What, you may wonder, is a blog about a super hero film doing on IntLawGrrls? Well beyond my own personal excitement about the newly released Wonder Woman film, I think there’s an important symbolism that anyone committed to the Women, Peace and Security agenda of UN SC Resolution 1325 will appreciate. And a narrative that anyone committed to raising the profile of women’s voices in international law and international security will value. The film did a superb job of presenting the 75 year old comic book character the way she was intended by her creator William Moulton Marston, as a champion for peace, truth and equality at a time of conflict. He invented her during the Second World War, based on his belief that we need heroes in times of instability and conflict, and the retelling in the DC movie released just this weekend not only stays true to her origins, but reminds us that we all have capacity for war and for love within us.
In the height of the Second World War, Marvel Comics had just created a new character to raise the spirit of a fighting nation, Captain Marvel. He was dressed in the American flag and was a super soldier, and his comics were an immediate hit. Desperate to compete, DC Comics approached Marston, a psychologist who had been writing about why we need heroes in times of war;
as symbols to galvanise our beliefs. They asked him to create a character that would sell as well as Captain America, and he answered that what they needed was a female superhero. Marston was a staunch feminist, and believed that if women were in positions of leadership there would be more diplomacy and less war. Though many of us today would question this essentialism, there is no doubt that having more women at the decision-making table makes a difference to pre- and post-conflict negotiations, and that women are disproportionately affected by armed conflict.
Marston wove the story of Wonder Woman around his classical education, drawing from Greek mythology stories of the Amazon warriors, who in his origin story were entrusted by the gods to protect Pandora’s Box and keep peace in the world. When “the world of men” finds itself caught up in a world war, Wonder Woman is sent as their champion to teach men the ways of peace and justice. She is incredibly strong, but she fights only to defend, never to attack, and she carries the Lasso of Truth, which forces anyone she ensnares to tell the truth. Marston is credited with also having invented the lie detector, so Wonder Woman was a multi-layered creation of his commitments. He even created an alter-ego for her as a military intelligence officer, granting her a status higher than the inevitable title of “secretary”.
In the film, director Patty Jenkins (who may just have broken the Hollywood glass ceiling for female directors with the sweeping box office success of Wonder Woman’s opening weekend) presents the origin story true to Marston’s values, with one small difference that it is set during the First World War, the War to End All Wars. This allowed for interesting commentary about women being completely politically disempowered at the time, still fighting for the vote, and being hustled out of any room where political negotiations were taking place. Placed in a period of history when we knew women were politically disenfranchised, it’s easier to understand, but it’s a mirror of the way women are still absent and underrepresented at the most powerful tables in the world today. The impact of the mass weaponry of the First World War was also the perfectly devastating background for depicting how civilians are targeted and affected by war. Women and children are highlighted as the innocent victims, and an entire village is decimated by a deadly gas. One is reminded painfully of Syria today. As she begins to understand how power relations play out, Wonder Woman becomes the voice of the civilians, and fights for what she believes in: the possibility of peace. She is the representation of women in leadership positions, and the importance of women’s participation in decision-making.
The complexity of her character is beautifully portrayed. She is shocked at the corruptibility of humans, at our capacity to destroy each other, but she learns that it is not a simple question good versus bad people. Instead she sees that we are all just as capable of warring (as we know from non-state armed groups, from civilian participation in conflict, and from horrific war crimes and crimes of torture perpetrated by highly trained members of the military) as we are of love. She comes to the conclusion that she cannot save the world, but she can continue to bring love, peace, justice and equality to everything she does. That is her mission as Wonder Woman.
Although I was a fan of the 1970s series with Lynda Carter, which was fun and campy, it was a hyper-sexualised representation, and a long way off the character Marston intended her to be.
In the film she is played by Gal Gadot, an Israeli woman who has trained in the armed forces and understands the warrior mentality just as well as she understands the feminine mother energy of the character she plays. (Stunningly, Gadot was 5 months pregnant during final shooting of the film, and they used digital effects to edit out her rounded belly. I have to admit I was moved to even greater excitement to learn that Wonder Woman was carrying life while fighting the god of war!)
The film also does a great job of referencing the classical education which informed her creation, and the feminist role she was created to play. Gadot’s Wonder Woman speaks hundreds of languages, ancient and modern, and when confronting the German General Ludendorff, she cites Thucydides – in such a way that reminds us of today’s competing powers. She refuses to have men of high rank tell her what to do, even her love interest Steve Trevor, and when she questions the assumptions about obedience in marriage, she cites Sappho, reversing the wartime assumption that women’s bodies are for men’s pleasure: rather, men are necessary for reproduction, but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary. (Let’s not debate the truth of that statement! The point was her challenge to the mainstream assumption.) Marston himself was polyamorous, living with two women, who stayed together as partners after his death. He believed marriage was a patriarchal institution which subordinated women and treated them as property. His comic book character defied men’s superiority but still sought partnership between the sexes, which is a subtlety maintained in her film portrayal.
Wonder Woman is unafraid to use force when that is necessary, but she believes in the possibility of all of us being released from “the grip of Ares, god of war“. In the comics she used to go to great efforts to turn Nazi characters – particularly, but not only, the women – back towards good, and would release them rather than kill them if she saw a possibility of remorse. Marston reminded us that women also play the role of perpetrator in many conflicts, and one of his female villains, Dr Poison, has a key role in the film, inventing the chemical weapons used against civilians. Yet even when Wonder Woman has the chance to kill her, she sees the humanity of Isabel Moru behind the mask of Dr Poison, and decides to let her go, rather than be corrupted herself by the desire to destroy. At the same time, Wonder Woman is not naive: there are times when force is called for, as long as it is proportionate and there is a distinction between lawful and unlawful targets.
Which is why Marston was so committed to us understanding the importance of super heroes. It’s not that we should look to these non-existent fantasy figures who have indestructible (and highly sexualised) bodies as models, it’s that we need something to believe in when the world becomes politically unstable, unpredictable and violent. And given his commitment to women’s political participation, and his understanding of the complexity of human nature regardless of gender, anno 2017, Wonder Woman is a hero for our times.