-By Jesse Heymann
There’s a lot of talk about the upcoming Wonder Woman film and how DC may have finally hit that ever elusive mark of a positive general critic response, but I would like to talk about another Wonder Woman movie, and my personal favourite till I see the upcoming release: the Wonder Woman animated movie (2009). Directed by Lauren Montgomery, the director of some of my other favourite DC animated movies like Justice League: War and Batman: Year One with Tim Lieu, Wonder Woman (2009) follows the journey of Diana Prince, from an in-content princess trying to find purpose on the island of Themyscira, populated only by women and secluded from the evil world of man, due to the past devastation caused by Ares, the god of war, to a hero seeking to find hope in man, when she journeys back to society to return Steve Trevor, a stranded pilot who ends up and on the island, and also to re-capture Ares before he wreaks havoc on the earth.
Now, I’m not a fan of glorifying casual entertainment to grandiose levels in order to somehow validate my dedicated consumption of pop culture. No, that is not what this article is about. Wonder Woman (2009), is at its heart, a fun action adventure animation, and can be enjoyed just as such. But under that, I find a superhero animation that, intentionally or by mere accident, is actually in conversation with a lot of themes regarding gender roles and the equality debate, and as a young boy watching for more entertainment about 4 years ago, I found myself suddenly appreciating certain themes about contemporary feminism I hadn’t considered before, and upon re-watch, those things still hold true, including others I didn’t even catch before. So what does Wonder Woman (2009) attempt to engage?
1. THE THEME OF FEMINISM
Themyscira is basically a metaphor for a second wave feminism safe space. An isolated, island paradise with an invisible bubble around it which keeps men from getting in. Women are free to thrive and explore but only within the limits of the island boundaries and all the ladies are constantly fed rhetoric of the evil nature of men by a queen soured by the bad memory of Ares, a former lover. Heterosexual love and maternal compassion are shunned for vigorous training and fighting, and the most empathetic and docile, Alexa, is regarded as the most un-Amazonian of them all. This almost dogmatic conditioning to be the sexless, strong independent woman comes into direct conflict with Diana, who wants to carve her own path beyond the safe space, and this sets up the conflict between her and the queen Hippolyta, who is also her mother, a divide which is a metaphor for dichotomy between second wave and third wave feminism in the 80’s. But this is better understood if you know what second and third wave feminism are.
Second-wave feminism was a period of feminist activity that began in the 1960’s in the United States and spread to other parts of the Western world. It came as a response to the renewed domesticity of women after World War 2. In an era characterized by moves to family-oriented suburbs and companionate marriage, women were often relegated to stereotypical gender roles of motherhood and nurturing. As French writer Simone de Beauvoir examined, women were perceived as the “other”. Influential feminist Betty Friedan conducted a study in the 60’s that found out that women playing role in the workforce were more satisfied than those that stayed at home. She concluded in her best-selling book The Feminine Mystique that; the perfect nuclear family image did not reflect happiness but was rather degrading to women. Also key to second wave feminism was bringing to light the horrors of domestic abuse and marital rape.
Third wave feminisim, in this movie is represented by the characters Diana, Persephone (who betrays the Amazons in pursuit of romantic affection) and Alexa, a bookworm who empowers herself through academic education rather than brute physicality.
The movement arose in the 90’s as a backlash against the second wave, with a purpose to redefine what it meant to be feminist, expanding to include women of diverse identities and cultural backgrounds. It was an opportunity for women to redefine feminism for themselves by incorporating their own identities into the belief system of what feminism is and what it can become through their own perspective. In the book Manifesta, by influential feminists Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, they suggest a kind of elastic model of feminism.
And that’s exactly the kind of domestic conflict the animation sets up. The quality of being “Amazonian” is the kind of true feminism set up by Hippolyta and is grounded in physicality and stereotypically masculine discipline, and any derogation from that is branded a delusion borne of the patriarchal oppression suffered under Ares. This standard of sexless independence is created and crystalized due to the killing and physical abuse of the women by Ares and his men, similar to the systemic domestic violence and oppression that birthed the second wave movement. Hippolyta’s extreme reaction is a defense mechanism to the trauma of abuse and an unwanted pregnancy, in the form of Ares’s son, which she makes a choice to behead, a visual metaphor for an abortion of an unwanted pregnancy. Andromeda, the ultimate ‘’girl power” Amazonian warrior on the island, becomes a confirmation bias for Hippolyta, that there must be something wrong with the others who don’t fit the standard.
Diana, Alexa and Persephone are set up as the following counterarguments:
That trauma can be healed and we can learn to move on from our past horrors
That identities are different and so should the standard for what is feminist. This is set up and executed when Alexa the bookworm saves “Ms. Girl Power” Andromeda’s life with a spell she read from a book, releasing souls of Amazonians from the grip of Ares, and Andromeda finally proclaims her as a “true Amazonian”. This scene is also a visual metaphor for empowerment of women through education, as they are empowered by knowledge read from a book to turn the tide in the battle, and not merely through violence.
That there’s a natural predisposition for love, sexual intimacy and nurturing in a woman that can’t be quashed out. This kind of thought embraces elements of Lipstick Feminism, which seeks to advocate that women could still be feminist without ignoring their femininity, most often sexuality. We see this in a line of dialogue between Hippolyta and Persephone in the big climax:
“Have you not brought enough death and misery upon us?”
“I’m sorry my queen, I never meant to fall in Love”
“You were given a life of peace and beauty-“
“And denied one of families and children. Yes Hippolyta, the Amazons are warriors, but we, are women too…”
Let me state here that these are not the definitive forms of either side, just certain key elements of each. Second wave feminists did, for the most part have families, and the debate in practicality may be much more nuanced than that, but Wonder Woman presents a case of study of the always lingering question of “what if” What if such a concept could be executed in its purest, untainted form, and unwittingly sets up some interesting engagements from that display.
Ultimately, the island becomes a mirror of the very stereotype it was trying to escape. Every nook and cranny of the island is explored by Diana, every book in the island library read by Alexa, even the sparring by warriors is beginning to feel inane and routine. They fell into the same dissatisfaction and dullness that was supposed to be only the consequence of domesticity under a man. Even the free wild can feel domestic if you stay there long enough. However, the movie doesn’t present this as a bad thing for all the ladies, but as a matter of choice. Those on the island comfortable with it stay, and Diana, who is not is allowed to leave. Which is the very essence of third wave feminism.
The very nature of the Amazons is a rejection of the notion of male gender roles, opting of the “nurture” theory of gender development. The nature-nurture theory of gender development is pretty simple. On the nature side, its advocates argue that human behavior is determined by genes or some element of their physiology. This is called biological determinism. It owes its origins to Austrian biologist August Weismann, who argued that there is a one-way transfer of information from germ to somatic cells, and nothing acquired by an organism in its life can affect the next generation. Linda Birke argues in her 1992 book, In Pursuit of Difference, that biology explains sexual difference and by extension, fixed gender roles.
The “nurture” argument is that human behavior is determined by the environment. It originates from John Locke’s theory of the blank-slate, which posits that we are all the products of exposure and learning and denies the role of heritability. “Nurture” gender theorists argue that throughout the history of civilization, dominant males were given the most nutrition and resources, and also exclusive rights of participation in physically tasking activities like hunting and fighting. This kind of selective conditioning over centuries translates into the male physical dominance they possess today, and is not innate in the design of human gender.
And that’s the kind of concept Themyscira is based on. In the absence of any arbitrary gender roles, the women possess strengths to superhuman levels, and take on stereotypically male tasks. However, the story arcs of Persephone, Diana and Alexa, both experiencing yearning for affection, intimacy and nurturing, bring the thought experiment right back to ‘nature” by the time the movie ends, and leave us to ponder, maybe there is some innate quality in being a woman after all.
The movie starts with a fixed position on sexism. Men are trash. They are the cause of war, hate and wickedness. End of conversation. Diana and Alexa want to re-open communication with the world of man, but Hippolyta has reached her conclusions and is not open to any other considerations, and this represents the two main disadvantages of generalized taglines and moral grandstanding:
Group polarization, which pushes both sides of the debate to extreme ends, making compromise more difficult. Also it leaves no room for further conversation, after all why listen to the “immoral person” in the argument. In this case Steve, whose every attempts at communication to the Amazonians and attraction to Diana are dismissed as misogyny.
However, a case is also made for general taglines and moral grandstanding, since Steve wouldn’t have been incentivized to act above his chauvinistic whims in the first place had it not been for Diana’s strong belief that men were irredeemable.
And that represents one of the charms of this movie: it nudges a bit in each direction of the divide, going harder on some and softer on others, but in the end succeeds in giving you a broad snapshot of the contemporary gender and feminist landscape.
Sexism is dealt with on two fronts in this movie: first there is the abusive, manipulative sexism of Ares, and the benevolent, flirtatious sexism of Steve Trevor. And the film finds a resolution to this theme in this particular scene where Diana is angry because Steve saved her life:
– I’m an Amazon, Steve. We’re prepared from birth to give our lives in battle. I knew what the consequences were going in to this mission. You would have acted differently, if I were a man.
“Oh, playing the card again, are you? You know what? I’ve had just about enough…of listening to you go on about how terrible men are.”
-Does the truth hurt, Steve?
“News flash: The Amazons ain’t so perfect either. You act brave, but cutting yourselves off from the world was cowardly. Not to mention stupid. Like less communication between men and women is what the world needed…you met your first man, what, like 15 minutes ago. And you think you have us all figured out. Well, I’m sorry, but not everything a man does…is because we’re trying to keep you down. I didn’t save you because I thought you were some damsel in distress. I saved you because… Because I care about you, Diana. And I’m not gonna abandon a friend in need, man or woman.”
Communication: that’s the answer to hate and division the movie gives us. The more integration and more communication we have, the closer we are to unity. But it can only work if people are ready to listen. Not all men are sexist all the time, and not all feminist moves are in the right all the time too. Wonder Woman, presents dialogue and integration as a path to finding that balance where we can reconcile both sides of the divide. Whether this is the answer in absolution, or whether this can work in all social circumstances, the movie gives us no answer, nor is it a bad movie because it doesn’t try to. It knows what it’s trying to communicate and advocate for, and sets it up with a great execution. It makes no show of trying to be more than it is, and its one answer among a sea of answers, but it does a good job of carrying its individual message across; let’s all have a little faith in humanity. If you haven’t seen it, go check it out!