Josephine Decker’s latest feature Shirley, starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young and Logan Lerman, premiered in competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is released on Hulu, VOD and participating drive-ins June 5, 2020. Her previous feature, Madeline’s Madeline, world premiered at Sundance 2018; it was hailed as a “mind-scrambling masterpiece” and was nominated for Best Picture at IFP’s Gotham Awards and for two Independent Spirit Awards. Josephine premiered her first two narrative features, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Butter on the Latch, at the Berlinale Forum 2014 to critical acclaim. She also explores collaborative storytelling via TV directing, documentary making, performance art, accordion-playing, acting, teaching at CalArts and Princeton University, and leading artist residencies with the School of Making Thinking.
After seeing Wonder Woman, Josephine Decker (Butter on the Latch, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) posted on Facebook about her discomfort with the film. When fellow writer-directors Deborah Kampmeier (Hounddog, Virgin, SPLIT) and Drew Denny (Queer Habits, Operation Ice, Broadly) read the post, they both responded and their three very different takes on the film extended the conversation beyond Facebook into the following:
Josephine Decker: As happy as I am to see a woman director behind a major action film, come on, Wonder Woman! A warrior genius with a child’s brain in a sex goddess body? Can’t we just have one complex female character leading an action movie? Didn’t one woman read that script and say, “Hey, this is an offensively overused male fantasy …”?
Deborah Kampmeier: I’m so grateful to hear you say that, Josephine. I’ve been feeling very isolated in my response to the film. That’s exactly how I felt. A total male fantasy. I left the screening in a rage. But I have been laying low while everyone celebrates Patty Jenkins (who I love), because it’s certainly deserved and important.
Drew Denny: I actually loved the movie! I went in expecting a mainstream superhero movie … but I like that the writer, Allan Heinberg – who happens to be a gay man – acknowledged racism, genocide of Native Americans, sexism in political institutions and the workplace, the futility of war as a means to peace, the absurdity of giving up some lives to save others, and how there’s not one source of evil but that every person is responsible for contributing to a culture of hate or compassion … I think the filmmakers used beauty, big-budget spectacle and humor to deliver these messages so folks might not even know they’re swallowing politics with their popcorn.
Decker: Drew, your comments definitely give me pause – but it’s so complicated! The idea of 11 male producers and two female producers hiring a man to write Wonder Woman and then attaching a female director – that’s still a ton of men controlling one of the very few female action heroes. While it was a female superhero film, she was constantly learning from the man, taking cues from the man, being instructed on life and how to be from the man.
Kampmeier: It feels important to honor your strong feelings about the film, Drew, and also the emotional response women have had to seeing a representation of themselves fighting back. When my friends and colleagues share about sobbing through the battle scenes, I understand these images are fulfilling a deep need to integrate our fierce and dark feminine, which is constantly banished. Clearly women are starved for this. I just wish we were all allowed an authentic expression of our rage, an authentic expression of our desire to fight back, to be seen and heard and respected, not to mention an authentic expression of women in their power that reflects real bodies, age, sexuality and experience, rather than squeezing all of ourselves into another male fantasy.
Denny: I totally hear both of you. I mourned my personal fantasy of Wonder Woman a bit – as a woman with 42-inch hips, I’ve always loved that she was initially drawn with such a voluptuous figure. But Gal Godot does a fantastic job, and I think judging her for being thin and beautiful is another way of objectifying her rather than sympathizing with her. My current expectation of a big superhero movie is that the star is going to be conventionally attractive; the archetypal male superheroes are Christopher Reeve and Adam West. They’re so handsome! I mean, I’m a lesbian but they’re dreamy, right? I can’t imagine the battles Patty Jenkins must have fought and I’m impressed with what she accomplished.
I cried when Wonder Woman bashed the church – she literally smashed the church to bits! As a gay woman who grew up in a repressive sexist homophobic religion, the image of a woman exploding a church was extremely subversive and delightful to me. She tells the male love interest he’s not necessary for her pleasure – when the comics were written, women weren’t even supposed to enjoy sex, just submit to their husbands and do what was needed to procreate. So I don’t think the 2017 character is outdated – sadly, it’s still revolutionary in many parts of the world for a woman to say she doesn’t need a man, that she enjoys her sexuality, that a man isn’t needed for her to enjoy herself. Can you tell me what you hated about it?
Decker: Here were my first impressions – definitely complicated by your insights, Drew!
The man gets what he wants. She’s super hot. She’s ditzy about how the world works, while he knows how the world works. She’s got no understanding of her own sexual power, so she just happens to get naked sometimes. It lines up with a lot of the stuff that bugs me that’s identified in this great Born Sexy Yesterday video.
Kampmeier: I didn’t feel she was enjoying her sexuality at all. When she was in the bar kicking ass and Sameer says he’s both frightened and aroused (yes, it was a good joke, I laughed), that pretty much summed it up. She’s there to arouse men (and women!), but she isn’t aroused herself. She is totally “fuckable,” but has no connection to her own sexuality. If a woman wrote the script, she would know that a superhero with that much power was doing exercises back on the island with a jade egg and knew her own orgasm inside and out.
Denny: Well, as much as I would love to see that version of the movie, I don’t know if that’s the PG-13 blockbuster superhero summer tentpole the studio needed it to be. But you should direct that movie!
Kampmeier: I would love to! I feel like Wonder Woman is a wolf in sheep’s clothes. It reinforces the patriarchal paradigm all in the name of a female film, and as such, continues to undermine our ability to have true representation of embodied female power and experience. But much of my response could be informed by how much I dislike all superhero and action movies, which leave me bored out of my mind, rolling my eyes at the spectacle, wondering why I should care, and with two hours on my hands to chew over all my complaints rather than dive in for the ride.
Decker: I never see action movies, so I’m sure this one is probably better than 99 percent of them … I guess I just always have extra high hopes when these are female-centric.
Denny: I think this is a really important point – this is definitely not my usual genre. Most big-budget movies offend the shit out of me. So I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this movie. I saw my politics reflected back to me in unexpected ways – and I looked around at a theater packed full of people and saw them all sympathizing with this female protagonist who was kicking ass, proving men wrong, saving their lives, standing up for what’s right, and engaging in dialogue that made visible subjects that are usually absent from these kinds of films.
Kampmeier: I felt the audience could sympathize with her because, while she was “kicking ass,” she actually wasn’t threatening in anyway. She was childlike, innocent and naïve, as Josephine said before. And I had a lot of trouble with that. I was grateful that Antiope fought to teach Diana who she was (and super grateful for Robin Wright’s stunning wrinkles and performance), but that character was killed off before she could truly educate Diana. I felt keeping her naïve is very connected to the purity myth, which I find extremely damaging to young women. This idea of purity, which is very prevalent right now in certain parts of our society, and romanticized in this film, is about control. It’s about controlling girls and women and it robs them of their whole self. We keep our daughters pure and naïve, and then they are set up for all sorts of experiences that diminish their power and their autonomy. I think it would have been so much more powerful to see a conscious, complex and integrated young woman making these autonomous choices.
Decker: Wow. I love that you just said that. The purity myth – exactly!
Denny: I hear you on the naïve part. And I totally agree with you regarding the danger of the purity myth, I just didn’t see that in action here. I think horror movies that punish female characters for losing their virginities do that. … But in this film, she has sex with someone she’s attracted to and then he dies while she goes on to defeat an incredibly powerful enemy. She can’t be taught everything before she leaves the Amazons because then there’d be no challenge – the hero(ine)’s journey requires her to be unable to be victorious when she first sets out. I don’t mind that the love interest teaches her something – why would any woman fall in love with someone who isn’t smart and supportive and inspiring? She also proves him wrong a few times and teaches him a thing or two. That seems like a pretty healthy relationship to me. I also enjoy how the film flips the gender roles here – usually a male protagonist learns something from his female love interest that helps him complete his mission.
One thing we can’t neglect mentioning is that by filling theaters, inspiring audiences and selling a gazillion tickets, Patty Jenkins and Wonder Woman have achieved something very significant. In our sexist industry, Wonder Woman might be the film that changes the game for us – because this movie is doing so well in such a “male-dominated” genre of such a male-dominated sphere, more women filmmakers will be given chances to tell stories.
Kampmeier: I hope you are right that we are at a tipping point, Drew. If Wonder Woman pushes us over the edge, then I’m all for this movie. But it feels to me we have been here many times before. There have been successful films with female protagonists before. There have been successful films with women directors before. There have been law suits before. There have been initiatives before. There has been a lot of talk and attention given and then the issue flits away again. But money talks. So maybe the change we have all been fighting for will take place and the number of female directors will significantly increase. I hope so.
Josephine, how do you feel about putting this out into the world? Are you at all afraid you might be betraying the tribe, the sisterhood?
Decker: Oh wow, Deborah. Oof … I don’t feel that. I feel it would be more of a betrayal to not share my complicated reaction to the film. I’m so happy that some people are giving this film such accolades, but I also think it’s probably good for some of us to crave an even more feminist approach to this genre … and acknowledge that this film disappoints mainly because it is such an exception. A single film cannot fill our underrepresented need: We all crave more female-driven action movies. We all need our Wonder Woman.