Spoiler Alert: This essay assumes a general familiarity with the plot of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017).
“I used to want to save the world.”
– Diana Prince/Wonder Woman
“I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another, without sacrificing the other other, the other others.”
– Jacques Derrida, “The Gift of Death”
For a story so committed to the question of peace in a world habituated to an unshakable faith in force, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman hesitates and falters before the enormous demands implicit within that which it preaches. Whereas love and hope call for an irruption, a breaking out of the pattern whose keyed tendrils extend back unto perpetuity—that is, the pattern of human violence—Wonder Woman‘s story threatens to merely inject her into the preexisting mold. The problem of evil literally looms large in this film, posing the question of whether the source of evil can be located in a personality—Ares, the god of war—or whether evil is a matter of human being itself, a question Jon Greenaway has so sensitively and astutely treated in his recent reflection on Wonder Woman. However, the film, like Wonder Woman herself, is not only interested in locating evil, but also in responding effectively to it. “Only love can truly save the world,” concludes Diana Prince. “So now I stay, I fight, and I give for the world I know can be.” Love, she says, is the only effective response to evil and humanity’s moral ambivalence. But the text undercuts this argument by binding Diana, ironically, within the confines of just the sort of phallogocentrism that Wonder Woman nevertheless exposes.
Phallogocentrism can be understood as referring to the subordination of feminine being and discourse to patriarchal being and discourse. What I mean to say is that not only does Diana face ontological challenges to her being (i.e., to not enter or speak in male spaces, to wear feminine clothing, to submit to male authority, to regulate her capacity to care about others, etc.), but the text itself, its characters and plot, its very structure and fabric, is bound by logics that trend masculine and which obstruct alternative ways of speaking and knowing that could fundamentally subvert the course of violence, a goal that the film has a stated interest in accomplishing, after all.
Themyscira and Its Discontents
Jenkins’ Diana Prince is strong, fierce and noble, but her naivete unfortunately keeps her subject to the Word of the film (and the Word is other than Love). Where Wonder Woman is most compelling, I think, is where we can trace Diana’s contradictory movement within these bounds.
Diana embodies the archetypal nobility of the aristocratic warrior of Greek antiquity. By this model, nobility, beauty and human worth are objectively defined and inborn; some have it, some don’t. Nietzsche formulates the aristocratic value equation thus:
good = noble = powerful = beautiful = fortunate = loved by god
This describes Diana. She is on the one hand good by virtue of her power, powerful by virtue of her goodness. But this framework is at odds with what is presented as Diana’s universal humanism: in contrast with the aristocratic warrior ideal, she is urgently concerned with the good of the “peasant,” the typically ignoble; though an aristocratic immortal, she throws herself unconditionally into the support of corrupt, mortal men.
This tension is intriguing because it complicates and confounds Diana’s motivations. It reaches its first flash point when Diana confronts her mother, Queen Hippolyta, after the court’s interrogation of Steve Trevor. In the face of Hippolyta’s insistence that men are easily corrupted, that it is not wise to leave the confines of Themyscira to fight man’s wars (I say “man” advisedly, here and throughout), Diana responds with an appeal to abstract moral duty: the Amazons were created to protect man from himself. Her appeal is grounded in the narrative her mother has told her of human and Amazon origins, a narrative in which Ares, the god of war, is the source of man’s corruption. Kill the source, and man’s innate goodness will prevail, bringing peace. To Diana, the choice is clear, simple and absolute. Hippolyta responds, “it’s just a story.”
Hippolyta’s judgment is informed by firsthand experience with the corruption of men, having led (with her sister Antiope) an insurrection against man’s own ancient domination and oppression of the Amazons, leading to their segregation on Themyscira. Hoppolyta’s experience informs her hesitance about war in general. When she tells the creation story to Diana as a child, her stated purpose is to illustrate that war is not the path to peace.
In contrast, Diana’s optimism about human nature stems from her naivete, having never actually encountered the human Other. She has had no prior opportunity to test her beliefs until this moment. Furthermore, her calculative and instrumental vision of her mission (does love calculate?) to save man from himself by killing Ares (which is always troubled by its reverse-valued formulation: to kill Ares, thereby saving man from himself), can easily be read as stemming not from humanistic love but from a desire for heroic battle, prevailing since childhood and groomed by the hawkish Antiope (who stands as a sympathetic parallel to the warmonger General Ludendorff), as well as a desire to defy Hippolyta.*
* (Indeed, the absence of a culture of outgoing care, compassion and nourishment (i.e., of love) is notable in our entire experience of Themyscira, which exists for the most part as a militaristic utopia. In this context, Hippolyta’s imperfect pacifism (her fighting the German invaders is proof of her trust in the ideal of just warfare) is the exception to the Amazon rule, which may be understood as generally bellicose. In this light, perhaps Diana’s naive urge to fight and naive interpretation of love is understandable simply on sociological grounds…)
Agapic love, that love which comes closest to the divine ideal, the self-giving (though not necessarily self-denying) and unconditional concern for the human Other, begets not optimism but hope, according to Terry Eagleton. He argues that hope (as a mode of love) differs from optimism in that it is “underpinned by reasons,” and therefore “must be fallible, as temperamental cheerfulness is not” (Hope without Optimism, 2015). We might not call Diana temperamentally cheerful per se, but her consistently naive belief in humanity’s basic goodness is premised on a species of optimism: that is, to adapt Eagleton’s words, an opinion or gut feeling (rather than “the strenuous commitment that hope involves”) that humanity must tend to be good because, well, it just does, okay? Her insistence that Ares is the prime impediment to peace is a corollary. But while Diana’s modus operandi is negative (she must negate or annihilate Ares), love is positive in that it posits the fundamental worth of human life and being; so too is hope in that it posits a radical potentiality in the face of frailty and failure and shortcomings. Indeed, it seems impossible to truly love without hope, for the person or group to whom we extend love will inevitably disappoint us. Hope understands and accepts this, negotiating the present in conversation with the past and constituting the possibility inherent in the future by sustaining a commitment to dialogue. That dialogue weaves understanding, which continuously (in)forms the practice of she who hopes.
This is important, I think: hope is world-aware and interpretive, committed first through “good reasons” and then continually building understanding which guides its actions. Commenting on Karl Marx’s argument in the Theses on Feuerbach concerning the urgent need to change the world rather than interpret it, Eagleton observes that it “seems on the face of it not to recognize that the latter is an essential precondition of the former.” Diana’s optimism is not concerned with interpretation but with action. Not an unexpected attitude for an idealistic demigod; but unfortunately, the text thus binds her to her naivete, which positions her in an epistemically dependent relationship on the men of the film. While Diana consistently questions and in some cases resists the sexist discourses and norms thrust upon her by the human characters of the film (the entry into No-Man’s-Land is probably the quintessential such moment), her refusal (or inability?) to examine and infer a larger pattern to these challenges traps her in a course of non-productive frustration as well as subjection to the interpretive discourses of the male characters, particularly of Steve.
The Incommensurability of Eros to Agape
Far from empowering, Diana’s romantic relationship with Steve literally and figuratively ties her success to the leadership and sacrifice of a man. Despite Diana’s defiance of Steve’s repeated prescriptions on the battlefield and off, her erotic attachment prompts her into a type of subordinated (if unsubmissive) relationship. For much of the film, Steve is the leader of the party, Diana simply one eccentric warfighter among several eccentric warfighters who follow him: the ragtag team of misfits with the token woman.*
* (I acknowledge this is an ungenerous reading, but I am speaking of her function in relation to the other characters, to the extent that it exposes what I think to be contradictions between the text’s stated argument and its performance of it. Contrast Diana’s relationship with Steve to her relationship with Charlie, with whom she genuinely empathizes and towards whom she demonstrates something like an agapic concern (“Maybe you’re better off without me, yeah?” “No, Charlie. Who will sing for us?”). The absence of judgment on Charlie’s emasculation (he fails to take a shot even though it’s his specialty) and her hope in a potentiality for him speak to this subtler and deeper love.)
Diana’s subordination to Steve reaches its narrative conclusion in the last battle, when he sacrifices himself to dispose of the gas bombs in the airplane. On the ground, Diana watches the explosion while Ares telekinetically binds her with sheets of metal—an allusion to the allegorical icon of Wonder Woman bursting her chains in the original comics by William Marston. But in Jenkins’ film, this bursting of bonds is emptied of its allegory of female empowerment because it is only made possible because of her rage over Steve’s death. This rage stems from her erotic love for Steve, not from a sense of self-empowerment or universal justice, thus coloring her violent triumph over Ares with the tinge of revenge (a retributive logic of justice that is surprisingly absent elsewhere in the film).
But erotic love is not commensurate to agapic love and has no vocabulary for responding to the questions raised by the film. Eros can only desire the beloved, and as such has no response to the question of evil and of human suffering save despair and frustration. Erotic love simply cannot respond to the tragedy of war. To interrupt the stream of human violence requires a radically different, even paradoxical response, a response that only agapic love and its articulation as hope can, well, hope to approach.
Jacques Derrida’s reflections on forgiveness arise from the tragedies of the Holocaust and post-Apartheid South Africa, whence arise the same questions that face Diana: how do we respond to the question of evil and to the tragedies of war? Forgiveness is the response Derrida settles on examining. Derrida concludes that true forgiveness must transcend juridical logics and all notions of exchange; forgiveness is not really forgiveness if it requires conditions like an apology or is performed only to soothe one’s conscience, that is, if forgiveness is “at the service of a finality” (“On Forgiveness,” On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, 2001).
Diana encounters the human tragedy of war repeatedly: on the bridge among the maimed, in the trenches among the fearful and the innocently suffering, in the village after Dr. Isabel Maru’s gas has killed all its inhabitants. Her response is precisely the despair and frustration we would expect from her naive optimism and her delimited love; her response is always surprise, always an absence of understanding: “Why?” The practice stemming from this response is the pursuit of the same singular finality she has pursued since the beginning: kill Ares.
The crux of this pursuit of finality comes near the end of the final battle with Ares. The god of war tosses Dr. Maru, pitiful and lately unmasked to reveal her deformed face, before the raging Diana, who holds a metal tank above her head, ready to throw. Here, faced with the author of the gas attack that wiped out the Belgian village from before, Diana is tempted by Ares to smite the frail woman for her crimes against humanity. Diana casts the tank aside, abstaining. Has she forgiven Dr. Maru? The text complicates any such notion, for Diana’s decision is explicitly prompted by the memory of Steve’s parting romantic confirmation. Diana’s agency is again bound by the will of a man, even a man who is absent, dead. In this light, the text throws Diana’s motivations again into fierce tension.
Derrida describes the nature of pure forgiveness as something extreme, paradoxical and irruptive, an imperative which itself has no mercy: “Forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable.” He goes on:
[F]orgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself. It can only be possible in doing the impossible. For, in this century, monstrous crimes (‘unforgivable’ then) have not only been committed—which is perhaps itself not so new—but have become visible, known, recounted, named, archived by a ‘universal conscience’ better informed than ever; because these crimes, at once cruel and massive, seem to escape, or because one has sought to make them escape, in their very excess, from the measure of any human justice, then well, the call to forgiveness finds itself (by the unforgivable itself!) reactivated, remotivated, accelerated.
In this light, does Diana’s abstention represent forgiveness, or surrender? Perhaps it is ultimately impossible to say, just as it is impossible (just as much as it is necessary) to forgive. (In any case, the text certainly does not care enough about Dr. Maru to revisit this relationship.) In another place, Derrida says that for this reason, forgiveness must perhaps be finally unconscious or at least non-conscious, and divorced from relations of power and pardon. It is enough to say, in my view, that Diana seems to spare Dr. Maru via some calculation, the impetus of Diana’s own erotic pain and the demands of an “ecology of memory,” as Derrida puts it, necessarily complicating any aspiration to agapic love for her enemy in this moment.*
* (It is certain, on the other hand, that the text absolutely proscribes forgiveness for Ares, who binds Diana with the dualistic chains of either/or: life or death. Ares forms the crux of the film’s internal contradictions: until his appearance, Diana is aimed toward discovering (through the inefficacy of killing Ludendorff) that the source of evil is not located in an individual; Ares’ appearance, in a surprise that confuses the story’s moral momentum, seems to confirm that on the contrary, evil in fact is located in an individual; finally, Ares having been destroyed, we are left with having to infer once again, now farcically, that evil after all is endemic to human being.)
Bearing Witness, Baring Hope?
Diana comes away from these experiences matured, but how? The epilogue, which brings us decades forward to something like the present, features Diana’s reflective monologue:
I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves: something no hero will ever defeat. I’ve touched the darkness that lives in between the light. Seen the worst of this world, and the best. Seen the terrible things men do to each other in the name of hatred, and the lengths they’ll go to for love. Now I know. Only love can save this world. So I stay. I fight, and I give for the world I know can be. This is my mission, now. Forever.
Of all the moments in the film, this statement argues most explicitly for a kind of hope in contrast to the optimism of Diana’s more naive characterization. But where does it come from? There is no meaningful narrative connection between Diana’s erotic triumph against Ares and this argument to agapic humanism. Just before this epilogue, we see Diana, sober, within the ecstatic crowd cheering the end of the war. She moves to a wall plastered with pictures of the dead. She dwells on one and only one: a picture of Steve.
How does agapic hope spring from erotic grief?
And is it indeed hope, finally, that says “always” and “forever” of “the darkness that lives within man’s light?” Perhaps we can here allow for the gap. As Eagleton writes of hope in the face of tragedy, as long as there is language, hope remains possible:
The true calamity would involve the extinction of the word. Hope is extinguished when language is obliterated. It is not true that language can repair one’s condition simply by lending a name to it, but it is true that one cannot repair it without doing so.
So then, Diana’s bearing witness may well represent in itself the bridge, the reflection necessary to commit rigorously to hope. Hope, after all, is a dynamic and living thing, rooted in a dialogue with the present and a vision of the future, and cannot always (if ever) be asked to begin in a place of clarity. Complicated to the very last moment by the romantic and exclusive sort of love which would obtrude on Diana’s emergent universal vision of love and justice, the text nevertheless prompts us to speak hope, to speak love, propels us to consider and trace the fault lines in Diana’s motivations and, hopefully, in our own.
I had thought before that the epilogue’s setting, dwelling as it does on the photo of the ragtag team with Steve as its focal point and Steve’s old watch by Diana’s hand, kept the outward movement of the ending centered squarely upon eros rather than agape. But perhaps Diana’s—no, Wonder Woman’s—heroic exit, her leap toward the sunset and away from this setting, represents rather a departure, a leap not of rigid optimism, but of hope after all.
- Patty Jenkins, dir., Wonder Woman (2017)
- Jon Greenaway (TheLitCritGuy) “We Don’t Deserve Her: A Reflection on Wonder Woman“
- Terry Eagleton, Hope without Optimism (2015)
- Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (2001)