Born Sexy Yesterday is a common female character trope in sci-fi and fantasy. I personally came across it in a video essay by Pop Culture Detective some time ago. Shortly after I saw Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman (2017) and had thoughts.
I highly recommend watching the video essay since I will be referencing it in this post. The trope’s name comes from the idiom born yesterday, meaning “extremely naive, inexperienced or ignorant.” In the case of science fiction, Born Sexy Yesterday can also take a very literal meaning: sometimes characters are generated into a full-grown state through technology, and are thus truly one day old. The female characters that adhere to this trope are defined by their innocence of and inexperience with things from basic social interaction to sex and romance. In addition to being naïve and beautiful, they usually exhibit a skill stereotypically respected by men, most often combat. Think Leeloo from Fifth Element (1997) and Quorra from Tron: Legacy (2010).
In a nutshell, the Born Sexy Yesterday trope is a (usually) female character with a naïve and innocent mind in a mature, attractive body.
Now let’s talk about Wonder Woman and those thoughts I had. Said thoughts include many spoilers, so it’s time to stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie but want to.
On the surface, Diana ticks many boxes on the Born Sexy Yesterday list. She is an innocent, entering the world of humans for the first time with a black-and-white worldview and a lack of knowledge of social conventions and expectations. She is not human, but a demigod. She is inexperienced with men, having never seen one until she saves Captain Trevor from drowning. She has not experienced attraction from others toward herself and does not know or care that she is beautiful. At one point, she tries to disrobe in public, something that Born Sexy Yesterday types often do because of their lack of knowledge of their own sex appeal as well as understanding of societal norms. Diana also definitely exhibits skill in combat.
And yet, despite this, Wonder Woman manages to subvert the trope, even though so many things about the movie seem to follow it. This is because, ultimately, Born Sexy Yesterday is not about the woman, it is about the man she meets and who becomes her protector and teacher to the ways of the world. Pop Culture Detective describes this dynamic between as a perfect fantasy. The woman’s naïveté and innocence allow the hero to become the most extraordinary man in the world whereas more experienced women might regard him as someone average. Her lack of knowledge of romance and sex give her no expectations the man might fail to meet.
Where Born Sexy Yesterday is about the male protagonist, Wonder Woman is about Diana. It is not about Captain Trevor meeting a beautiful, innocent stranger he can teach about the world: it is about Diana learning about humans, humanity, and most importantly, herself. Captain Trevor does not teach Diana how to exist in the world with him on her side, protecting her from all the everyday things she does not understand. Quite the opposite, he teaches her to exist in a world without him in it, inspiring Diana’s decision to protect humanity despite them not always deserving it. Instead of Diana being a perfect woman for Trevor, he launches her to become who she is meant to be.
The movie often skirts around Born Sexy Yesterday features but manages to avoid falling into the pit of naïve women oblivious of their beauty. Diana has grown up on an island full of warrior women, so she has no first-hand knowledge of men or romantic and sexual love between men and women for that matter. She is, however, not ignorant. In a scene where Captain Trevor and Diana are on a boat on their way to London, it becomes clear she has read about sex and procreation, and I believe it must have been when Diana announces to Captain Trevor how the books she has read declare men largely irrelevant in the pursuit of pleasure that I fell in love with the movie. This comes shortly after she has pointed out to Trevor how his society’s rules of appropriate conduct between men and women are ridiculous. Instead of becoming the joke, Diana makes Trevor see the artificiality of not being allowed to sleep next to someone of the opposite sex kilometres away from civilisation and especially when there is no will or design to sleep with the other person.
Some scenes later, Diana starts to undress in a public space after being asked to try on a dress. Unlike in Born Sexy Yesterday, the scene is not used as an opportunity for titillation, where the male protagonist observes the woman undressing because she does not know not to do so. Instead, both Captain Trevor and his secretary stop Diana when they realise what she is about to do, and the focus is not drawn on Diana’s body, but rather the time and setting of the movie. The warrior get-up Diana wears simply would have looked more like underwear in 1910s London. Just as in the previously described scene, the joke is not on Diana’s expense or to draw attention to her body, but on the times.
I also enjoyed the way the movie portrayed Captain Trevor, who does not become the Born Sexy Yesterday trope’s hero anymore than Diana becomes the woman. This is not to say that in the beginning of the movie Captain Trevor does not act like a man bent on protecting and sheltering a woman he perceives to be innocent and delicate. To the audience it is clear that Diana can do well without Trevor’s protection, but he, as an early 20th century man with high morals, does not know any other way to act. Protecting the nearest woman is just as natural to Trevor, as being protected by a man is an utterly unknown experience for Diana. She does not know what to do with being told to stay behind or being shoved against a wall and shielded. Captain Trevor begins the movie pushing Diana to the side, trying to protect her, but learns by the midpoint that the best he can do for Diana is to allow her to fight and fight alongside her. He stops trying to be the protector and becomes an ally.
Diana’s combat skills, again, link her to the Born Sexy Yesterday trope, but even here there is digression. First we see her want to train, then we see her train hard, and become a warrior. When she fights, it is because she wants to, not because it is programmed into her or because she is some kind of prodigy (which she kind of is, but you know what I mean: she works for it). Neither do we simply see Diana fighting simply so that a male character can whistle or look surprised in appraisal. Her combat skills are hers and not validated through a male audience. She knows what she is doing and she is good at it because she has trained for years.
Diana is naïve, but her naïveté is about humanity and its ambiguity, not sex or silly social norms. The setting of World War I Europe very much worked in the movie’s advantage in avoiding making Diana a Born Sexy Yesterday character. When she stumbles and fails to follow social norms, such as wearing too short a skirt, or tearing up a constricting dress when testing if she can move in it, or, heaven forbid, talking in a room full of men, the audience agrees with her that the norms she transgresses are, well, dumb, and should be changed. It is not Diana who is being painted as ignorant but the society around her.
Diana’s naïve worldview, where a killing a single man should somehow end a war with so many ambiguously good and evil participants depending on your point of view is silly, but it is her journey to learn differently. Like a Born Sexy Yesterday character, she looks at the world without knowing that much of it, but unlike her, she is not utterly charmed by what she sees. She does not need a hero to tell her about every single facet of human life: she can recognise pain and take action when she believes it is needed and ignore the rules that really don’t matter that much. She is not just a sexy body with a mind of a child for a man to guide and fall in love with. She is resourceful, powerful, persistent, moral, and good. She makes choices, rather than has events thrust upon her, and in the end, she learns that saving humanity (and humans) is not about deserving help: it is about what is right. And to have such a superhero, and such a superhero movie especially after the few previous DC ones is damn cool. That she is a woman makes it just a little bit cooler still.
Oh who am I kidding? It’s awesome.
Pictures © Warner Bros