Question: "So do you think this movie signals that Hollywood is moving toward making more films with female protagonists?"
Another: "Do you think things have gotten better for women in Hollywood?"
I am sitting at a press junket for Wonder Woman in 2017 but am hesitating to answer. I am remembering my first junket, for Gladiator in the United States almost twenty years ago, when I was asked whether my playing strong female characters was signaling a change in Hollywood's attitude toward women. My answer then was "Probably not." I was right.
The act of getting Wonder Woman made gives me some cautious hope. But will it change the system? Did Mad Max: Fury Road, The Hunger Games, and Insurgent change the system? Female directors' participation in productions went down in 2016 from the previous year, so I am thinking it's going to take more than that.
I know this because I have seen so many steps forward for feminism, only to be followed by a pushback against progress.
In Denmark, where I grew up, the second-wave feminism of the '70s caused a profound reimagining of our education system. When I was not yet a teen, the rules were changed at my school and girls were required to learn woodworking while boys learned how to sew and cook. We had become participants in a new society of equals.
When I wasn't learning how to handle a saw, I was reading new arrivals of feminist books at the local library. My brain was abuzz with ideas I realized could upend thousands of years of history. I got lost in groundbreaking fiction, like Marilyn French's The Women's Room. Ann Oakley's Subject Women taught me to question medical and biological assumptions about my gender. But the book with the most explosive effect on my young artistic mind was Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, with its revolutionary critique of the "heroic" male. Her elegant and witty prose dared to demolish sacred cows of modern literature and film.
Fully inhabiting the change around us, my father, a weapons sergeant in the home army, took me along on NATO military maneuvers, where I got the worst sentry postings just to prove to me that neither my gender nor nepotism would spare me from cold and fatigue. When I left home, he looked solemnly at me and said, "There is not a thing on this earth you cannot do, my daughter."
When I moved to the United States at 31, it was clear as day we were not moving quite that quickly toward a brave — equal — new world. I saw plenty of misogyny. Even as my career took off, I was all too aware men's roles were central to the dramatic arc in ways that invariably produced weaker material for female actors.
I couldn't understand what had happened to Hollywood. The movies made during my great-grandmother's time had featured incredible female leads. But in the 1990s, as women were slowly moving into real social power, it seemed the subconscious mind of society was reacting by producing films that were made to promote a sort of über-man. My interests, experiences, and viewpoint, as a human and as a woman, were rarely reflected on-screen. It turned out the whole world needed more persuading that equality was a right.
In my life, and in the lives of my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, are written stories of 120 years of feminism. Our lives illuminate the three waves of feminism that preceded this latest one, and how each wave was followed by a counterreaction during which some of the progress was lost.