4 Reasons Wonder Woman Actually Fails as a Heroine
When I was a teenager, I really looked up to Wonder Woman, as a comic book character. I remember thinking it was bullshit that they kept making Spiderman movies and not making any about Wonder Woman. Thinking of myself as her improved my self-esteem and gave me a symbol to cling to during a difficult time in my life. I think a lot of people like hero comics for that very reason, the hero becomes someone they choose who represents the best possible version of themselves, who they would like to be.
Anyway, I was a little disappointed by the movie. And since getting out of my teen years and becoming more critical of some aspects of feminism, Wonder Woman has become a lot less meaningful for me. And when I think about her character, I can't help noticing all these flaws about her as a role model for girls and women. They didn't occur to me, or weren't considered a big deal to me, once. When I was younger, I embraced Wonder Woman as a female power fantasy icon, similarly to Sailor Moon and Xena. Now I'm more cynical, and see myself more in Deadpool than in Wonder Woman. So watch as I tear apart my own old sacred cow, er, goddess. (She probably doesn't like being called a cow.) Here are some things that might surprise you, but are definitely flaws, in the whole Wonder Woman story.
Her Daddy is the Worst Rapist in Mythology
This is a problem with basing any sort of pro-woman fictional character on the mythology of a sexist culture.
"Daughters of Zeus" sounds poetic, until you realize what a sex-crazed monster Zeus was, by modern standards. We actually don't know how many of Zeus' many sexual exploits were consensual. It never actually occurred to the Greek men telling his tales that women's consent even mattered. Lots of Greek legendary heroes claimed partial divinity from intercourse between a god (usually Zeus or Apollo) and a mortal woman (often a princess or queen). Some of these unions involved trickery or coercion. Some were just kind of weird, like those involving Zeus seducing a lady by turning into a swan, a bull, or a golden shower. Most "Zeus and mortal woman #349" stories were built around the need for a mythical hero, or king, to have divine origins explaining his superpowers. This also explains why gods intervened in the hero's life, even when normally, Greek gods didn't get involved in mortal affairs. Heracles is a prime example of such a hero.
Xena and Wonder Woman are both different modern-day attempts to make a female counterpart to the legendary hero Heracles, a son of Zeus.
But using the Greek Amazons as feminist icons is problematic. For one, ancient Greece was a very patriarchal culture. Their patriarchal attitudes did not end when it came to how they talked about the Amazons. No one is sure where the term 'Amazon' came from, but it's believed to have meant 'without breasts'. That is, the name is a slur, to call them mannish. Or referring to a supposed practice of female archers in some non-Greek cultures of burning one or both breasts off to improve their skill in archery. Amazons were not icons in ancient Greek culture. They were never heroes to be celebrated - the way that male heroes like Theseus, Achilles, and Heracles were. They were mocking caricatures of 'mannish' and brutish 'barbarian', ie, non-Greek, women. They were outside the order of Greek society, so it was seen as fitting to punish them for their 'unnatural' matriarchal, female-warrior-having ways by having Heracles conquer them.
Your feminist icon's origin: daughter of the most sexually aggressive (a good character trait, to the men who first told these myths) god in all of human mythology. And, her race is just a patriarchal caricature, designed to mock the concept of women's independence and strength. Which they saw as completely ridiculous.
She Originally Just Existed to be Pro-War Propaganda
Well, surely, even if her ancient mythological origins are a bit rocky, her modernity as a forward-thinking, 20th century, empowered lady makes her great, right? Well, in context, her earliest comics were just American military propaganda. One thing I didn't get about the movie was that they changed her origin to World War One, when it had always been World War Two in the comics, and WWII is a huge part of Wonder Woman's character.
That's because her character originated as a World War Two propaganda comic. Like Superman and Captain America, as well as an embarrassing host of comics that failed after the war was over, her star-spangled ass was always all about serving American interests. Over time, her character also became about a battle against communism. This is understandable, given that in the 50's, you were either rabidly anti-communist with your art, or you were seen as a potential commie conspirator. There was no room for sitting on the fence or taking a nuanced point of view, at least not in America.
Now, I'm not saying it was bad to be anti-nazi or anti-communist. But it gets a little ridiculous and dated to see the original WW comics' extremely black and white view of America. America in early WW comics is a bastion of pure goodness, battling corrupt non-Americans everywhere else. Not only is war not questioned, but to be pro-war is an absolute must.
Thus, Wonder Woman as a character embodies a common problem feminists have with certain purported feminist role model characters; that they participate in and defend a system that glorifies violence. We know now that unquestioned nationalism and jingoism are not healthy or desirable. Maybe that's why the movie really played down Wonder Woman's original Americanism, most notably ditching the iconic stars and stripes in her original costume. But what you're left with is less of a character, with less of a reason for existing, because American nationalism was such a core part of her identity when she was originally created.
She Really Doesn't Challenge Stereotypes of Women
If the mythological stories on which her character is based, and her original origin as a WWII propaganda icon are both problematic, surely then her existence as a tough, modern badass woman is justified since she challenges sexism though, right?
See, the thing is, she really isn't a woman. She is a demigoddess, with much greater physical strength than even the toughest man. So she challenges the idea that women are weak, not by being a strong woman who worked hard to shape her own muscles, but by being a strong woman-shaped supernatural creature. She is socially a woman, but not physically. She challenges perceptions of women in culture, but since she's not really human, that challenge falls flat. A better character would have been strong, not by divine assistance, divine parentage, or magic, but by her own hard work.
A common occurrence in Wonder Woman stories is for her to have a contest of strength (or even a drinking contest) against a man who thinks Wonder Woman can't win because she is a woman, only to be proven wrong and embarrassed. That may feel satisfying if you think of her as a woman challenging sexist stereotypes. That's what the authors of her stories want you to think. But in reality, it's simply a half-divine super-being going up against a mortal man, just to humiliate him. Which is sort of like if I arm wrestled a little boy, while pretending to be a little girl. I'm not really proving anything about the capabilities of real little girls in that scenario, since I am not one! Similarly, Wonder Woman's exploits really fall flat because they prove nothing about the potential or strength of actual, non-magical, women.
It's kind of a dick move. If you imagined any male demigod using his powers just to score points against a braggadocious mortal in such a petty way, that character would not be received as well.
And I'm so sick of hearing about Wonder Woman as a "role model for little girls" for the same reason. She's not human. Little girls can't be her, any more than little boys can be The Flash or Superman. In comic books, she overshadows a lot of female characters who are really human, and thus more vulnerable, more prone to human error, and more relatable. Wonder Woman suffers from many of the same flaws of Superman for me; too superhuman to really ever seem challenged or vulnerable in the way a real human being is.
She Embodies the Crazy Man-Hater Stereotype
Girls can morally look up to her, but this too is flawed. Her morality is shaped by her experiences as an Amazon. She's an outsider, from a matriarchal society with no men. We don't really know if her society would do a better or worse job than ours at gender harmony, because it excludes men entirely. I don't see what's morally worth looking up to in a character that constantly brags, constantly shows off, and never shows much empathy for the opposite sex. Do we really want to teach girls that a character who only cares about saving half of humanity is as good as a character who wants to save all of it?
The best thing about Wonder Woman is when the androphobia and misandry in her culture is challenged in some way, usually by her relationship with Steve Trevor. But the fact remains that she comes from a sexist, sexually segregated, exclusionary culture that vilifies all men. And from writers who think violence against men is cute, funny, or that they deserved it in some way.
I've heard the saying, "Never meet your heroes.". Maybe it should be, "Never think about your heroes for too long.". Because when I really start to think about Wonder Woman's origin, identity, and the narrative pushed by her stories, the more she unravels for me as someone to look up to. I understand that there are good parts of her story, but for me, the above problems ruin any enjoyment I would have. There are better female characters in comic books (Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Domino come to mind).
But if you really want the best female role models, it's this reader's opinion that you have to look to manga. Western comics are fueled by testosterone and function as American military propaganda. You can't shake that association just by putting the American superhero in a skirt.
- The Problem With Wonder Woman | Tor.com
I was, like this author, very disappointed by the New 52's Wonder Woman.
- Wonder Woman is awesome, but it’s got some major problems | Ars Technica
The movie gets incoherent at the exact moments when it should be crystal clear.