Friday, June 23, 2017

From Sex Object to God: A New World for Wonder Woman

By Grace Edgar

In her first solo outing, Diana (Gal Gadot) faced the daunting task of defeating the very concept of war itself. Raised by Amazons on an isolated island, she is thrown into the thick of World War I when American spy Steve Trevor crashes his plane off the coast. She takes Steve’s description of “the war to end all wars” to mean Ares, the enemy of the Amazons, is to blame, and she leaves the island to fight him, believing overcoming the god of war will put a stop to the conflict.

Running parallel to this urgent mission are the three Herculean feats of the film. First, Wonder Woman buttressed the sagging DC Extended Universe (DCEU) franchise by providing it with a much-needed, critically-acclaimed blockbuster. Second, it was the biggest opening yet for a film with a female director (Patty Jenkins), highlighting Hollywood’s ongoing problems with structural sexism. But most importantly, Wonder Woman proved that superhero films starring women are commercially viable.

Laying the groundwork for this success was Gadot’s scene-stealing performance in last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder), one of the film’s few elements to emerge unscathed from the pileup of negative reviews. Undoubtedly, part of what made Diana stand out was the earworm theme Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL wrote for her.[1] In its definitive form (“Is She with You?”), the melody is basically an arpeggiated E minor triad decorated by A♯/B♭. In combination with the D♮ of the bass line, this ear-catching ♯4 gives it an octatonic flavor. The transcription below (from “No Man’s Land”) consists entirely of pitches drawn from the OCT1-2 collection.[2] The very features that make this theme pop out—alongside the ♯4, the theme’s 7/8 meter (2+2+3), and electric guitar timbre (played by an electric cello)—exoticize the character.


Inheriting this material, Wonder Woman composer Rupert Gregson-Williams faced his own unique challenge in building a world around an aurally pungent theme designed for a cameo appearance. In what is probably a wise choice, he uses the full theme sparingly. Borrowing a strategy from Zimmer and Junkie XL, he uses the 7/8 meter itself associatively, structuring the music for some of the action scenes around the distinctive meter (and sometimes the theme’s bass line) rather than overusing the melodic theme. Repurposing another strategy, he employs a slowed-down form of the theme’s initial fragment for early appearances of the hero. Beyond these techniques, Gregson-Williams has certainly been influenced by the Zimmer model of film composing. He supplies the film with slow-moving melodies over ubiquitous drum patterns, at times to great effect—the early scene on the island of Themyscira is all the more striking with the Zimmer brand of mythic music accompanying it.[3]

Although Gregson-Williams’s manipulation of “Wonder Woman” relies on strategies from the previous film, the way he situates it in relation to the film’s other themes differs from Zimmer and Junkie XL’s precedent. In Batman v Superman, the chromaticism of “Wonder Woman” both exoticizes and eroticizes the character. We first encounter her through Bruce Wayne’s gaze at Lex Luthor’s party. As Bruce sees her, we hear a slowed-down form of the initial fragment, emphasizing the ♯4 with an indulgent portamento. Here the electric cello emulates the duduk, an instrument often used to represent the Other in fantasy and science fiction films. In this context, the theme’s chromaticism casts her as a potential sexual partner for Bruce—it is a modern version of the fallen woman trope Kathryn Kalinak has described (1982, 1992). Later, when Bruce finds a photograph of her from 1918, we hear the theme in its definitive rock idiom, and we recognize that the first impression was misleading. But even then, her theme stands in stark contrast to the brooding, primarily diatonic themes of Superman and Batman.[4]

Such is not the case in Wonder Woman. Gregson-Williams makes a number of choices that serve to “unmark” and desexualize the character. First, he detaches the slowed-down initial fragment from the male gaze. We do not hear it, for example, when Steve first sees her. Instead we hear it at the very beginning of the film, separated from all visual associations with Diana herself.

Second, and admittedly problematically, Gregson-Williams scores the opening cue (“Amazons of Themyscira”) with exoticist orchestration. In Batman v Superman, the duduk timbre of “Wonder Woman” worked in tandem with the theme’s meter and chromaticism to portray Diana as a mysterious, foreign love interest. In contrast, the exoticist orchestration of the Amazon theme lends the island the aura of Greek antiquity, establishing it as a place out of time. When this theme attaches to Diana, it suggests the exotic timbre of “Wonder Woman” derives not only from her status as a sex object but also from her Amazonian background. If we are troubled by this Orientalizing gesture applied to the Amazons as a whole, we are also relieved that exoticism connotes something beyond sex appeal.

Finally, Gregson-Williams repurposes the Wonder Woman theme’s octatonic implications for themes linked to her main adversary: Ares, the god of war. In doing so, he hints at her secret heritage and destiny: as a demigod, she is the only one who can defeat him. The idiom of her personal theme becomes the language of the otherworldly in Wonder Woman.

The first new theme in this idiom is a low-register octatonic ostinato (in this example, from OCT 0,1), sometimes accompanied by a chromatic descent (see transcription from “Ludendorff, Enough!”).[5] This represents the film’s human baddies, Ludendorff and Dr. Poison (aka, Dr. Maru), who unwittingly carry out Ares’s destructive agenda. Later, when Diana first confronts Ludendorff (“Fausta”), Gregson-Williams combines their themes vertically, drawing attention to their shared octatonic implications.
udendorff theme.png
The second theme is for Ares himself (see transcription from “The God of War”). Expanded from a three-note motive (bracketed), the climactic version sounds something like an off-kilter species counterpoint exercise. Like Wonder Woman’s and Ludendorff’s themes, Ares’s theme (the bass line) is drawn from the octatonic collection (in this transposition, from OCT 0,1) and emphasizes ♯4. As is the case with Ludendorff’s theme, the descant includes notes outside of the octatonic collection, although the repeated rising half steps suggest an octatonic inspiration. The idiom is perhaps best described as octatonic-infused minor. These three themes share an octatonic coloring because they represent powerful beings or, in the case of “Ludendorff,” the fulfillment of a god’s wishes.
res theme.png
In Batman v Superman, Zimmer and Junkie XL tapped into a long history of scoring love interests with chromatic music to mark Diana as Other. In Wonder Woman, Gregson-Williams draws more specifically on the theme’s octatonic implications, generating a small family of themes linked to gods. Although Gregson-Williams did not compose the Wonder Woman theme, he recontextualized it, and in doing so, he created a new world where Diana is no longer just a sex object, but also a god.

Grace Edgar is a third-year PhD student in the historical musicology program at Harvard University. Her primary area of research is the representation of gender in Hollywood leitmotif films scores from the eighties to the present. She has presented her work at annual conferences of the Society for American Music and Music and the Moving Image.


[1] Following Matthew Bribitzer-Stull (2015), I reserve the term “leitmotif” for themes that develop in tandem with the drama and play a role in defining the larger musical structure. I consider the themes in Wonder Woman to be associative themes.
[2] All transcriptions are mine.
[3] This is sometimes called the “Media Venture” Sound, referring to the name of Zimmer’s former studio (Buhler, Neumeyer, and Deemer, 2015, 401). For more on the Zimmer sound, see Lehman, 2016. The prevalence of drumming in Batman v Superman has attracted the ire of soundtrack critics such as James Southall.
[4] The most common version of Superman’s theme, initially presented in Zimmer’s score for Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013), is a trio of rising fourths: E-A, C-F, E-A. Batman’s main theme is an ascending minor triad (ex. A-C-E) that then ascends to the tonic (E-F-G-G#-A).
[5] This theme is later transposed up a whole step to start on D.

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