Wonder Woman’s Vision of Empire

Originally published at Feministing 

So I saw Wonder Woman last weekend with my grandma, and oh my god guys, I exited that theater like a classy martini—shaken.

Now if you’re like many of my friends, you probably never want to hear anything uttered about the Wonder Woman movie (hey, maybe the entire franchise) ever again. That’s real. But even if you wanna skip my hot take (now’s your chance!), it’s definitely worth engaging with the great writing about the film that’s already out there, particularly the film’s representation of Black people and the debates around Gal Gadotfeminism, and Zionism.

Because Wonder Woman has not only swept box offices as the highest-grossing first weekend for a film directed by a woman ever — it’s also been banned in Lebanon and blocked from screenings in Algeria and Tunisia due to Gal Gadot having fought in the IDF.

That’s why despite the endless takes already out there, I left the theater, Grandma at my side, so politically jittery I felt like I’d just eaten seventeen espresso beans. Wonder Woman is a film about empire and (in the way superhero films sort of inevitably are) “Western Values,” which has proven a flashpoint in actual contemporary politics—all of this implicating feminism. That seems worth engaging with.

Now in my humble opinion, we’re not gonna arrive at an emancipatory political program from a Hollywood film that celebrates a (fictional) white American government agent dude, a (real) woman who has publicly justified the Israeli military’s egregious abuses of Palestinians, and the Western World (a construct).

But pop culture is all about negotiation. If we want to watch films and also stay true to our politics in a literal way, we’re presented with the uniquely daunting prospect of having to discard 99% of the cultural production of human history. Definitely we can try to do that, but many of us get by instead by picking and choosing from pop culture — cherrypicking what tickles us, condemning what we must condemn, and picking the rest apart to start critical conversations about the ideas propagated by the people with the capital.

So let’s undertand Wonder Woman in that spirit. First I’m going to cherry-pick. Then I’m gonna condemn. Then maybe, we’ll find what we have to work with in the film—particularly, the film’s presentation of race and British Empire—to imagine better films, and better worlds around them.

Cherries: Watching Diana Prince walk around Edwardian England unaware that, as a woman, she is supposed to be subjugated is a delight. I grinned like someone had given me free ice cream. I wish I could walk around the world like that: Without realizing I am supposed to cast my eyes to the ground when men swipe their gaze up and down like a full-body scan. Diana strolling into Parliament unabashed at how abashed everyone is by her breasts is the best example of how creating other worlds in film can jolt us out of what we have naturalized in our own world. It is neat to see a woman who, free of a lifetime of brainwashing, has simply not imbibed through every one of her pores the memo that she is lesser-than.

Yet as critics wiser than I have pointed out, that vision of female power is attached to a whole set of other, less-savory visions. As great as it feels to watch a woman run around capably kicking people’s derrieres, we should disavow the ideological basis of this martial feminism — especially considering Gadot’s background in the Israeli military, which along with the U.S. has perfected the art of using the rhetoric of liberal female and LGBT empowerment to justify military violence and occupation, particularly against Muslims (“pink washing”).

And even if the film shakes up some of our assumptions about gender, it stays relentlessly attached to other kinds of subjugation. For one: Really Diana? You really didn’t have any sexy Amazon lady lovers? 

And for another: Racism.

Take the Amazons. White filmmakers’ stubborn, violent lack of imagination—the inability to imagine a world which is not shaped by American racial and class hierarchies—means that, as Cameron Glover points out, the black Amazons are depicted as racist stereotypes.

This is the persistent disappointment of Hollywood fantasy, science fiction, and super hero genres. These genres could enable us to create anything—and in black feminist science fiction, for example, they do. Yet in the mainstream stories, in the farthest of galaxies or in alternate mythological realities governed by immortal Amazons, Hollywood still, by and large, simply cannot imagine a world that is not, like the United States and the global clusterfuck we have created, scripted by capitalism and racism. Or perhaps it’s not that the writers are so impaired by whiteness that they can’t even imagine a mythological lesbian separatist society as racially egalitarian. Maybe it’s that they can, but don’t want to.

Not the soaring bullets or the creepy proto-fascists or the mustachioed British guy who is War Incarnate, but this possibility — that white Western audiences literally do not want to imagine a world with an egalitarian racial and national order— is the most frightening aspect of Wonder Woman. 

So how does this question of imagination play into the rest of the film? I’m particularly interested in an aspect which I think fewer writers have touched on: The film’s depiction of British Empire.

If you, like me, learned history in the United States, you probably also were made to think that the First World War consisted entirely of white Europeans killing each other over a set of scandalous alliances and an assassinated Archbishop. It literally took me moving to India to realize that I’m an ignorant poop who had been spoon-fed lies my entire life and, duh, the First World War involved European empires and the brown and black people they were colonizing.

So on one hand, Wonder Woman shows us Edwardian London at the cusp of woman’s suffrage, with Diana Prince flouting gender taboos to her heart’s content. But it also shows us Edwardian London at the peak of empire. In the film, for example, we briefly see a South Asian regiment at the train station, as well as one African solder visible in a sea of white. And of course, we meet Trevor’s friends: Sameer, a South Asian trickster; Chief, a Native American profiteer; and Charlie, a Scottish sniper.

We could understand Sameer, Chief, and Charlie as the same kind of gesture-at-diversity, constellation-of-POC-friends-around-the-main-white-couple logic which informs most films that are trying to seem 21st century without actually being anti-racist. Indeed, the film is not Certified Progressive because it has some characters of color. (It could be entirely characters of color, including Wonder Woman herself; the fact that it’s not is a willful choice of the filmmakers.)

But Trevor’s friends do make us think about the reality of empires past and present, and of all the lives and stories that have never made protagonist. They are, after all, characters that have been colonized or otherwise ruled by Britain or America. They force us, for a second, to feel skepticism toward our main characters’ claims of moral truth. They make us wonder whether the heroes and villains are perhaps different, opposite, than films have said.

What if we took this perspective farther that the film ultimately allows us to? What if we took the camera off cute dimples-boy Trevor, and yes, even Diana, and followed the peripheral characters, instead? What if we could actually live up to the promise of cinema, and especially superhero cinema, to imagine other worlds?

Worlds that were willfully obscured. Worlds in which the victors of imperialism, capitalism, racism, occupation — in short, the whole Western martial project — are not centered, are not even inevitable? Worlds in which humans who were not corn-fed white boys flying fighter jets or glamorous white women actually existed, had lives, were dispossessed of their land, were dominated and dominated each other, profited, giggled, died.

And for those of us who must content ourselves, for the moment, with searching for any crack in the ideological armor of Hollywood, at least for the purpose of starting conversations? We can take comfort in at least one moment in Wonder Woman which, if taken to its logical conclusion, would upend the rest of the film’s politics.

Which is this: Ares, the God of War, does not turn out to be that old Hollywood favorite, the cartoonishly-accented diabolical German general white Americans love to project our racial guilt onto. Instead, in a straight-up Joseph Conrad move, we discover that the real God of War has been at the dark heart of the Thames river, in the British Parliament, all along. He has been orchestrating the destruction of the entire world from the other side of a polite, blonde British mustache.

Not bad. Though of course, we’d really be getting somewhere for feminism if Hollywood didn’t stop there. What if we were brave enough to follow the trail of the villain across the ocean, to the polite halls of the White House itself? Or what if we took it a step further and followed the trail to the politer living rooms from which elite American viewers sit, streaming Wonder Woman onto our TV screens as the world burns?

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