Art has many functions. It can dazzle, surprise, break us out of habituated ways of thinking, enrage, bore us, or simply reaffirm what we already know about the world. Art can also bring us pleasure. Wonder Woman pleased me greatly. When I entered the theatre last month to watch the movie, I was depressed. Hours before I’d been viewing the Congressional hearings on Russia and despairing over the complete ruin of our society. When I left the theater two hours later, I was beaming. It was a brief but palpable high. I thought the unabashed visibility of women in the first thirty minutes of the movie was awe-inspiring; the action sequences were beautiful, centering on lithe, acrobatic skill instead of the sadistic thrill of broken bodies; the movie was a perfect expression of high camp without ever being sentimental; the replacement of a sword with the lasso of truth as Diana’s primary weapon at the film’s conclusion seemed like a beautiful, almost embarrassingly obvious plea for non-violence in a world riven by war. Also, SHE. FLIPS. A. TANK!
As I walked home I steeled myself for the groundswell of Facebook responses to the movie. (FYI: my Facebook friendship network is split 70/30 between mostly lefty academics and mostly lefty cute gay men. Some overlap.) I knew instinctively that there would be an explosive outpouring of love for the movie from all sides, immediately followed by an almost automatic need from my academic companions to qualify that love, to explain why the movie is retrograde, conservative, reductive, failed, limited, anti-feminist, basically THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT YOU ALL THOUGHT, SO HA! And indeed, this is precisely what happened.
For schematic purposes, here’s a highly-reduced nutshell of these arguments: the movie aims to represent a diverse range of women in its opening act but reproduces stereotypes of black and brown women; it makes lesbianism invisible; it reproduces heteronormativity by depicting Diana having sex with a man; it is ablest in its depiction of a disfigured woman villain as Diana’s foil; also tangentially, Gal Godot, the actress who plays Diana Prince, is a Zionist, so that must say something about the movie’s ideological bankruptcy, even though no one has yet clearly shown how this might, in actual fact, be the case. These arguments came from a range of voices: bloggers, academics, artists, activists. Some were written by people I admire and take very seriously. I must admit their criticisms baffled me. Rather than critical analyses of what the film accomplishes, what feelings it provokes, or how it sits within a broader cultural trend of superhero movies, we have reviews that simply count the representational failures of the movie—by this I mean literally counting one by one, in a list, every instance in which the movie plays into a given stereotype or ideologically suspect proposition that does not accord with a left ideal of progressive, antiracist, anti-homophobic (you name it) value.
Don’t get me wrong, I am sympathetic to these criticisms. I too want more complexity, diversity, depth, and critical engagement with current political realities from the media products I consume. I understand that these criticisms come from a deep sense of the lived suffering of so many during horrific political times and a need to redress, ameliorate, and combat that suffering.
At the same time, I don’t believe that any single media object I encounter is required to fulfill my political fantasies, solve massive structural problems of representation, or even respond directly to my affective needs in order for me to find it pleasurable or even politically meaningful. Representational richness—whether we mean increased diversity in casting, the active breaking down of character stereotypes, more “realistic” depictions of human heterogeneity, or just plain new stories—is only one of many possible criteria for judging the value of art and culture. Sometimes art willfully misrepresents the world, or produces fantasy, or ignores politics, or thwarts our expectations, or whatever.
If you honestly went into Wonder Woman expecting the movie to solve the problem of black representation in Hollywood cinema, I’m not sure what to tell you. If you really believed that the movie would make lesbianism visible and central to the narrative—in a film genre obsessively committed to heterosexuality that hasn’t offered a single erotically queer character besides the hilarious but rather random Deadpool—this may be the wrong film genre to invest in. Moreover, if your reading of Wonder Woman hinges on the political values of the lead actress, I’m wondering why you didn’t write a similar blog post about how Hacksaw Ridge was made by a notorious racist and homophobe, and another interrogating the political views of the actors in Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 (maybe you did and I didn’t read them, in which case, mea culpa!). I don’t know about you, but I don’t make it a habit to ensure that the political values of every creator involved in the art, literature and media I consume conform to my worldview before deciding whether it has value. Gal Godot’s Zionism is worth criticizing; whether her personal politics are directly implicated in the film’s politics is a completely different question that needs to be argued, not presumed.
But if you didn’t eagerly write those blogs, I think maybe I know why: if we’re being honest with ourselves, many of us on the left actually unconsciously bought into the ideas that, “Well, there’s a woman in it, and a woman directed it, so Wonder Woman MUST BE MADE FOR US!” I sense that our identity politics have unwittingly become so narrow that we all expected something more from this film than any other superhero movie simply because the category of woman was more central in the narrative. Considering how much work we’ve done on the queer, trans*, and sometimes radical feminist left to deconstruct the category of woman, it is fascinating how much aspirational possibility people seem to have invested in this film because it is about an actual wonder woman. Her name alone should remind us that she is a wonder, an enchantment, a fantasy of what woman can be, not a realistic portrait of the heterogeneity of actual women.
Of course, there is a more sophisticated version of this aspirational desire. For some, like J. Jack Halberstam, the failure of Wonder Woman is how it representationally waters down the long and storied queer history of the classic 1940s comics character upon which it is based. In the comics medium, Wonder Woman was the creation of a Harvard trained psychoanalyst (William Moulton Marston) who promoted sadomasochism, shared family and sexual ties with two women who remained kin after his death, believed in the political productivity of men submitting sexually to women, and molded Wonder Woman into an icon of sexual freedom. Halberstam, like many others, laments the sanitization of this spectacular queer history from the contemporary film adaption. I see the merit of this reading too.
I wonder, however, if we can truly expect that this queer strand of a 1940s comics character (only briefly and partially revived by feminists in the 1970s) would survive more than eighty years of historical distance, stay intact through at least three adaptations across different media (comics, television, film), and ring clear past the intense conservatism of the superhero film genre itself. To quote Janet Flanner, “I wonder, and I disbelieve.” We miss a lot when we are driven by such expectations. I never saw on Facebook dramatic responses to, say, Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), arguably the most politically brilliant and daring superhero movie ever made. (In case you missed it: the movie argues that the American government is run by corporate Nazis. Seems rather relevant, no?) Were we sufficiently firm in our assumptions about the link between identity and politics (i.e. white male lead character = no redeemable radical value) that we weren’t capable of registering this movie’s skillful political maneuvers?
I want to understand why I loved Wonder Woman, despite its flaws, and perhaps get some leverage on what psychic payoff is gained by reading such pleasurable cultural objects as always already failing us. Paying homage to the practice of listing representational failures, I provide below a list of representational possibilities that Wonder Woman offers to the left. I use the term “left” or “intersectional left” very broadly here to describe a vast range of progressive ideals, energies, and aspirations that include both generalized and particular commitments to antiracism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, sex-positive, crip, queer, and trans* politics among others. If so many of the current readings of the movie reduce it to its failure to live up to these values, I am going to turn the opposite screw. I want to relentlessly read the movie as an allegory for contemporary left politics, almost embarrassingly and reductively so, to see what political sustenance can be wrung from its deeply pleasurable, if compromised, imagery.
Here is my gambit: Wonder Woman is the left-wing bildungsroman, or coming of age story, of the superhero film genre. Its central character—an ethnically ambiguous amazon warrior woman—is a political purist. She is invested in a single-minded pursuit of universal peace, literally armed with truth in the form of a mythical lasso, conviction in the form of a “god-killing” sword, and gauntlets that allow her to repel bullets and fascist ideology alike. The arc of the story involves Diana’s realization that her purity is incompatible with the reality of the human world: humans, she finds out, are messy. War is messy. People make bad decisions. Lots of humans understand precisely her values, and willfully work against them. Some people are quite simply villainous. Sound familiar to you? This might have started to sink in the fourth week of your advanced Women’s Studies seminar junior year when you realized some people just don’t care about feminism (!!!!!!!). Diana’s coming of age is about her realizing that she is as messy as the human world she fights for. She discovers in the end that she was created as a weapon to destroy Ares, the God of War. A woman against war is, in her very embodiment, a weapon of destruction. Painful irony. Lest we miss the point, the movie opens with Diana telling us in voiceover: “I used to want to save the world.” Didn’t we all?!
- The opening act of Wonder Woman is perhaps the most aggressive attempt by a superhero movie ever to give the left “what we want”: thirty-five minutes of uninterrupted screen time devoted to the coming of age of an Amazon warrior princess on Thymiscera, a paradise island populated entirely by a multi-racial cadre of revolutionary super-women. We are all agog, obviously. They have a history, they maintain a record of their agentic actions against Ares, the God of War, as well as their revolt against mankind’s cruelty and enslavement (that record looks like a comic book: we nerds are sated!). They argue among one another, and they often influence each other through impassioned debate. They are geniuses. They laugh at the idea of sex with men. How many of you, when asked what you thought of Wonder Woman said: “I loved the first thirty minutes or so the most.” I thought so.
- Thymiscera is a blunt instrument. The women are multi-racial, but only superficially so (there is little sign of Asian and indigenous women and only visible, but narratively limited roles for black and brown women); the Amazons claim to be against war but they all practice the art of war with exceptional proficiency; technically the entire island and its inhabitants were created by gods who are, for all intents and purposes, male; there are hints of lesbian desire (methinks Menalippe is probably Antiope’s girlfriend considering they are hooked at the hip) but nothing explicit, hence the charge that the movie occludes lesbianism. The putatively white women, however, are made intentionally ethnically ambiguous due to their odd accents, which seem a hodge-podge of Eastern European, Greek, and Israeli. The point is not in the details. What matters is the aggressiveness of the attempt of the movie to say: we know you’ve been begging for this! Here are lots of badass multi-racial politically progressive women, none of whom you can exactly call white. Also, ROBIN WRIGHT!
- Every weapon that Diana wields is an allegorical icon for left-wing political values (or bludgeons, however you look at it): her sword, “The God-Killer” is a perfect figure for the left-wing desire to cut through ideology, myth, and superstition. We too, wish to kill false gods and Diana has a sword that will do just that. Her lasso of truth materializes the left’s sometimes fanatical obsession with the value of objective truth figured in verifiable facts, accountability, and complete refusal of obfuscation. The lasso demands: “TELL IT LIKE IT IS, or I’ll whip you.” One can imagine it used to force government officials to admit that climate change is real. Finally, her gauntlets are the very physical expression of left defensiveness, refusing bullets and violent ideology in one stroke. In her final battle with Ares, she uses her gauntlets to literally absorb and reroute his power back to destroy him.
- No surprise then, that the weapon of choice for our resident German villains is gas: the complete opposite material of Diana’s visibly solid tools, gas is the weapon of a conservative, fascist German right-wing, messy, impure, and seeping its way into your pores, kind of like ideology. Also, apparently, some gas invented by sycophantic women scientists (read Dr. Poison as Kelly Ann Conway), when inhaled by pompous, self-aggrandizing white German military leaders (you get the analogy) gives them the illusion of impossible strength and power based on nothing but vapor.
- Wonder Woman offers no single program of political action. Rather, it produces countless images and icons of progressive possibility. If you hate “toxic white masculinity,” what could be more awesome than a multi-racial community of revolutionary women tying up a white cisgender straight man in a lasso of truth and forcing him to admit he’s a lying cog of the human war machine? If you are horrified by gun violence, what could be more empowering than the image of a mythically powerful woman repelling thousands of bullets with her shield to break the deadlock of a “No Man’s Land”? If you are disgusted with the complacency and anti-intellectualism of our political leaders, what could be more satisfying than witnessing a genius woman infiltrating the halls of British parliament dressed in men’s clothing to speak truth to power and confirm the idiocy of every British military leader? These are powerful icons, forms of representational revenge against the powers that be. They do not change the world. They simply give us images to live by.
- The department store scene is the superhero film’s paean to queer gender politics. The film’s strongest moment of comedy is about a gorgeous amazon warrior exposing the stupidity of early twentieth century women’s fashions: she is incredulous how any woman could adequately fight in a hoop skirt; she mistakes corsets for armor; she rips a pencil skirt in two with a high kick that would make any drag queen swoon; and finally, she chooses to dress as a butch, with glasses no less (Clark Kent eat your heart out). The scene is delicious queer candy.
- Diana is the ultimate truth teller. This is why we love her, and why we also roll our eyes at her throughout the movie. She is the second-year undergraduate Queer Studies student who just figured out ideology critique and must tell everyone precisely how racist, sexist, homophobic, and ablest the world is. She’s not wrong, but also, we get it. Who among you didn’t experience a shriek of delight when Diana responds to Etta Candy’s explanation of what a secretary is with the line, “Where I come from we call that slavery.” Don’t speak in euphemisms, Diana constantly reminds people, just call it for what it is: this is not diplomacy, it’s war; this is not a dress, it’s a prison for women; this is not politics, it’s lying. She is shocked, simply shocked I tell you, by the political complacency of so-called “military leaders” because she believes their titles imply that they fight alongside their soldiers; she would never attach that moniker to cowards like the British high commanders. When she confronts Steve about his cowardice facing his military superiors, he admits he intends to do something about the German gas program even though he said behind closed doors that he would stand down. “You mean you were lying!” She responds indignantly. Steve cannot win for losing; he must literally burn himself upon the alter of Diana’s moralism by wrapping his hand around the lasso of truth so she will believe his intentions are honest. Diana represents all of us at our most politically superior, most strongly committed moments, self-righteously demanding complete purity and truth from everyone around us. Her moralism, however, is also why she makes mistakes.
- When, in the film’s second act, Diana’s majestic amazon tribe is replaced by a motley crew of male wartime espionage agents—Sammy the Egyptian espionage agent, Charlie the Irish sniper, Chief the Native American tracker, and Steve the American spy—she is quick to judge them on the basis of their skills at deception. She smugly points out to Steve that their group consists of a professional liar, a murderer, and a smuggler. We might say, this is “off-brand” for Ms. Prince. Trevor sarcastically reminds her that technically he’s all three since he is a spy. Diana’s over-investment in revealing the truth behind every identity and political claim results in her willfully misreading these complicated men and the circumstances that have lead them to their current professions: we discover that Sammy was an aspiring actor who never broke into the field because of professional racism against brown and black performers. We learn that Charlie suffers from PTSD and is secretly haunted by his precision kills, even though he publically flaunts his shooting acumen. Perhaps most fascinating, the Chief acknowledges that despite having no explicit political stake in the war effort, he headed to the European front to make some sort of money because “the last war took everything from my people.” By “the last war,” the Chief means the ongoing genocide of native peoples in the Americas. These men do lie, cheat, steal, kill, but they do so under extraordinary circumstances, as a result of complex histories, and often against their will. Diana’s moralism is utterly shaken by these revelations.
- Yes, Diana has sex with Steve Trevor. SO WHAT? First of all, the scene is incredibly downplayed and almost meaningless to the narrative. Second, it is spun less like the consummation of a heterosexual romance, and more like the result of Diana’s curiosity to know what sex with a man is like. She is allowed to give it a whirl! Remember that thing called feminist agency we are all so invested in? Recall that just before they retire to her hotel room to get it on, Diana and Steve have a conversation about what people do when there is no war. Steve makes a list: they have breakfast, they dance, they get married, have kids. When Diana asks him, “What is it like?” he replies, “I have no idea.” It may only be by dint of circumstance, but Steve doesn’t know what it’s like to live as a “normal” person, and hence doesn’t enjoy all the privileges of “heteronormativity.” He lives under wartime, a queer time of danger but also possibility: a god might have sex with a mortal in these times. They might share love. They might change each other’s minds.
- Diana’s final argument with Steve Trevor on the German military tarmac where she confronts Ares is the moment of her coming of age, and by proxy ours as the audience. Up to this point, the movie has given us so much of what we want, or at least it thinks it has: we got to have radical warrior women, a feminist superhero speaking truth to power, a white cisgender straight man put in his place, gender performativity, and just a tiny bit of racial and indigenous sensitivity. We got to eat some cake; now it has to get saran wrapped. And perhaps for good reason. After killing General Ludendorff, whom she assumed was the mortal embodiment of Ares, Diana is stunned that human beings continue to fight amongst each other; she had thought, perhaps naively, that to kill the God of War meant ending human conflict altogether. Diana, like us, is so enamored of her moral superiority that she becomes immobile, unable to decide if she wants to continue helping humanity, who seem to disgrace all of her values. All she can say to Steve is:
D: “My mother was right. The world of men does not deserve me.”
ST: “Maybe people aren’t always good. It’s not about deserve—it’s about what you believe…We’re all to blame.”
D: “I’m not.”
ST: “But maybe I am. If you believe this war should stop, help me stop it. I have to go.”
Let me tell you, I LOVE this scene. How many of us on the left have been Diana Prince here? How many times have we been horrified by the sickness of the world and wished to flee the scene of this cesspool of war and cruelty? How many times have we naively said, “I’m not like that!” Steve is not having it. When he makes the somewhat cliché distinction between “deserving” and “believing,” Steve is saying to Diana: “Look, it’s not about being morally superior, it’s about being in the struggle. Fight for what you believe in, make compelling claims, don’t get caught up in telling everyone they are evil. We know they can be! I have been, and I’m trying to make it right.” Moreover, “The war isn’t over, there’s shit to do, I’m busy, make a decision, BYE!” Essentially, leave the battle or get engaged because I. Have. To. Go. Boo. Talk about some truth telling. Steve is merely repeating what Antiope, Diana’s greatest mentor, already taught her in other terms: “You expect a battle will be fair! A battle will never be fair!” This is the moment that Diana accepts that purity will not help her, that to enter the fray is to be messy, to be human.
- Many have rightly lamented that the movie’s third act is its weakest. The last thirty minutes of the movie is dominated by a massive, special effects spectacle of Diana’s face-off against, Ares. There are lots of explosions. They throw tanks at each other. It has little of the richness of the rest of the movie, no comedy, and certainly none of the complexity of the comic book. But let me offer a generous reading: within the progressive logic I’ve been tracking here, we could interpret the conclusion of the film as staging an ideological battle between, not good and evil (far too reductive for an intersectional left), but between love and war. Instead of having Diana fight an actual, material villain, the film ends with her fighting a concept in the form of mythical God: namely, the ideological belief that man can be redeemed only through violent purification. Ares’s vision for a world cleansed of humanity ironically accords with Diana’s purist politics, and he tries to play on exactly these sympathies: “Don’t you want the world to be pure, and good, and perfect?” he demands (my paraphrase), “It can be if we rid the world of these disgusting, messy, bad-decision-making humans.” She is, for one instant, enchanted. Yet, her knowledge that human beings are capable of love, experienced viscerally through the love she shares with Steve, grants her an empathy for human suffering that ultimately refuses Ares’s proposition.
- Steve’s admission of love, I would argue, is not about romance; he loves Diana because he respects her, admires her integrity, and cares for her well-being. His gift to her, the watch his grandfather used to wear, is his way of reminding her that humans are vulnerable and mortal. They do not have forever. Love is the one power that makes their time on Earth meaningful. Diana is disorganized by this revelation of what love is and can be, and it becomes for her not a singular attachment to one man but a belief system oriented toward mankind. This is a worldview akin to a broad-minded understanding of left wing ideals: we do politics because of love of the world. Love in all its various forms—not simply romantic (if that’s what the movie wanted, they wouldn’t have killed Steve off), but also in terms of affinity, friendship, family, kinship. In the end, love of the world becomes a more supple, emotionally resonant, compelling ideology than moral purity. It is what allows Diana to repel Ares and come down to Earth.
These are not exhaustive notes and this is just one take on the movie. You don’t have to buy it. In fact, you might think that every progressive impulse, icon, and image I’ve mapped merely proves that the movie panders to the basest elements of our left-wing values. But I think we know better (or at least many of us do). Clearly, the many vibrant, well circulated criticisms of Wonder Woman among left writers remind one that we are not so easily fooled: we recognize that the film does indeed trade on ablest stereotypes, that its feminism is limited, that it panders to the ideal of diversity but doesn’t quite get it right, that it is still locked within a largely conservative genre. When critics point out these failures, they are doing so, like Diana Prince herself, for love of the world; they have admirably high standards for popular culture in a time when we need our culture to sustain us, give us hope, and model greater nuance as it responds to our struggle. But perhaps we too have something to learn from Diana’s transformation from moral purist to loving, flawed freedom fighter; perhaps our interpretative strategies need to acknowledge and question our own tenaciously held investments, and even see beyond them. Just as Diana finally comes to the realization that human beings are both all that Ares says they are (“weak, cruel, selfish and capable of the greatest horrors”) but also “so much more,” so too Wonder Woman is so much more than its representational blunders.
Ramzi Fawaz is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics (NYU Press, 2016).