Five (Additional) Comments on Wonder Woman
I didn't expect to have anything more to say about Wonder Woman after publishing my short review of it. But in the week that followed, the film has stayed with me, particularly the ways in which it complicates (and fails to complicate) the conventions of the superhero narrative. Partly, this is just the shock of the new. The MCU--and particularly those parts of it that are a bit more politically engaged--has gotten more than a little top-heavy, constantly bumping up against the limitations of its genre when it tries to do anything interesting with it. Wonder Woman isn't kicking off its own cinematic universe, but I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that we'd all be better off if WB wrote off its previous three DC movies and used Wonder Woman as its template going forward (and, at least until November, we can all pretend that this is what's going to happen). Without the baggage that the MCU has accumulated, DC is in the enviable position of being able to learn from the earlier franchise's mistakes, as well as striking its own path. The following are some thoughts on how Wonder Woman sets up some interesting ideas for that project going forward, and how the conventions of Hollywood, and of the superhero genre, are likely to stymie that approach.
- It's been a little frustrating to watch the conversation around Wonder Woman coalesce around its feminism. Not that I don't understand why that's happening, or that there aren't interesting things to be said on this front. In particular, I've been struck by discussions of the film's visual language, and of its avoidance of typically male-gaze-ish approaches to depicting powerful women. And, in the other direction, there have been some trenchant critiques of the whiteness of the film's feminism, the fact that, in the Amazonian utopia of its opening segments, women of color are mostly relegated to the background, and in the WWI segments, they are almost entirely absent even as non-white men appear in crowd scenes and as main characters.
My problem, however, with talking about Wonder Woman as a feminist work is that most of that feminism is external to the film. That is, Wonder Woman is feminist because of what it is, not because of what it does. To be clear, I absolutely agree with the statement that being the first movie about a female superhero in the current, mega-successful iteration of superhero movies (and one of only a small number before that) is a feminist act in its own right. But there's only so much that you can say about that, and that's a problem that is exacerbated by Wonder Woman herself. More than almost any other character in pop culture, Diana exists outside of patriarchy. And while it's powerful to see a woman who brushes aside the assumption that she's not as good as a man because the very idea that this might be true is completely foreign to her heritage and upbringing, what this also means is that a lot of the central questions of feminism are equally foreign to her.
I'm not as down on Wonder Woman as Jill Lepore, writing in The New Yorker, but she's not wrong when she says that "Gadot's Wonder Woman doesn't fight for rights because she transcends that fight; she is unfettered by it and insensible to it, an implausible post-feminist hero." Diana's journey over the course of the movie involves learning to see humanity--or, as she puts it, "men"--for what it is, with all its strengths and flaws. But left completely unacknowledged is the degree to which the cruelty of men is often visited upon women. How does Diana's bemusement at the concept of marriage face up to the discovery that almost all of the people she meets in 1918 would consider it acceptable for a man to beat his wife? How does her decision to engage in heterosexual intercourse change in light of the fact that she is moving through a rape culture? How does her joy at seeing a baby withstand the knowledge that most women in that period have no choice in when or whether to have children, and that many of them die in childbirth?
If DC and WB were actually serious about making their cinematic universe "dark", this is precisely the sort of material they could latch on to, instead of focusing on the angst of privileged white men like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent. As I've written, Wonder Woman already shows us a Diana who has more of a justification for despairing of humanity than either of her established fellow heroes, but it misses an important point when it ignores how much of that despair should be rooted in the world's treatment of women. That's something that could change in future movies, but not if they continue to hold on to the simplistic notion of a woman who is a feminist idol simply for existing.
- One of the few explicitly feminist moments in Wonder Woman comes when Diana meets Etta Candy, and, after learning what a secretary does, exclaims "where I'm from, that's called slavery!" At the most basic level, this is a 21st century joke awkwardly shoehorned into an early 20th century setting. As modern feminists, we are supposed to disdain secretarial positions (we shall leave aside, for the moment, the question of whether this is actually a feminist stance, and whether there are many feminists who still hold it), while in 1918 the profession, still largely male, would have been seen as prestigious and important (it is, in fact, entirely possible that Etta only has her job because too many of the men who might have taken it have been sent to the front).
If you look at this exchange more seriously, however, some troubling questions emerge. How can Diana be completely ignorant of patriarchy, and yet also know what a slave is? Where exactly do the boundaries of Themyscira's utopia lie? It's a question that puts me in mind of some of Sarah Mesle's excellent writing about Game of Thrones, and particularly the way the show styles its supposedly badass, egalitarian women. Who, Mesle asks, is pleating Daenerys Targareyn's skirts? Who is braiding Arya Stark's hair? No one who cares about that sort of thing can have missed the elaborate (if functional) hairstyles on almost all the Amazons in Wonder Woman, but even if we assume that the women braid each other's hair, in a show of sisterhood, who tanned Diana's leather training outfit? Who dyed the bright blue gown of the tutor the young Diana escapes from in the film's opening scene? The pre-modern Greek civilizations that Themyscira is modeled on ran on slave labor, and particularly when it came to styling high-status women, there would have been an army of lower- and no-status ones working to make the illusion seem effortless. Is Themyscira perhaps run like a kibbutz, with everyone, low and high, sharing in even the most noxious of tasks? But if so, then again, how does Diana know what a slave is?
The answer, of course, is that this is not a thing that the film wants us to think about, and in this it is ultimately no different than most Hollywood products (including, of course, Game of Thrones). But to go back to that scene with Etta, it's interesting to note what happens after the exchange between her and Diana. The camera follows as they walk into the department store, and the musical score rises, but it is still possible to hear Etta, having agreed with Diana that she is the equivalent of a slave, go on to explain that "...the pay is rather good."
So, on the one hand, we have Etta making a 21st century joke about how being a secretary is like being a slave. And on the other hand, we have the film's obvious belief that Etta is a trailblazer for being a woman who works (with all the issues that attend that form of mid-century, mainstream-friendly feminism, which tends to ignore the fact that women have always worked, just not always in professions with prestige, good conditions, and good pay). But most importantly, we have Diana falling in with both of these contradictory attitudes, when what she should be decrying as slavery is the very notion that one should have to work to earn the means of survival.
When Captain America: The First Avenger came out, there was a lot of discussion of Steve Rogers's politics, with some persuasive arguments that Steve, the Brooklyn-born, working-class child of immigrants, would have been at least a socialist if not an all-out communist, in direct opposition to Tony Stark, the benevolent oligarch (four films later, Steve and Tony have devolved into subtly different variations on American imperialism, so it's no wonder that we're looking to Wonder Woman for a fresh start). But, if we assume that Themyscira is the utopia that it claims to be, then Diana should be even more of a radical than Steve, and her feminism should be inextricably bound up with the kind of anti-capitalism that would obviate both Etta's pride in having secured well-paying work, and the idea that one's work would require you to be constantly at the beck and call of another person. Obviously, this is putting more thought than the film ever expected me to into a fundamentally thoughtless gag. But it also feels like the perfect encapsulation of the limitations of Wonder Woman's feminism--of the limitations of any feminism that begins and ends with representation.
- I've written already about the similarities between Wonder Woman and The First Avenger--as I said on twitter, Wonder Woman feels at points as if it's retelling the Captain America film's story, from the perspective of a Peggy Carter who also happens to be the one with superpowers. The more I think about it, however, the more it feels as if Wonder Woman is in direct conversation with the earlier movie, and deliberately attempting to address its flaws, particularly when it comes to the depiction of weakness, injury, and loss. Wonder Woman's variation on the Howling Commandos stands out for its willingness to allow these characters to carry irreparable damage, and to contribute nevertheless. But the film is perhaps most remarkable for its willingness to accept that people don't have to be able to contribute in order to be valuable--or that their contributions don't have to be related to martial prowess. The moment in Wonder Woman that most sets the film apart from the superhero films that have come before it, and most effectively establishes who Diana is and what makes her a hero, comes when the shell-shocked sniper Charlie, who froze and was unable to carry out his duties in the previous battle, suggests that he stay behind, because he has nothing to offer. Without missing a beat, Diana replies: "but Charlie, who will sing for us?"
By the end of the film, Charlie will of course have picked up his weapon again. But it's important that this is not signposted as a huge redemptive moment for him. As far as Wonder Woman is concerned, Charlie doesn't need to be redeemed, or even cured. His value as a human being, and a friend, is not diminished by his inability to be a soldier. As I've written many times in the past, I am deeply bothered by the way that superhero stories, and the MCU in particular, depict trauma and disability, often distinguishing good from bad characters by whether they are willing (or able) to overcome their past, and become fighters once more. The franchise is profoundly uneasy with characters who can't overcome their damage, and particularly those who express their mental health issues in uncomfortable, unattractive ways--consider, for example, the way that Thor: The Dark World plays Erik Selvig's lingering trauma over having been brainwashed by Loki for laughs, while dealing very soberly with Loki's own, more photogenic emotional problems. Let's not forget that The First Avenger itself is a story about a hero who is weak--one might say disabled or chronically ill--and who is magically cured of his weakness. Or that the MCU's most consistently incurable character and most obvious analogue to Charlie, Bucky Barnes, is someone the films have never entirely known what to do with, literally sticking him in storage in lieu of facing head-on the full extent of the damage he has sustained.
There's an obvious caveat here, which is that while Steve Rogers may be cured of his weakness, Diana was born without any. It's easy for her to tolerate weakness in others when she is literally a goddess herself, and in fact one might argue that the former emerges from the latter--that to Diana, we are all so fundamentally weak that the difference between Charlie and Steve Trevor is essentially meaningless. But even taking that into account, it still feels incredibly important for Wonder Woman to have taken the time to let Diana be kind, and to let characters like Charlie express their weakness without being expected to overcome it. (Having said that, it shouldn't be ignored that the film also fails quite badly on the disability front with the character of Dr. Maru, who falls into the risible stereotype of the evil disfigured person.)
- The more I think about it, the more it feels like the biggest flaw in Wonder Woman, not just as a feminist work but as a film trying to establish Diana as her own unique kind of hero, is the near-total absence of women after Diana leaves Themyscira. The scenes on the island are powerful, not only giving the film an easy and meaningful Bechdel pass but establishing strong relationships between Diana and her mother and aunt. But those relationships are effectively closed off when Diana leaves the island. It is particularly frustrating to see how Steve repeatedly draws on the memory of his father for courage and inspiration, while Diana never even mentions Hippolyta or Antiope after parting from them.
In the modern world, Diana's relationships with women are brief to the point of nonexistence. Etta disappears almost as soon as she's introduced. There is virtually no interaction between Diana and Dr. Maru. Aside from all the other ways in which this is a problem, it feels utterly unbelievable for Diana, who has spent her whole life surrounded solely by women, to be so comfortable being the only woman in her circle. She should be seeking out women wherever she goes, inherently more comfortable in their company than she could ever be around Steve or the other men in their group. Nor should there have been any shortage of women with whom she could have interacted--WWI offered great scope for women outside the confines of the domestic, as nurses, factory workers, even spies. If there's one thing that I want future Wonder Woman movies (or, for that matter, future Justice League movies) to address, it is the paucity of relationships between Diana and other women.
- Like, I suspect, most viewers (who don't know a great deal about WWI), I assumed that the villain of Wonder Woman, Ludendorff, was an invented character. I was surprised--and impressed--to discover that he was based on a real WWI general, and even more intrigued after I read his wikipedia entry. The real Erich Ludendorff was one of the most influential figures in wartime Germany, essentially running large parts of the war and of the country's economy. Unlike his film analogue, he supported an armistice, but only because he saw no hope for victory. But he also saw Germany's defeat as a humiliation, both personal and national, and was further outraged by the Treaty of Versailles.
Though not a Nazi himself, Ludendorff was absolutely a fellow-traveler to them. He coined the "stab in the back" myth, which blamed Germany's loss in the war on internal sabotage by Jews and communists. When the Nazis emerged in the 20s, Ludendorff was sympathetic to them, even having cordial meetings with Hitler, and he supported the abortive Beer Hall Putsch. After the Nazi party was outlawed following the putsch, Ludendorff represented the National Socialist Freedom Movement in the German parliament, made out of former Nazis and members of the German Völkisch Freedom Party. Even his personal philosophy sounds like the origin story of the Red Skull:
Ludendorff was a Social Darwinist who believed that war was the "foundation of human society," and that military dictatorship was the normal form of government in a society in which every resource must be mobilized. The historian Margaret Lavinia Anderson notes that after the war, Ludendorff wanted Germany to go to war against all of Europe, and that he became a pagan worshiper of the Nordic god Wotan (Odin); he detested not only Judaism, but also Christianity, which he regarded as a weakening force.I mention all this not just because it's interesting, but because it casts the film's depiction of its villains in a new and intriguing light. There's been a lot of discussion of Wonder Woman's choice to frame Germans as the "bad guys" in WWI, with some commentators lamenting a simplification of history that depicts all German villains as Nazis, and others arguing that the film's choice of WWI as its setting was a deliberate attempt to avoid an easy categorization into heroes and villains. But as Ludendorff's history shows, the issue is more complicated. While not a Nazi himself, Ludendorff sympathized with and supported the Nazis' goals and philosophies. What's more, his post-war career reminds us that the Nazis were not the only fascist, racist movement to emerge in Germany, and that the ideas that drove them found fruitful ground in many levels of society.
Especially right now, it feels important to me to point out that Nazi-esque evil is not restricted to just those people who wear the right uniforms and make the right salutes (this is one of the reasons why the "Hydra are Nazis!" conversation that has emerged in response to Marvel Comics's bizarre pandering to the far-right has struck me as oversimplified and frustrating). In every society, there are always going to be racist, authoritarian, anti-democratic groups, that worship power and believe that things like human rights, the rule of law, and freedom of expression are, at best, effete luxuries, and at worst, threats to the nation. Whether they're the Nazis or the KKK or the alt-right, the danger that these groups pose is not in themselves, but in the possibility that the population as a whole will enable them, ignoring the danger they pose or even voting them into power. The narrative of Economic Anxiety that most of us have been taught about the Nazis' rise isn't entirely inaccurate, but it elides the degree to which people wanted the Nazis in power because they wanted to feel powerful, because the allure of authoritarianism and violence is ever-present, especially when fanned with hysteria about Those People.
To be clear, there isn't a great deal of this in Wonder Woman, and in fact I'm disappointed that the film leaves out so much of Ludendorff's actual personality (there's also the fact that with both Ludendorff and Hindenburg dead at the end of the movie, one might expect the history of the world in the DC cinematic universe to have progressed very differently from ours). But I think the seeds of what I've described here are in the movie--the idea that it isn't one particular fascist philosophy that we should be worried about, but an entire cluster of nationalistic, authoritarian movements, and more than that, the impulse towards war and conquest. It's hard to know how much we can expect future Wonder Woman movies to espouse the pacifist philosophy that the film ends on--this is, after all, a genre that runs not just on violence, but on the idea that violence can be good, even redemptive. But Wonder Woman itself certainly comes closer to doing so than almost any superhero story in recent memory.