Wonder Woman Director Patty Jenkins on Why Hollywood Needs More Superheroines (Cape Optional)
Patty Jenkins is making history as the first woman to direct a big-budget superhero movie. She answered our questions about women in Hollywood and cracking glass ceilings on and offscreen.
Patty, what role do you think Wonder Woman has played in American pop culture? How did you approach adapting a character with so much history?
I think she was the first great superhero figure to strike the note that the mythical female gods from history did: a grand, powerful, and aspirational female figure. That's why I think she hit as big as she did and has lasted. She became someone to aspire to be. I tried to just stay true to her origin story for exactly that reason. I tried to hit that same feeling she gave to me when I was a kid.
Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Diana of the Amazons—and at heart, your film is about a woman coming into her own power. What was so special to you about Wonder Woman’s origin story, and how is it different from other superhero origin stories we’ve seen?
In a great way, it is not that different than any superhero origin story. It is a character who you can relate with at the start. A child with no power but filled with hope. A young person who wants more in their life and then finds—or in this case seeks out—that opportunity. And then faces the challenges and growth of becoming a true hero. The only difference is that she is female, and it was important to me to treat her as incredibly universal because that's how we treat male characters. They aren't growing into a hero for men. It's not about being male. They are just a hero for all. So ironically, I felt the most powerful way that I could address the specialness about her being a woman—and what makes her different—was to make her the same. To make her stand for all.
You asked Lynda Carter, who famously portrayed Wonder Woman on television in the 1960s, for her advice on developing the character. She told you, “I never stopped playing Diana when I started playing Wonder Woman.” What did that mean to you? How did you take that advice into account while making this film?
I think that means that Diana is a character with wonderful complexity and humanity, always. She never becomes something unrelatable, even if she is a superhero. Luckily that is my passion anyway. I love to make myself, and hopefully other people, step into any main character I do—no matter how extreme or seemingly inaccessible. That was a huge inspiration to realize that is exactly why Lynda's Wonder Woman was a lasting as she was. We loved her. We were her and she was us.
Diana comes from Themyscira, an island where only women live. What changes when she enters our own world in the 1930s, which often seems to her like a world of men?
My favorite thing about her experience is man's world is the great way her total obliviousness to inequality allows us to experience the obvious sexism and racism of the time. She comes from a land of only women—and incredible women. And she is young, naive and hopeful enough to just barrel through man's world, observing the discrimination we are all so familiar with (and often even excuse) as completely absurd. Her questions might sound naive at first glance, but then you realize "Oh wait. She's totally right. Why would you not let a woman into a room? Why would you treat a woman any differently? That's dumb and silly." I love the humorous way of observing what we have accepted as normal in this world and in our past.
In 2016, women represented just 7% of all directors of the 250 highest-grossing films. How does that limit the stories we tell and how we tell them?
I think that is a shocking number and one that I hope will change. But I don't see it as the primary issue influencing the limited kind of stories we are telling. I think that issue is starting much earlier in the process. I think the issue is with the system generating the material, plus the audience they are going after. For the last 12 years I've been offered work as a director, it has almost 100% been material that is generated by the same group of people. By the time they were bringing me in, the ship had sailed as to what kind of a movie it was—and often it wasn't one that would be authentic to me at all. And all the while, very few people wanted to even read the scripts I was developing—much less put money into them—even though I'd had great success with the last film I'd written and directed. They wanted to hire me, but only for their things, not mine.
I think that the streaming community is really shaking that world up, but until studios change their ways and stop only generating from within the same small group of people—and until they become interested in attracting more diverse kinds of stories and audiences—women directors will continue to be one of the many, many kind of collateral damage. If you are still focused on attracting young men to the box office, you will continue to hire mostly (formerly) young men to speak to them. The irony is that the data now clearly shows that this audience is no longer the most powerful in the world. Middle-aged women are. Yet the studio system still seems very slow to figure out how to shift their approach.
Speaking of the need to shift approaches: The Geena Davis Institute just released a report that shows that 1 in 4 women have stopped watching film or TV show because there weren’t enough female characters. Can you tell us more about why telling more stories about women onscreen is not only the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do too?
Women are the leading audience for almost all television and have been for a long time. But they are now the biggest audience for films too. Many of the "surprise" hits in the last few years have demonstrated that. So if we are truly a business about making money, the money is sitting right there. Go and get it. The fact that it sometimes seems that studios are shying away from or refusing to see that data is the truly surprising part. If they are really business minded, what is the hold up? I think they really have a hard time believing it and changing their ways, and as a result they are falling behind and other people are cleaning up.
Your son recently came up to you and said, “Mommy, I need the new Wonder Woman doll.” You said that was one of those moments when you knew you had done something meaningful. What did that moment mean to you?
My son is what you might call a very typical boy. Plays aggressive games with his action figures. Suffers from the school yard questions of "is that too girly?" about any shirt he might be questioned about. But he has watched the movie and the making of it, and he doesn't question that he absolutely needs Wonder Woman and each of her weapons as a part of his collection of other action figures. She is necessary without a second thought for her fighting ability and character. Of course you need Wonder Woman. That is such a wonderful thing to exist in the world for both sexes. I didn't cause or create it, but I am so honored to be a part of having brought that to this generation in any way.