Wonder Woman and the question of strength

Week one of my self-education project and I’ve already broken my own rules. I’ve been obsessed by the ideas behind the new Wonder Woman movie, particularly as they relate to the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s work about feminine and masculine strength. So I’ve been learning about that, breaking the rule about staying away from subjects I already know, but following the rule about letting my own interests lead my education. One out of two isn’t too bad I guess.

I think that most people have seen this movie by now. Even I’ve seen it, and I was never a fan of the old series. I never actually watched it, that was before my time, but the corny music and hair fluttering was enough to put me off. And it coloured my ideas of what the new Wonder Woman movie would be like, making me a little reluctant to see it. But I convinced myself that I should, I love superhero movies, and guess what, I loved it. It was interesting and sweet and slightly unexpected. I enjoyed the relationship between the two main characters and the unusual tone of the film. I even didn’t mind that it was the tiniest bit corny in places.

But it confused me as well. I found the ending curiously unsatisfying and I couldn’t work out why. Wonder Woman’s love interest died, that was fine, but her conclusion, why she chose to fight, seemed flimsy and unbelievable. I couldn’t even explain to myself why it felt that way, it just did. And in a roundabout way, this led me to Simone de Beauvoir’s work, The Second Sex. This is a complicated examination of the role of women throughout history, but what struck me about it was the idea of the devaluation of feminine aspects. Wonder Woman is almost impossibly physically strong, she lifts a tank over her head, she can fly and direct lightning and walk through chemical clouds without coughing, and yet I still saw her as somehow weak.

I saw her as weak because of the choice she made, the values she decided to live by. In short, I saw her as weak because she chose love and empathy over retribution, death and violence. This was a scary revelation for me. I’m extremely non-violent, and yet now I see that there’s this place in me that believes that strengths labelled as ‘feminine’, both by me and by society, are actually weak, unneeded, and contemptible. Other, as the philosopher would put it. The other day, I watched a Chuck Norris advertisement on the television while I was thinking about this. The character said two words, threatening and vile words, and then punched someone in the face. Is this strength? Is this what I think strength is? Is this what we’ve been taught strength looks like?

I didn’t recognise Wonder Woman’s brand of strength. I didn’t see that making the choice to believe in love, no matter what the evidence against it, took tremendous inner strength. I didn’t understand that her decision to fight for it, but not against the enemies of it, took far more determination and will than any grunting, gun toting embodiment of violence. And I’m not just talking about male action heroes here. I looked around, at the few female action heroes I could find, and they were curvy copies of their masculine counterpoints, bloody and vicious and barely able to speak let alone choose something beyond blood and death.

Just have a look at the Resident Evil movies and tell me I’m wrong about that. They’re presented as movies about feminine strength, but are they really? All they show is the same destructive, violent and competitive qualities wrapped in a little red dress. How did these qualities become strength to us? And what damage does this line of thinking do to the world? Is this the way women want to win equality, by adopting these same ‘strengths’ for ourselves? How can we think that anyone will be better off if we do that?

I don’t know if these ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ qualities are innate, part of the make up of man and woman, or taught. I supposed that no one really knows that yet, we just don’t know enough about the brain and behaviour. But what I do know, is that somewhere deep inside, I believe that empathy and compassion and love are weak, whereas violence and rage and retribution are strong. That’s a hell of a first lesson for this project.

I’m kind of dreading what else I’ll learn along the way.


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