Can media texts can challenge and subvert dominant discourses about identity?

Women traditionally take on an expressive role in the home environment and “tend to be depicted as being affectionate, submissive, forgiving, and fragile, but as having low amounts of self-confidence, ambition, dominance, and individualism.” (Busby, 1974) An example of this can be seen in many Disney texts which present the stereotype of a damsel in distress with characters such as Snow White and Cinderella who rely on a male hero to come and rescue them. Some may argue that these texts are outdated with the recent releases such as Frozen and Brave which arguably create a discourse in the identity of women. However in a recent survey of 80,000 Americans the most popular Disney princess was Cinderella (Dray, 2016). With the narrative of Cinderella concluding that she can only be saved by the hero of the story removing her from her current way of life, this supports the idea that a traditional representation of female identity still has a strong presence in modern day society. Further with the increase of globalisation and a rise in consumerism, merchandise is being produced and sold worldwide enforcing this discourse of identity (New London Group 1996).

Progress has arguably been made in the discourses of women’s’ identity as we recently see women participating in acts of violence and deconstructing the binary opposites of men and women, this is called “Gender Deviance” (Thorne 1993, pg. 101-103). An example of this is the recent film Wonder Woman where the main character herself is a warrior and presented as having equal strength as her male counterparts, if not more, and fights alongside them throughout the film.
In Wonder Woman Diana goes over the top of the trench into No Man’s Land, then causing the other soldiers to follow suit and rush over the top where they eventually take over the enemy trench, thereby enabling them to move forward. This act shows bravery that traditionally we would conventionally have associated with men. This scene can even show that she is seen to be stronger and braver than the men she is surrounded by. There are only men in the trenches as women were not allowed to fight in a war. However she combats this by proving herself as even more of a warrior than the soldiers. Diana “safeguarding the world from male violence not with nurture but with better violence, is a feminist act.” (Williams, 2017) She is not achieving the same aims through a more feminine method but by fighting in the same way as the men are. Positioning the character of Dr Poison, a female chemist attempting to destroy humans as one of the key villains in the film breaks down the traditional assumption that villains should be male and portrays a female character with the potential to be just as calculating and evil as men. This creates a discussion again about the strength of women, showing that they are not just meek and powerless but can cause harm and fight for themselves.

Diana is seen having a conversation with Steve where he states that “We can’t save everyone in this war” and she replies “No but it is what I’m going to do.” This shows that the character is still presented as compassionate as well as having the strength to save the men herself, arguably supporting the concept of the woman that “has it all” (Genz 2010). She is shown not just as having the bravery we stereotypically associate with men but also the care and passion of the female identity. This subverts dominant discourses about men and women as they are binary opposites in the expectations society has created about gender. However Wonder Woman does not just show a female with male characteristics but creates a medium encompassing aspects of feminity and masculinity. This also potentially creates a discussion about gender fluidity and the idea that we do not need to have two opposites and characteristics assigned to each but can create our own identity removed from these stereotypes. This supports the idea that nothing within identity is fixed; we are able to choose our identity and therefore change it (Butler, 1990).

Moreover, when Steve’s personal assistant (a woman) was introduced to Diana she described her job as “Going where he wants me to go and doing what he wants me to do,” whereupon Diana replies “Where I am from that is called Slavery.” This scene again leads to a discussion about one of the female characters we see in the film, a personal assistant for Steve, and is making a comment on the woman being in this role. She is essentially serving the man which again supports the traditional view of genders that men are superior and a woman’s purpose is to support them. This character and film creates a discourse as not only do they present powerful women, Diana’s response commenting on slavery points out the potential this woman has and that she is obeying this man as a slave would to its master. Later in the scene Diana is examining a corset and the personal assistant, Lucy, states that they are to “Keep our tummies in,” Diana replies “Why must we keep them in?” to which Lucy states “Only a woman with no tummy would say that.” Although this scene may have been added for comic effect it gives a hint towards expectations of women with regard to image, that woman must care about how they appear and live up to the standards of ideal body image by any means. Further, the comment made by Lucy enforces flat tummies as an ideal for all women, that all women must have them and those who do not will be wearing a corset to achieve one. On the other hand, this does support a discourse about identity with Lucy clearly envious of women who do not have to alter themselves, thereby showing that women such as Diana are an ideal and that women should have idols of the image they would like to be. Rivalry and competition between women is a stereotype which this short clip is by showing an ideal to look up to, and aim to be like, is a result of these stereotypes. Such stereotypes can be seen enforced through society in a 2004 study by the Bureau of Labour Statistics which confirmed that “Overweight and obese white women get paid less than their thinner counterparts, while white men don’t face the same discrimination.” This proves that not only is modern sexism an important discussion that needs to be prompted but also the expectations and treatment of women based on their appearance.

In the following scene, when trying on dresses, Diana lifts her leg and questions “how can a woman possibly fight in this” then lifting her leg and ripping the tight skirt. This could represent her attempting to be sexualised but then rejecting this. She further asks “ how can women possibly fight in this?” showing her choice of clothes to be directed towards practicality and functionality rather than appearance. This is Diana refusing to be sexualised or dressing in order to please men, but instead dressing for her own needs. She may do this to be taken more seriously by the males she is working with because in the film as attractive and sexually dressed women are taken less seriously (Wookey et al. 2009) thereby highlighting a continuing issue with regard to the sexualisation of women. Diana’s rejection of her allocated clothing creates a discourse about how women can reject this dominant representation and not allow themselves to be dictated by men and society’s expectations. Her independence is also shown where she tries multiple times to go through a revolving door and Steve tries to help her. She says “ let me do this on my own” and does not need to be assisted or helped by a man which again shows her independence. Furthermore throughout the film Diana carries a large sword which could be interpreted as a phallic symbol (Myrittinem, 2003) representing power as associated with masculinity. This could represent her empowerment and her overcoming the imbalance of power because she has taken the sword and the power and is therefore the leader throughout the battle scenes.

In conclusion Wonder Woman subverts dominant discourses about gender and women in many ways, through her actions and representation. This can be seen when comparing the new film with the original Wonder Woman comic from 1941 where the character was greatly sexualised in terms of her clothing which were impractical and followed expectations for how women should be dressed. Also, in order to prove she is “worthy to enter the man’s world and fight for liberty and freedom and all womankind” she must compete in challenges. This contrasts with the character of Superman who was also created around the same time and was not required to pass tests or questioned when he put on a cape and decided to become a hero (O’Reilly,2005). Many discourses have been created already and feminism has come very far but, as examined in the text there is still more progress and discourse still to be made.


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