Wonder Woman is our new hero. Described as a feminist film, it is undeniable that Wonder Woman has a strong female lead. However, what is important for us to do is to be able to pull apart the underlying assumptions of the superhero genre in general and Wonder Woman in particular to discover whether this is necessarily true. Is there is any real emancipatory potential in the Superhero film and does Wonder Woman actually have a feminist edge to it? Or whether it is merely the co-option of an apparently progressive agenda (in this case, feminism) into the logic of capitalism and profit-making.
It is not incidental that the superhero genre has flooded our screens with the rise of right-wing governments the world over. The implicit ideology of the superhero genre, made explicit in the Spiderman films is “With great power comes great responsibility”. This is noblesse oblige at its mildest and the justification of inequality at its worst. There is after all something desperately wrong with power being vested in the hands of a few through which they seek to control the majority.
It can, and perhaps will, be argued that this is not the point of the superhero genre where the imperative is not to control but instead to protect the masses from evil, manifested through another superhero who uses their power for evil instead of good. In such a scenario, ‘evil’ is caricatured as being unidirectional and often arising from childhood trauma rather than from structural inequality. The fact that most superheroes from Batman to Iron Man are fabulously wealthy (and the source of their wealth is never accounted for) only exacerbates the problem with the superhero genre.
It is exactly here that the superhero genre fails. It lacks the ability of envisioning an alternative society based on equity and justice for all and instead seeks to maintain the social order and protect citizens from evil. The parallels with how evil is conceptualised and acted against in modern society are not to be missed. Evil, also called terrorism, is conceived of as a threat to the fabric of society and, therefore, more power needs to be amassed by the powerful in order to counter it. Seen this way, the superhero genre offers the ideological basis for the consolidation of power and weaponisation by the state, not to speak of the glorification of violence, without due process of the judicial system. Basic human rights and things like the Geneva Convention are not imagined; they are non-existent. Even the Avengers films which nuance this a bit more carefully ultimately fall to the logic of the consolidation of the power of a few.
It is in this wider context that we need to read Wonder Woman. It tells the story of Princess Diana (the royal allusions are unmissable), protected daughter of Hippolyta who grows up on an all-woman island surrounded by unmistakably phallic archipelagos. Diana trains to be a warrior who rescues a US pilot spy from drowning. The introduction of the pilot into the plot is also Diana’s introduction to the ways of the world and her awareness of the globe thrown into chaos by the World War II.
In a painful continuum of mansplaining, we find that the so-called strong female lead is inducted into the world of men. Marked off from the men by her naivete and the women by her looks, Diana is schooled into behaving, dressing and performing. Tossed into a historically problematic and simplistic understanding of WWII, even the ethical choices that Diana makes arise out of a naïve perception of the world which easily bypasses the larger structural questions of fascism and the Jewish holocaust, both of which are quietly evaded by the film.
Wonder Woman is ultimately about a strong woman lead singlehandedly pursuing a largely male agenda. This is where the problem lies. The dominant constructions of history would lead us to believe that social transformation can be brought about by state-sponsored war, on the one hand, and singular acts of heroism on the other. Such determinism and the so called ‘power of one’ ignores the hard work of collective movements and the everyday nitty gritty of resistance that is complex and hard in creating social change.
To Noam Chomsky, the illusion that the world can be transformed by the ‘power of one’ is an illusion that is offered to us by dominant and dominating society to lead us to believe that individual ethical choices and that standing up for what is right will change the world. Yet history, and certainly feminism, has shown us that it is really only through mass mobilisation and the hard work of working through complicity in unjust social structures and contradiction in psychic formation that this is ultimately possible. Such complexity has no part to play in Wonder Woman.
Unfortunately, Wonder Woman does not even offer us a strong woman lead. Her thunder (rather literally) is stolen by Chris Trevor who makes the ultimate sacrifice and leaves Diana enlightened about the power of love as a means of resistance. This is not a feminist film but is instead a reification of ‘feminine values’ of love and sacrifice well-packaged for a postmodern audience. >
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