I know I’m very, very late in coming to the Wonder Woman party. I finally saw it for the first time last week and have been thinking about it a lot since then. There were definitely things that bothered me and that I didn’t like, but there was an incredible power about it that I couldn’t quite articulate. The kind that was sort of unexpectedly breathtaking. So, after more than a week of thinking about it (and since I’m on a bit of kick with posts like this), here’s what I learned from Wonder Woman.
- Representation matters. The scenes where we see Diana (a.k.a. Wonder Woman) fighting are amazing to watch, as are the scenes where we see the Amazons fighting. One of the reasons it’s so moving is because we rarely (if ever) see scenes like this in other films. Fighting in battle is not a role that women assume in most literature or film. Watching it feels defiant – almost subversive. We like to tell children that they can be whatever they want to be, but we send an altogether different message when the only female role models we show them are either passive, helpless, and dependent on male power or attention, OR “Iron Maiden” stereotypes that no one wants to emulate.* Nobody fits neatly into the “Damsel in Distress” stereotype or the “Iron Maiden.” It’s important for more complex representations of womanhood to be culturally visible, and that’s exactly what Wonder Woman is.
- There is power in goodness. Superhero stories to me are about the power of goodness, more than anything else. It’s a theme that shows up pretty much everywhere in literature/film (compare Diana’s “in the name of all that is good in this world…” with Samwise Gamgee’s “there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for” from Lord of the Rings), but superheroes kind of epitomize this idea for me. No matter how many stories I fall in love with that show me this, it always stands out to me. It can be so hard to believe in the power of goodness when confronting everything that we’re forced to face anytime we turn on the news, walk past people in need, or dive into the Terrible World of Internet Comment Sections. There is something about the intrinsic optimism of stories like Wonder Woman’s that is a kind of tonic against all of that, and I love it.
- There is value in compassion, kindness, and empathy. Many traits that are considered to be “feminine” are frequently demeaned or undervalued. It was remarkable to see these traits (chief among them kindness, compassion, and empathy) play such a strong and positive role in the story. It brought to mind the quote from Camelot: “Violence is not strength and compassion is not weakness.” I also couldn’t help but think of the ending of Moana, which centers on the same three values: compassion, kindness, and empathy. (In fact, I think comparing Moana and Wonder Woman would be a fascinating study, because they felt very similar to me in many ways.) It’s so simple and obvious, but I think we often lose sight of that idea, and seeing these three quiet values as the power behind stories’ climaxes is, frankly, quite radical. Wonder Woman presents an argument against allowing a hierarchy of “feminine” vs. “masculine” traits by showing us that Diana’s true power doesn’t really depend on her impressive physical skills and abilities, but on her capacity to listen, love, and believe the best of people. Ugh, that sounds pathetic; but guess what? It’s true.
I feel like now more than any time in the last 50 years, it’s so easy to be callous and pessimistic. Wonder Woman is a slice of hope, reminding us that good guys can still win. Sooner or later.
*We do the same thing to boys when the only role models we place before them are aggressive, physically intimidating, and controlling.