On Joss Whedon, Part One: Wonder Woman and Why I Care | Vol. 4 / No. 43.1a

Photo: JD Hancock, CC BY 2.0

Note: I started writing this, and it turned Super Gigantic. So instead of trying to do everything in one go,  Richard and I have decided to split this into a three part series. So today I’ll be introducing the topic and discussing Whedon’s Wonder Woman script, tomorrow I will be discussing allegations from Kai Cole and some other unsavory things, and on Monday I’ll be trying to answer the question, “Do I still get to like watching Buffy?/Whedon’s stuff in general?” I hope you stick with me!

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer had an immense impact on me, both as a person and as a feminist. I started watching it when I was 10, and it probably has the blueprints for what I continued to like in pop culture for the rest of my life: witty banter, kick-ass ladies, supernatural elements, and Brits with good cheekbones. It was one of my first examples of how a “strong” female character doesn’t have to mean a “perfect” female character. It helped me somewhat believe that even if high school was terrible, it wasn’t forever. It showed me how to process grief and loss, as well as how to process happiness. It introduced me to fandom, and to fanfiction. When it changed television channels and I couldn’t watch it anymore, my best friend would hold the phone up to her stereo so I could hear the soundtrack to “Once More, With Feeling.” When that friend’s suicide made it too painful for me to watch the remaining seasons (I still read all the episode synopses, because, duh.), a decade later my current best friend spent every Thursday for many months watching with me so that I could finally watch them without breaking down.

As an obvious side effect, Joss Whedon became one of my favorite directors. I loved Firefly and Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and Cabin in the Woods. Whedon is probably largely responsible for the fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is currently kicking DC’s ass. And all the while, he was an outspoken feminist, one who helped bring me all of these characters that I could look up to. It was pretty amazing.

There have been cracks along the way, of course. A good portion of Whedon’s feminism is of the Spice Girls-esque “girl power!”/”be awesome but still be hot” variety. Dollhouse was overall very good, but there were plenty of shots of the women in various sexy outfits or even fetish gear for the sole purpose of being in sexy outfits or fetish gear.  And despite the fact that consent and the lack thereof was at the heart of the plot, they never dealt particularly well (or even particularly much) with the fact that all of the characters are essentially survivors of serial rape. There was that whole thing where really bad writing made it sound like Black Widow was calling herself a monster for being unable to have children (and her entire out-of-left-field romance plot). Much as I love it, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog could basically be retitled Nice Guy: The Musical. And Whedon’s intersectionality game has never been strong, from the act that there are apparently very few people of color in his versions of California, to the whole “there are basically no Asian people in his future world where China has supposedly taken over everything” thing.

But having prominent pop culture icons who are feminists is often about accepting what you can get, and making excuses for flaws along the way. And Whedon, as the creator of a series that is both a cultural and feminist touchstone for a generation of feminists, was frequently given a pass or only lightly critiqued. But recently, two things have come to light that have brought this critique into focus, and that have seriously undermined Whedon’s feminist bona fides. The first is the leaking of his 2006 Wonder Woman script, and the second is an account from his former wife, Kai Cole, detailing how he used his feminist reputation to cover years of infidelity, sexual exploitation of employees, and hypocrisy. Eventually I’ll addressing both, and connecting this all back to the question “Can I still watch Buffy?” so hang in there this weekend. For today, I’m going to focus on Wonder Woman.

For a decade, Whedon’s Wonder Woman script has been my pop culture “why doesn’t this exist?” First penned while I was still in high school, I spent years mourning the fact that it never saw the light of day. “Can you imagine,” I would ask, “if the comic book movie renaissance was given its second success by Wonder Woman instead of Iron Man? If the creator of Buffy and Firefly had been one of the first voices in the superhero game? If we’d started this whole thing off with a female-led film simultaneously with the umpteenth movie about a billionaire with daddy issues?”

Now, after all these years, it turns out it was a godsend that we did not start with Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman, because if we had it would have the same effect as releasing Catwoman Part Deux.

It is bad, y’all. It is really bad. And pretty damn sexist. Now to be fair, I’m sure at least a little bit of my condemnation comes from the fact that the Wonder Woman movie we did get was fairly amazing and much more feminist (if it will ever actually leave the theaters and come out on DVD, I will finally be able to write an article about it, but last I checked it was still playing at my local theater on the weekend because it is that good). So in comparison to the version of Wonder Woman that we did get, most others would pale in comparison. But even with that caveat… damn. What follows is a plot summary with most of the sexism pointed out, and then I’ll talk some more, if I’m able to stop making catty comments.

So first of all, Whedon’s version starts with Steve Trevor’s plane crashing. No sign of Wonder Woman, no awesome backstory. Just him, a plane, and a lot of crashing. This opening makes it seem like Steve’s movie, not Diana’s.  Then, when we finally get to Diana and her character description, she’s listed in the script as just “THE GIRL” (Not even, “THE WOMAN?” I feel like “Woman” is a fairly important descriptor for her, for some reason.) And her description is… kinda Twilight fanfic-ish:

To say she is beautiful is almost to miss the point. She is elemental, as natural and wild as the luminous flora surrounding. Her dark hair waterfalls to her shoulders in soft arcs and curls. Her body is curvaceous, but taut as drawn bow. She wears burnished metal bracelets on both wrists, wide and intricately detailed. Her shift is of another era; we’d call it Greek. She is barefoot.

So she’s beautiful but elemental and wild, soft but taut, and barefoot. ….super. There’s definitely never been any negative connotations with associating women with wild, untamed, primal forces. Nope. So after touching Steve’s face “sensuously” upon realizing he is a man, she takes him to Themyscira proper. Other Amazons say she should have killed “it” and that she has broken the First Law of the island. So now we have our feminazi Amazons, and our “not like other girls” Amazon. Then Diana’s friend Aethra shows up, whose basic purpose in life is to be “more student than athlete, and very lovely” and to repeatedly imply that Diana should fuck Steve, and that other Amazons would want to fuck Steve, too. Then we meet Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta (misspelled as Hippolyte for the entire goddamn script which drives me only slightly insane) and good news, she’s hot too! “middle aged, but very much in her prime.”

We find out that Steve was trying to get medical supplies to refugees from some crisis on the Albanian border. We eventually realize that this is the Modern Day, and Whedon has decided to say “fuck it” to all the actual wars he could have set Wonder Woman’s origin story in, so instead we get some made up conflict in Albania. There’s a lot of talk about the First Law and how Steve has to die because bringing men to the island will be the ruin of the Amazons, and Steve is very noble and volunteers to die if they promise to get the supplies to the Albanians.

Diana visits Steve while he is awaiting his execution, and they partake in some UST (“There is an attraction between them that neither mentions—or possibly even knows about.”) and then Steve proceeds to be rude to Diana for basically the whole encounter. He calls her a bored debutante (which… what?) and basically accuses her of being super privileged. They have the following exchange.

“They’d eat you alive, princess.”

“I am an Amazon.”

“Yeah yeah, bend steel with your bare hands… in my world, you wouldn’t last a day.”

After Diana beats her mother in this right to trial thing that is honestly way less cool than it should be, Hippolyta spends a while explaining exactly how fucked Diana will be in the outside world. Now, in Jenkin’s Wonder Woman script, Hippolyta has a line about how the outside world doesn’t deserve Diana, which leads to a poignant discussion of the difference between deserve and believe. In this version, Hippolyta says the outside world will basically straight up destroy Diana:

“In his world, it may not be the sword that will break. You will be weakened, and reviled, daughter: Death is out there. Here you are safe, you’re strong you are a princes and there they will make you nothing now will you yield?” (also the weird punctuation in that is original and not my fault)

She also tells her,  “Remember who you are. They will take everything from you but that.”

So here, not only is the world of men not deserving of Diana, but it’s heavily implied that it will simply break Diana. That she isn’t strong enough to withstand it. Rude. Diana doesn’t heed her mother’s super depressing warning, and goes back with Steve. She intervenes in a confrontation with a warlord, and as soon as her bare foot touches the ground, nature literally reacts– wind blows, things ripple, etc. This is not brought up or referred to ever again. She’s referred to at various times and by various people as a whore, a bribe, a “quality bribe” and a “tasty looking girl.” We also get a scene of her taking her clothes off, because of course we do. She fights some warlords and stuff.

Later we meet two of our villains. Strife, who is a woman in DC comics but here is a mix between a WWE fighter and a metal head earthbender, and Arabella Callas, CEO of Spearhead Industries (a weapons manufacturer/media conglomerate/spy agency/literally all the bad things). Arabella, you will be relieved to know, is also super hot: “Arabella Callas. Very blonde, very patrician, unflappable and icy smooth. As lovely as she is untouchable.” Arabella has a shrine to Ares and discusses something she calls the Khimaera, which is also a misspelling and also drives me slightly mad.

Meanwhile, Diana is exploring the new world in Gateway City. She gets called a bitch for the first time in the script. (Count ‘em with me.) She meets a random hooker character who is literally referred to as a hooker, and is described as being “in an outfit skimpier than Diana’s.” Burn. This slut-shaming of Wonder Woman’s outfit is actually something that continues through basically the whole script. It is referred to mostly as “the outfit.” It’s described as “tawdry” at one point, and at another point she’s referred to as “female, powerful, and scantily clad.” And at another a newscaster dismissively scoffs, “The last time I checked, heroes didn’t run around in bustiers.” Yeah, because doing it in long underwear and a codpiece is so much more respectable.

Diana starts going after drug dealers and scum for… reasons. At one point she and Steve have a heart-to-heart while she’s naked and he’s dressing her wounds, and he’s sitting on the lasso of truth so he admits how badly he wants to see her more naked. Hilarious. Diana goes to a club where the main drug dealing bad guy, Kleen, is supposed to be. She gets called a bitch for the second time in the script. Another one of the “good” characters tells two thin women “go eat something! Go to Arbys, get some protein, you frighten me.” Again, hilarious. Wonder Woman gets called a bitch for the third time in the film with her name on it. Kleen tells his girlfriend to get her “skank ass” off of him. Diana gives him an inspirational speech. Someone buys Diana a glass of wine, and after drinking it, she declares she has to dance. Then this happens:

“Then she moves her leg back and turns, fluidly, a curve rippling up her body as she folds into a dance that is sensual, ethereal, and wicked sexy. This is not a warrior march; though it remains idiosyncratic, it is neither out of place nor unnoticed on the crowded floor.”

…I don’t even know how to respond to that. So she goes upstairs, where she meets with Dionysus, who is going by Bacchus these days. He’s described as a schlub, but still in nicer terms than most of the women have been described: “funky, unassuming—cute in a sheepish kind of way. For all his goof though, there’s steel in his smile. The guy is a God.” I think of Whistler from Buffy and in my new headcanon Bacchus is Whistler.

Bacchus manages to be rude to about three different female figures from Greek mythology in a couple paragraphs of space. He says Athena is dead: “A god exists because people believe in it. Worship. Is a thing. Goddess of wisdom? Not hanging in, not today.” But good news, Aphrodite is alive! But mockable and crazy: “I mean, Aphrodite’s still looking good but not for publication I think she’s had some work done. Also she’s out of her mind.” And Arabella is mean: “She’s like Medea without the maternal warmth.”

We find out that Arabella’s big plan is a run of the mill “the city has gotten too big and grand and will collapse on itself” thing, because like the writers of The Defenders, Whedon has also seen Nolan’s Batman. He also is a bit ahead of his time with the “heroes create their own villains” thing, because at some point he’s going to direct Age of Ultron. Steve spends a long time yelling at Diana for existing and for daring to try to do good and be a hero in a messed up world. Yep, Steve Trevor, WWII pilot and part of the emotional core of the actual Wonder Woman movie, yells at Diana for being a hero. Then he calls her a “fucking tourist,” because you allowed one use of the word “Fuck” in a PG-13 movie, and you might as well use it to insult your female protagonist.

Through a series of hijinks, they wind up in a situation where Strife is holding Steve and threatening to kill him, but says he won’t if Diana submits to him and chains herself with the same chains that bound the first Amazons. Diana does so, and says a variation of the words “I submit” multiple times. In case you needed help knowing that this is debasing to Diana, the script points it out for you:

“The chain shoots out of Strife’s grasp and attaches to her bands. We pan up from her hands to her face—and there is color drained from it. Not just ashen shame; she looks less vital, less alive.”

Then if you need help reinforcing that Diana feels ashamed and that this is all kinda rapey, the script helps you again:

“Diana looks at herself, at her chains, at her torn and tawdry outfit.”

“His touch is almost invasive as he feels her weakened body.” Yeah, there is no “almost” about that, bud.

Strife then takes her to the South American jungle. Where in South America? What jungle? No idea! Just the “deepest” one. Then he leaves her there to struggle through the wilderness, because not ensuring that your enemy is dead is always a super good idea. She struggles, gets found by villagers (from what village? In what country in South America? No idea!) but then they are attacked by rebels (what rebels? No idea!) And she gets thrown in a pit. She somehow realizes that her mother has been watching over her through various nearly-helpless female characters, and this plus a repetition of the “remember who you are” line manages to inspire her. She somehow breaks her chains, then finds the invisible jet and Wonder Woman uniform her mother left for her. Oh yeah. Whedon went to invisible jet land.

In Gateway City, through a convoluted plot that has somehow involved recruiting Kleen, getting Kleen to pretend to turn on them, and then setting up a lot of cameras so that whatever Strife does is on the internet, Steve Trevor and the gang manage to piss off Strife, and he sets the Khimaera on them. Because this is the Modern Day, the Khimaera is a metallic digging machine/beast that vaguely resembles a chimaera and not, you know, a goddamn chimaera. Steve and Wonder Woman fight the Khimaera, they beat the Khimaera, Ares shows up for a hot second to be intimidating, Steve and Diana exchange some banter, and we’re done. Somewhere in all that was kissing and other stuff but I genuinely stopped caring enough to write it down in my notes.

After reading this script, I am so, so glad it did not get made. Now admittedly, there is no telling what stage of the creative process this was at, or how much of the script would become the actual movie. But as Teresa Jusino points out, scripts set the tone for everything else. They’re going to influence the costumer, the actors, the stunt doubles, the directors, everyone. And the tone of this version of Wonder Woman is very Laura Mulvey male-gaze-y. Steve Trevor is given the main thrust of the plot arc, and he gets to repeatedly lecture Diana and tell her that she’s wrong, privileged, etc. He also gets to lust after her with no restraint because she is “elementally” beautiful and wears “tawdry” outfits. We’re told that there is this lust/love between Diana and Steve, but we’re given precious little on Steve’s side to explain why he deserves it. Aside from being willing to give his life to help the Albanians, he doesn’t do a whole lot to endear  himself to Diana. He’s bitter, cynical, and critical at basically every point of the film. He tries to keep her from doing the very thing that will later save his own life.

There’s also a very fine line between showing sexism and seeming to endorse it, and this script waved goodbye to that line a few miles ago. Wonder Woman gets called a “bitch” three times in the first seventy pages of the script. I think I said that already, but I still kinda can’t believe it. I can’t even think of a male character equivalent to help me explain how insane that is. Every woman has to be beautiful. Every man has to lust after every woman. The movie is obsessed with slut-shaming its own main character. And we have Diana literally submitting to Strife, allowing herself to be chained (though later Steve claims that she was really submitting to Steve himself. Because that’s the important takeaway from that acton). Admittedly there is some bondage backstory and some BDSM weirdness with the original Wonder Woman comics thanks to creator William Moulton Marston, but you don’t have to draw from every weird part of your source material. In the Jenkins Wonder Woman we see her briefly imprisoned by some girders, but that has a very different ring to me than this description of chaining and groping.

Overall, it’s an incredibly disappointing treatment of probably the most prominent female superhero, and a feminist icon in her own right. The fact that this is where Joss Whedon started the process makes you wonder how much of the nuanced success of characters like Buffy, Willow, Echo, Zoe, and Inara are not due to Whedon himself, but the people Whedon surrounds himself with.

What is also important about this script is what it seems to reveal about how Whedon views the character, and how he might view women in general. Wonder Woman is powerful here, yes, but her power is often secondary to her “elemental” nature, or her sexiness, or her role as a stepping stone for a male monologue. This is a Wonder Woman movie that is not very much about Wonder Woman. And if you can look at one of the most popular female characters in the world and think, “how many times can I get away with calling her a bitch in my script?” then it raises some questions about how you look at real women.

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That’s the end of part one! Tomorrow I’ll be looking at Kai Cole’s allegations, and some other unsavory bits from Whedon’s past. Stay tuned!

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Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not writing long literary analyses of pop culture media for this blog, well, she still studies gender in popular culture.

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