Please. No one tell Betty Friedan that a Greek goddess just smashed her feminist mystique. The Greek goddess in question is Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hyppolita, otherwise known as Wonder Woman. Technically Diana is a demigoddess, but this article isn’t about technicalities, it’s about a marvelous story that turns modern feminist doctrine on its head. Some reviews of the new movie, Wonder Woman, want to make Diana out to be a feminist heroine, but nothing could be further from the truth. She’s quite the anti-feminist, without even being aware of it I believe.
The Betty Friedan/Gloria Steinem wave of feminism washed up on the shores of the 1960s like a red tide of poisonous jellyfish in the middle of a storm and then washed out again leaving all its venom for future generations. That the feminist toxin is beginning to dissipate is perhaps best heralded by the fact that a movie like Wonder Woman could even be produced today in Hollywood. For at least the past three decades, Hollywood has delivered feminism’s anti-male, anti-masculinity drug to our culture through the medium of popular movies and sitcoms that feature attractive actresses, sometimes-funny scripts, and every hipster fashion that can make the subliminal message of female dominance appealing. Young girls have been indoctrinated into a soft version of radical feminism by an array of Hollywood heroines (particularly Disney starlets) who dutifully chant the “males are oppressive,” “I don’t need a man” and “I can do anything a man can do, and do it better” mantras while their male counterparts are almost universally cast as tyrants, buffoons or impotent dolts. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but I’m speaking here of the innate tendency of the purveyors of culture to unquestioningly propagate the feminist revolution in words and images to a malleable youth culture.
I’d like to believe that things are changing, though. On the question of audience, the majority of superhero movie-goers are of course male, but Wonder Woman drew a 52% female audience in just its first weekend. Many studies of the current generation also give good evidence that modern women are tiring of the radical feminist war against men and are not identifying with “feminism” as such, because their (correct) intuition is that the movement is largely about man-hating, and the obscene right to kill babies through abortion. Many young women are actually finding the more traditional representations, roles, and activities of women appealing, that is, when these are presented with coherence and credible role-models.
And Wonder Woman is the most credible model of femininity we’ve seen in a long while. She doesn’t seem to have ingested the toxin of modern feminism. Its trace elements of man-loathing and competition are nowhere to be found in her character, yet she also epitomizes the feminine strength and idealism that I would like to believe is the essential good that a true and honest feminism would seek. She obviously likes men, but she’s not emotionally dependent on them. Neither does she pander to them, try to put them in their place, or scold them. She just lets them be men. Wow. What a concept. She righteously fights male enemies, but not because they are men. She fights them because they are evil. Incredibly, she doesn’t even assert her femininity in any of the overt ways that leading actresses tend to do these days, and if you see the movie, you will understand that she doesn’t need to. Her feminine beauty, identity and mystique are fully intact and on radiant display, minus any ideological bias.
But as mighty as she is, it would be a mistake to view Wonder Woman as a female lone-ranger figure. One comes away from the movie with a strong sense that Wonder Woman is more the story of a wonder couple than a single superhero. Diana‘s counterpart throughout the movie is Steve Trevor, an American spy whose somewhat jaded view of life makes him the perfect mirror to her often dangerous innocence and naiveté. From the first moment they meet, we are presented with a refreshing male-female complementarity that seems to me like a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers waltz worked into the genre of an action film. When she rescues Trevor from a plane crash and examines him face-to-face after she has deposited him on the beach, she reacts to him with a sort of fascinated wonder: “Are you a man?” she asks innocently. (Growing up on an isolated island of Amazon women, she’s never seen a man!) “Uh, don’t I look like one?” he says somewhat perplexed. A resilient bond of fascination/attraction/mutual admiration begins there and develops organically between them throughout the movie, not without its plot twists and challenges. But then again, those are all the elements of real relationships, aren’t they?
Most refreshingly, Diana isn’t trying to outdo Trevor at every turn or show him that she’s his ontological superior (even though she is). In fact, in the opening battle scene when she rushes – against all logic and advice – unaccompanied into No Man’s Land, she turns to find that Trevor and his crew of male miscreants are behind her providing tactical support at every step, even apparently saving her from catastrophe at one point. She almost blushes at their gallantry on her behalf and seems to realize that this male-female cooperation thing is actually quite…nice.
The mutual respect and cooperation between them bristles with dynamism, especially in battle. My favorite scene is undoubtedly when Trevor gets his buddies to lift up the broken flank of an armored vehicle as a platform for Diana to launch from in order to take out a sniper high up in the bell tower of a church. Trevor learned that trick from watching the Amazons defend their island from the Germans who were pursuing him when he crash landed, but it’s relevant that he applied it in a new battle in order to set Diana up for success and win the day. She got the credit, rightly, but he had as much to do with the win as she. Their cooperation was seamless and natural, almost as if they had been an intimate working team longer than just a few days.
Yet Diana is not a doormat to Trevor’s can-do masculinity either. In another scene, the two of them obviously disagree about how best to enter an enemy stronghold, and he tries to sideline her, so she simply ignores his directive and proceeds to carry out what she considers to be the best option. A woman’s prerogative. There is also a crisis moment between them in the film when she believes that he’s been corrupted and lost his idealism, and she rejects his help, deciding instead to go it alone using her own powers. His respect and admiration for her allows this misunderstanding to develop, without either capitulation or anger on his part, but he soon resolves the tension in an act of self-sacrifice that transcends her imperfect understanding of the human spirit. From her childhood she was told that humanity was not worthy of a superhero’s gifts, but in this case he acts heroically without making the incident a win-lose battle between them, and that is the turning point of the movie.
In the end, Diana must make a choice between killing the perpetrator of a chemically-induced mass murder, or letting the wheels of justice take their course and bring the forces of evil to an end on human terms. She is tempted to exact strict retribution against this worst villain of humankind, and no one would have blamed her if she had, but she remembers Trevor’s sacrifice and the possibility that evil can be vanquished by love. It’s all suddenly clear to her: mankind isn’t only capable of cruelty but has an equally deep capacity for love, something she could only have understood by example. At the very moment she could unleash her superpowers against human evil incarnate, she relents.
If Wonder Woman’s tender humanity – her compassion for the weak and suffering, her instinctive love for babies, peace, and justice – are appealing to women, there may be a reason for that. It may mean that radical feminism’s toxin is receding from our culture. We can only hope. But the real lesson for women is that Diana’s feminine strength isn’t a stand-alone virtue. It has its mirror and force multiplier in a man who loved her and complemented her goodness with an unmatched act of generosity. Would a jaded spy have made the ultimate sacrifice if he hadn’t been inspired by her feminine virtue to save the world? Unlikely. Would she have turned into just another cold executor of justice if she hadn’t known the heroic love of a man like Trevor? A feminist can’t answer that question.