The past few days saw controversy erupt as many outlets and journalists — particularly female writers — complained about the difference between portrayals of Amazon warriors in the upcoming Warner Bros. superhero film Justice League and the previous Warner release Wonder Woman. Female fans and writers pointed to photos of the fuller body-covering armor of Amazons in Patty Jenkins’ acclaimed Wonder Woman film, and contrasted those images with images of some Amazons from Zack Snyder’s Justice League film, the latter showing leather outfits featuring bare midriffs. (Note: I’m not including the specific images here, unfortunately, because of uncertainty about full photo credits and lack of formal permission to reuse them as required for publication here; but you can easily find them with a simple Google search for the film titles and words like “Amazons” and “costumes.” But I can and will include officially released and sourced images where formal permissions exist.)
I’m highly sensitive to the issue of bad portrayals of women in genre entertainment, including hyper-sexualized and otherwise problematic portrayals in superhero comic books and films, so I’m not seeking to step into this debate and assert nobody has valid complaints or to otherwise try to mitigate the larger problems of sexist portrayals and sexualization of women to appeal to male fans. But I write about films for a living, and there are some fairly important facts here that do deserve to at least be heard, to create a better-informed environment for this conversation.
The first and most important point in all of this is that the images being offered of the costumes from each film are not the only costumes worn, and creates a frankly false impression of what is really shown and worn in both films. Part of the reason this mistaken impression is being created is — to put it bluntly — a lot of people talking about this and sharing the images haven’t even seen the Justice League movie yet. And the images selected for side-by-side comparisons are limited to specific sets of characters wearing costumes from specific moments in the film, and so don’t even reflect the reality of the overall costuming and impression of the characters.
In truth, there are scenes in Wonder Woman that show Amazons entirely nude, or draped only in thin gowns, as the flashback storytelling about their origin reveals — an important point we’ll get back to shortly, since those flashbacks are set thousands of years ago. At other times, some of the Amazons in present-day scenes are in fact wearing costumes that leave portions of their torso bare, including Robin Wright’s Antiope. Meanwhile, over in Justice League, only some of the Amazons are wearing outfits that are less armored and sport bare midriffs, with others having costumes covering them just like in Wonder Woman.
Source: Warner Bros.
Now, let’s also be clear that whether those are the only costumes or not doesn’t change the fact they are some of the costumes, and if those costumes worn by some characters at some points during the film still project hyper-sexualization and give rise to complaints in that regard, then those complaints aren’t invalid or unfair. Which leads us to a second consideration…
The manner in which the midriff-revealing costumes are portrayed in Justice League is almost identical to the way they are presented in Snyder’s other sword-and-sandals picture, 300. The abdominal muscles and arm muscles are the prominent focus of the scenes, in extreme demonstrations of strength and power, not posturing and gazing with a sexualized eye. You could place the scenes in Justice League alongside scenes in 300 and absolutely perceive the identical impression and point of those shots, to show off the characters as superhuman personas doing amazing feats of strength. They’re surrounded by other Amazons in armor and different costumes, highlighting the different roles they play in society and the point of the shots as mirroring the impression and point of such shots in 300.
Snyder clearly perceived the Amazons similar to the way he portrayed the Spartans in 300. I personally once wrote a treatment and outline of concept for a Wonder Woman movie I wanted to pitch to Warner Bros. back in 2010 (but I never wound up pitching it), and my idea was precisely to approach the Amazons and their society in the same manner as the Spartans from Snyder’s film 300. It seems apparent to me that both Wonder Woman and Justice League took some general inspirations from the Spartans, with Snyder having been involved in developing the story for Wonder Woman of course, and in Justice League his inspiration from his previous film 300 is obvious. The camera’s eye looks at the Amazons the same way it looks at the Spartans, and the fetishizing is all about the notions of toughness as conveyed through musculature and feats of strength, not the particulars of costume and sexuality through ogling.
But as the saying goes, intent is not magic, and it doesn’t erase the impression it might — and indeed clearly has — create for some people, albeit many of whom who haven’t seen the film and are therefore forced to rely on still images taken on set showing only a few costumes. It’s very important for male filmmakers and male fans to understand that their own intent and impression of such things exists within a larger context of social expectations that pander to their intent and interests, and so our perception is inevitably skewed by decades or centuries of such social preference for our own particular and necessarily (inevitably) narrower viewpoint. Just because someone doesn’t intend — and the rest of us don’t perceive — the problem with a certain portrayal of a group of women in skimpier outfits, that doesn’t erase the fact it does create problems for other viewers and that it can exist within the larger context of women portrayed in skimpy outfits all the time in entertainment. Sometimes a thing created with one intent and in one way, then, can become something else, even if only symbolically or within the larger context in which it resides. Like it or not, then, a lot of women are going to see those outfits and feel frustrated and angry about them — regardless of comparisons to other films or explanations of intent and so on.
Which doesn’t mean, of course, that the reasons and points about the costumes are invalid or not worth discussing. Indeed, having this discussion can help articulate not just those points and reasoning, but also allow for additional counter-points about why those things still don’t erase the impression and frustrations and complaints about it. It’s worth having all of the information and background, and seeing the full slate of arguments, so that we can admit we’ve had the conversation and come to understand why the complaints might still exist — and probably will, for a lot of people, which is entirely valid — or why for some people the complaints might become less pronounced or be alleviated altogether.
So, moving on to the next issue, the larger claim that the costumes of Justice League are different from those in Wonder Woman ignores (or, more accurately, is simply unaware of) the fact the bare-midriff costumes are only worn by some of the Amazons, with others wearing armor and costumes like those seen in Wonder Woman. The costumes giving rise to the controversy were apparently designed specifically for that set of Amazons who are portrayed to show off muscles and raw power in particular shots in a particular location during specific feats of strength. If these had been male heroes, they’d have been intentionally portrayed with their shirts off to show off their muscles and appeal to our sense of awe at big, tough characters with popping muscles. As these were female characters in a PG-13 film, they couldn’t be portrayed topless and so the costumes were designed to achieve the same effect without an R-rating, basically. That’s how it comes off, like the shots of the Spartans in 300 powering through battle with rippling muscles.
Of course, as already noted, using the same approach and intending this or that similar effect doesn’t negate the context in which art exists, and the fact is the impression many people will get from it will be highly different from how they perceived Spartans in 300. And creators of art have to recognize the context in which films exist, just as they ask us to recognize the storytelling and context in which their film is saying and showing these things.
Source: Warner Bros.
Art is a two-way street, and while I think it’s unfair and simplistic when people claim an artist’s intent loses weight as soon as it’s perceived by an audience (the notion being our own consumption and reaction outweighs what’s actually being said or created, a claim that can lean heavily into the larger concept that facts and information are less important than how we feel about them or how we subjectively experience them — a postmodernist sentiment that undermines the value of objective truth, in my opinion), it’s equally unfair and simplistic to dismiss the implications art has in a shared cultural experience or the influence personal socialization and experiences have on the artists themselves. It can be true that an artist was attempting to say one thing, and that many people heard something else, or that what was said was heard but has implications beyond the artist’s own personal ideas and experiences. It can also be true that a work of art has meaning beyond its intent, while that intent still matters and should weigh in how much we blame the art itself or impugn the integrity of the artists.
A final point, then, about how we perceive and critique the Amazon costumes in Justice League brings me back to something I mentioned earlier, which I promised to return to eventually. Wonder Woman shows us flashbacks of the Amazons’ origins, including images of them nude, or draped in flimsy gowns, or wearing less advanced armor than they’re wearing in the present-day scenes of the film. Those flashbacks are thousands of years in the past, and that’s relevant because some of the scenes of some Amazons wearing midriff-baring outfits in Justice League are likewise many centuries in the past as well. Over time, the Amazons prepared for battle not only against Ares, but also against an eventual possible return of the alien invaders. They set up protocols for it, and they’re weapons and armor obviously changed through the centuries — again, this isn’t just an assumption or excuse for Justice League, this is a fact literally factually demonstrated in Wonder Woman.
Source: Warner Bros
So if we know and can prove that in Wonder Woman the Amazons’ costumes changed over time, starting out literally non-existent (nude) and moving on to gowns and then leather armor and eventually heavily armored outfits as well as some that still bare portions of the torso (this is all shown clearly in Wonder Woman), and if we also know and can prove that some of the Amazons’ costumes in Justice League are set centuries ago when we’ve already seen the Amazons had different outfits, and also only a relative few Amazons even wear those midriff-baring costumes in modern times while others indeed wear various types of armor, then honestly what are we really to make of claims that insist Wonder Woman showed only armored costumes that didn’t bare the Amazons’ torsos and that Justice League features sexist skimpy Amazon outfits?
Whatever else valid and complex points absolutely exist about the portrayal of women in films and the costumes worn by Amazons, the specific nature of the comparison complaints about Justice League do largely lack basis in the facts about both films. It’s hard to imagine anyone framing the complaints in those ways, if they’ve seen both films or have heard the basic facts about both. Again, this absolutely does not mean complaints can’t be made or aren’t valid, but rather that the particular claims featured in so many tweets and social media remarks, and in some of the articles about this issue, are decidedly lacking in accuracy. And the problem with that is not only the obvious point that it’s inaccurate, but also that such lack of accuracy makes it harder to have the important conversation about the truth and context of these issues, since many fans will just refuse to talk about it and will point to the factual errors in the claims as a basis to dismiss any larger points about sexism and the portrayal of women.
Trying to simply portray women “the same way” men are portrayed does ignore the layered reality and social/cultural implications of men walking around without shirts on to show off their muscles is simply not really equitable to the portrayal of women walking around shirtless or in skimpy tops to show their muscles. However much it would be a grand day when such things really are equal in terms of context and messaging and consumption by a society with centuries of ingrained sexism and vast inequity of portrayal and artistic opportunities for female artists, the fact is that today we don’t have an idealized situation where such portrayals can be created and released free of the deeper underlying problems.
So having an open, honest, and deeper discussion means laying all the facts out, recognizing that much of how it’s been presented and discussed has included one or more mistaken claims and factual errors, and then not using those facts and explanations as a reason to refuse the important discussion about why intent and storytelling meaning doesn’t negate the context and the complaints that still arise fairly from many viewers.
Source: Warner Bros
You can enjoy Justice League and personally agree with those who feel the background and reasoning explain and therefore (to you and others) justify the particular portrayal and costumes of Amazons, while still also recognizing and respecting the frustrations and complaints raised by those who feel all of the background and reasoning and explanations can be true and valid wile still not erasing the reasons that within our society and cultural history those images and costumes can arguably be problematic and reflect or speak to historic inequalities in the way women are portrayed in cinema — intentionally or not, since again intention is not magic that erases outcomes and implications beyond intent.
And on the flip side, it’s possible to recognize the problematic cultural context and the validity of why some people are unhappy about the costumes, while not ultimately sharing their perspective or anger about it, and leaning instead toward the belief that the context within the film and handling of it seeks to specifically intentionally subvert those problematic contexts and tries to create space to further push the limited confines of how female heroes and their power is portrayed in genre entertainment (something I’ve long argued is true of Snyder’s film Sucker Punch as well, a viewpoint shared by many female feminist writers by the way who have long defended that film and asserted complaints about it are actually far more rooted in cultural stereotypes of women in genre entertainment).
I hope both sides will look closer at the facts and the context of the other side’s points, become more aware of them, and have a more constructive dialogue that gets to both the deeper truths about the film’s portrayal as well as the inequalities and sexism in cinematic portrayals of women (especially within genre entertainment, and the reactions of male fans of genre entertainment). Because nobody benefits when complaints misstate the actuality of the art they’re discussing, or when defenders of art ignore or misunderstand the relationship the art has to the culture in which it exists.
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