Wonder Woman theatrical release poster

Philosophy and Wonder Woman

by Sarah Donovan

When I saw the Wonder Woman (2017) film, I felt ambivalent. I have had the opportunity to apply different philosophical lenses to analyze superheroes as a contributor to the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series, so I wondered if I could dodge the topic of Wonder Woman and feminism in this post. But every discussion online is about this topic, and I also couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was unavoidable. But how could I write from a feminist perspective about this sexy, white, cisgender woman in body armor, wrist cuffs, and high heel boots who carries a lasso that looks like a golden whip? Does Wonder Woman’s physical presentation disqualify her out-of-hand as feminist? And why can’t I get Gal Godot’s dewy eyes out of my head long enough to form a thought? So, I went back to the theater to give it a second chance, and I had four realizations that helped me to begin to think that Wonder Woman is worthy of philosophical reflection with regard to feminism, and that a sequel might make it more interesting.

One: Wonder Woman is not representative of feminism in its diversity. But the absence of that diversity is prompting conversation. This is worth reflecting on. Feminism is for real women and men, inclusive of cisgender and genderqueer identities, who are of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, classes, and abilities. Feminism as equality is characterized by dialogue, negotiation, disagreement, listening, and generosity amongst people who are different from each other. Real women and men are talking about Wonder Woman—a lot.

And what they are talking about encourages philosophical reflection about how feminism is not monolithic, and how pop culture can interact with it. I started listening to writers who say that Wonder Woman’s whiteness doesn’t feel representative of all feminists, and that this goes to a deeper lack of representation of people of color in Hollywood (see Noah Berlatsky, Evelyn Diaz, Cameron Glover, Kadeen Griffiths, Monique Jones, and Maya Rupert). I listened to writers talking about the missed opportunities to really explore LGBTQ issues (see Christina Cauterucci and Kadeen Griffiths). I listened to those who thought Wonder Woman was a feminist movie (see Kelly Lawler, Melissa Leon, Carmen Rios, Alyssa Rosenburg, Dana Stevens, and Zoe Williams), and to those who disagreed (see Lewis Beale, Christina Cauterucci, Theresa Harold, and Steve Rose). I listened not because I want to figure out the final word on the feminist essence of Wonder Woman (as if any such essence is possible), but because people are actually talking about how popular culture is and is not reflecting diversity.

Two: Blockbuster superhero movies belong to a genre that is embedded in larger cultural stereotypes about masculinity and femininity in which the binary itself is a part of the stereotype. I wonder, can Wonder Woman, in the blockbuster superhero genre, do something new or different when gender hierarchies and stereotypes are so powerful and pervasive in that genre? Would we notice or take it seriously if it was trying to? I offer an illustrative example to explore these questions.

Before Wonder Woman began, I watched the trailer for Thor: Ragnarok. Thor is Wonder Woman’s counterpart in every way: a sexy, white, cisgender man whose muscles are bulging and he carries a big hammer. I have seen similar male archetypes in Batman Begins, Man of Steel and many other blockbusters. And I know why it bothers me less when I am watching Thor flex his muscles in slow motion rather than Wonder Woman.

A white, cisgender man cannot be objectified within American culture in the same way as a woman of any race, or men of color. White men are not socially positioned in the same way as women and people of color (and we could also nuance this to recognize other layers of privilege such as white women experiencing white privilege in comparison to women of color). Thor’s subjectivity has never been doubted so it is playful for him to be objectified. Wonder Woman’s subjectivity is always under attack because she is a woman. Objectification threatens Wonder Woman’s subjectivity in a way that it does not threaten Thor’s.

But objectification is not the only issue when we think about the differences between Thor and Wonder Woman. The act of physical fighting itself has deep cultural implications. Wendy Williams argues in “The Equality Crisis…” that mainstream American culture stereotypes men as aggressors—especially in war—and women as mothers and guardians of humanity. What does it mean for Wonder Woman to be a warrior? Is she merely assuming a masculine social role? Can she fight in slow motion without being objectified or vilified for abandoning her feminine duty to defend all life? What will it take for a female superhero to fight in a way that subverts the norms? How will we know when we are seeing it? (I discuss similar themes using Williams’s article in my chapter in Wonder Woman and Philosophy.)

Three: I almost forgot that Wonder Woman is pushing eighty (for a survey of Wonder Woman’s history in graphic novels, see chapters by J. Lenore Wright and Andrea Zanin in Wonder Woman and Philosophy). It is hard to remember this when watching the 2017 blockbuster iteration of her story. But Wonder Woman is a mature character whose identity has been developed by multiple authors with competing and conflicting narratives that reflect social norms and criticisms of those norms. The 2017 Wonder Woman movie has a heavy burden. In my assessment, it needs to speak across generations, varying levels of familiarity with the superhero, differently positioned viewers, deeply embedded gender stereotypes, and fit into the blockbuster superhero genre. It is also directed by a woman in a genre dominated by men. I am not positive how to think about all of this, but I think it deserves more than just a passing glance. I also hope that it is just the beginning of a conversation that has been decades in the making.

Four: This is the first blockbuster movie dedicated to Wonder Woman, to a female superhero in general, and it is the beginning of Wonder Woman’s story arc. Remembering these important facts, makes the gender dynamics seem less sexist. When I first saw the film, I was bothered when Steve kept telling Diana to follow his lead, that Diana seemed so stereotypically naïve, and that Diana needed to understand that Steve loved her before she actualized her power.

But when I saw the film the second time, I tempered my position with regard to these particular dynamics. In the beginning of Wonder Woman’s story arc, most of the characters, including Wonder Woman herself, do not know she is a superhero goddess. Steve thinks Diana is wrong because she sounds wrong to someone who doesn’t know superheroes are real. Diana was naïve because this was her first interaction with humans outside of Paradise Island (but she learns quickly). Steve’s love did help Diana understand something about herself, but it is worth looking at how this story was told. Steve Trevor is always Wonder Woman’s love interest in the arc of her story. In this iteration, he really did seem to love her and respect her apart from her physical beauty (although he obviously liked that too as he often described her as “distracting”). But notice that his death precludes him playing a role in the sequel and that Wonder Woman mourns him but doesn’t fall apart. This movie is Wonder Woman’s beginning. I am holding back any definitive judgment about Wonder Woman because I don’t know yet what she will become.

My four realizations do not culminate in any grand pronouncements about feminism in Wonder Woman. So I end with a simple observation. A sequel is an opportunity for the director and screen writers to listen to their audiences and to reflect on what they want to do. In the making of Mad Max, the director consulted with feminist/activist/performer Eve Ensler. It only made the movie better. What about reaching out to a woman of color feminist/activist/performer like Anna Deveare Smith (she is obviously not the only option—I am just a huge fan) and asking her how to address the questions about, for example, challenging whiteness in Wonder Woman? Listening and asking questions can only deepen Wonder Woman’s impact in a sequel. And, by the way, it is what Wonder Woman would do.

Sarah K. Donovan is an associate professor of philosophy and the interim dean of integrated learning at Wagner College. Her teaching and research interests include community-based, feminist, social, and moral philosophy. She has contributed multiple book chapters to the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series

Image: Wonder Woman theatrical release poster via Warner Bros. Pictures.

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