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James Cameron: Wonder Woman set women back. Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins: No.

Cameron, who once bragged about putting attractive boobs on aliens, has some objectification issues about Wonder Woman.

2016 Rolex Awards For Enterprise Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Rolex Awards for Enterprise
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

James Cameron, the filmmaker and director of Titanic and The Terminator who’s now threatening the world with the promise of four more Avatar movies, thought and ostensibly said out loud that Warner Bros.’ breakaway superhero hit Wonder Woman is “a step backwards” in its portrayal of women.

Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins isn’t having it.

“James Cameron’s inability to understand what Wonder Woman is, or stands for, to women all over the world is unsurprising as, though he is a great filmmaker, he is not a woman,” Jenkins wrote on Twitter post late Thursday night. “[I]f women have to always be hard, tough, and troubled to be strong, and we aren’t free to be multidimensional or celebrate an icon of women everywhere because she is attractive and loving, then we haven’t come very far have we.”

Jenkins’s defense of her film and her hero came in response to an interview that Cameron did with the Guardian, in which he compared Wonder Woman to the Terminator franchise (Cameron wrote and directed the first two Terminator films and is credited with creating the franchise’s universe).

Specifically, he compared Wonder Woman to his heroine Sarah Connor, and sided with his own interpretation of how to write a female hero, while dismissing Wonder Woman’s Diana Prince as an “objectified icon”:

All of the self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood’s been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided. She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing! I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie but, to me, it’s a step backwards. Sarah Connor was not a beauty icon. She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit. And to me, [the benefit of characters like Sarah] is so obvious. I mean, half the audience is female!”

Giving Cameron the benefit of the doubt, he’s trying to address a very real problem: A lot of superheroes and superheroines conform to an idealized version of beauty, and when it comes to women characters, the result is often overt objectification (see: a lot of superhero comic books in the ’90s).

But his statement also embodies a flattening view that ignores women’s agency and connects a woman’s looks to whether people should take her seriously.

There’s a deep level of irony here too. In 2009, Cameron bragged to Playboy at length and with great specificity about how the Na’vi, the species of blue alien in his film Avatar, had to have well-formed breasts, and how the film decided to showcase said breasts. It’s hard to tell how much he was joking:

PLAYBOY: How much did you get into calibrating your movie heroine’s hotness?

CAMERON: Right from the beginning I said, “She’s got to have tits,” even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals. I designed her costumes based on a taparrabo, a loincloth thing worn by Mayan Indians. We go to another planet in this movie, so it would be stupid if she ran around in a Brazilian thong or a fur bikini like Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.

PLAYBOY: Are her breasts on view?

CAMERON: I came up with this free — floating, lion’s-mane — like array of feathers, and we strategically lit and angled shots to not draw attention to her breasts, but they’re right there. The animation uses a physics-based sim that takes into consideration gravity, air movement and the momentum of her hair, her top. We had a shot in which Neytiri falls into a specific position, and because she is lit by orange firelight, it lights up the nipples. That was good, except we’re going for a PG-13 rating, so we wound up having to fix it. We’ll have to put it on the special edition DVD; it will be a collector’s item. A Neytiri Playboy Centerfold would have been a good idea.

The crucial point that Jenkins makes in her response to Cameron is that women shouldn’t be defined solely by their looks or measured by how tough they are — that there’s equal worth in a woman’s ability to love others and to display grit, and the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

“I believe women can and should be EVERYTHING just like male lead characters should be,” Jenkins wrote. “There is no right and wrong kind of powerful woman.”