Wonder Woman, Gamora, & Nebula: Redefining Female Roles in Action Films

written by Kelsey May
June 21, 2017

Crying during a movie’s climax is a pretty beautiful experience. You’ve been so moved by the film that you cry during the very moment the director worked hardest to convey emotionally. For me, Wonder Woman (2017) held a very special gift: a bad ass female lead. Diana was the strongest character in the film, able to throw tanks and jump the height of three stories. She was one of the only woman, a norm in action movies, but she was the best fighter. She was determined, unlike her Amazon family, to help mankind end the war. And with her kind heart, bravery, and fighting spirit, she did.

I grew up watching action films. It was always a point of pride that I loved the Matrix and Bourne trilogies, that I could quote lines from Ocean’s Eleven by age thirteen. I didn’t watch “chick flicks” (although they tend to be highly amusing); I watched The Italian Job and Taken, bonding with my step-dad over the adrenaline-pumping films. The women in these movies are often great fighters, but they aren’t the focus. Ever. They’re sidekicks, afterthoughts, supporting roles, comic relief. I never complained, mind you. I didn’t realize that women were missing until I was sitting in the theater a few weeks ago watching Diana lead her group of soldiers and misfits against German troops. All of a sudden, tears were streaming down my cheeks, and I turned to my husband and said, “She’s a woman.”

I’m glad that films are being more intentional about cultivating positive, realistic characters, especially for their female characters. The other 2017 action film that’s done a great job of including women without needing them to be defined by their relationship to men is Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017). Gamora and her sister Nebula have one of the most compelling storylines of the second installment. Viewers (those who haven’t read the comics) learn that during their childhoods, Gamora and Nebula were forced to fight each other. The loser had part of her body replaced by machinated parts by their father, a cruelty that tore apart Nebula’s identity as well as her physical body. The film (spoiler alert) depicts the two of them resolving their childhood hurts and competing to be better, a learned behavior leftover from their fierce matches.

Photo credit: Digital Spy

I was so touched to see the two sisters discover how they’d both been wronged by their father’s cruelty and work to forgive each other. Competition is all too often the reason that two female characters talk in a film, and that tends to be over a man or romantic partner. Guardians Vol. 2 passes the Bechdel Test, a standard which measures whether women exist in a film simply to stoke male characters’ egos or whether they are given speaking roles that deepen their characters to a purpose beyond romance. The beginnings of love and respect that stir between Nebula and Gamora by the film’s close and the beautifully sculpted role of Diana in Wonder Woman gave me hope that directors and writers are thinking of their female characters in important, realistic storylines and are including them in the bigger pictures of their films.

Wonder Woman image credit: New Brighton “Light Cinemas”