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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

 

When feminist violence and terror come to the screen

Gerald Schmitz

06/21/2017

The Handmaid’s Tale
(Hulu and Bravo TV)
Wonder Woman
(U.S./China/Hong Kong)

Instead of a first female American president, we have a misogynist who’s bragged about sexually assaulting women — interesting timing for two high-profile U.S. productions carrying very different feminist messages. April brought the 10-episode first season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Bravo TV in Canada) based on Canadian Margaret Atwood’s very dystopian 1985 novel. Some of the episodes are directed by women, including Canadian Kari Skogland. I have no desire to reread the novel to see how faithfully it is followed, but note that Atwood is an adviser to the series and one of its writers. At Austin’s South By Southwest festival in March, Hulu’s promotion included having dozens of mute young women, clad in handmaiden scarlet and white, circling the streets.

What to make of it? The scenario has a crisis of infertility coinciding with a fascistic totalitarian “Christian” makeover of America in which a class of subjugated women are forced to bear the children of “commanders.” Elizabeth Moss gives a strong performance in the lead role of Offred, one of these handmaidens. Any dissent is violently suppressed, though Canada remains a northern safe haven (as it was for those escaping racial slavery in the 19th century). Allusions have been made to the Trump phenomenon and his support from right-wing white evangelicals. Still, the prospect of any of this horror happening seems to me to be between nil and none, about as likely as the Islamic State taking over the secular West.

Moving from futurist nightmare to rearview fantasy is Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, which arrived on the big screen early this month, a long in development female-directed superhero blockbuster in which a heroine calls the shots. In it a reimagined First World War crashes into invented Greek mythology, literally when the stricken Allied pilot and spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) washes up on the island paradise of Themyscira, home to a race of Amazons and the warrior princess Diana who has god-killing powers. She’s played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot, a former Miss Israel who served in the Israeli army and has appeared in the Fast and Furious franchise.

Hapless humans seem to be in the grasp of the god Ares who seeks their destruction, until Steve and the wondrous Diana team up against the baddies — Germans, of course, including a facially disfigured female mad scientist nicknamed Dr. Poison — though it turns out Ares has other guises up his sleeve. It’s all rather preposterous, with some corny dialogue thrown in, but if you’re going to rewrite history you may as well go all the way. The sight of the striking Gadot striding through a hellish trench warfare no man’s land is something to behold. Action fans will cheer the frequent fights and explosions.

The original Wonder Woman emerged in the Second World War. The 2017 version rolls that back leaving more room for sequels. Thankfully it also sheds the skimpy all-American star-spangled look for an equally alluring more goddess-appropriate armour.

For all the combat violence, the movie’s female-powered message is that “only love will save the world.” Wouldn’t that be wonderful?