Garwulf’s Corner #53: The Agency of It All
Originally published August 16, 2017
As I begin to write this, it is the end of March. The weather is finally starting to turn towards the warmer side, and the Wonder Woman movie has become controversial for one of the stranger reasons imaginable.
Wonder Woman, you see, has no armpit hair — and for some people, this is a problem. The controversy over it has become a bizarre storm in a teacup, with people on both sides of the issue arguing over whether Wonder Woman should be shaving her body hair.
Now, while the Wonder Woman movie did open to critical acclaim and box office success, I have not seen it (mainly because I’m not really a superhero fan). I have, however, seen the trailers, and they did not impress me, albeit for reasons that may be wholly my own: as somebody who has actually studied the Great War, the sight of Wonder Woman in No Man’s Land holding off a machine gun with her shield is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen (among other things, the World War I battlefield contained mortars, artillery, and snipers). I’m certainly willing to give the movie some credit for giving the war a level of attention that all too often goes to its bigger and nastier Nazi-laden sequel, but the ridiculous battle scene made it hard for me to take the trailer seriously. Again, that’s probably just me.
The armpit hair controversy, however, is just bizarre. For one thing, the reason that Wonder Woman has no armpit hair is because it is a movie that was made in the 21st century, featuring 21st century actors. Regardless of whether Gal Gadot’s decision to follow this convention is due to comfort or societal pressure, it is extremely unlikely to have anything to do with the character she is portraying. It’s also unlikely that the filmmakers gave any thought to armpit hair whatsoever during the production of the film. What’s even stranger to me is the link to feminism that has appeared in the debate.
I am what one could call a “classical feminist” — I believe in equal opportunity and treatment regardless of what sex or gender one might be, but beyond that how anybody chooses to lead their lives is up to them. When it comes to fictional characters, how strong or empowering a character will be is never something that I have associated with body hair.
Instead, it’s all about actions.
The word is “agency” — the ability that a character has to act on their own to accomplish their goals. In my mind, there are two main questions when it comes to the litmus test of how empowering a female character can be: does she have agency, and how does she use it?
Take Princess Leia from Star Wars, quite possibly one of the best female characters ever put on the screen. She has agency, which she uses to overthrow the Galactic Empire as both a political and military leader (and she is possibly more lethal than Han Solo and Luke Skywalker put together). There’s also Delenn from Babylon 5, who uses her agency to win the second great war against the Shadows — she also is a member of her world’s ruling Grey Council (which she breaks and reforges), and the actions she takes makes her a key player in just about every major event in the series. And then there’s Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings — she breaks convention in the Riders of Rohan, joins the battle for Minas Tirith, and kills the Witch King of Angmar on the battlefield.
Notably, none of these characters are memorable or empowering for how they dress or whether they shave their body hair.
To be fair, sometimes the most revolutionary thing somebody can do is to break convention — to wear more revealing clothing when the societal pressure is to cover up, or to not shave when the convention is to shave. But, these are revolutionary actions that are firmly wedded to their time and place. For a woman to wear so masculine a colour as pink would be shocking in early 1920s America (a time and place where pink was for boys and blue was for girls), but would be seen as conventional after the 1950s. Indeed, sometimes the difference between an action being an act of rebellion against societal convention or slavishly following it is two or three decades. But rebellious acts like these are also more akin to a personal statement than the exercise of agency in a meaningful way that will resonate with audiences long after the fact — a flash in the pan rather than a meaningful moment.
Therefore, to be empowering and memorable after the moment, a female character’s actions are best grounded in something universal and timeless. And this means that whether Wonder Woman has shaved her armpits, and even what she is wearing as her superhero costume, will be close to irrelevant in the long run. What will matter instead is what she does, and how she chooses to use her agency — just as it is with any other female character.