The Problems With Wonder Woman
Crypto-misogyny, revisionist paganism, and cultural appropriation of the central Christian narrative.
Patty Jenkins’ 2017 film Wonder Woman achieved the highest opening box office for any female director, and the best box office for a female-lead comic book film. Wonder Woman is the sixth highest grossing 2017 film and it may well rise higher. After opening on June 2, Wonder Woman was number one for two weeks; in week three, Forbes reported, it continued to set box office records. Wonder Woman bested the Tom Cruise film The Mummy. Some theaters scheduled all-female viewings. The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas announced, “Apologies, gentlemen, but we’re embracing our girl power and saying ‘No Guys Allowed’ for one special night at the Alamo Ritz … When we say ‘People Who Identify As Women Only,’ we mean it. Everyone working at this screening – venue staff, projectionist, and culinary team – will be female.”
On June 11, 2017, director Patty Jenkins tweeted what purports to be a note from a schoolteacher. Wonder Woman, this note claims, completely transformed a kindergarten class into a Utopian seedbed of future feminists. One of the note’s bullet points: “A boy threw his candy wrapping [on] the floor and a 5-year-old girl screamed, ‘DON’T POLLUTE YOU IDIOT, THAT IS WHY THERE ARE NO MEN IN TEMYSCIRA.’” Upworthy says that Wonder Woman will “lead viewers to develop empathy” for “members of groups unlike themselves.” “The Legion of Women Writers launched a fundraising campaign to send 70 high school-age girls to see the film.”
In 2015, actor-director Rose McGowan argued on Instagram that movies were simple-minded because movies are controlled by men, and if more women were in charge, movies would be rich, complex, and thoughtful. She was sick, she said, of “green goblins in tight outfits.” Superhero movies are “the same formula over and over.” Why? “If men direct 98% of all film, the fault of banality rests squarely on their shoulders … They are killing film … Superhero movies lack complexity, story development, character development, freedom of thought. It’s lazy male filmmaking … Where are the human stories? … I want intelligence, daring work that drives society forward. I want a mirror, not every cliché regurgitated ad nauseum … Let’s bring complexity back … Think of all the stories not on screen because women are blocked by the status quo … Add women … It brings such instant depth to make a character female.”
I agree with McGowan’s critique of superhero movies. Her insistence that everything would become instantly richer and deeper if male actors, directors, and characters were replaced by females has been proven wrong by Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman opens on Themyscira, originally known, in the comic books, as Paradise Island. Any man who sets foot on the island is condemned to death. Themyscira is populated by perfectly proportioned, healthy, high-breasted, small-waisted, long-legged, flat-bellied, glossy-haired, tight-butted, pert-nosed, wide-eyed females in skimpy, skin-tight costumes who spend all day wrestling with each other. Themyscira is clearly a teen boy’s fantasy. No land where women can’t risk pre-menstrual tummy bloat, or can’t remove the metal bras that keep their breasts well-defined, is any female paradise.
Do male superheroes come from islands populated by legions of model-perfect boy-toy eye candy? Heck no. Men don’t invite competition over their looks with other, spectacular looking men. Male superheroes are the only guy in the room who flies faster than a speeding bullet. Themyscira isn’t a feminist daydream; it’s a harem.
The women of Themyscira spend their time in physical fighting. Yes, I am a feminist. I am this kind of feminist – I recognize that men and women are different. I value women’s qualities. In general, men respond to threat with fight or flight behavior. Women respond with tend-and-befriend behavior. I do not think I can solve my problems by beating someone up – not even in my fantasies. In conflict situations, I attempt to understand my opponent. I attempt to “tend” to that person’s needs if I can and work together for non-violent, win-win solutions. I can fight or run if necessary, but, again, like a lot of women, my evolutionarily programmed primary urge is to nurture life and community, not destroy to destroy them. Wonder Woman is no realization of any of my feminist or even merely female fantasies.
An island populated solely by women is no paradise for me. I love men. My ideal fantasy world would include men – and family. I’d have a husband, and kids – not just daughters, but sons, too. I’d have a cozy home, with a kitchen I’d spend about a hundred years accessorizing. I’d have a nook for reading, in a bay window, in a large library, with velvet curtains, looking out on a garden. A woman’s movie, for me, is not a man’s movie that slips a female simulacrum into the spandex leotard of a male lead. A heroine is not a male superhero with a pair of breasts slapped on him. A woman’s movie is a movie that respects and honors what women really are.
Who created this so-called feminist superhero, anyway? Harvard psychologist William Moulton Marston. Marston was a polyamorist, living with at least three women as his de facto wives. Two of his long-term partners typed his manuscripts and supported him financially. Marston was part of “a ‘sex cult’ … Participants celebrated female sexual power, dominance, submission and love by forming ‘Love Units’ … including Love Girls who “do not … practice … concealment of the love organs.”
Olive Byrne was Marston’s graduate student. She became one of her married professor’s mistresses. Byrne wore heavy silver bracelets that inspired Wonder Woman’s superpower jewelry. Byrne was the niece of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. “Wonder Woman sprang from an intellectual milieu that included both New Age free love and a radical commitment to reproductive rights,” writes Noah Berlatsky in The Atlantic. “Marston – and Sanger too … believed that women were purer and better than men.” Marston’s legal wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and Olive Byrne continued to live together after Marston died. There is speculation that Elizabeth and Olive became lovers.
Comic book historian Tim Hanley documents that 25% of images in the original Wonder Woman “included images of bondage.” His 2014 Chicago Review Press book Wonder Woman Unbound reports that Wonder Woman’s “creator filled the comics with titillating bondage imagery … In the 1950s, Wonder Woman begrudgingly continued her superheroic mission, wishing she could settle down with her boyfriend instead, all while continually hinting at hidden lesbian leanings. While other female characters stepped forward as women’s lib took off in the late 1960s, Wonder Woman fell backwards, losing her superpowers and flitting from man to man.”
Marston had a religious devotion to bondage as salvific. “The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep … to enjoy being bound … Only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society … being controlled by [and] submitting to other people cannot possibly be enjoyable without a strong erotic element,” Marston wrote. Note that Wonder Woman wields a rope – a LASS-o – as one of her superpowers.
Marston’s concept of feminism dominates the movie version of his work. He wrote, “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman … Give [men] an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to and they’ll be proud to become her willing slaves.”
Mr. Marston, you just don’t get me at all. You think that because I don’t go around punching people in the face as male superheroes do that I “lack force, strength and power.” No. I exercise my strength, force, and power every day. For me, a battle is waged primarily through my keyboard, or through after-class conversations with troubled students. For me, victory doesn’t mean that I am surrounded by the prostrate bodies of my enemies. For me, victory comes when a failing student tries harder and gets an A. I don’t win by punching noses. I win by understanding, supporting, communicating, and connecting. Further, I desire no slave, certainly not a male partner who is a slave. I love the men I admire, men who are not beneath me or above me but are my equals. And, yes, that is the woman in me talking. Men aren’t worse than I because they win through zero sum conquest. They are just different. Demanding that women must become masculine before they can be respected is not feminism.
“But, but, but!” some will scream. “Wonder Woman sold lots of tickets!” Indeed it has. I’m a teacher. I see young women consume media that tells them that they need to be sexually loose to find happiness. I see them consume lectures that demonize any awareness that girls experience sexual rejection differently than boys do, lectures that deny that women’s need for committed relationships is hard-wired and evolutionarily sound. And I see these same girls become anorexic, self-harming, depressed, prescription-drug-dependent, and suicidal. Yes, they willingly buy the media and the academic lectures that tell them that gender is a social construct and that they should be something that they are not – that is, boys. They try to be promiscuous, to brag of sexual “conquests,” and to punish themselves for any “clinging,” for any sentimentality. Now they are buying a media product that tells them that girls, no less than boys, can save the world with their punches and their kicks. It terrifies and depresses me to think that girls, who are, in general, less physically powerful and also less aggressive than males, may discover their physical limitations the hard way – in the middle of a physical confrontation that they could have, had they listened to their feminine instincts, avoided.
The women in the audience applauding the onscreen women of Themyscira are applauding the very norms that, in other settings, they protest. Women rage against the lookism that demands that women be attractive before they can be anything else. Wonder Woman’s fans applaud it for being “diverse.” After all, some of the babes on Themyscira are black. None of them has anything like what is normal body fat for an American woman. None is aging as a normal woman does. There are no remarkably tall, flat-chested, or broad-beamed women on Themyscira. Themyscira’s so-called “warriors” all have the pinched profiles of pin-ups. Not a single one could pass as a female Olympic weightlifter or shot putter. They don’t have the sturdy bodies of women peasants who spend all day in agricultural labor. There are no handicapped women. None of them wears glasses. Featuring a pouty black runway model next to a pouty white runway model is not “diversity.” It’s pandering.
Let’s finally admit that women discriminate in favor of pretty women just as surely as men do. Women reject big-boned, dowdy, nerdy females, as high school friends, as potential hires, when buying dolls, as heroines of novels and main characters of films every bit as much as men do. So-called feminists castigate and lecture men for participating in evolution’s inevitable preference for the pretty and the powerful, but women do it themselves, to themselves and each other. I remember a “feminist” friend practically ululating about what a thrill it was to see Gloria Steinem speak in person. I drilled this feminist about what Steinem actually said in her talk that was so inspirational. All she could say was that Steinem was over sixty and still could “rock” tight, black leather pants. We women forge our own chains.
Proponents will argue that Wonder Woman herself, Diana, (Gal Gadot) is the film’s hero, its center. Sorry, no. In significant ways, Diana departs from male superheroes. Male superheroes are clever and smart as well as strong. Diana is often a clueless and comical fish-out-of-water. She has lived her entire life on an island. She doesn’t know how to navigate the twentieth-century, mixed-gender Europe she enters to fulfill her mission. In a couple of scenes, Diana is the butt of the audience’s laughter.
Chris Pine, in the Star Trek reboot, stars as something like a superhero, Captain James T. Kirk. In Wonder Woman, Pine is Captain Steve Trevor, the shadow superhero. He chaperones Diana around the modern world, protecting her from her naivete and communicating for her when she cannot make herself understood. Male superheroes are much more independent than is Diana. They shine alone on stage. They don’t share the spotlight. Their companions, when they have them, are coded as lesser. Robin is a child; Batman is an adult. Jimmy Olson is the squeaky-voiced mortal who admires Superman. Watson is tutored by Holmes. Steve, though mortal, is equal to the divine Diana.
Male superheroes don’t require this kind of babysitting from female sidekicks. Hidden underneath the flashy poster art that depicts a hard-charging female as the center of action is a different plot: Diana is cared for by a protective and powerful male. Evolution has fashioned women to seek such men. Normal women want to share their lives with men as competent as they are. Women value husbands who can fix cars and be home handymen. Steve “fixes” things for Diana, recruiting a crew to advance her mission. Yes, Diana is powerful herself. But unlike Hugh Jackman’s superhero Wolverine, for example, Diana is no lone wolf. She is in a relationship with a man, Steve, who could easily assume the superhero mantle himself. Again, behind the film’s overt message of a lone female superhero is a more traditional truth: women value relationship. It is disingenuous to pretend that Wonder Woman is about something it is not.
Feminists say that to assess whether or not a narrative is female-centered, don’t just look at the main character. Look at those with whom the main character interacts. If a female character is not shown having significant relationships with other women, but only with men, it is not a women-centered story. On Themyscira, Diana wrestles with her fellow Amazons. Once the film leaves the island, though, Diana is the lone, token female in a male-bonding buddy movie. Steve recruits a ragtag crew of his colorful friends – an ugly Scot, an Arab who wanted to be an actor but who was victimized by anti-Arab prejudice, and a Native American smuggler. Diana is adrift with this cast of characters from a boy’s true adventure tale. They know and value each other. She’s a pretty girl in a bathing suit plunked down in their treehouse. She might as well be a wall calendar. How about Diana plunging into a cat-fight with the female villain in some interesting, female-centric way? Never happens. For Diana to function, she must interact with men, in an all-male world.
Diana and Steve’s mission is – wait for it – to find and defeat an evil genius who wants to destroy the world. I bet you didn’t see that coming. Diana is only partially correct in her understanding of the mission. She thinks she is seeking Ares, the Greek god of war. She assumes that General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is Ares. She chases and kills Ludendorff. The problem is that she’s mistaken. Ludendorff is not Ares. It is Steve who has recognized the real threat: a planeload of German poison gas. While Diana is off on her wild goose chase, Steve has a different trajectory. He is focused on the concrete, immediate threat of poison gas. He sacrifices his own life by destroying the plane and its deadly cargo.
In recent years, leftists have gone on and on about cultural appropriation. An example: Elvis Presley. His songs, dress, and performance style have been assessed as the cultural property of African Americans. According to theorists of cultural appropriation, Elvis’ entire career was a form of theft.
Pagans might love Wonder Woman. The film presents itself as based on Greek mythology. Diana is called an “Amazon.” Zeus is her father. Zeus created his child to fight Ares, the Greek god of war. Diana is a savior figure. While Steve is sacrificing his own life to save others, Diana is facing off with Ares. Ares is depicted as a dark, horned entity walking through red flames. Ares tempts humanity to its own doom. This is all hogwash. And it is cultural appropriation.
The mythical Amazons were eager warriors. They worshipped Ares, the god of war. The idea that an Amazon would want to defeat Ares and end war is absurd. Neo-Pagans insist that societies where female goddesses are worshipped are better societies for women. One look at modern India, where female infanticide and gruesome rape headlines are epidemic, where female infanticide actually has worsened as India has prospered, proves false the assertion that goddess worship = good conditions for women. Hindus worship many powerful goddesses: Laxmi, Durga, Saraswati. An ad agency created a campaign of images of those goddesses – featuring bruises from domestic violence.
Ancient, Pagan Greece was often a lousy place for women. Well-born Athenian women were married off young to men they might not have chosen for themselves. They were expected to stay at home and produce legal heirs. Lowborn women had it even worse. Prostitutes, when not entertaining clients, had to spin wool to earn money for their pimps.
In Wonder Woman, Zeus is a loving father god who wants to help people. A loving father god who creates humanity and sends a promised savior has nothing to do with Ancient Greece. It is ripped off from Judaism. It’s more than a little ironic that “feminists” celebrate a movie awash in ersatz Greek mythology. In authentic Greek mythology, Zeus is a serial rapist. Zeus assumes the form of a swan to rape Leda, a bull to rape Europa, and a shower of coins to rape Danae. Males were not safe; Zeus assumes the form of an eagle to rape Ganymede, a boy.
Classicist Eva C. Keuls, in her University of California Press book, The Reign of the Phallus, shows that “The phallus was pictured everywhere in ancient Athens: painted on vases, sculpted in marble, held aloft in gigantic form in public processions, and shown in stage comedies. This obsession with the phallus dominated almost every aspect of public life, influencing law, myth, and customs, affecting family life, the status of women, even foreign policy.” Athenian men made a “blatant claim to general dominance” supported by “the myths of rape and conquest of women, and the reduction of sex to a game of dominance and submission, both of women by men and of men by men.”
“The master rapist, of course, was Zeus … A foreigner once came to Athens and asked why the Athenians so often used the exclamation ‘by Zeus’; the answer: ‘Because so many of us are.’” That is, Zeus was such a successful rapist that Athenians can assume themselves to be descended from him. The Brygos Painter kantharos is a two-handled wine-drinking cup from Ancient Greece. Kreuls describes this cup. It depicts “two scenes of rape, one homosexual and one heterosexual, carefully balanced in composition, with that typically Greek bisexual promiscuity.” A collection of Attic Art “contains 395 items, and includes rape by all the major male divinities on Olympus … Zeus [wields] his scepter or his thunderbolt (or both); Poseidon, his trident; and Hermes, his caduceus.”
In addition to misrepresenting what Ancient, Pagan Greece really was for women – bad – Wonder Woman appropriates another people’s myth. That people would be the ancient, monotheistic, moralistic Jews, and their offspring faith, Christians. In Judaism, not in Paganism, one loving God created humanity. That loving God recognized that the temptation to do evil was a problem for humanity. That temptation is personified by Satan, who, at least since Revelation 13, has been depicted as having horns – as Ares does in Wonder Woman. God promised a savior, a Messiah. Christians believe that Jesus is that Messiah, that Jesus is the son of God, and that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was salvific. Diana does not sacrifice her life in Wonder Woman, but in the final scenes she is shown suspended in air, arms stretched wide, legs together: a cross pose. While she is struggling with the horned Ares / Satan, shown walking through hellish flames, Steve is saving humanity by flying into heavenly clouds and sacrificing his own life.
Neo-Pagans are constant cultural appropriators; they combine denial about what Ancient Paganism entailed with outright pillaging of Christian values. A Neo-Pagan meme recently wormed its slimy way through my Facebook feed: “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Educated people will recognize this as a quote from Jesus. The meme identified this quote, though, as coming from an Ancient Egyptian temple at Karnak. I wrote to Betsy M. Bryan, the Alexander Badawy Professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at Johns Hopkins University, and asked her if there is any truth to this New Age claim. No, it is not, she said. That’s cultural appropriation.
Wonder Woman gives us a Pagan, Ancient Greece that offered a Paradise Island for women. There was a force in the Ancient World that offered women hope for respect for their full humanity. That force was Christianity. “In Christ there is no male and there is no female.” Celsus, an Ancient, Pagan Greek, condemned Christianity as a religion of “women, children, and slaves” – that is “the foolish, the dishonorable, and the stupid.”
Yes, Western Civilization owes the Ancient Greeks a great debt. The Greeks gave us democracy and the intellectual foundations of our scholarship. But the Ancient Pagan world valued power, wealth and beauty. Good looking and wealthy people were good; slaves and women had negligible value. Human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of children, was a constant. Recent archaeological discoveries support ancient accounts of the sacrifice and cannibalism of young boys dedicated to Zeus. Deformed Spartan babies, of course, were tossed into the Apothetae, the deposits. In order to be considered men, eighteen-year-old Spartan boys had to participate in a rite-of-passage called “helot killing.” They were given a knife and sent out into the countryside with the job of stealthily murdering as many random and unsuspecting slaves as they could, without being detected. No doubt these slaves lived in a constant state of terror. So much for Utopia, for “Paradise Island.” Without our Judeo-Christian ethical inheritance, our Greek inheritance is incomplete.
Starting in the early 1930s, and ending around the same time as the onset of the Sexual Revolution, under pressure from the Catholic Legion of Decency, Hollywood movies had to adhere to strict guidelines re: sex and violence. One might conclude that films made during this era were a wasteland for women. The opposite is true. Scholars acknowledge that Hollywood under the code was a Golden Age for women’s movies. Since films could not emphasize sex and violence, they had to emphasize something else, and they did. Women could be smart, fast-talking, and compelling. Since whole families went to the movies, films had to please women of every age and station in life. Older women like Marie Dressler, Edna May Oliver, Ethel Barrymore, Jane Darwell, and Marjorie Main, as well as young girls, like Shirley Temple and Judy Garland, managed to be box office stars.
During Hollywood’s Golden Age, Katharine Hepburn sank a German warship. Barbara Stanwyck outwitted Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper and Fred MacMurray. Vivien Leigh shot a Yankee soldier and paid Tara’s taxes. An old and frail Lilian Gish protected children from the homicidal Robert Mitchum. Jennifer Jones saw the Virgin Mary, Ingrid Bergman heard the voices of saints, Greer Garson won two Nobel Prizes, and Audrey Hepburn tended to lepers in the Belgian Congo. Greta Garbo ruled Sweden, saved Poland, and managed to laugh. Without punching anyone. Without taking off their clothes. When young women come to me for film recommendations, I try to introduce them to Gold Age Hollywood movies.
There are films today that focus on real, heroic women. Maudie celebrates Canadian artist Maud Lewis. Lewis was poor, chronically ill, physically handicapped, not particularly sexy looking, and beautifully talented. She doesn’t beat anyone up. She doesn’t blow anything up. She loved her very difficult husband, kept house, and created art.
Megan Leavey is about a confused, difficult working class girl who joins the Marines, finds herself in patriotic discipline and service, and risks her life to serve her country in Iraq. She bonds with her “aggressive” bomb sniffing dog, Sergeant Rex. Leavey and Rex are injured when a terrorist IED explodes beneath them. Leavey works hard to readjust to civilian life and adopt her former canine fellow veteran.
Letters from Baghdad is about Gertrude Bell. As the film’s website says, the film “tells the extraordinary and dramatic story of the most powerful woman in the British Empire … She shaped the modern Middle East after World War I in ways that still reverberate today. More influential than her friend and colleague Lawrence of Arabia, Bell helped draw the borders of Iraq and established the Iraq Museum.”
All three films, all in theaters now, have high scores at Rotten Tomatoes. All three films are bringing in a tiny fraction of the box office that Wonder Woman is bringing in. Ladies, stop blaming guys. If you want big-screen movies about real life heroines, get out there and buy tickets for the movies that depict them. And give up on finding Utopia in the fantasies of modern social engineers, Ancient Paganism, or the pages of comic books. Utopia is not to be found there. Forget all you’ve been taught about Western Civilization and the Judeo-Christian tradition being hopelessly corrupt and fit only for the garbage heap of history. Have another look at your heritage: at Sarah, Judith, Esther, Mary Magdalene, Thecla, Teresa of Avila and so many more. You’ll be glad you did.