Why Wonder Woman’s armpits matter

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The new trailer for female-led blockbuster Wonder Woman launched this week, leading to a round of angry tweets from fans over the superhero’s personal grooming.

Despite spending her life on Themyscira, an all-woman warrior island isolated from the modern world – where, in the film’s First World War Setting, women shaving had yet to catch on anyway – Diana/ Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and her fellow Amazons have no visible body hair. In one shot, Diana flips over a van, showing apparently bleached armpits. At Forbes, Susannah Breslin accused the costuming decision of showing men’s “holy terror”  of women’s bodies, while at the National Review, Katherine Timpf argued that there’s “no debate” about Wonder Woman looking the way she was designed in 1941.

Here’s the thing, though – Wonder Woman having no armpit hair isn’t a problem on its own. It’s a problem because no women in modern Western film have armpit hair. We’ve been conditioned to accept a profoundly unnatural image as the natural way women’s bodies are, with anything else being seen as a subhuman deviance because it – crime of all crimes – doesn’t turn men on.

The actresses in Hollywood films fit what our culture sees as beautiful because they  carpet-bomb body hair with razor, wax and bleach, pursue joyless diet and exercise regimes to avoid the merest suspicion of looking fat, and have professionals style their hair and make-up – whether they’re on the red carpet or in a role, no matter how little sense it makes. During the otherwise lovely film Tracks, based on the real life of Robyn Davidson, who crossed Australia coast-to-coast with a train of camels, I was struck by several shots which made it clear that Mia Wasikowska’s legs were remarkably hairless for a woman who was meant to have been living in the Outback for months without even access to a shower.

Of course, some women do choose to shave, diet and dress in a conventionally feminine way.  Outside of unhealthy behaviour such as eating disorders, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look a certain way – expressing yourself via your body can be fun and empowering. I don’t think people acknowledge that the line can get blurred too – when the media bombards you with images of women who all fit one style, sometimes it’s easier for your mental health to change your body to look like them than feel like an aberration. In my personal style, I often find myself walking an awkward line, torn between the relief of dressing in a way that’s easy for me and saying I don’t care what anyone thinks, and the relief of trying to look a little like a girl in an advert and knowing people might find me pretty. The idea of conventional femininity as empowering seems to have influenced director Patty Jenkins, who told an interviewer: “I, as a woman, want Wonder Woman to be hot as hell, fight badass, and look great at the same time — the same way men want Superman to have huge pecs and an impractically big body.” A Wonder Woman who’s both a warrior and glossy magazine-level attractive is a female wish-fulfilment fantasy, and there are precious few of those on film.

But at the same time, shaving your bodily hair, applying makeup and dieting all demand time and effort. There are women out there who have hairy armpits because they don’t bother to shave, who have acne, who have big bellies. Whereas many fat or weird-looking men have had brilliant acting careers, the impression given by films at the moment is that women fall to earth looking like a Maxim cover, then visibly age ten years over the course of the next thirty until they reach the deepest pit of hideousness for women in Hollywood – MILF status. The narrow template for how we define the beautiful female body has darker consequences as well. It’s one of the reasons why BAME women are much less represented in film than white women, why trans women are incorrectly played by cis men on the rare occasions when they appear at all, and why disabled women are almost totally invisible.

The preference for focusing on women who can fit an idealised fantasy goes beyond film – it might even be why Wonder Woman was briefly chosen as a UN ambassador for empowering women and girls, over women who may have hair under their less-than-bulging biceps but are actually real. Wonder Woman’s armpits will matter until they appear among a range of armpits, hairless and otherwise, belonging to a range of film characters who represent women in real life – women whose strengths and weaknesses, flaws and complexities, are written on their bodies, whether or not the boys in the audience think they’re hot.

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