more pronouncement that it’s okay to discriminate against men because, well, there’s something different about them that makes it okay to exclude them.
Maybe there’s an autistic man who’s loved Wonder Woman since he was a kid, and wants to attend the movie on opening night with his best friend in the town where the Wonder Policy is in place, but he’s going to be turned away, because he has the incorrect gender for that viewing. Are you sure such a scenario doesn’t make you question for a tiny moment whether the Wonder Policy is morally correct?
I don’t anticipate that I have convinced you, and that’s fine if we have differing moral codes on what constitutes unethical discrimination. But I wonder if you would be willing to consider the possibility that, just because someone has an ethical objection to the Wonder Policy, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a sexist. Maybe some of us, on principle, think the policy is sexist, and would equally object to a hypothetical Superman Policy.
Yours in Wonder,