How Wonder Woman Falls Into The Smurfette Trap
Once Diana leaves Themyscira, Wonder Woman reinforces some frustrating Hollywood tropes.
This Wonder Woman article contains spoilers.
According to TV Tropes, “The Smurfette Principle” can be applied to any narrative situation “when the cast is made up of a group of males and exactly one female.” In Wonder Woman‘s first act, the movie actively subverts this trope in some wonderful ways, going so far in the other direction that Steve is “the Smurfette” of the story — the only male character amongst an island of women.
To see that “normal” male-female ratio reversed is so uncommon in blockbusters — especially action blockbusters — that multiple critics commented on it at an early press screening. These Themyscira action moments are a triumph that Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins, and DC should be proud of.
Unfortunately, once Diana leaves Themyscira, Wonder Woman falls into some familiar blockbuster patterns. Once in the “real” world of World War I-era Europe, Diana is, for the most part, a lone woman amongst men.
Initially, the film seems aware of the jarring transition and intent on shining a spotlight on the problematic Smurfette trope. Diana goes from the women-only (with the exception of Steve) Themyscira to the men-only (with the exception of Diana) London war room in a matter of scenes.
The relatively quick transition seems like a way of calling the viewer’s attention to an unrealistic pattern we see as normal within the world of movies: a world composed almost entirely of men, or at least male characters. (Sometimes, if they’re lucky, groups of women get to hang out in the background.)
Rather than leaning into this subversion and/or making some meaningful commentary on its existence, Wonder Woman quickly catches itself a case of The Smurfette Principle. Diana may be the lead (which, it must be stated, is progress in the superhero genre), but she is surrounded by a group of dudes for much of the action of the film. Furthermore, though we do get a female villain in the form Dr. Poison, she is more of a pawn than an antagonist in her own right.
One of the main ways we measure female representation in a film is with the Bechdel Test, a ridiculously low bar of a metric that asks if two female characters have a conversation about something other than a man. (If a movie is going for extra credit, the two female characters must also have names.) To give you some context, about half of 2016’s top movies passed the Bechdel Test. Suicide Squad passes the Bechdel Test. Batman v. Superman does not.
How does Wonder Woman do? Compared to most big-budget Hollywood fare, it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. However, there is a stark divide between the Themyscira period of the film and the “real” world chapters. While Diana’s life before was filled with female relationships, once she leaves Themyscria, there is only one other female character in her life, the delightful Etta Candy. (See also: The Two Girls to a Team trope.)
Rather than see any kind of developed dynamic between the two, however, Etta is mostly used as comic relief. She doesn’t get to go on the adventure with Diana and her male companions. Instead, she is segregated from the action with little character development. If we couldn’t have seen more of a relationship between Diana and Etta, a few short conversations between Etta and David Thewlis’ Ares would have gone a long way toward developing both of those underdeveloped characters. It is cool, for example, that Etta represents a different kind of hero, planning the mission from behind-the-scenes. It would have been nice to see a bit more of this.
Perhaps it doesn’t make sense that Etta would go to the front with Diana (though maybe she could have provided secretarial support on the road?), but, surely, one of Diana and Steve’s band of brothers could have been a sister? (This is, inevitably, the point when someone will argue that it’s unrealistic for women to have gone to the front during World War I, to which I say: Diana was literally formed from clay. This movie can do whatever the heck it wants as long as it has its own internal, consistent system of logic, dammit!)
As The Smurfette Principle implies, this lone woman amongst a group of men isn’t an uncommon trend. In a 2016 study conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender Media, the organization found that even in female-led movies, male characters get much more to do than female characters…
Gender gaps in screen time and speaking time were even bigger in action films, a film genre that is typically dominated by men. Even though women played leading roles in action blockbusters such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Daisy Ridley), The Hunger Games Series: Mockingjay Part 2 (Jennifer Lawrence), and The Divergent Series: Insurgent (Shailene Woodley), overall, male characters appeared and spoke on screen three times more often than female characters in action films.
Diana’s gender isolation in the second half of the film creates the illusion that, as a powerful woman fighting to end the war, Diana is an exception within the real world (of men). It implies that women can be heroes if they are Amazons, but ordinary women are mainly victims rather than agents. They are usually the characters in the trenches, rather than the people fighting for what is right alongside Diana.
There is so much that Wonder Womandoes well. Diana Prince is a compassionate hero worth celebrating. The Themyscira-set opening is like nothing I have ever seen in cinema before, filled with women-centric action moments that made me tear up while watching. Criticisms of this wonderful do not take away from all that it has accomplished and, hopefully, what it will mean for female-led blockbusters moving forward.
However, it would have been nice to see Wonder Womandouble down on its theme of female empowerment by giving us more fully-fleshed out, heroic female characters for Diana to interact with not just in Themyscira, but within the world of men. (Perhaps the inclusion of some female scriptwriters on the team would have helped?)
Something to think about for the Wonder Woman sequel and for the many future female-led blockbusters the wonderful Wonder Woman will help make possible.