You’re not that great, Diana

On not empowering the Wonder Woman

Gal Gadot as Diana Prince in Wonder Woman

There were moments where I winced. I winced when a black Amazon warrior appeared on screen in the first 15 minutes of Wonder Woman, portrayed as a masculine brute while her white counterparts all had distinctive hourglass figures with perky, perfectly round breasts, and I winced again when Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) confessed to Diana that he loved acting but was “the wrong color” (with no apparent irony in reference to that earlier scene). I winced when Diana announced she has read all 12 volumes of Cleo’s treatises on body and pleasure, but doesn’t know what marriage is. And I winced when Diana, who was so sure that once Ares was defeated, the Germans would go back to being good people, because I was watching Wonder Woman in a cinema in Berlin, at Potsdamer Platz, a public square only a block away from the former site of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery; a square peppered with memorial sections of the Berlin Wall that once divided the city in two; a public square in a capital city that is currently host to about 1 million refugees mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Eritrea, in a country that persists in its remorse and reparation for the genocide it is responsible for.

So that was awkward.

But I found the fight scenes totally satisfying. I found the casting reasonable (ish). I found the Amazon warrior corsets to be really, really good for posture — those Amazons were erect! I enjoyed the film Wonder Woman — perfectly acceptable for a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Since I saw Wonder Woman, I’ve read a lot of articles about the film and its problems: the racism (see above), the faulty feminism, the persistent sexism, the Zionism of Israeli actress Gal Gadot (and the even greater irony of her “the Germans will go back to being good people” line — Israeli, Jewish, Zionist, whatever: she delivered that line like she believed it, which makes her, in the end, an actress).

But I also agree with this article: that art is flawed, political movements are flawed, and that’s as it should be. And also, it’s a Hollywood film and my expectations were pretty low.

Leonardo di Caprio, Wolf of Wall Street

What I wasn’t expecting was to walk out of the cinema worrying about young girls who would see that film, take it to heart and be inspired by it. I wasn’t expecting my film-going companions that day — two Australian women, all three of us in our 40s — to hit directly on the same thing I did, and be just as pissed off about it. I wasn’t expecting to recognize language that I had just used in an impassioned email to a martial arts colleague who has been experiencing discrimination because of her gender.

From the first time we see Diana, all the way until the moment she finally faces Ares, the same message is repeated: don’t let her know who she really is. Don’t let her realize her full power, because as soon as she discovers it, He will find her.

In Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, which is clearly the formula this Wonder Woman story follows, somewhere around the 8th stage, the Hero goes through an Ordeal, suffers a symbolic death, realizes who s/he truly is, and then completes their quest. This makes for good storytelling, and we’ve seen it in films from Apocalypse Now to Alien to Raising Arizona to The Piano to Gravity, and of course in the entire Harry Potter franchise (both in individual films as well as the overall story arc, because JK Rowling is that good).

But that’s not a formula for real life.

Most women I know grow up being told “you’re not that pretty,” “you’re not that smart,” “you’re not that talented.” Often this seems to come from a well-intentioned if wrong-headed way of protecting girls and women, both from becoming too arrogant (especially in America, where arrogance and confidence are so often confused); as well as training girls, and subsequently women, to remain small — unnoticed, hidden, invisible — to presumably diminish the possibility of harassment, assault, of rape, of being killed… of being punished.

Girls grow up with the knowledge that, when they do stand up tall, when they do fully inhabit their full potential, punishment is a very real possibility. And some men punish 10x harder. You don’t just get insulted, you get crushed. Or in Diana’s case, killed by Ares.

David Thewlis as Ares in disguise — I had a hard time believing that casting too, David!

What would have happened if Diana’s mom, and her aunts, and the other Amazons told her: you are a demi-god, you are immortal, your purpose is to defeat Ares and save Mankind? You have as much power as Ares and you can use it.

Besides it being a considerably shorter movie, I mean?

There is a scene in the first 20 minutes of Wonder Woman when Diana, now a teenager, is caught training with her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). She gets knocked on her ass a couple of times, and Antiope tells Diana to stop doubting herself, to stop doubting her own power. Diana insists she’s not doubting herself… and instantly gets knocked on her ass again, proving Antiope’s point.

Tell me though: how can Diana not doubt herself when she is constantly told “you’re not an Amazon like the rest of us,” with no context to that dismissive statement (eg, because you’re better than the rest of us), when the information about who she really is, is constantly withheld. How does withholding information help her grow? She could have trained so much harder, so much more powerfully if only she had known.

The other recurring line repeated several times to Diana is “there is much you don’t know.” I’m assuming that a good chunk of what she doesn’t know is who she really is. But you know, if they had just told her who she is, they also could have supplemented her education with the rest of the stuff she doesn’t know and make sure she is fully prepared to meet Ares (among which, I would presume, would also be the ability to correctly identify Ares when she sees him and not waste time on the wrong bad guy).

The only person who finally does reveal to Diana who she really is Ares himself. Of course. Of course. She is only, finally, empowered by a man. I’ve noticed, in my martial arts training over the years, that certain instructors really savor the moment when they are the ones to reveal a student’s true talents to themselves. Knowledge is power, and withholding knowledge is just as much an abuse of power as ordering cameras be turned off during a press conference.

In the case of Diana — and the case for so many women and girls — hiding the knowledge of her true person and power is like throwing a burqa over her.

And imagine, again, if the Amazons had actually informed Diana of her true identity, if they had fully empowered her, what would have happened when she finally confronted Ares? Firstly, she wouldn’t have freaked out and lost precious time when Ares informed her who she is; she could have saved her lover from sacrificing himself. She would have had the confidence and the presence of mind to take Ares out right there and then. Instead, she freaked; she denied the knowledge, stomped around, and then got knocked off her ass again.

What if her mom had just told her?

Even today, when I’m training in my martial art, my original teacher, as well as other male instructors both in my first school and now, will tell me as much as “you’re good”, but that’s it. In their mindset, they seem to think it’s better to remark among themselves “she has no idea how good she really is” (I do, now, thanks). I’m not sure what they think they’re protecting me from — I’ve trained for over 17 years, for the specific purpose of defending myself. Or do they think I’m going to turn that power on them? If that’s their worry, then it’s a terrible reflection on their own teaching.

However, this refusal to empower Wonder Woman with the full knowledge of herself is much more than about me and my martial arts training. Women work harder, longer, and we perform better (for less pay) because we believe we have to prove ourselves to people who already know how good we are. They’re just not telling us. They get more out of us by demeaning us, by disempowering us, by encouraging us to fight. And we take the bait, every single time.

I worry that girls will see Wonder Woman and they’ll take this away from it too — that it’s better not to know, it’s better to hide or be hidden, it’s better to never reveal who you truly are… but maybe one day someone will tell you and you will find the strength and the power and the glory to save the world. That they will perpetuate, even with the best intentions, the oppression of their own gender, of themselves.

The problem is that in real life, that 8th Stage of the Hero’s Journey doesn’t really come in the way it does in fiction: there is no ultimate fight against a war god to save the world; there are only thousands of tiny battles against unfair employers, bills you can’t always pay, taxes and love and heartbreak and marriage, nights out with friends, babies being born, children moving away and having children of their own, careers being made and retired from, illness, quietness and death. There is only life, and shouldn’t every single girl, every single woman grow up to enjoy the full wonder of it, knowing who — and what — she really is?

There was one line in Wonder Woman that almost redeemed the whole movie for me. Her aunt and trainer, the warrior Antiope, makes the case to continue training her niece by pointing out that teaching Diana to defend herself is “the best way to protect her”.

If only that was the line that had been repeated for 2 hours.