This post is excerpted from a longer piece in our latest issue of Ms.—with Wonder Woman on the cover. Subscribe today to read more!
For better or worse and real or not, Wonder Woman has not escaped the burden of representation faced by other “firsts” or “onlys” at her level. As a character, she is often expected to speak for and to all women, an impossible task. In her long history, Wonder Woman has served as a lightning rod on issues around race, class, sexuality and gender. She’s been accused of being a corporatized symbol of white liberal feminism; she’s faced dueling allegations of inspiring girls to pursue lesbianism versus too often falling victim to heterosexual romance plotlines for someone from an all-female island; she’s withstood arguments over whether her minimal outfit catered to the male gaze or merely emphasized her freedom from patriarchal fashion constraints; and, despite her anti-war bona fides and her preference for defensive fighting over gratuitous bloodshed (at least in the early comics, the television show and the new film), she’s been criticized as overly violent.
Many of the criticisms lobbied at Wonder Woman in her various incarnations have validity, but it’s a testament to her symbolic significance that she’s endured nonetheless. Epitomizing women’s potential, the possibilities of feminism and the hopes of humanity, Wonder Woman “has still managed to reach icon status, which isn’t accidental,” writes Angelica Jade Bastién in Vulture. “It’s indicative of the hunger for female-oriented stories, especially coming-of-age tales, that go against the usual depictions of female strength.”
The lead in the top-grossing film at the box office this summer, Wonder Woman stands tall as a symbol for women and for feminism whether we’re convinced of her credentials or not. As the film emphasizes frequently, believing in yourself is the first step toward changing the world. During Diana’s initial training, the Amazon general Antiope (Robin Wright) tells her young charge, “You are stronger than you believe. You have greater powers than you know.” Later, Diana proves herself a formidable opponent and an atypical hero. In one of the film’s most tremendous scenes, Diana ignores Steve’s warning that No Man’s Land can’t be crossed. “We can’t save everyone in this war,” Steve admonishes. “This is not what we came here to do.” In response, Diana sheds her cloak to reveal her full armor and climbs out of the trench to face the German soldiers on the other side head-on, responding, “No, but it’s what I’m going to do.”
The word “mankind” is used frequently and deliberately throughout the film, setting the island of the Amazons apart from our world, perhaps not literally a “world of men,” but certainly one suffering under patriarchal and otherwise oppressive impulses to dominate and destroy. Briefly disillusioned by humanity’s capacity for destruction, Diana eventually realizes that the complexity of humanity isn’t its downfall, but its strength. At the end of the film, a powerful enemy reminds her of Hippolyta’s warning. “You were right, Diana, they don’t deserve our help,” he entices. “They have always been and always will be weak, cruel, selfish and capable of the greatest horrors.” No, Diana ultimately counters, “You’re wrong about them. They’re everything you say, but so much more…It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”
When Hippolyta uses the word “deserve,” it carries a meaning far more expansive than when we mere mortals articulate the same sentiment. For Hippolyta, the terrible, cruel world of men has done nothing to earn the protection of a hero as powerful and empathetic as her only child. When women angrily insist or furtively whisper these words to each other, we often mean that the indifference, disrespect, abuse or exploitation has become too much to bear.
On its cover, the July 1972 issue of Ms. declares “Wonder Woman for President!” It’s a blow looking back on this inspiring slogan 45 years later, so soon on the heels of being robbed of our first real chance at a woman president. But what if equality is not about what we deserve, but what we believe—and what we, like Wonder Woman, are willing to fight for?