The scene: A besieged town on the Western Front during World War I. German soldiers are holding strong, and out of the shadows comes Diana Prince, deflecting bullets with her gauntlets and shield, bursting through walls and taking down every enemy in her way as her theme song swells menacingly amid the action. The reality: Me, sitting in a dark theater, enjoying every second of this alternate reality with very real yet seemingly inexplicable tears streaming down my face. It seemed kind of insane in the moment, but it's not just me. Lots of women are crying during Wonder Woman fight scenes.
On the surface it seems kind of odd, even contrived, to get misty-eyed over a woman kicking ass in a superhero movie, but it's a very real phenomenon. I hate crying in public, and yet the movie critics on either side of me found themselves sitting next to a human puddle every time Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman did something badass onscreen. I couldn't help it.
There is, of course, one very clear explanation for the teary reaction to Diana fighting. This is the first major female superhero film, and it's directed by a woman. The sheer weight of the historical nature of that is enough to get you right in the feels. But then, when the film reaches peak action and the lead actor, the director, and everyone involved are clearly hitting the high-octane scenes with everything they've got, eschewing sexy shots for powerful ones and holding absolutely nothing back, it's hard not to see it all as a heartfelt victory.
Yes, Diana is a woman, but she's also a woman who's remarkably talented, smart, strong, and brave — more than any of the men in the traditional fighting roles around her. And because she grew up on Themyscira (an island populated exclusively by women trained in combat, of whom she is the strongest), she knows no other reality than one in which she is the fiercest, bravest, most capable person in the room. She's able to own her power unreservedly, in a way most women — especially those raised in patriarchal societies — often struggle to.
The moments of relief that are driving so many women to cry happy tears in the theater loom over the film itself. Director Patty Jenkins, who wrote and directed the Oscar-winning Monster but had no blockbusters under her belt, has been plagued with the implication that Wonder Woman was supposedly a huge "gamble" on the part of Warner Bros. (That "gamble" has definitively paid off, to the tune of over $220 million worldwide in its first weekend.) A huge Hollywood Reporter profile on the director even opens with the infuriating first line "Can Patty Jenkins make the superhero world safe for female directors?"
Not only did this female superhero film get made, not only was it made by an "untested" woman (I guess Oscars don't count, but I'll table that rage for now), but when it comes to intense action scenes, the film does not hold back in a way that others may have with a female lead. And sure, it feels odd to call a moment that involves countless broken bad guy bones and piles of rubble magical, but there are so many implications and emotions built into the experience of these scenes — namely, that female viewers are feeling heard and seen by the Hollywood powers that be in a way that is incredibly rare. Representation — in this case, the kind that so many women have craved since they became superhero fans as kids — is magical, full stop.
In a genre that so often has women relegated to love interests and sexy sidekicks, the number of women who seek out comic-based entertainment is on the rise. A study by events company Eventbrite found that as of 2015, the number of women attending comic-related conventions was nearly equal to that of male attendees, which suggests that con fandom is approaching gender parity. Despite that fervor, the kind of representation that Wonder Woman offers is still atypical. We've grown up for decades being told that those secondary characters are the most women would ever see of ourselves in superhero movies. Prior to that — and in some incredibly frustrating recent examples, including Gwen Stacey in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight — many of those characters were simply damsels in distress, waiting to be saved by a male hero. But from the moment she steps out on that battlefield, Diana Prince changes everything.
"... in this context [the action scene] restores order in the minds of some the female viewers," says behavioral scientist and author of the relationship blog You're Just a Dumbass, Clarissa Silva. "It speaks to our inner child. The one that viewed the world as hopeful and able to be whatever you wanted to be before adulting happened. The one that saw no obstacles or barriers to be able to be the woman she wanted to become."
And this isn't something that's unique to Wonder Woman. I've teared up during so many female-led fight scenes in the last two years — watching Kate McKinnon slay ghosts in the admittedly mediocre Ghostbusters, seeing Jyn Erso take down stormtroopers in Rogue One, every time Rey picks up a lightsaber in The Force Awakens and the new Last Jedi trailer. A quick survey of other action film fans on Twitter and at the Bustle offices turned up similar results.
Suzanne Samin of Romper tells me she "bawled" when Sansa Stark fed her former abuser Ramsay Stark to his own dogs on Game of Thrones. "Out of all the sh*t they give Sansa each season, they let her have the one thing so many of us wish we could have, which is the ability to send our abusers to the depths of Hell while looking fierce AF," she says. This sentiment is something Silva says could fuel many women's emotional reactions to fight scenes. "For some women, the enemy depicted in the movie is really the personification of who hurt them the most in their lives, and to watch the death of that pain on screen is very empowering," she says. This point is extremely powerful because so many women in action films, comics, and television have been "fridged" — made victims in order to deepen the emotional journey of male leads. "Powerful" doesn't even begin to describe the effects of allowing female characters to turn that tired, frustrating trope on its head.
For other women I spoke to, the sheer presence of representation in an action film is enough to bring on the water works. Bustle's celebrity editor, Lia Beck, said she felt emotional watching The Force Awakens. "I also cried during the action scene where Rey and Finn are battling Rathtars with Han and Chewie. This was a double whammy because I was like, 'Wow, a woman and a black guy are the heroes,'" she says. "As a half-black lady, I was just overwhelmed with representation amazingness."
For her part, Bustle's movies editor, Rachel Simon, was most moved by the combat training scenes during Wonder Woman, because it was such a first to see women actively studying combat training under other women. "I don't think I've ever seen a similar scene before, and I don't think I realized how much I needed to see a scene like that," she says, adding, "I'm not normally a huge crier at movies."
And that's just the thing. For most of us, especially those who are no strangers to the action and superhero genres, it seems out of left field to begin weeping during something as thrilling and exhilarating as a Wonder Woman action sequence. But the tears — alongside the excitement and the thrill — are actually an incredibly normal and natural response.
"Women are historically objectified or subjugated, the portrayal of a woman in an empowering role is a subversion of that historical role," says Silva. "For some women, it addresses the larger question 'if women were to hold this position of power what would the world look like?' It’s affirming to them, it validates their intuition."
But as good as it felt to cry during Diana's action scenes — and as helpful as it was to know that legions of women were doing the same thing — I'll be happy when the reaction we all have is just pure enjoyment. It'd be nice to eventually get to the point where female representation in the action blockbuster genre is a given, and we can enjoy these (hopefully) copious scenes without the weight of their significance on our shoulders, just like every dude seeing a movie starring one of the three Marvel Chrises or The Rock or Vin Diesel or Robert Downey Jr. or Ryan Reynolds can.
Now,Wonder Woman is pushing the needle towards that possible future thanks to its massive first weekend at the box office. And as frustrated as I was that so much pressure was placed on Wonder Woman's capable shoulders simply because she is a woman, I have to admit, seeing those millions of dollars roll in brings a proud tear to my eye.