Wonder Woman is amazing. She is an Amazonian fighter descended from Greek gods who made her first American comic book appearance in the World War II era of 1940s. In 1971 she was on the cover of Ms. Magazine, and later that decade she had her own TV show. She has maintained a popular Justice Society and Justice League comic book presence for almost 80 years, and by 2016 the United Nations had named her a UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls.
The new movie Wonder Woman was so well received that it won the weekend box office battle, bringing in over 100 million dollars. Almost every woman I know wanted to see the film with other women as a bonding experience. Female movie-goers dressed in costumes and t-shirts expressing girl power. Even the New York Times cited the solidarity that women felt watching and applauding the strong, smart, gorgeous woman fight for right.
It makes sense that women would want to see this film with other women. And, a theatre in Austin, Texas, understood that desire and decided to offer a viewing for women only. They advertised, specifically stating no men allowed. Tickets sold out so fast that the theatre immediately scheduled a second all-female showing.
The backlash was swift. Men complained that the women-only showing was unfair and discriminatory.
But then the backlash toward those who complained was even more powerful. Both women and men excoriated those complaining, calling them trolls, crybabies and whiners. Even politicians waded into the fray. A smart, funny letter from Austin’s mayor went virile, calling out one male objector with clever sarcasm.
It all happened a few days ago and at this point some might argue that it isn’t really a big deal.
Except that it is a big deal.
The all-female showing by the theatre was illegal. It violates a law that has been hard fought in cities and states across the country. It’s a law that has protected women, people of color and the LGBT community, and this is the wrong time to be making an argument that a small violation of the law really doesn’t matter that much.
The law in question is public accommodation non-discrimination legislation. It is a civil rights law that protects people from being discriminated against by stores, restaurants, theatres, hotels and other places that offer goods and services. Some states, like Texas, do not have these laws. But the city of Austin has a public accommodation nondiscrimination ordinance. When the theatre said that men were excluded from the Wonder Woman showing it violated the ordinance.
The violation of a city ordinance usually carries a simple fine, but ordinances are often symbolic of a larger equity issue. The interesting thing is that city and state level public accommodation laws are the very place where we have seen exciting developments in the protection of LGBT people, people with service animals, veterans and other groups.
It is this very type of law that was used in a critical Washington State case that recently went to our state supreme court. Just this past year the Washington State Supreme Court said that because of the state public accommodation law Christian florists may not refuse service to same-sex couples planning a wedding. This was a case that received national attention because conservative people of faith are making the claim that their religion should exempt them from civil rights law. This argument has had some success when it comes to churches and religious non-profits, but until three years ago it had never been successful in the for-profit world of business and public accommodation.
In 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Hobby Lobby decision which for the first time seemed to elevate religious freedom over legislation that regulated businesses. In this case a conservative Christian family that owned thousands of stores across the nation argued that it should be exempt from parts of the Affordable Care Act because their religion rejected some contraceptive devices required by the law. The Court made a ruling that was somewhat narrow in scope but it opened the door to saying that religious belief by owners of businesses can in some cases trump laws regulating businesses.
This case made civil rights legislation more precarious.
When the Washington Supreme Court upheld the state public accommodation law, even in the face of conservative Christians arguing against it, many civil rights leaders sighed with some relief. But, those concerned about freedom of religion re-grouped and are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court—a court more conservative than any of the lower courts that have upheld public accommodation laws passed by states or cities.
Back to Wonder Woman
So yes, I agree, it seems a little silly that a big fuss was made over one theatre in one city that wanted to reserve just two showings of a movie for women only. But, the rule of law is important. Given how easy it would be for courts to turn on city and state nondiscrimination policy, I think it is a mistake to argue that illegal discrimination of any sort is really not that big a deal. The coming years are going to be difficult as we see courts grapple with the balancing act between protection of conservative religious belief and protection of civil rights. This isn’t the time to say that a little discrimination is okay.
NYT article on solidarity, and also citing the people calling those who protested crybabies and trolls
Austin mayor’s letter
Austin nondiscrimination ordinance
The Washington state nondiscrimination law
The Washington state florist case