Monday, June 26, 2017

A Woman’s Voice (Wonder Woman)

By Jessica Getman

Despite Steve Trevor’s attempts to convince her otherwise, Diana continued to insist that Ares was behind The Great War. In the end she was right, and she saved the world.

Wonder Woman (2017, dir. Patty Jenkins) is remarkable as a film that employs narrative conventions from both the male superhero epic and the female coming-of-age story. As a classic hero’s journey, it narrates Diana’s origin story as she leaves her home on the protected Amazonian island of Themyscira, crossing a threshold into the “world of men,” facing the ordeal at Veld to confirm her true identity as a warrior, and emerging even stronger after the pain of Steve’s death and her choice to believe in humanity’s potential for love. As Robynn Stilwell has pointed out, “boys’ stories are outward and linear,” and require the main character to overcome obstacles as they complete their quest. Diana, too, quests outward and through several barriers, moving away from home without returning. In remaining true to this masculine narrative, the creators of the Wonder Woman film very purposefully position Diana as an equally viable and inspirational hero in the male-dominated DC Extended Universe.

But they also imbue the film with conventions of the girls’ coming-of-age narrative, which (again from Stilwell) “tend to be inward and circular as girls discover themselves, usually in relationship to others,” as part of a network of relationships. These stories follow the main character as she matures, and usually bring her back home in the end, either to her parents or to a new husband. While Diana does not return “home” in this sense, the film clearly depicts her growing understanding of the world and her destiny as the God Killer.

The film also—and most strikingly—emphasizes Diana’s voice. Unlike the typical girls’ narrative, in which the main character generally moves from assertive, to silent, and finally to expressing herself within the confines of a socially acceptable feminine identity (see Stilwell), Diana maintains her assertive nature throughout, loudly and without shame, despite attempts to confine her. She concedes to social norms (as in the shopping scene) only to clear the path she knows to be right. Diana’s insistence that she was born of clay, that her Amazonian clothes are necessary for fighting, that the life of the individual civilian or soldier is as valuable as the life of the general, and that Ares is in the world and at play, rarely falters. Try as the people around her might to correct and silence her, she refuses to be shushed. Even the structure of the film itself, which begins and ends with a voiceover by current-day Diana, moves against tradition to centralize her voice; as Kaja Silverman claims, female voiceovers in Hollywood film are historically rare, partial, and unreliable. Wonder Woman challenges the traditional trajectory of the maturing woman’s expression of self, presenting a female hero with a remarkably unshakable and audible voice, who sets out on her quest with no intention of returning home, and who, along the way, discovers her true nature in concert with those around her.

The film’s play with narrative conventions is paralleled by the choices of composer Rupert Gregson-Williams. As Grace Edgar and Caitlan Truelove (forthcoming) point out, Gregson-Williams inherited the project from Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, who provided the soundtrack for Batman v. Superman (2016, dir. Zack Snyder), and who composed the striking electric-cello Wonder Woman theme employed in Wonder Woman’s “No Man’s Land” sequence and elsewhere.

Wonder Woman Theme (by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, heard in “No Man’s Land,” 3:20)

(See Grace Edgar’s post for a more complete transcription and discussion of this theme.)

Gregson-Williams faced the challenge of writing a score that employed this theme sparingly—in its full form, the theme is too far from the musical language of his score to be used more than a few times. (It should be noted, however, that as a composer at Remote Control Productions, Gregson-Williams did employ a number of Zimmerisms; see Frank Lehman’s essay on Zimmer’s aesthetic.) He also needed to express Diana’s development from a young, idealistic girl into the warrior who inspires this music. His response was to a write new theme for Diana, drawn from the Wonder Woman theme. He associates it with the Amazons of Themyscira.

Amazon Theme (from “Amazons of Themyscira,” 2:20)

The melody and chordal accompaniment of this theme remains, in whole or in part, connected with Diana throughout the film (notice the reappearance of the i – VI – III - VII progression in the Hero theme, below—a progression that notably hints at the relative major). It accompanies her long after she’s left the island, and is with her as she fights the German forces in Veld, as she defies Steve and attends the armistice gala, as she mourns the citizens of Veld after they have been gassed, as she later overcomes Ares, and as she stands at the top of a building overlooking modern London in the last shot of the film. It draws from Zimmer and Junkie XL’s Wonder Woman theme first the rising third (adding a passing tone), and then the rising triad, lightly foreshadowing the power Diana will wield in those moments when we hear the Wonder Woman theme. But even after we hear Zimmer and Junkie XL’s distinctive theme in “No Man’s Land,” the Amazon theme remains. As with the strong sense of self and voice she maintains throughout the film, her scoring demonstrates that the powerful Diana who left Themyscira remains the same idealistic, Amazonian woman.

One of the refreshing musical choices in this film is the use of a powerful fanfare in Diana’s heroic moments, one that recalls the rising open intervals of Zimmer’s Superman theme. (An analysis of the gendered topoi in this soundtrack will unfortunately have to be left for another study.) In fact, Gregson-Williams applies this theme not only to her heroic feats, but to a number of heroic acts performed by various characters throughout the film—she shares this theme with others.

Hero Theme (from “No Man's Land,” 2:20)

This theme sounds in the string section when Hippolyta explains that Zeus used the last of his power to stop Ares, and then when Steve insists to his superiors in the war room that they should save their soldiers from Dr. Maru’s new mustard gas; we hear it again, this time in the horns, when Steve, his friends, and all the soldiers at Veld run after Diana into no man’s land. Thus, the heroism in this film is shared, and not wielded by Diana alone. This choice can be interpreted as emphasizing the collaborative nature of a superhero who works as part of a team and who inspires those around her, but it also could be due to the existence of Steve Trevor’s own full, heroic arc; this more general theme allowed Gregson-Williams to highlight his noble moments without centralizing him further.

The focus on Diana as the primary hero is maintained, as well, through the sparing use of the love theme. In Hollywood film, the love theme is traditionally assigned to the female love-interest and acts as her theme, equating that music with her primary purpose in the film (see Rebecca Fülöp’s work on the Feminine Romantic Cliché). In this instance, however—because the film’s primary hero is a woman and because her love interest is a man—Gregson-Williams inserts some distance between these characters and the love theme.

Love Theme (from “Trafalgar Celebration,” 2:32)

We hear the love theme only a few times in the film: in the caverns of Themyscira when Diana sees Steve stepping out of the pool; when she tells Steve about Clio’s treatises on body and pleasure; in Veld when Diana invites Steve into her room; and at the end of the film, after Steve has died, when Diana lingers over his picture. It is particularly striking that this is not the theme we hear just before Steve sacrifices himself in the plane. Here, Gregson-Williams has employed Diana’s Amazon theme instead; Steve comes to grips with his fate by remembering her, not their relationship. By reducing the connection between Diana and the love theme, Gregson-Williams removes a pitfall that could have condemned her to being defined through her relationship with Steve, and that might have undermined the powerful effect she has had on her audiences as a strong female superhero.

Diana’s Journey

As a feminist film, Wonder Woman is not perfect. Among other failings, it continues to stereotype its non-white characters, and it lacks a necessary intersectional approach. What’s more, Diana does choose in the end to strategically repress her voice in the service of humanity, living undetected in the human world, wearing the fashions expected of her and taking a quiet job as an archivist, only appearing again (so far) when the other superheroes cannot overcome a monster on their own (as in Batman v. Superman). But Wonder Woman also presents a strong woman who is unapologetic about who she is and what she aims to achieve, who can go neck-to-neck with the boys, surrendering her agency and sense of self only as she chooses. Gregson-Williams’ soundtrack emphasizes this, supporting a strong femininity that nurtures and inspires others while remaining confident in its own power.

Jessica Getman is the Managing Editor for The George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her work in film musicology focuses on television production, science fiction, and the original series of Star Trek.

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